High Costs Put New Road’s 3D-Printed Houses on Hold

A house in the New Road community in Exmore is being demolished to make way for one of six new homes that will be either 3D printed or stick built. Photo courtesy of Ava Wise.

By Stefanie Jackson – A new technology for building affordable housing – a giant 3D printer – could be coming to the Eastern Shore and may be introduced to local residents later this year or early in 2022 at the groundbreaking ceremony for the New Road community’s latest housing initiative in Exmore.

Ava Wise, executive director of the New Road Community Development Group, told the Eastern Shore Post in July that six new houses will be built in New Road, the first phase of a three-phase project that will add 45 affordable homes to the regional housing market and “bring the pressure down” concerning the “crisis and the shortage of housing” on the Shore.

Virginia Housing, a not-for-profit organization created by the Virginia General Assembly in 1972,  has been instrumental in moving the project forward through grant funding and other supports, including exploring the option of 3D-printed homes.

Virginia Housing had given a grant to the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech, and the program’s director, Andrew McCoy, acquired a 3D printer for building houses.

He negotiated a deal with Zachary Mannheimer, who was interested in building 3D-printed homes and became the founder and chief executive officer of a new company called Alquist 3D.

Virginia Tech agreed to research how the 3D printer works and give the machine to Alquist; the company would repay Virginia Housing for the machine through its work building 3D-printed houses.

Around the same time, Wise was having trouble finding contractors for New Road’s housing rehabilitation project, as demand for their services and material costs rose sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic. She called Virginia Housing to inquire about 3D-printed houses and learned of the machine the organization had just bought.

Virginia Housing agreed to give New Road additional funding for its construction project on top of the ARS (Acquire, Renovate, Sell) funds Virginia Housing committed to New Road’s rehab project.

A public organization like Virginia Housing can more easily absorb the costs of project research and development, which a private company could not afford, Wise noted.

The cost of research and development can include additional material and labor costs accumulated through trial and error on the construction site. The 3D printing of houses is a new technology that has yet to be mastered by contractors. If a mistake is made during the printing process, workers must tear down the wall – made with concrete – and start over. That can add a lot to the total project cost.

And there’s a lot that can go wrong. The consistency of the concrete must be exact, and a change such as a water temperature fluctuation can compromise the concrete mixture and ruin hours of work, Wise said.

New Road’s 3D-printed houses would be constructed with both exterior and interior walls of concrete.

The massive 3D printer stands two stories tall, with a long arm that moves along a track and applies one layer of concrete wall at a time.

The permanence of concrete has both drawbacks and benefits. One drawback is guessing how many openings in the walls are needed for features like electrical outlets. Wise calls this estimating the “technology capacity” of the home over its 50-year lifespan, and it’s difficult to predict, as technology continually advances and becomes a bigger part of everyday life.

But concrete also has benefits. It’s fire resistant, and pests like termites can’t burrow through it like wood.

The 3D printer that may be used on the New Road project was manufactured in Denmark and delivered to Virginia, where it began its useful life in Richmond.

A sample 3D-printed house was made in the capital, then the machine was sent to Williamsburg for a Habitat for Humanity project.

Finally, the machine was ready to be sent by tractor-trailer to the Eastern Shore to do what likely would be the largest 3D-printed house project in the country, Wise said.

But about 10 days before the project was set to begin, Wise received some bad news: the actual cost to build each 3D-printed home would be about three times higher than previously estimated.

She learned the Richmond 3D-printed house had cost about $400,000 to build – a price that would not be affordable for most Shore families.

Wise agreed to give Alquist 90 to 120 days to conduct additional research and attempt to bring down the price of a 3D-printed home to be comparable to a stick-built home. If Alquist is unsuccessful, all six of the new houses in New Road will be stick-built.

The six modern homes of the New Road community will be on the block formed by the intersections of Ruth Wise Road, Thurgood Marshall Road, Jane Pittman Street, and Frederick Douglass Road.

The old homes on that block have been demolished except one newer home that was built in 2012.

The houses will be built in a range of sizes to suit a single person, a couple, or an average-sized family. There will be two tiny houses of 448 square feet each, two 800-square-foot two-bedroom houses, one 1,224-square-foot three-bedroom house, and one four-bedroom house up to 1,300 square feet.

The four-bedroom house was designed to be 1,338 square feet, but the plan had to be scaled down to accommodate the 3D printer, which can produce a wall no longer than 39 feet.

All the houses may be 3D printed except the tiny houses, which will be stick-built, because their designs are too small to use with the 3D printer.

Each of the houses, except the tiny houses, will have two bathrooms. The average bedroom size in the 3D printed houses is 10 feet by 11 feet. The minimum bedroom width is nine feet and the maximum width is 13 feet.

Chris Thompson, of Virginia Housing, was among the many people Wise deemed invaluable to New Road’s 3D-printed home project.

She also expressed appreciation to Exmore, including Town Manager Robert Duer and Director of Utilities and Zoning Administrator Taylor Dukes, who volunteered the town’s services for the demolition of the old houses and cleanup of the site for construction.

Exmore has made a “tremendous” effort that will help keep the cost of the new homes affordable for Eastern Shore residents, Wise said.

The Eastern Shore Regional Housing Coalition will hold its annual summit Sept. 24, 10 a.m., at the Mary N. Smith Cultural Enrichment Center in Accomac.

The event will be attended by representatives of state and local housing organizations, Del. Rob Bloxom, and Sen. Lynwood Lewis. Gov. Ralph Northam has been invited to speak.

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