One Great Big Lego . . .

by wjw on September 15, 2010

Today’s New York Times article on 3-D printing brought up an idea I had in this blog some time back— using a big 3-D printer to build a house.  (I was mocked, I do believe.)

Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis either read my blog or my mind, or came up with the idea himself— and now I mock you, mockers!

Based on research done by Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California, Contour Crafting has created a giant 3-D printing device for building houses. The start-up company is seeking money to commercialize a machine capable of building an entire house in one go using a machine that fits on the back of a tractor-trailer.

Khoshnevis claims to be able to build a 2200-square-foot custom home in less than 24 hours, complete with plumbing, insulation, and electrical connections.  The home would be concrete, with steel supports added as necessary.  Presumably actual workers would add things like paneling, carpets, cabinets, and fixtures.

If this proves out (and if this design doesn’t, some other design will), I’d expect yet another crash in housing prices.  Why pay for a home at current prices when you can have a machine-built home for less than 50% of the cost?

Homes and apartments for poor people, particularly in the Third World, will be available where none had been before.  There may, however, be a lot more poor people, since one of construction’s traditional tasks is to provide entry-level jobs for blue-collar workers, and those would be gone.

The Times article goes on to mention another use for 3-D printers: printing artificial limbs for the disabled.

[Summit] uses a 3-D printer to create plastic shells that fit around the prosthetic limbs, and then wraps the shells in any flexible material the customer desires, be it an old bomber jacket or a trusty boot.

“We can do a midcentury modern or a Harley aesthetic if that’s what someone wants,” Mr. Summit said. “If we can get to flexible wood, I am totally going to cut my own leg off.”

Mr. Summit and his partner, Kenneth B. Trauner, the orthopedic surgeon, have built some test models of full legs that have sophisticated features like body symmetry, locking knees and flexing ankles. One artistic design is metal-plated in some areas and leather-wrapped in others.

“It costs $5,000 to $6,000 to print one of these legs, and it has features that aren’t even found in legs that cost $60,000 today,” Mr. Summit said.

“We want the people to have input and pick out their options,” he added. “It’s about going from the Model T to something like a Mini that has 10 million permutations.”

Customized limbs!  And my guess is that printer-created homes are going to be a lot wilder, more creative, and more in-your-face than the model in Contour Crafting’s videos.  Any shape, any size, any way you choose.

Which means the guy down the street from you— you know the one— who has the eighteen-foot Statue of Liberty in his front yard and the giant bronze American eagle glaring down at you from the rooftop . . . he’ll be able to have an entire home devoted to patriotic icons!  Maybe in the shape of an Abrams tank or a giant Dick Cheney head clenching a dead Islamohooligan in his teeth.

Soon our cities may well look more like Second Life than Second Life. Ah, the horror, the horror . . .

grs1961 September 15, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Isn’t that James May’s LEGO house in the first picture?

Tori September 15, 2010 at 4:24 pm

I say bring on the 3D-printed houses! If buying a house could be only as expensive as buying a Honda I would invest in one immediately.

Now what most intrigues me about this post is the implication that blue-collar entry-level jobs could be destroyed in the long run. Which brings me to this question: What do you think will happen as machines start taking over ALL those jobs? Potentially the only human jobs that would be left are ones that require complex thinking or people skills. (And all these indirect human interactions through machines are destroying our people skills.)

wjw September 15, 2010 at 10:13 pm

Yes, that’s James May’s Lego house. Now cut up with chainsaws, unfortunately, to plant a vinyard.

What happens when all the blue-collar jobs go away?

War. The people who know how to frame and build houses are also the folks who know how to shoot guns.

wjw September 15, 2010 at 10:34 pm

And to add to the cheer, when these machines become common, and housing prices drop by 50%, that leaves a whole lot of people holding mortgages for more than their houses are actually worth. People will go bankrupt, banks will crash, social disorder and despair will ensue . . . just like 2008, only more so.

DensityDuck September 15, 2010 at 11:22 pm

Oh, goody. A house made out of concrete. I hope you like those interior walls where some industrial designer in Ohio put them, because they aren’t going anywhere without a jackhammer.

Oh, a custom floorplan? Good luck getting it insured.

wjw September 16, 2010 at 3:07 am

People have been living in concrete homes for over 2000 years. I don’t see the problem.

Custom homes get insured now, I don’t see why they wouldn’t be insured in the future.

If you pay more for the insurance, no problem. You saved hundreds of thousands of dollars just building the thing.

If you save, say, $200,000 on a house, you can afford to hire a jackhammer for a few hours to make yourself a new door or whatever. And the labor will cost you next to nothing, lots of starving blue-collar workers out there.

JaniceG September 16, 2010 at 3:32 am

Hope you caught the episode where James May & Co built the house – it was both amusing and informative!

As for the 3D tool, reminds me of something in a Heinlein short story!

Ralf the Dog September 16, 2010 at 5:22 am

Concrete homes sound good to me. I live in a place where tornadoes are common. Building houses out of dead trees does not sound all that safe.

A wood house can burn down. A wood house can blow down in a big storm. A wood house can get a bad case of termites. Insurance cost on these bublejet houses should be much less.

PS. Don’t forget, the replacement cost should be less. You don’t need to buy as much insurance.

Edited to say:
If the pipes and the wiring are printed into the concrete, I would think plumbing and electric work would be a bit harder to fix.

Brian Dunbar September 16, 2010 at 1:20 pm

What happens when all the blue-collar jobs go away?


Depends. Will their jobs disappear in one fiscal quarter, or over a generation? If the former, then sure. But we have a model for what happens when such dislocation happens over a generation or so.

When farming became less ‘war against nature’ and more ‘operating machinery’ millions of people were no longer needed to labor it the fields. Agriculture used to employ most of us, in the US it now employs, what, 2-3% of the workers.

The surplus labor didn’t revolt – it moved into factories, industry and commerce that automation made possible.

They’ll find something to do. I dunno what that is, but I’m confident something will come along.

wjw September 16, 2010 at 7:53 pm

The chap in the video said that he wasn’t taking away jobs, he was “elevating” them. So maybe there will be training programs giving all the unskilled workers skilled jobs in high-tech industries. Ha.

Brian, you’re right that a lot of this depends on how quickly the change comes. Historically, when unemployment of young males jumps to 20%, there’s a lot of violence in store. (See: Rwanda. See: Chechnya.) When unemployment in black inner city neighborhoods was in the 20% range, as it was for a couple decades there, there was extreme violence. Now, with more jobs available in the inner cities, that tension has relaxed considerably.

If the government is intelligent in the way that Machiavelli was intelligent, it sends all those kids into a foreign war and hopes they don’t come home. We can hope that our government will be more enlightened than that, but that would mean spending money to educate and employ young people, and we’re not very good at that.

Tom in Delaware September 18, 2010 at 4:37 pm

The reason this won’t take off in the US for housing, as envisioned, is because all of those pesky local building codes would have to be revised. Plus the fact that concrete/concrete block homes are not popular here. I could see an application for parts of homes, such as the foundation. But what about variants? If you are going to create a house-sized robot to pump concrete, why not one that would precisely position a 2×4 stud and nail it?

Bruce Arthurs September 19, 2010 at 3:06 am

I remember one of the older proposals for quick, inexpensive housing was to use inflatable forms to define the inside of a house, then spray hardening foam over the inflated form, then stucco or concrete over the walls, cutting doors and windows as needed.

I’d like to combine this idea with some of the custom hot air balloons and/or Thanksgiving Day parade balloons. You could live in a house shaped like Underdog!

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