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Robot bricklayers to 3D printing – how tech can transform housebuilding

Washington, DC
Thomson Reuters Foundation

A robotic bricklayer, 3D printing and furniture that can be stowed away at the wave of a hand could all help to address the global deficit in affordable housing, according to a study released last week.

Nearly 90 per cent of the world’s cities cannot provide affordable homes for their citizens and millennials are spending more on housing than any previous generation, said the report, compiled by the World Economic Forum and consultants PwC.


An employee works to build a 3D printed social housing building called “Yhnova”, using a construction 3D printing technique known as BatiPrint3D and developed by researchers from the University of Nantes, in Nantes, France, on 19th September, 2017. PICTURE: REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

That is not sustainable, according to the report’s lead author Alice Charles, who said better land management practices and improved efficiency in the construction industry could make urban housing more affordable.

“Construction practices really haven’t changed much in the past 100 years,” Charles, head of the WEF’s cities programme, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding it was among the sectors investing least in research and development.

The cost of construction could be brought down significantly by new technologies such as a robotic bricklayer being used in the United States that can build a wall up to 10 times faster than a human counterpart, Charles said.

Large-scale 3D printing has advanced to the point that companies in the United States, China and the Netherlands are working on housing projects, she said.

Some can produce a home in 24 hours for just a few thousand dollars, according to the report, which cites a 2017 study of 30 African cities that found construction can make up nearly three-quarters of the cost of a project, pushing up prices.

Many of these technologies are likely to be adopted far more readily in developed countries, but some hold out promise for poor nations, Charles said from Chicago, where she is due to present the new report at the Pritzker Forum on Global Cities.

Using a range of alternate construction materials, including those locally sourced and recycled, could save more than 25 per cent on construction costs, according to Charles’s team.

Other initiatives seek to optimize small spaces or offer kits to help people build their own houses.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed a prototype apartment using furniture that can be transformed, moved and stowed using hand gestures and voice commands, essentially tripling the functional space.

In India, where nearly two-thirds of new homes with formal financing are self-built, a flat-pack system is being piloted.

That type of innovation is particularly exciting to Patrick Kelley, vice president of Habitat for Humanity’s Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter.

“Most people have to be their own general contractor, so we think there’s a lot of technology that shows a lot of promise for making the homeowner-led process easier, more affordable and more efficient,” he said.

Kelley said he was “quite bullish on technology playing a significant role in housing affordability”, though he cautioned that failure rates will be high.

“But that’s okay because one or two success stories will be worth our while,” he said.



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