Courtesy ICON Technology Inc.

The urban population centers in Texas are losing their competitive edge in terms of housing costs, and it's becoming more expensive to build houses everywhere. Could 3D-printed housing help cities keep pace with demand and keep costs under control? One of the largest tests of the technology will soon be underway.

This is part of an occasional series on affordable housing solutions coinciding with the recent release of Harris County's affordable housing study. View other posts in the series.

The 2021 book “The Texas Triangle: An Emerging Force in the Global Economy,” in part examined the difference in housing costs in urban Texas vs. the East and West Coast urban regions. Texas was less expensive than the coasts, thus partially explaining the faster population growth in the Texas Triangle. Texas residents generally could find housing closer to their employment than residents on the coasts.

But the book, which I contributed to alongside former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, William Fulton of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research in Houston, and Cullum Clark of the Bush Institute at SMU in Dallas, also notes that Texas’ price advantage was narrowing at a pace quick enough to cause some alarm. Austin housing costs were rising the fastest, but cost increases were accelerating throughout the Triangle. Nationally, a housing shortage caused residential values to rise faster than the general inflation rate and wages. Even people with critical skills could no longer afford houses or apartments near their employment.

The reasons go back at least a decade. Some homebuilding companies closed their doors because of the 2007-09 Great Recession and its housing sector bust. Fewer people were interested in working in the construction industry, causing labor shortages. More recently, supplies dwindled because of supply chain breakdowns and hoarding of some materials, such as lumber. Regulations were tightened, and permit fees shot higher.

Between 2012 and 2021, about 12.3 million U.S. households were formed but only 7 million new single-family houses were built, a 5.24 million difference, according to a Realtor.com study of Census data. In Texas, at least, plenty of land still exists in and around the urban areas for more housing because there are no barriers, such as mountains, large bodies of water or, as seen on the West Coast, burning forests.

“The Texas Triangle” explained some new concepts in modular and multi-family housing being developed at Texas A&M University’s architecture school that could keep urban areas appealing and affordable. Tiny houses, micro-apartments, modular and prefabricated housing are all possible elements for future housing that can widen housing supply, in some cases providing housing for the homeless.

A new technology is entering, however, that shows a possibility of faster, less expensive housing construction. And Texas has been cited as a place where 3D printed housing could flourish initially because of light regulation and land availability.

3D-printed housing is a technique in which floors and walls are built quickly by pouring concrete from software-driven customizable designs. A small 3D-printed house with a basic design can rise in one day, but that does not account for finishing out, such as plumbing, wiring, windows, doors, etc. Some early 3D-printed housing outfits describe a three-man crew, one to monitor a computer running the concrete-pouring extruders and two specialists – a plumber and an electrician. Some pre-made wooden and glass features are used for doors, window frames and roofing. Position the sinks, toilet, HVAC necessities, water heater and shower and kitchen equipment, and voila, a house is ready in a very short time. A new concrete formula, called Lavacrete, is designed to flow evenly from extruders, and another alternative formula blends in hemp for a strong, fibrous texture.

Costs for 3D-printed houses vary widely so far. “Affordable House Can Be 3D Printed for $4,000 in Less Than 24 Hours,” screams a headline for a Treehugger.com article. Certainly, that is not the price a buyer would see, since that amount does not include necessary finish-out or the land. It also does not include permit and utility fees, Realtor commissions, profit margins, closing costs, etc. Also, that $4,000 cost was for a small dwelling of about 800 square feet, so larger units would cost more. The construction time estimates also vary, with printing lasting a week for larger houses before finish-out begins. Whether completion is half or a third of the time of a conventional house, 3D-printed housing is certainly quicker.

Final costs and times will be determined only when mass-production begins. To ease any city’s housing crisis, 3-D printing must advance to capabilities for multi-family, apartment-style housing, and no reason exists why it should not. An early 3D-printer home pioneer is ICON Technologies Inc., which has built a handful of permitted printed houses in Austin since 2018. ICON Technology Inc. announced it is partnering with Lennar Corp. to build 100 3D printed houses near Austin, a pioneering attempt to test the technology’s mass-production capabilities, according to an October 2021 article in The Wall Street Journal. It plans to break ground in 2022.

In Mexico, a San Francisco-based nonprofit teamed with ICON and Échale, a Mexican social housing production company, in 2019 to build 500 3-D printed houses in a tiny village next to Nacajuca in the state of Tabasco. By September 2021, about 200 houses had been built or in progress, according to The New York Times. The 500-square-foot houses feature two bedrooms, a kitchen and bath, all with indoor plumbing. The printed houses there already have survived a magnitude 7.4 earthquake. To add a sense of community for the 500 houses, the partners plan roads, a soccer field, school, a market and a library.

According to the same article, two companies – Palari Homes and Mighty Buildings – plan to build more than dozen 3D printed houses in Rancho Mirage, California. The waiting list has more than 1,000 names.

“3-D printing is set for explosive growth,” The New York Times article declares.

Clearly, new technologies and innovations will, one way or another, provide quicker and less expensive housing for widening demand. Cities and their permitting departments, in Texas and elsewhere, must encourage and accommodate this trend.

David Hendricks of San Antonio is a co-author of “The Texas Triangle: An Emerging Power in the Global Economy,” published in 2021 by Texas A&M University Press. Hendricks also worked for more than 40 years at the San Antonio Express-News, where he was a business editor and columnist.

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