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Rendering of the submitted candidates for the 3D-printed home competition in Gananoque, Ont.Horizon Legacy Group

Toronto’s Horizon Legacy Group will break ground this summer on what will be Canada’s largest 3D-printed neighbourhood. The plan is to use industrial-grade 3D printers to build five 1,400-square-foot triplex houses on a lightly forested two-acre property just north of the St. Lawrence River at Gananoque, Ont.

Advocates say that the 3D technology underpinning this project and a growing number of others around the world has the potential to reduce the cost and time it takes to build housing. Some estimates suggest that typical construction costs and times can be cut in half using 3D printers.

In Gananoque, each of the buildings will have a rentable bachelor, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartment. Thirty per cent of the units will fall under the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s definition of “affordable” - that is, less than 30 per cent of the household’s before-tax income.

The project is the result of a competition sponsored by Horizon that challenged participants to design a multi-storey building for $100 per square foot using new technologies. Teams from the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Chile were selected to build the triplexes. One of those teams will also construct a 12-storey multi-residential 3D-printed building elsewhere in Ontario.

Horizon CEO Anthony Zwig says the idea for the competition came during a company-wide brainstorming session aimed at finding solutions to the affordable housing crisis in Canada. “The cost of construction, because of the diminishing supply of workers, is just going through the roof, and it’s going to get worse,” he says. “And so, we started to focus in on the fact that there seems to be opportunities to automate the construction process for cost benefits, for time benefits.”

While each of the selected teams has its own unique strategy for achieving those benefits, the basic process behind 3D-printed construction is the same. Also called additive manufacturing, it begins with digital designs of interior or exterior concrete walls - the typical elements built with this technology - which are then sent to a robotic 3D printer. A special liquid concrete mix is pumped through the hose of the printer, which goes back and forth, forming the structure of the walls layer by layer.

One of the biggest upsides to the technology is that fewer workers are required compared to traditional building projects. Skilled labour is at a premium for any construction project, if you can even find it, says Horizon VP of Development Nhung Nguyen. “Over half of construction costs are in labour, and so we think that with the use of technology we can solve that problem.”

  • Renderings of the submitted candidates for the 3D-printed home competition in Gananoque, Ont. Design by Scoolpt, Czech Republic.Horizon Legacy Group

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The absence of formwork in a 3D-printed building can also mean significant savings, says Maria Anna Polak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Waterloo and an expert in 3D printing of concrete structures. “Traditional concrete construction requires formwork, because concrete is liquid before it hardens, and usually needs 28 days to harden,” she says. “With 3D printing, the cost saving is definitely lack of formwork, because you don’t have it.”

In Gananoque, the team from the Netherlands, CyBe Construction, estimates its costs will be less than $82 per square foot. CyBe also says it will print all elements in two to three weeks and assemble them in one week.

That’s good news to Gananoque Mayor Ted Lojko, who says there is a “severe lack” of affordable housing in his community of about 5,000 people. “The other part of the equation is a lot of people from Ottawa, Toronto, and the GTA are moving [here] and inflating the housing market. And all of a sudden people that have lived in the area have to find alternative housing, and it’s very difficult to do.”

Since 2016, Gananoque’s population has increased 4.3 per cent. And in that time, the median sale price of a single detached home in the area increased from about $200,000 to just under $540,000.

3D printing shouldn’t be seen as a panacea to Canada’s affordable housing woes, however, says Ian Comishin. At least not yet. Mr. Comishin is president of Netherlands-based Twente Additive Manufacturing, a manufacturer of 3D construction printers. “The technology is still brand new and it’s not necessarily going to be readily accepted by all the jurisdictional approving bodies. So even if we can build a lower cost home than conventional building, the permitting process may end up making the building overpriced again.”

The technology itself is also expensive. TAM’s smallest printers start at €100,000 ($135,198) while its larger models start at €920,000 (more than $1.24-million).

The concrete material is pricey as well. That’s because it’s highly refined and some of the components can’t be locally sourced, says Ms. Polak. “Right now, if you go to a cement manufacturer, you might find concrete that is 3D printable, but it’s very expensive.” But that could soon change, she says, as researchers continue to look at how to produce these concretes from local materials.

Mr. Comishin thinks that within a few years every concrete plant will have its own 3D mix, because the industry is “moving at a breakneck speed.” When he co-founded his company in 2018, he says there were maybe 10 to 12 companies worldwide who were in the industrial 3D printing or printer-making business. Now he believes there are over 200.

Grand View Research expects that the global 3D printing construction market size will see a compound annual growth rate of 100.7 per cent from 2022 to 2030.

In Canada, a few 3D-printed construction projects are in the works, including in Leamington, Ontario, where the University of Windsor and Habitat for Humanity are using the technology to build four affordable tiny rental homes. In Dubai, the goal is to 3D print 25 per cent of all buildings by 2030.

Mr. Comishin believes that 3D printers will soon be on every build site of significance in North America. “Automation of some of these processes is almost essential just to even maintain the current pricing that we’re seeing in housing, never mind the crazy increases in prices as the supply of skilled labourers diminishes.”

Back in Gananoque, Ms. Nguyen agrees. “The 3D-printing aspect is really not even what we’re interested in here. Maybe it’s a starting point, but really, it’s further using construction technologies and automation in the construction sector. That’s where we think the future lies.”

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