Is UMaine’s Experimental 3D-Printed Dwelling the Future of Affordable Housing?

BioHome3D is the result of a two-and-a-half-year effort to create a technology for building homes faster, more efficiently, and less expensively than conventional construction.

BioHome3D developed by the University of Maine
By Virginia M. Wright
Photos courtesy of MJ Gautrau, University of Maine
From our February 2023 issue

The University of Maine engineers who gave us the inflatable arched bridge and the world’s largest 3D-printed boat are at it again, this time with the first 3D-printed house made from biomaterials — in this case, logging and sawmill wood waste. Futuristic looking, with its rounded oblong facade, the 600-square-foot dwelling sits next to UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, where, last fall, it was squeezed out of a massive printer’s nozzle, like icing from a pastry bag. Named BioHome3D, it’s the first prototype to emerge from the center’s two-and-a-half-year effort to create a technology for building homes faster, more efficiently, and less expensively than conventional construction. Maine faces a severe housing crisis — including a shortage of 20,000 homes for low-income folks alone, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition — exacerbated by high materials costs and a dearth of workers. “The resources currently in our toolbox won’t solve these problems,” ASCC executive director Habib Dagher says.

“We need a radical solution.”

The idea of 3D-printing buildings isn’t new. Innovators around the world have been working for years to scale up the technology behind the process, which creates an object from a digital design by layering a composite paste into the desired shape, which then hardens. Some teams have fabricated impressive houses, but all are made from nonrenewable materials, and they are not being mass-produced. ASCC’s goal is to push its technology to where a single printer can churn out a house every two days, each composed of a stronger-than-concrete composite made from timber-process- ing residuals, such as bark, sawdust, and slabs. Maine has a surplus of the stuff — about one million pounds are produced every year. “We’re taking one problem and using it to solve another,” Dagher says.

Beneath the 3D-printed home’s curved roof is a single furnished bedroom and a tiled bath, along with a living area, furnished modestly and modernly, and an open kitchen.

ASCC’s printer built BioHome3D as four individual modules, which were wired for electricity and filled with wood-fiber insulation from Madison’s GO Lab facility before being loaded onto a flatbed, moved a few hundred feet outdoors, and assembled on-site. “Twelve hours after the electrician arrived, we had electricity running in the house,” Dagher says. “Once you start scaling up production, you could do a lot better than that.”

Designed to meet affordable-housing standards outlined by the Maine State Housing Authority, BioHome3D has an open-concept living/kitchen/dining room, one bedroom, and one bath. Its golden-brown walls and ceilings sport a tightly corrugated texture and flow together in gentle curves. Crisp, white Sheetrock on the front and back walls provides contrast. Two mini-split heat pumps supply heat, and roughly 30 sensors measure the house’s performance through fluctuations in temperature, humidity, wind, and whatever else Maine’s weather throws at it. ASCC engineers will use the feedback to adapt the technology.

“We’ve had a lot of fits and starts because no one has ever printed with wood at this scale before,” Dagher says. “We even managed to break our equipment a few times. With research, you fall on your face once in a while, figure out what went wrong, and get going again.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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