Added Dimensions: Emergent 3D-printing technology layers a new path

Andrew McCoy
Published On
Oct 15, 2021

Houses are being 3D-printed, and electrical contractors need to anticipate their role in this brave new world.

The inevitable question that industry observers will ask is, “If building contractors can 3D-print entire houses, why can’t electrical contractors 3D-print hard-to-get replacement parts right on the job? That would save time and money.”

As more electrical work gravitates toward low-voltage DC, the types of replacement parts will predictably be more conducive to 3D printing.

A critical housing shortage, particularly in rural areas, is driving the 3D-printing phenomenon. Therefore, Virginia Housing, the state’s housing authority, provided an innovation demonstration grant to the Virginia Center for Housing Research (VCHR) at Virginia Tech to fund, in part, the purchase of a 3D construction printer.

Alquist, an additive construction company in Iowa City, Iowa, partnered with VCHR to construct a single-family prototype in the Midlothian neighborhood of Richmond, Va. This is the first 3D-printed home for residential sale in the United States.

3d house
Alquist 3D-printed walls, window openings and an electrical outlet for the Richmond, Va., house.
Courtesy Cromwell Architects and Engineers Rendering; Stephen Bastien

The Richmond home is made entirely of concrete, but other, more sustainable materials can be used later, thanks to the open-source system. Alquist only printed the exterior walls, but in future projects, interior walls can also be printed.

Next, Alquist partnered with Habitat for Humanity to print a house in Williamsburg, Va., and then hopes to print whole neighborhood blocks consisting entirely of 3D-printed, single-family dwellings.

Zack Mannheimer, CEO of Alquist, stresses all the reasons that 3D printing is such a huge problem-solver.

“It eliminates waste during construction. It offers schedule flexibility, safety, process efficiency and a variety of cost savings. Each building starts with a building information model that digitally represents the eventual structure. Additive construction processes—that is, 3D printing—then translate that digital information into a printable file using specialized software, which, incidentally, is generic to all additive manufacturing,” Mannheimer said.

The 3D-printing machine for the Midlothian project is the BOD2 from Denmark. Although COVID-19 delayed its shipment to the United States, the Alquist team used the waiting time for additional planning sessions for the concrete printing process. So, with all that extra planning, three weeks after the 3D printer landed, they had it up and running.

A s much as 3D printing represents a departure from present-day construction methods, not long after the printing project was underway, a more typical situation occurred. One night after everyone left the work site, someone broke in and stole part of the concrete printing apparatus: the nozzle off the printer’s head.

3d house 3
Aiman Hussein, Alquist director of printing technologies, used a polymer-based 3D printer on-site to create a new nozzle for the main 3D printer after it was stolen.
Courtesy Aiman Hussein

The Alquist team used a desktop 3D printer to quickly replicate the stolen parts. They went back to printing concrete immediately.

The printer brings speed and efficiency to the job site, which can bring down construction costs.

Alquist’s 3D printer runs on a gantry system that is assembled on-site, preventing the need to ship large, prebuilt modular pieces to construction zones. The system can be assembled in four hours and disassembled in three hours by two trained workers. Eventually, the printer can be operated by just two trained construction workers, which helps to address ongoing labor shortages in the housing sector. It can print on uneven surfaces and uses open-source technology that allows different materials to be used for printing, including new sustainable materials currently in development.

Alquist’s houses also come standard with Building Data Lite, a Raspberry Pi-based sensoring and monitoring system developed by Virginia Tech with the following features: indoor environment sensing for air quality, temperature, humidity, lighting, sound, vibration, flames and many kinds of gases; a security and alarm system with motion detection in assigned building spaces; emergency management, including smoke and fire detection; occupant comfort analysis; space utilization analysis; and energy consumption optimization.

Alquist and VCHR team members believe it is important to create affordable housing that is economical to operate. Alquist provides a polymer-based 3D printer in each house to print minor parts, such as cabinet or drawer pulls, switch plates and door knobs.

3D house 2
Courtesy of Andrew McCoy

There are tricks to every type of work. For electrical contractors hoping to add 3D-printed buildings to their portfolio, everything from installation methods to health and safety precautions figure into the solution.

Progress in the construction industry is propelled forward by developing new products. New tools and materials can easily alter the course of any industry segment. The change they bring may at first seem far-fetched. But like the lily pads that double in area every day until they cover the pond in a month’s time, on the next-to-the-last day, they only cover half of it. A day later their coverage is complete.

The construction industry has a long-held reputation of being slow to adopt new ideas, but some can catch on quickly. Service contractors must be especially nimble to detect and accommodate those changes.

This technology bears close watching by electrical contractors who are serious about working with 3D-printed buildings.

In conversation with Mannheimer, we had to ask, where did the company name Alquist come from since there is nobody in the company with that surname? Mannheimer explained: almost exactly 100 years ago, Czech playwright Karel Capek conceived of a futuristic plot for a stage play in which “robota”—his name for automatons who were the production workers in a factory—began to clash with their human colleagues. A scientist named Alquist became the hero who strove to get the two cohorts to cooperate. “Alquist,” therefore, symbolizes the effort to harmoniously bring together man and robot. In addition to presaging a dialogue that continues to this day, incidentally, Capek wrote the first piece of literature to coin the word “robot.”

About the Author

Andrew P. McCoy and Fred Sargent

MCCOY is associate director of the Myers-Lawson School of Construction and director of the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech. Contact him at apmccoy@vt.edu. SARGENT is president of Great Service Forums, provider of management...

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