The Promise of 3-D Printed Property

Technological advances in construction will represent a huge shift for the building and real estate industries in the next decade. Are you ready?

Imagine if all shoes were still made by hand. While you might yearn for the return of the artisan craft of cobblery, Behrokh Khoshnevis pours cold water on such a fanciful scenario. Before automation, he says, the high cost and high demand for decent footwear meant most people were stuck buying one pair of ill-fitting, sloppily sewn shoes a year. “Cheap things that are made by hand are awful,” says Khoshnevis, an engineering professor and director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies.

The same goes for housing, where cobbled-together shantytowns make for dangerous, undignified places to live in many developing countries. Khoshnevis hopes to change that. Contour Crafting, the commercial 3-D printing company he is working to launch this year, will focus on printing shelter for homeless populations and those devastated by natural disaster in the U.S. and abroad. While Contour Crafting has a more philanthropic mission, there are already commercially oriented 3-D projects underway in China, Dubai, the Philippines, and other regions, and Khoshnevis says this trend will only expand. “In every other discipline in which automation has entered, there have been major changes. With construction, the same thing is going to happen,” he says. “Construction is really the last frontier for automation.”

Robert Nahigian, SIOR, principal at Auburndale Realty Co. in Newton, Mass., agrees that automated building techniques are worth paying attention to. “It’s definitely not a fashion,” he says. “It’s beyond just the beginning stage now and [real estate professionals] have got to understand what it means.” Nahigian and other experts expect upheaval in residential construction, demand for industrial and retail space, and shipping and manufacturing logistics. As automation crosses this last frontier, what will that mean for the future of real estate?

Rethinking Residential Options

Major shifts in residential construction due to 3-D printing—also known as additive manufacturing—may not be visible today, but many agree they’re coming. “It’s a little bit down the road in terms of the mainstream, but it’s going to make for a big shift in the construction industry,” says Geoffrey Kasselman, sior, executive managing director at commercial real estate services firm Newmark Grubb Knight Frank’s Chicago office. “It will be very disruptive because it will cost a lot less and use a lot less manual labor.”

Khoshnevis’ invention is already showing this potential. His prototype employs a robotic arm controlled via computer-assisted design that applies layers of quick-drying concrete in a pattern that resembles corrugated cardboard. Khoshnevis says the printer saves resources by using just enough material to create the building and no more, and that it can build the frame for a 2,500-square-foot building in about 20 hours. 

The machine leaves spaces in the walls for electric, plumbing, and ductwork. Though his printer constructs only the building’s shell, Khoshnevis says even the finishing touches will eventually be automated. “Cars are all built automatically, and they are much more complex,” he says. “There’s no reason we can’t do that with a house.”

While the prospect of house after house coming down a Ford-style assembly line seems a monotonous prospect, Khoshnevis predicts additive manufacturing will lead to greater creativity and customization. He notes that designers would simply have to change the command being sent to the printer; the raw material remains the same regardless of its final shape or complexity. “If you have software that allows you to design any type of shape, you can print any type of shape,” he says. In a new-home development today, buyers might be limited to the modifications offered in model homes on display. But the on-demand nature of 3-D printing could allow home builders to provide many more layout options at little cost to their bottom line. 

Real estate pros might also soon find ways to incorporate this technology in their marketing. Architects and developers are already using 3-D printers—spending anywhere from about $200 to $3,500 for more professional options—to create models of new developments more quickly and at lower cost. Someday real estate pros might trade in 2-D floor plans for tiny, inexpensive versions of model homes available before the foundation is poured.

And as 3-D printers catch on with  consumers, your clients’ space needs may change. Back in 2014, a student at the Israeli design and engineering school Shenkar designed a five-piece fashion collection that anyone could print by feeding plastic filament known as FilaFlex into a commercially available Witbox 3-D printer. Kasselman says if such innovations become popular, we might see a precipitous decrease in demand for closet space in the next decade. “You’ll wake up in the morning and a sophisticated 3-D printer will print the clothes that you wear,” he says. At night, consumers might come home and “recycle them for the next day,” using the same filament to print tomorrow’s wardrobe.

Implications for Office, Retail

The influence of 3-D printing will likely extend well beyond the residential market. In addition to the handful of commercial buildings completed and currently being constructed around the world via additive manufacturing, Kasselman says 3-D printers could become a common piece of office equipment. At a Newmark Grubb Knight Frank office on the outskirts of Chicago, plans were underway to install a 3-D printer in a “tech immersion room” by January, according to Kasselman. The tool may print office supplies, but Kasselman also expects it to help them market the firm as high-tech and better able to help industrial clients respond adeptly to the disruptive change that additive manufacturing may bring to their sector.

Beyond corporate office space upgrades, Nahigian, who teaches a course on supply-chain logistics and commercial real estate, foresees an upheaval in the worlds of retail, manufacturing, and shipping. He says 3-D printing could bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States, which will have real estate implications for companies in these sectors.

“What if the whole supply-chain model gets turned around because I don’t have to make stuff in China?” he asks, noting that commercial real estate pros will have to help business owners examine where their customers, suppliers, and future opportunities are located. “The manufacturers who are doing the 3-D printing, they’re not doing it out of their office. They’re going to need industrial space.”

Kasselman says that for now, “a good, well-thought-out commercial building” should be able to handle such operations. However, he suggests that operators of 3-D printers will seek out buildings with smooth, solid foundations and floors for moving these expensive printers around, as well as utilities that are hooked up to smart grids or even onsite power to keep production flowing at critical times.

Demand for New Places, Spaces

Additive manufacturing might not only increase demand for high-tech space but also change the locations where demand is highest. Nahigian says the major U.S. hub for 3-D printing is currently in northwest Ohio, due to interest from nearby universities and research institutions, but other academic centers such as Palo Alto, Calif., and Austin, Texas, could challenge that dominance. He also predicts demand in international port cities such as Long Beach, Calif., and Panama City may fall because, as more products are printed locally, fewer will be shipped globally.

Industrial 3-D printers vary in size depending on what they’re manufacturing, and they’re still relatively rare, so it’s hard to assess how needs for manufacturing space will change. But Kasselman says the on-demand nature of additive manufacturing will mean the need for storage space will diminish. “It’s a proven downward trend,” he says. “We’re consuming less space.”

But Nahigian says the scope of the drop may be tempered by the concurrent demand for immediate products. As consumers grow to expect near–instant gratification in online shopping, manufacturers will need inventory on hand. “Amazon is trying to get two-day [shipping] down to two hours,” he says. “I don’t know if it cuts down storage because I don’t know how long it would take 3-D printing to manufacture [certain items].”

Market expectations may lead to mobile onsite printing to get the product as close to the end consumer as possible, with some retailers even considering in-store manufacturing. “The big-box retail store you see today will likely become half 3-D printing and half delivery or showroom space,” says Kasselman. “It’s all about that effort to own the last mile.”

If retail and industrial spaces combine, or if there’s heightened demand for these modern factories to be closer to residential centers, zoning laws and regulations may cause delays. Kasselman calls it “one of the greatest bottlenecks that we have” in modernizing and revitalizing domestic manufacturing. “I don’t know that we’re as ready to change or adapt as we need to be,” he says.

Finally, 3-D printing could mean human habitats expand into difficult-to-reach, remote, and resource-poor environments due to the decreased need for onsite labor and materials. Khoshnevis is working with NASA on a plan to bring Contour Crafting to the moon, where they hope to use waterless concrete technology to turn lunar sand into a building material. “Both the moon and Mars are covered with dust. We can gather the dust and come up with ways of using [it]” in construction, Khoshnevis says. “The potential that space offers is huge.”