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Posted: May 20, 2014

The futurist: Disposable houses

Disruptive technology and real estate's future

Thomas Frey

When it comes to doing something first, and winning the technology race, there are typically no official forms to fill out, no rulebooks, no judges and certainly no deadlines.

In fact, when it came to using 3D printers to print an entire house, a process known as contour crafting, only a small number of people actually knew how important this race really was.

During the past few years, I watched as several groups worked feverishly to have their names emblazoned in the annuls of history, but I was surprised when an unknown company in Shanghai, China claimed victory using an alternative approach I hadn’t even considered.

While other groups were preparing to print their houses on location, the Chinese team came up with a modular approach, printing all of the components inside a large factory, and transporting and assembling the houses at their final destination.

With this approach, the WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Company not only printed a house in a day, they completed 10 houses in a single day using a massive printer that was 490 feet long, 33 feet wide, and 20 feet deep. 

The ‘ink’ used was made of recycled construction materials, industrial waste and tailings, and according to Architect’s Newspaper, each of these homes cost around $4,800. 

No, they’re not ornate mansions with lots of decorative trim. Some would even say they’re ugly. But they represent the first of an entirely new wave of housing – inexpensive, durable home that can be produced in only a few hours for very little money. This process is perfect for fabricating homes for the poor and homeless, a major issue in China, as well as virtually every other nation on earth.

Ugly or not, WinSun won the first phase of this undeclared competition, and is now putting together plans to build 100 factories in China to “collect and transform” construction waste into aggregate for its machines.

The most important feature, at least in my mind, is that these houses can just as easily be ground up a second, third, or fourth time, and be reprinted as an entirely new home. They are, in fact, disposable houses that will fit very well with the nomadic lifestyles of future generations.

Here’s why this will be such a massively disruptive technology.

WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Company 

In a recent interview, WinSun’s CEO Ma Yihe said that he has been working on this concept for the past 10 years, and his company currently owns 77 national patents on construction materials, such as fiber reinforced gypsum and special fiber glass cement. 

The houses were not the first buildings printed though. WinSun also printed its own headquarters building, a 10,000 sq meter facility that was printed a few months earlier and took 30 days to create

Like other 3D printers, WinSun’s contour crafting machine carefully extrudes its fast-drying material one layer at a time.

Even though some view this as a somewhat sloppy process with rough uneven surfaces, the end result is a textured wall with its own brand of character.

Future Houses

The houses built in China are in stark contrast to a project going on in Amsterdam, where a crew has begun work on a project that aims to print an entire 13 room house, including some of the furniture—all in one fell swoop. The timetable is three years and the finished product will likely wind up costing millions.

The thinking in China is that with a little refinement, future houses may be printed in less than an hour, reducing labor costs to almost nothing. 

With a little engineering work, everything from fixtures, cabinetry, plumbing, electricity, and heating/air conditioning can be modularized and rapidly installed into houses much like the Plug-n-Play hardware systems of the of the PC era.

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Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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