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Iowa State to Tackle Affordable Housing with 3D Printing

Working with Iowa Central Community College and Alquist 3D, Iowa State University's College of Design will put $2.15 million in grant money toward 3D-printing houses for the small town of Hamburg.

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(TNS) — Iowa State University is hoping to figure out one large piece of solving the state's affordable housing issue with 3D printing.

The university's College of Design, in conjunction with Iowa Central Community College, wants to print about a half-dozen houses in Hamburg, a small town of under 1,000 in Fremont County, in southwest Iowa just east of the Missouri River.

A team of many partners along with faculty and students from Iowa State and Iowa Central — including the Iowa Economic Development Authority, Alquist 3D and Brunow Contracting, among others — are on the project. Actual printing is expected to happen this autumn or next spring.

Pete Evans, an ISU assistant professor of industrial design, said the goal is to put together a plan for affordable and innovative tech housing that would capture Iowa's workforce and affordable housing priorities.

In May, Evans and others went to California to pick up the two, large house 3D printers that now are in Ames and Fort Dodge.

And the printers themselves indeed are huge — approximately 15-by-50-by-8 feet, each with a long movable arm that "pour" the houses.

The challenge of affordable housing becomes more difficult as rural communities struggle to build new properties at the same time as the cost to build often does not offset the cost to sell. Many developers hesitate to build only a few houses in a smaller community when they could build more in or near a larger city.

In Iowa, there is a need for around 60,000 more affordable-housing units across the state, Debi Durham, director of both the Iowa Economic Development Authority and Iowa Finance Authority, told The Gazette.

"We're excited about the technology, for sure, but the purpose behind that is to bring more affordable and efficient housing for both rural and urban," Julie Robison, program manager in extension and outreach said.

"The need for housing in rural areas is so apparent. The housing stock in Iowa is aging, and this highly impacts rural areas. I don't think I've ever been to a community where housing isn't the No. 1 problem."

However, demand has grown due to job creation and more people working remotely as well as the belief by some in the better overall affordability many smaller communities can provide.

"I'm beyond stoked," ISU's Evans said. "The state is all in, and we know there isn't a single solution to affordable housing. There are a lot of layers to this, and I feel like an elephant is sitting on my head, but this is a lot of fun and we're introducing a tremendous amount of opportunity."


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Iowa State College of Design Dean Luis Rico-Gutierrez said the challenge is perfect for his school.

"It's a really complex problem that requires experts in multiple disciplines, and we have that," Rico-Gutierrez said.

"How does the house become a home? That's the question. You can put walls together but how do you raise a family and have positive memories within these walls? How do we make it fit in communities? We have planning experts, industrial design, interior design and more. We are using all of our pieces on this one project."

The idea came together when Durham and Rico-Gutierrez started talking about the possibilities 3D printing could offer Iowa's housing landscape. Durham said she liked the potential and got the ball rolling with IEDA Special Projects Manager Jeff Geerts.

"I was interested in the design of the homes and making sure they fit their communities. We want to establish research tools and data of cost effectiveness, resilience of the housing, such as weather resistant (and) energy efficiency, and we wanted them to look at building codes and requirements that communities could adopt. We want it to be an easy transition for communities," Durham said.

Iowa State was awarded four grants for a total of $2.15 million to go toward this project, including a $1.4 million grant from IEDA for the 3D printers and materials.

"For the College of Design, it's very large," said Kevin Kane, associate dean for research and outreach, said. "Iowa State is used to getting multimillion-dollar grants for engineering but for design, this is one of the largest group of grants we've ever received for one project."


The concept of 3D printing houses has been gaining more popularity around the country over the past several years.

Iowa City-based Alquist 3D has built a few 3D-printed homes in Virginia since the company was founded in 2020, with the goal of building 200 homes around that state. The company cites 3D printing's efficiency, affordability and customizable options as solutions to affordable housing crises around the country.

The parts of the house that are 3D printed are the concrete-like walls or the framing of the house. Other fixtures, such as windows and electricity, need to be installed separately.

The mix for 3D printing is similar to the mortar that goes between bricks. But it's smoother than concrete. Traditional framing can be a longer process that can take the most time in building a house.

It can take around a half-dozen framers to work on a traditional wood, stick-frame house for around a minimum of two weeks if the weather is perfect. With 3D printing, it will take three to four people around two or three days to print and construct the exterior walls.

"It's all dependent on the project, of course, but it could even be 12 to 48 hours," Evans said. "If we get everything aligned in the digital workflow, I think we can accelerate the entire process."

"We want to train our industries and we want developers to be comfortable with this," Durham said. "For us, we're looking at solutions that can provide mass production to save time and bend the cost curve, and I haven't seen anything out there that can do both like 3D printing."

An August 2021 survey from said that 66 percent of respondents said they would consider living in a 3D-printed home.

While the Iowa colleges aren't intending to get into the house-building business long term, they are hoping to test 3D printing's advantages when it comes to cost, labor and efficiency, and share those results with the public. Construction companies and developers then can decide whether to pursue 3D printing.

Durham said she also thinks adding this level of new technology will get more young people interested in the construction industry.

"There aren't enough people for manufacturing jobs, and it's a population issue," she said. "So it's a way we need to move. An exciting thing about this is that you're going to have higher-skill jobs, and it will increase the pool of applicants. I think it will increase our young people's options going forward."

Brunow Contracting President Tamara Brunow said her company's role will be actually owning the house in Hamburg.

Brunow said she's always been excited by innovative opportunities, many of them in green energy.

Her Council Bluffs company will prep the site and work with the research team as her crew is trained on the 3D printer. After the printing is done, Brunow's company will do the roof and other key pieces of the home.

"We think the advantage will be the speed," Brunow said. "We don't know if this will actually save money, but that's what we have to find out. If this works and we like it, you're dang right we will make a push on 3D printing."

Once built, the prototype house will be tested over a period of months, and that's why Hamburg was chosen. Brunow is building a 10-acre subdivision with 34 single-family units there and can keep watch over the 3D-printed house, checking Iowa weather's effects on the property.

"Hamburg lends itself well. That town has been to hell and back since 2011 (with) all of the flooding," Brunow said. "That town wants to rebuild. They want people, and they're embracing new technologies."

If the project is successful, towns such as Hamburg — in theory — could see more construction as only a handful of people could visit a town, print a few homes that are needed and move on to the next town, many on the ISU team say.

"The problem we see with smaller towns is a lot of your framing crews aren't going to go to Essex, Iowa, to go frame four houses. Not when they can stay in Omaha and frame 40," Brunow added.

Durham said she believes that in a decade, people will be looking to Iowa as an example and educator is this industry.

"In 10 years, they will look to this partnership as industry experts," Durham said.

Added Geerts: "Iowa State has me convinced that in 10 years, we will have many different models across the state and a developer or buyer will be able to customize your housing plan and order it right online."

©2022 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.