Advice and Opinion

3D printing – a sustainable housing solution for Africa

Noah Ibrahim, CEO of Novarick Homes.
Noah Ibrahim, CEO of Novarick Homes.

By Noah Ibrahim, CEO of Novarick Homes

Housing is one of the most basic needs and its availability is crucial. In Nigeria, housing is a critical component in the country’s social and economic framework. Access to affordable housing has largely remained an unrealized dream to the majority, especially the middle and lower class of society.

The challenge faced in the housing sector is largely associated with government negligence, ineffective housing policies, a failed housing financing system, unavailability or inadequate access to long-term mortgages, the high cost of acquiring land, fluctuations in the cost of building materials, high bureaucracy in town planning agencies for approvals and difficulties in obtaining government permits for the construction of housing estates.

The implication of these challenges is the reason for the increase in Nigeria’s housing deficit. Given these challenges are not new to developing countries, many countries have, however, devised a framework to tackle them and to ensure the development of their housing sector. One of the major solutions deployed is 3D printing housing technology in the construction of mass housing.

The term 3D printing refers to the production of physical objects layer-by-layer by an automated and usually computer-controlled machine. The machine, which is guided by digital 3D models, either melts metal or powdered solids or ejects liquid or semi-liquid materials. It is an additive process whereby layers of material are built up to create a 3D part.

3D printed houses are created using large 3D printers that, unlike smaller industrial units, can extrude concrete, plastic, or other building materials through nozzles, to gradually build up a 3D object the size of a house. 3D printing technology can be used for a lot of different things, from conceptual and prototype design to traditional manufacturing and even construction.

3D printing technology is usually associated with expensive and futuristic homes engineered using technology, this is, however, not the case. The low cost of printing 3D homes makes it a perfect technology for building affordable, yet durable houses at a phenomenal speed.

The Nigerian housing situation

According to a report by PwC, the housing deficit in Nigeria holds at over 17 million units, requiring about 700 000 units annually to address the shortfall. The country’s annual supply still stands at less than 100 000 units.

The implications are far-reaching, from driving up rental costs to drastically reducing the homeownership rate which currently stands at 25%, lower than that of Indonesia at 84%, Kenya at 73%, and South Africa at 56%.

The 2006 National Policy on Housing set a target of delivering one million housing units annually, promising land swap initiatives, affordable and mass housing schemes, and more accessible mortgage finance to ensure low and middle-income earners have access to safe, decent, and affordable housing. Many of these, though implemented, are yet to effectively address the status quo as Nigeria’s population growth rate of 2.7% easily offsets the current supply of 100 000 units. It is estimated that it will cost about US$363 billion to curb the current housing deficit.

3D printing as a solution in real estate

The problem faced in the housing sector can be remedied by 3D house printing technology. 3D printing not only reduces the cost of construction but also reduces construction waste to near-zero by optimizing the use of materials and preventing wastage without compromising the structural quality.

3D printing in construction also automates the construction processes delivering a unit in less than 70% of the time it would take to construct using conventional means, thereby saving laborious work, material waste, construction time, and risky operation for humans. 

Although other effective means of home construction are currently available such as pre-fabs, modular buildings, and container buildings are available, nothing beats the precision with which 3D printers construct homes.

The sustainability of 3D printing technology

3D printing creates houses that are both affordable and eco-friendly. The printers use sustainable materials like locally-sourced concrete mixtures or clay, thus, do not require the shipping of material from distant locations. Where houses need to be demolished, the materials are recyclable and can be used again in future construction.

3D printers use construction materials that provide natural cool or warm environments, reducing the need for heating and cooling appliances. Earthen constructions are naturally insulating, with little reliance on air conditioners or heaters.

3D printing technology also reduces the amount of waste generated in construction, even as improper disposal of construction waste remains a major issue in construction. The bamboo used for scaffolds, cement bags, broken blocks, wooden formworks, unused concrete, binding wires, broken tiles, and nails is usually disposed of improperly without careful consideration of neighboring residents or the environment. 3D printers use only materials that have been inserted into the printer, generating little or no waste as materials are layered to form living homes.

Generally, 3D printing technology offers a more sustainable solution to building houses. Following the United Nation’s drive to create a sustainable future with the release of the SDGs, countries around the world have begun adopting technologies to build sustainable cities and communities and 3D printing technologies is at the top of this list.

3D printing technology is not only efficient in building houses but can be adopted in the construction of schools, roads, hospitals, etc. at a fraction of the cost and time using conventional methods.

The challenges in the adoption of 3D printing in Nigeria

One of the major challenges in the adoption of 3D technology in construction in Nigeria is the erratic power supply. 3D printers rely on electricity to operate and some require constant power as even a brief shortage can result in a failed print. The unstable power could also damage the machine or shorten its lifespan.

Another challenge is the lack of technical know-how, market uncertainty, and adequate research to justify construction, which interprets in fear of constructing buildings that would not be purchased. As such, many developers are stuck with the conventional construction process.  

The way forward: the future of sustainable homes

3D printed homes are not the only technology that could disrupt the Nigerian real estate industry, container houses and modular building systems can also be effectively deployed to address the highlighted challenges of the housing industry. 

Due to the growing population, rapid urbanization, and high poverty rate in Nigeria, there is an urgent need for concerted efforts from relevant stakeholders to seek innovations to address the increasing housing deficit and a failure to address this could result in a high rate of slum creation and homelessness. 

3D printing as a solution can greatly impact the development of the industry, providing a permanent housing solution that is fast, safe, cost-effective, and poses zero threats to the environment.