How to print a house

‘Everybody’s dream is you hit the button and boom, your house pops out’

At home late one night, an energy drink in one hand, the 3Doodler pen in the other, Platt Boyd had his breakthrough. Like hot glue from a gun, the molten plastic secreted by the 3Doodler hardens as it cools, which allows the user to draw 3D shapes. Boyd drew a small scaffold, an object that crudely represented the three-dimensional diagrams of compounds a high school student might study in chemistry class. When it solidified, he set one book on top of it. Then another, and another. Eventually the tiny 3D object he had created minutes before was holding up 18 pounds of books. It weighed half an ounce.

At the time, Boyd was a partner at a regional architecture firm based in Birmingham, Alabama, doing what everyday architects do: dreaming up boundary-stretching designs without a shot at ever seeing them built. “What I as an architect wanted to have was the freedom to design things like all these starchitects,” he says. “All of these normal architects are frustrated because the building technology isn’t there to realize it unless you have these huge budgets.” Using normal building materials, the sort of design freedom Boyd wanted could cost between $800 and $1,000 a square foot, by his own estimate, or even more.

But that night in 2014, doodling with a children’s toy, Boyd saw a way to make the designs in his head a reality.

Boyd envisioned a 3Doodler pen on a massive scale. Constructing a free-form house with such a machine would drop costs to around $200 a square foot, he figured. In April 2014, Boyd left the firm he had been with for 15 years and founded Branch Technology, one of the latest in a string of companies worldwide racing to upend the construction industry using 3D printing.

The concept of additive manufacturing—the more technical term for 3D printing—dates back to the 1980s but has become much more popular in the last decade, thanks to companies, such as Brooklyn-based MakerBot, that shrunk the necessary hardware so that it could fit on a desktop. Using powdered metals or plastic, a 3D printer employs heat and force to fuse together materials, layer by layer, until a fully 3D-printed object is created. In recent years, companies in a variety of industries have turned to 3D printing to streamline manufacturing processes and produce parts, like fuel nozzles for airplane engines and dental implants.

Now 3D printing is making its way into single-family home construction. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, named 3D-printed construction one of the next moon shots at last year’s Milken Global Conference. Instead of powdered metals and plastic, mixtures of cement, sand, and plastic-polymers are the building materials. Instead of stationary, box-like machines, large robotic arms on a swivel produce fully functional houses, with electricity, plumbing, roofs, and windows.

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