With cutting edge technologies revolutionizing the way people build structures in various parts of the world, EDIDIONG IKPOTO looks at 3D printed construction and its foray into the Nigerian real estate ecosystem.

3D printed construction is radically revolutionizing the way people build structures globally. Although the technology is relatively new in Nigeria, real estate industry players are optimistic that 2023 will see a breakthrough in this regard.

With the country’s construction industry grappling with uncertainty due to a lack of skilled workers, rising costs, a global housing shortage, and drastic erosion of consumer purchasing power, the introduction of 3D construction would mark the difference.

According to experts, the process of building 3D printed houses offers significant potential to increase efficiency and productivity. This is because it offers a high degree of planning reliability from the start, reducing the chances of design errors and worker injuries, and requiring little coordination and supervision effort. This drastically reduces construction time and lowers costs.

Construction Think Tank, DesignWanted, in a report on the efficiency of the technology, said its process minimizes the use of materials; uses natural, organic or recycled materials; generates less waste; decrease transportation needs and reduce carbon footprint.

In simple terms, 3D building printing refers to various technologies that use 3D printing as a core method to fabricate buildings or construction components. An alternative term for this process is “additive construction.”

The three-dimensional shapes are initially designed through a computer controlled process without the use of formwork.

Skillfully using a large printing machine, concrete or other materials, from earth to mortar, special polymers or recycled plastics and more, are extruded layer by layer, to then effortlessly form foundations, walls, columns, stairs and other building elements.

Since this system is portable, it is perfectly suited for off-site pre-cast production and on-site application, eliminating the need for frequent relocation and calibration.

3D printed houses have made a foray into the construction space due to the recent increased demand for housing and rising costs of building materials. For a country like Nigeria with a housing deficit of more than 20 million, experts believe this technology could be a game changer.

The cost of creating this type of construction is relatively minor and only requires one person to remain on site and oversee the development of the process and make sure the apparatus is working properly while building the foundation and walls.

The implementation of 3D printed construction also saves a lot of time compared to the conventional construction process. According to experts, the construction of a medium-sized 3-bedroom bungalow with this construction system would take approximately four to six months.

In fact, with a commercial 3D printer doing the work, it is estimated that the construction of the structure could take around 24 hours, provided the contractors have the doors, roof, windows, etc. complete. Finishing the process in this case will not take more than a few weeks. .

In some parts of the world, this form of construction has gained increasing traction due to its efficiencies with respect to construction cost and schedule, and its environmental benefits, particularly at a time of global action against climate change and its concomitant effects.

In the United Arab Emirates, there is an ongoing plan to build 25% of new buildings using 3D printing by 2030 with Apis Cor, a Russian company, using 3D printing technology to build an administrative building in Dubai.

The first breakthrough in 3D construction was in July 2018 in Nantes, France, after a family moved into their newly built 4-bedroom home for CHF170,000.

Speaking recently in Lagos during a technology fair organized by Zenith Bank, Australian futurist Brett King said that 3D-printed houses would increasingly earn money by 2030, and that industry players in Nigeria and other developing countries who are not inclined to this paradigm shift would be left behind.

He said: “Homelessness is another thing that will allow us to solve some problems. With only three or four thousand dollars, we can 3D print a house for a family, and this can solve the problem of homelessness. For example, 30 million Americans are facing eviction right now due to inflation and rising rental prices.

An award-winning speaker and author, King has in the past touted 3D-printed construction as a game changer that would play an important role in ensuring affordable housing for low-income people.

In an earlier interview with Jennifer Tescher, the Health Network’s president and chief financial officer, the futurist said: “Well, I think the economics here can be a strong argument. So, we take the situation of homelessness. The average social and police cost for a homeless person on the streets of San Francisco is approximately $35,000 per year. It has been shown that it is much cheaper to put people in government subsidized housing than it is. We can 3D print a new house today for three or $4,000. Now, the administrative costs around that will probably result in obviously much higher costs, but there’s a very strong economic incentive to not have homeless, not have sick people, etc.

And that’s where automation comes in: if we can improve the application of technology, then those decisions become very simple. But we return to philosophy. What is the economy for? If the economy is not there to take care of citizens, what is it for? And that is ultimately what we have to ask.”

Speaking in an interview with The PUNCH, a former president of the Nigerian Institute of Builders, Kunle Awobudu, said that Nigeria has yet to master the technology and expertise required for 3D construction.

Awobudu was also optimistic that, with bold attempts being made by some of Nigeria’s top construction teams, it won’t be long before the technology gains more traction within the country’s real estate ecosystem.

He said: “Of course, I saw it in the US and then Lafarge tried to introduce it here. They tried to introduce printed houses and I think they used it on a building belonging to the Ogun state right around the Sagamu interchange. One or two of my colleagues who work with them are also advocates for print homes.

“I actually set up a partnership with a company that was doing it regularly in the US. My company tried to set up a partnership, but Covid-19 disrupted that arrangement. So it’s still not a system that’s popular here.”

In the same vein, Global Property and Facilities International Ltd CEO MKO Balogun expressed optimism that before the end of the year, 3D-printed houses would establish a firm presence in the Nigerian property market.

According to him, the critical efficiency and schedule components involved in 3D printing a home will ultimately garner increased attention from developers and potential homebuyers looking to navigate through the current economic crisis.

He said: “It’s been going on for a long time. It hasn’t been fully explored here, but it’s something that will happen. We have blown up container houses. So definitely yes. I’m sure we’ll explore it. It is faster and more than cheap. People who are doing multiple real estate developments will find it useful.”

Asked if the technology has taken too long to gain acceptance among industry players in Nigeria, Balogun said it was more a matter of building capacity and putting in place the necessary structures to allow property developers to explore the technology.

And he added: “It is not a problem. You know technology takes time to explore. People want to be sure that it is possible. They want to be sure that they have the ability to do it. They want to make sure they also have the technology to support it. With each new idea, that’s what happens.

“I am very confident that we will eventually explore the technology because proptech is already at the higher end in Nigeria. So technology is already driving a lot in real estate. I am sure that before the end of this year, you will see exhibitions and conferences where the concept is shown for people to see how it works and that is what always happens.

So far within the Nigerian construction ecosystem, Lafarge Africa Plc is the only known company that has attempted to implement 3D printed construction. While speaking exclusively with The PUNCH, Femi Yusuff, the company’s Head Mortar, Innovation and New Product Development, noted that while not built through the time-tested conventional construction process, 3D-printed homes, beyond the apparent advantages of reduced cost and accelerated timeline offer an additional advantage in terms of durability.

He said: “The normal practice is to build on site. If you’re building a 2-bedroom apartment, your blocks work. For 3D printing, the walls you are printing are actually much stronger. Therefore, the walls can even be used as load-bearing, even though they are used without load. They are lightweight concrete but are much stronger compared to the blocks we use today. So if you use 3D printing, it will be more durable than conventional construction practice.”

Yusuff further cited the availability of materials, as well as the 3D printing machine, as challenges that industry players would have to overcome to successfully bring this technology home.

He added: “The technology has two parts. The first is printing because you need the materials to print on your base. So the first challenge for us is to be able to print this in Nigeria. That took us about a year to achieve. The second part is that after the material is produced, the next step is how to make sure that we consistently produce in a way that meets the required standards, which we have also achieved. Another challenge is the machine itself. If we need a 3D printing machine in Nigeria, how can we easily get one?”