The Future of 3D Printing in Apartment Construction

apartment construction

3D Printing May Shape Future of Apartment Construction

Multifamily property owners who want to see the future of construction may wish to turn their attention to a giant printer that will soon play a giant-sized role in the construction of a house.

New advances in 3D print technology are pushing the limits of residential and commercial design beyond the bounds of traditional architecture, and construction will soon begin on a house in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that will use robotic machines employing 3D printing to make prefabricated materials. Called “Curve Appeal,” the visually spectacular home, featuring gently sloping walls, futuristic arches and soothing grey tones, will be the first 3D-printed house built of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic and combined with traditional building materials. The technique, called Cellular Fabrication, will use a 3D printer with a 12-foot robotic arm on a 33-foot track. It will work over a 25’ x 58’ print area.

Cellular Fabrication is the product of Branch Technology, a company specializing in creating strong composite building materials and structures via 3D printing. Its founder, Platt Boyd, explains that since 2014 his firm has been working to develop factory-enclosed building solutions using lightweight cellular materials to increase efficiency and reduce waste. 3D printing is set to be the backbone of this goal.

In January 2016, the company held a contest called the “Freeform Home Design Challenge,” which invited design firms to create plans for a 3D-printed home. It inspired architects, designers, engineers and artists from around the world to show how digital printing technologies can improve the construction environment and decrease waste. In June, it selected “Curved Appeal” as the winner, and Branch Technology started looking at the best ways to bring the home to reality.

apartment construction

Image via Branch Technology

Boyd says if all goes well the 1000-square-foot single family home will be ready for move-in by the end of this year. Material testing to meet load-bearing requirements will take place before the structural engineering phase begins, and actual printing will begin around July. When completed, the firm will ship components to the site for assembly.

The project is the largest in scope that Branch Technology has tackled since the company’s recent inception. Unlike other structures that have been built, the house will require a higher level of 3D printing, plus involvement from local authorities.

“It’s something that’s pushing the envelope,” Boyd said from his Chattanooga office. “We recently finished a project in Miami that was very large, probably more printed area than the house will be. It’s not the printing part that will be challenging—it’s all the validation and code.”

The finished project Boyd refers to was a commission to build a 3D-printed pavilion at the entrance to Design Miami 2016, an annual fair that attracts the world’s top artists and designers. At 2,700 square feet of printed surface area, the components were delivered by four tractor-trailers and assembled over ten weeks at the site. The company has also been hired to create an 18-foot sculpture for an Atlanta museum, a landing pad for drones and even furniture.

Support System Features Sturdy, Lightweight Construction

The materials for the matrix, a uniquely designed support system, resembles wicker construction. It   creates sturdy, lightweight, custom-shaped pieces. A portion approximately the size of a concrete block weighs two pounds and can support 3,000 pounds of compression. Spray foam typically covers and fills in the shell, adding strength and increasing the insulation R-value, which is the measure of resistance to heat flow.

“Once you begin adding these other materials to it, like the spray foam, a piece can be about three times the strength of wood construction, based on what we’ve tested thus far,” Boyd said.

Boyd left a traditional architecture practice to explore what he believes will be a future construction alternative based on a methodology similar to how nature builds. “The hard part won’t be printing the house”, he says, “but validating that the structures meet ASTM testing requirements for code-compliant construction.” While all exterior and interior walls and other components will be 3D-printed, conventional materials will be used to build the cabinetry, fixtures, lighting and other systems. Since the process is new, the company must demonstrate that 3D printing construction is just as sturdy and durable as conventional building components.

Waste and Labor Reduced through Prefabricated 3D Printing

In a talk at last fall’s Urban Land Institute Fall Meeting in Dallas, Boyd told attendees that pre-fabricated construction through 3D printing saves time and money, plus gives architects some sorely missed license to design creatively while limiting waste.

“You know, having been to that construction site, how wasteful that process is,” he said. “It creates over $30 billion in wasted materials every year. It’s inefficient in terms of productivity as well. From an architectural standpoint, it frustrates architects that they are constrained to cookie-cutter boxes because of budgets. Because if it’s custom, it’s quite expensive.”

A goal is reduce the square-foot cost of construction thanks to efficiencies gained from less waste and labor through building in a controlled construction environment. Boyd’s company wants to make a more positive impact on the environment through such improvements.

“What we see as the advantage of prefabrication is you get quality, the efficiency of production in a factory environment where you can reduce the waste to one-thirtieth of what it is on site,” Boyd said. “You increase labor efficiency and you have a controlled process in a factory environment. There are a lot of advantages to prefabrication over onsite construction.”

Adding yet another positive aspect to 3D printing possibilities, Branch Technology recently received a grant from the Natural Science Foundation to test and validate use of biopolymers made from sugar cane or other materials, like algae. Grants are also funding work to explore polycarbonates and other polymers that help to “green” the 3D printing process.

Looking toward the future, Boyd and his company are already thinking bigger thoughts. In multifamily housing, for example, 3D printing can deliver an immediate impact through greater flexibility in design of common areas, lobbies, outdoor structures, visual impact walls designed to deliver the “wow” factor, and playground and shade structures. It is not out of the question, in fact, that 3D printing may one day replace prefabricated apartments or components currently being assembled using wood and steel in factories and shipped to construction sites.

apartment construction

Image via Branch Technology

For the moment, however, the company is targeting specialty designs to higher-end audiences and doesn’t pretend to compete head-to-head with the wood- and steel-based construction worlds. However, Boyd thinks the day will arrive when 3D printing becomes a mainstream process. When tests bear out “Curve Appeal” for composite capabilities that support normal stresses on its exterior façade walls, as Boyd expects, the sky will be the limit.


Contributing Editor, Property Management Insider
President, Ballpark Impressions, LLC

author photo two

Tim Blackwell is a long-time publishing and printing executive in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who writes about the multifamily housing and transportation industries. He has contributed numerous articles to Property Management Insider, and worked as a newspaper reporter in the D/FW area. Blackwell is president of Ballpark Impressions, and publishes the Cowcatcher Magazine. He is a member of the Fort Worth Chapter/Society of Professional Journalists.

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