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How Community Developers Are Using Alternative Construction Methods

Lynn McAteer is accustomed to building housing the old-fashioned way. As vice president for planning and evaluations at the Better Housing Coalition, McAteer is helping to shepherd some 600 units of new low-income housing onto the market in Richmond, Virginia, adding to the roughly 1,600 units the group already manages. Though the Better Housing Coalition mostly does multifamily development, it has also built around 225 single-family homes, primarily sold to single people earning around 80 percent of area median income.Lately, with construction costs continually escalating, McAteer says it’s been almost impossible to build a house for less than $300,000, requiring ever-greater subsidies to get income-limited people into new homes. So last year, when the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech approached the Better Housing Coalition about building a house with a 3D printer as part of an effort to test out potentially cost-saving building technologies, McAteer was intrigued.

“I had never seen one before,” McAteer says, “and it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this thing is an industrial-size pastry bag.’” The center used a $500,000 grant from the Virginia Housing Development Authority and partnered with Alquist, a 3D printing company based in Iowa, to fabricate a 1,550-square-foot, single-story concrete house—the first 3D-printed home in Virginia. The house was built on a large corner lot in South Richmond, necessarily outside of the densest parts of the city so the 3D printer, which requires 15 feet of buffer space on each side of the 39-foot-square footprint of the home, had room to operate.

Around the country, community developers are experimenting with alternative construction methods that many advocates hope will reduce the cost of housing and make new supply more affordable to more people. Some of these technologies, including 3D printing, remain in their infancy, and even better-tested methods like modular prefabrication—where the primary structures of a building are built in a factory offsite—have yet to show widely applicable cost-cutting results. But community developers continue to try out new technologies and processes, often as much out of a sense of responsibility to help put potential solutions to the test as in hopes of saving money on any given development.

In Richmond, for example, even before the construction process could begin, the Virginia Center for Housing Research had to pay out $370,000 to acquire the printer from a supplier in Denmark, according to an Associated Press report. But the 3D-printed house is the subject of an ongoing academic study by the center. McAteer says they’re hoping to show that the costs for a typical project could come in below $200,000 and that the house could sell for around $220,000.

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