Yes, you may soon download a house. And that would be terrible


Question: “What if you could download and print a house in 24 hours for half the cost?” My answer: it would probably be a terrible thing, something to avoid, for you and everybody around, sooner or later.

In March 2018 an Austin company called Icon announced the first PERMITTED 3D printed house in America, for less than $4,000:

Yes, you may soon download a house. And that would be terrible /img/permitted-3dprinted-home.jpg
Increasing urban sprawl never was so affordable

The announcement explains that:

  1. that house is built with “the prototype of the mobile printer we are creating for New Story and the developing world”
  2. both the 3D printer and the materials it uses are designed to “tackle housing shortages” to build “a world where all families live in safe, thriving communities”
  3. the technology is made to order for highly participatory design (of the houses themselves), that is with direct input from the people who will be actually living in them. This is a factor essential for their acceptance
  4. in developing countries “local labor will also operate the machines, creating new advanced manufacturing jobs”

Match these news with announcements like “California is to become first U.S. state mandating solar on new homes” and future looks really bright for everybody who needs an affordable home, powered by clean energy, does it not?

The general lesson from these news, and what’s wrong with their picture

The first things we should (re)learn from these news are as general as they are crucial:

  1. point #3 of the list above is the only one I fully agree with. Participation to redesign cities and common spaces worldwide is essential
  2. as a species, we have now reached a point where the real obstacles to solve real problems are regulations, not technology

From now on, that is, we really should invent or disrupt less physical stuff, and more norms and procedures, to make them more adequate for those real problems

This, instead, is what I find wrong with the picture:

  • the “new advanced manufacturing jobs” this approach will create will be local, but also very few. Those homes are cheap in good part because building them requires very little human labour
  • the major problem with the future envisioned in housing projects like that, or laws like that Californian one is that they are all, in practice, about exporting worldwide urban sprawl and the American Way to housing

There are surely places where single-family houses would not make much of an impact (in the short term, that is). But the idea of everybody able to quickly cover with cement more land in Italy, Europe, most of the “first world countries” in general… gives me the creeps, really. It would be a terrible waste of land, raw materials and energy. Much better to push for efficient use of housing that already exists.

And I saw that California bill because of a Tweet saying “why don’t they mandate putting another home, instead of solar panels, over every new home, that is multiple-dwelling buildings instead of single family homes? That would be much better for the environment, costs, etc.”

I do believe that technologies like the Icon “home 3D printing” or those that will undoubtedly become cheaper thanks to “mandatory solar panels” bills, are a godsend. But regulations should reward their use for common infrastructures (laundries, toilets, schools, condos…) much more than their use for perpetuating stuff that, in many places, would just be McMansions 2.0. Please ask for such laws and rules.

More of the same from the Netherlands (added on June 8, 2018)

From the Guardian and the Smithsonian Magazine:

  • The Netherlands’ first functional 3D-printed home will be ready to welcome occupants as early as next year.
  • The five-year initiative, known as Project Milestone, aims to combat the country’s shortage of skilled bricklayers and revitalize the architectural industry.

and, as this rendering shows, this development seems to have the same issues of the ones above:

Yes, you may soon download a house. And that would be terrible /img/3dprinted-homes-in-netherlands.jpg
Let's sprawl, there so much space for new homes in the Netherlands (or in Europe, for that matter)

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