Traditional construction is responsible for generating 27% of global CO2. Alternative methods such as 3D printing hold the promise of cutting that significantly.
Europe’s first residential 3D printed building. Photo: Remilard
The construction industry currently generates 27% of global carbon dioxide (CO2), slowing the progress towards sustainability. The construction industry involves complex supply chains. As a result, green management interventions have had a limited impact. Some construction projects can engage thousands of diverse companies, making it difficult to ensure a sustainable approach throughout the entire supply chain.
In such cases, alternative methods such as 3D printing hold promise. Technologies like 3D printing possess the potential to change the way that products are designed and manufactured, basically changing the arrangement of supply chains. Several studies have shown that 3D printing can help the construction industry become leaner, more efficient, and more sustainable. However, there is work to do before construction is environmentally-friendly.
Researchers say progress will require collaboration between regulators and industry leaders, who should actively engage to ensure numerous standards are updated concerning the use of alternative construction materials.
Traditional construction generates a lot of waste and 27% of global CO2. On the other hand, 3D printing is an industry that is already sustainable right now. The process produces a fraction of the waste of traditional construction manufacturing because builders print exactly and only what they need. It only requires a small factory with minimal space for storage materials. Unlike a traditional production line, 3D printing does not require energy to move the parts from one step to the next.
Nevertheless, builders using green processes still depend on traditional materials, such as cement, which is responsible for 8% of global CO2 emissions. It virtually eliminates any positive impact on the environment that 3D printing can deliver.
The benefits of 3D printing in Construction
Though they may not yet be in widespread use, sustainable materials for 3D printing construction solutions are available now. For instance, polymer composite is as tough and durable as concrete. The synthetic stone developed by Mighty Buildings weighs 30% less than concrete and has five times the tensile and flexural strength. You can store these innovative materials in compact liquid or semi-liquid form in barrels, which helps keep the factory footprint small. The environmental benefits continue once a building is printed as polymer composite is a superior insulator to traditional materials, minimizing the emissions of the house during its lifetime, as it’s lived in and used.
On-site 3D printing means you can eliminate various time-consuming steps from the design process. Normally, the building design process requires input from up to five different parties, including architects, engineers, contractors, clients, and executive parties. With 3D printing, all of these roles can be integrated into the role of an architect alone, with the help of simulation techniques and modeling to ensure structural integrity. Moreover, 3D representations enable consumers to visualize the design, meaning that you can implement changes before building.
3D printing has the potential to eliminate three major factors relating to transportation logistics. Firstly, many parts get damaged in transit, and on-site printing can help do away with it. Secondly, construction parts must be over-engineered to withstand transportation, involving additional costs. On-site 3D printing would remove the need for such over-engineering. Thirdly, secure transportation and hoisting require parts to have added features, creating a need for additional, post-assembly work.
Benefits of alternative construction methods using sustainable materials notwithstanding, their widespread use still requires support from regulators, customers, and the builders themselves.
With rising housing costs regularly making headlines, pricing is a barrier to widespread customer demand for greener construction alternatives. While it is true that new generation housing currently costs more than traditional construction, as scale increases and 3D printed construction continues to become more efficient, the prices will lower, achieving an economy of scale. Buyers willing to make a sustainable investment in their home purchase will receive long-term cost benefits because green homes have higher asset value, lower long-term utility costs, and are more resilient during extreme weather and natural disasters.
Promoting sustainable processes
With customers increasingly embracing sustainable construction, builders should make 3D printed homes more widely available. This is challenging though – many market participants representing various categories would need to be actively involved in changing the industry. For existing construction companies with deeply entrenched business models, transitioning to a greener model could take decades, but frankly, they don’t have that much time. Cement production is the third biggest generator of CO2 emissions, more than any individual country except for China and the U.S. Mining for cement is incredibly destructive to the environment and obtaining the sand necessary for concrete and cement production is also harmful and increasingly difficult, as demand is outpacing supply.
Regulations are a key barrier to the advancement of sustainable construction alternatives. As often happens with innovation the technology is moving faster than the laws can keep up, and there are many layers in the highly regulated construction industry, including local building codes, permitting, inspection authorities, and contract provisions. Progress will require collaboration between regulators and industry leaders, who should actively engage to ensure numerous standards are updated regarding the use of alternative construction materials made using 3D printing or other means. Tech talent at startups may be more willing to disrupt the conservative industry model and could prove to be a driving force of sustainable development.