Not Your Average Desktop Printer: How 3D Printing May Impact the Construction Industry

Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman PC

We are in the midst of what has been termed the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” where manufacturing and other industries take advantage of modern advances in smart technology, automation, and cloud computing. 3D printing (also called “additive manufacturing”) is one such innovation starting to disrupt traditional business processes. The healthcare, aerospace, manufacturing, and automotive industries are being transformed by 3D printing methods. Other industries are taking notice including the construction industry, which uses the term “3D printing” to refer to the manufacturing process by which digitally-created designs and models are constructed in the field using robotic arms that pour building material layer by layer.

In its current form, 3D printing is primarily used to construct small residential homes on an individual basis or, more recently, in planned, multi-home developments. The first-ever 3D-printed, fully sustainable neighborhoods in the United States are being constructed in California by the Palari Group in partnership with construction technology company Mighty Buildings. The Palari Group’s goal is to develop net-zero energy communities, with new deliveries planned for spring 2022. Miami-based homebuilder Lennar is planning to build 100 3D-printed homes in the Austin area in 2022. Lennar will build their homes with the Vulcan construction system developed by another construction technology company, ICON. In southeast Mexico, 3D printers are currently constructing a housing community for low-income families, designed to withstand hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. The goal is for these homes to have enough durability to be passed down from generation to generation.

As the technology advances and the construction industry becomes more receptive to 3D printing, its natural progression will be to construct larger and more complicated multi-story buildings, even skyscrapers. Presently, the world’s largest 3D-printed building is a two-story municipality building that spans 6,900 square feet in Dubai, where 3D printing technology has been embraced. The Dubai Future Foundation plans to construct 25% of its new buildings using 3D printing, with an ultimate goal of making Dubai the world’s 3D-printing hub by 2030.

Proponents of 3D-printed construction champion this market-disrupting building method as both an effective, time-saving, and cost-efficient way to address the current housing shortage and high demand. 3D printing has already shown an ability to decrease material and labor costs substantially, which can lead to more affordable housing for purchasers and increased profits for builders. Material waste is virtually non-existent in 3D printing as the printer discharges the exact amount of material required for the job, and projects typically do not require formwork for vertical wall installation. Labor inputs are also drastically decreased. In Shenzhen, China, for example, only eight workers were required on site to construct a portion of a museum using 3D printing, as compared to the estimated 160 workers that would have been required if traditional building methods were used. 3D printing is also touted as energy efficient. Traditional square-shaped buildings can be replaced by rounded walls, which have been found to minimize humidity and thus require less cooling. From an aesthetic point of view, architects are intrigued by the endless design possibilities using computerized blueprints and sketches.

Meanwhile, critics of 3D-printed construction are concerned with the associated learning curve, how other trades will be affected, as well as the impact on overall project coordination. From a labor perspective, specific skilled workers in the carpentry, masonry, and drywall trades are worried that 3D printing could lead to widespread job displacement as workers are replaced by 3D printers, and the need for onsite manpower is greatly reduced. Additionally, procuring a 3D printer is difficult due to limited supply and complex customization needs. It can also be cost-prohibitive, depending on whether the printer is purchased or leased, and whether the building components are printed offsite or onsite. If printed offsite, the developer must arrange for transportation and installation of the components similar to a modular construction project. If printed onsite, the printer, which is expensive and oversized, must be safely transported to and from the project site and protected while onsite. Printers often weigh several tons and can cost in excess of $500,000 for the equipment and sophisticated computer programs. Setup and dismantling costs are also significant, making multi-home projects more attractive for 3D printing developers.

A builder’s stance on 3D-printed construction notwithstanding, the truth is that buildings cannot be constructed in the field without the necessary building permits and without complying with all existing codes and regulations. Unlike traditional materials and methods with hundreds of years of collective knowledge as reflected in building codes, 3D printing is a new and evolving construction method that requires similarly innovative regulations to address this developing technology.

One organization, the International Code Council, introduced Appendix AW governing 3D-printed building construction, which was adopted in the 2021 International Residential Code (IRC). The appendix provides for the design, construction, and inspection of buildings, structures, and building elements fabricated by 3D-printed construction techniques. While the appendix shows progress toward a unified building code that recognizes 3D printing as an accepted building practice, state and local jurisdictions will need to formally adopt the new aspects of the 2021 IRC, including Appendix AW. The same is true for constructing non-residential buildings, as the International Building Code (IBC) has yet to incorporate a provision for 3D printing construction technology. Instead, an acceptance criteria for 3D concrete walls (AC509) has been developed under IBC Section 104.11, which allows for alternative materials, design, and construction methods provided that such alternatives meet the intent of the IBC. Regardless, local building codes will need to be modified to accommodate 3D printing, and local building and code compliance departments must become conversant in this new building method.

Once proper permitting is obtained, a builder’s natural next question would be how the 3D printing process could backfire, resulting in legal costs that eclipse any planned savings. Like any other construction contract, a project utilizing 3D printing technology should still contain provisions related to workmanship. While computers may reduce the risk of construction errors, computers may also malfunction like any other piece of equipment. Additionally, all designs require input from people and then execution in the field. This means that architects, engineers, general contractors, subcontractors, and suppliers still face many of the same risks associated with defective work, even if those risks now involve a computerized element.

Conceptually, one could foresee a reduction in litigation related to project delay, as 3D-printed construction is projected to dramatically reduce the time needed to construct a building. One could also foresee that lawsuits related to jobsite injuries might also be substantially reduced, as fewer workers are required onsite and printers are performing a portion of the more strenuous and dangerous tasks. On the other hand, 3D-printed construction could expose a whole new category of potentially liable parties, namely software engineers and manufacturers of 3D printers. While new building methods give rise to initial reservations and skepticism, developers and contractors alike should consider investigating this new frontier in order to stay ahead of the curve.

You can watch the 3D printed construction process in action by visiting:

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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