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Can 3D concrete printing solve Virginia’s affordable housing crisis?

working 3d printing with concrete
(Image: VPM News Focal Point)

Dr. Andrew McCoy is passionate about innovating the residential construction industry to make homes affordable and sustainable for Virginians.

Over this career, he has authored over 100 articles on this topic and through his work he has secured over $6 million in research grants.

Dr. McCoy is the Director for Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech. He is also the Beliveau Professor of Building Construction and the Associate Director of the Myers Lawson School of Construction at Virginia Tech. Dr. McCoy said working on making housing more affordable is rewarding because he meets people who are in need and he has a way to help them.

 

“Our main goal, our mission is affordability. So, we work with different parts of the state or even different parts of the country, in some type of cases internationally, on ways to basically work with their current housing stock, understand income limits, and try to create options for more people to afford more housing,” Dr. McCoy said.

Dr. McCoy’s most recent grant of half a million dollars came from Virginia Housing. Dr. McCoy and Dr. Philip Agee with VCHR, received the PACT 3D Concrete House Printing Innovation Grant to help make housing more affordable.

The one year, $500,000 grant is being used to design and produce a 3D printed concrete home in Richmond. VCHR has partnered with Alquist, a 3D printing construction firm, to print the home’s exterior walls. Virginia Housing and VCHR have also partnered with project: HOMES, Better Housing Coalition and RMT Construction & Development Group to explore innovative, affordable and energy-efficient new homes.

Dr. McCoy said that he doesn’t know that people really understand what affordable housing is – the needs of it but also how it works.

“A lot of people are one economic problem or health problem away from having total economic failure. And what this does, having affordable housing, provides stability. It provides stability from the standpoint of children and education, possibly health care and where you live close to. But it also helps people to be able to recover a little bit more easily if they can afford where they're living, when something else might pop up,” Dr. McCoy said.

Last year, Habitat of Humanity in partnership with Alquist and VCHR, was able to build the first 3D printed home in the nation located in Williamsburg as part of the grant.

3D printed home
3D printed home in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Dr. McCoy handed the keys to the new owner April Stringfield and her son.

“The owner is this amazing person, who is a single mother, who had worked three jobs during the pandemic, to make sure that she would qualify to be able to afford the house. She wanted to prove to her children that if you work hard enough that you can make, you can make things happen and you can live your dreams,” Dr. McCoy said.

For Stringfield to qualify for the house she participated in Habitat Homebuyer Program were had to give 300 hours (about 2 weeks) of sweat equity towards another home or hers. On top of this, she needed to make sure she qualified for the home with her income.

Dr. McCoy said Stringfield’s story echos the larger story in the state and county. Millions of people need more affordable housing options.

“If you make below 50%, area median income, the options are really slim. And the ability for people to produce housing for that amount of money is very difficult. And so, between 30 and 50 percent area median income, we have [Habitat for Humanity] and they can do it because typically they have volunteer labor, and hopefully they have material donations.”

mother and son
April Stringfield and her son inside their 3D printed home.

Dr. McCoy said the nation’s affordable housing crisis can be traced back to the 2008 recession.

“When we had the recession, a lot of people did not like the cyclical nature of housing, and the housing industry. And so, you saw, there were a lot of people who went out of business, but you also saw a lot of labor and firms that just said, you know, we're going to move on to a different industry,” Dr. McCoy said, “So, we lost, you know, half of our capacity to actually build well, over time, since 2008, what you've seen is that the number of sales of homes has gotten back to pre-2008 levels to 2006 levels.”

Dr. McCoy said this has caused multiple generations in the same family to compete for housing. With a limited stock and high demand, prices were increasing rapidly.

“We saw stories of three generations of the same family looking at the same house. The young generation looking to buy it to build equity, the grandparents looking at it to downsize and the generation in the middle -- the parents -- they're looking at it, because it's a great rental property and rental prices are going up,” Dr. McCoy said. So, it's just this confluence of all these stresses on the market.”

Dr. McCoy said the industry did not have the ability to produce enough housing quickly.

“On top of it with the pandemic, then we started getting to the place where lumber prices, material prices, supply chain issues, we started seeing the global kind of supply chain, and the stresses of that on the ability to produce houses as well, it just made for a really good time for a product, you know, a production cycle, that could actually consolidate the many different materials that you might have on the exterior of the home, in the interior, the home into one process, that could be very durable, that could go up quickly,” Dr. McCoy said.

One solution to the affordable housing crisis is 3D printing.

“3D concrete printing is very customizable. So that's what's one thing that's very nice about it,” Dr. McCoy said.

concrete
The concrete is applied in layers. 

Dr. McCoy said 3D concrete printing is like building a layered cake.

“You're just building layers, upon layers, vertically, and you have all kinds of different ways that you need to kind of control that. And make sure that it's fitting the right size and in the right direction and the coordinates that you set,” Dr. McCoy said.

The benefits of having a 3D printed home is that their price tag is more affordable and the homes are also cost efficient. So far, the houses built using 3D printing technology in Virginia have been electric.

“We think it's wonderful to provide an affordable home that people can purchase. But it's also another thing to provide a home that people can afford to operate, right and energy prices are rising. These houses that we've built and designed in the state of Virginia so far, they have very low operating costs,” McCoy said.

The total construction cost for a 1,550 square foot home using 3D print technology can range from $180,000 to $190,000. The homes then sell for about $220,000.

“It's a real win in terms of how we might look at economic growth, and then it's helping people who might otherwise not have a chance to build equity into grow their own economic footprint, it gives them options,” Dr. McCoy said.

3D printing can bring new life into the construction industry. It is customizable, so people will push the boundaries to create homes with different floor plans, features and more.

“I think what you're seeing right now, especially from the digital side, the digitization of our industry, we hear about digital twins, the idea that buildings digitally are completely represented before you ever get out there and put shovel into the ground, you can understand all the risks, you can understand how the trades are going to work, everything. From that standpoint, we're seeing a huge shift in how we will view industry moving forward,” Dr. McCoy said.