Why 3D printing is still flat in commercial construction

Touted as a faster, safer and cleaner way to build, 3D printing technology has yet to scale in a meaningful way for nonresidential construction. 

While the government has doled out grant money to research 3D printing capabilities in space, and several proof-of-concept projects from bridges to Army barracks have garnered headlines, the applied use of 3D printing in commercial construction remains nascent. 

Patti Harburg-Petrich, principal in the Los Angeles office of U.K.-based engineering firm Buro Happold, says the real culprit is likely one that all new building innovations are forced to navigate: the building code itself.

Here, Harburg-Petrich talks with Construction Dive about what’s holding 3D printing back, and where it might find broader adoption in off-site construction and the nonresidential sector. 

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

CONSTRUCTION DIVE: 3D printing has made inroads in residential construction, but why has the technology still not gained traction in commercial and industrial construction?

PATTI HARBURG-PETRICH: It’s a really interesting question. To your point about residential, I’ve been working on a project called Mighty House, which is a 3D-printed single family home being developed by Mighty Buildings out of Oakland, California. 

The Mighty House product is panelized construction that arrives at the job site like an IKEA flat pack system of 3D-printed wall panels, roof panels, and components that are bolted together in the field, so it is very fast construction. 

Not so fast, though, was the code approval of the actual 3D-printed material. It’s a proprietary UV-cured fiber reinforced resin that had to go through many rounds of fire testing, water testing, and structural testing in order to gain approval by the building department. 

It’s a very lengthy and expensive process, and the tests are tied to specific formulas and specific geometries that cannot be changed, so for larger public projects, it’s an incredibly large challenge. 

<p>Patti Harburg-Petrich</p> <p>Courtesy of Buro Happold</p>

I think that’s why we are seeing the technology used in single family residential versus larger commercial applications.

What about just in research and development on the nonresidential side? Might we see some projects incorporating the capabilities of 3D printing into designs?

Yes, but the challenge is still there. 

I recently advised a group of engineering students at Woodbury University competing in the Solar Decathlon. They were looking at 3D-printed concrete solutions for the design but were again running up against the building department because the 3D concrete printer they were using could not incorporate horizontal rebar per the code requirements. 

So again, their project would need to test — in a laboratory — the wall sections in order to get approval from the building department. The structure simply could not gain a certificate of occupancy without getting that testing done. That’s the biggest hurdle right now. 

Do most of those code challenges involve structural integrity and the ability to bear load?

Well, the technical analysis is all there. The ability of 3D-printed material to withstand loading is not really the issue. 

The issue is that it takes a really long time for new technologies and building innovations to get incorporated into the building code. 

That’s for good reason: safety is the highest priority, so the building code is inherently conservative. But that also makes it a long, time-consuming, expensive process to get new technology incorporated into the code. 

Might 3D print technologies find a better foothold as an applied technology to create smaller, workable parts in the field for machines, vehicles, or even MEP systems?

Yes, we’re at a really exciting time in this industry where we have a very specific digital design capability as well as this emerging digital fabrication capability. 3D printing is one of the tools within that. 

If you can take advantage of industrialized construction and still be able to produce something that is bespoke, that leads toward a much faster pace of adoption. If you can do something with less material, or put the pieces together faster, there are all kinds of cost savings right there, and all sorts of non-monetary benefits as well. 

If we can use robots and additive manufacturing to build certain components, we can use our labor teams for higher and better uses. 

What types of projects might begin to see faster adoption of 3D printing technology? 

We are working on an airport project that is not incorporating 3D printing, but it is an offsite construction project. It’s using industry standard components versus bespoke components, and that was definitely part of the lessons learned walking through the Mighty Buildings 3D printing approval process. 

One of the biggest opportunities is being able to leverage industrialized construction to fulfill any sort of architectural ambition. Five to ten years ago, modular construction meant identical boxes, but we are not constrained to that anymore. 

We can enable any kind of architectural vision using 3D printing and other modular strategies that combine digital design and digital fabrication. There is a big opportunity on the sustainability side, too, specifically in the amount of waste that is saved by building in this way.

The biggest barrier is the approvals process and the time and money it takes to go through that. It’s just something that resolves with time, similar to some of the first hurdles faced in mass timber construction: it took a long time to get into the code but now that it is in, a lot of people are using it.

Chris Wood
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