With cutting-edge technologies revolutionising the way people erect structures in various parts of the world, EDIDIONG IKPOTO looks at 3D-printed construction and its incursion in the Nigerian real estate ecosystem

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

With the country’s construction industry grappling with uncertainty due to a lack of skilled workers, increased costs, global housing shortage and a drastically eroding consumer spending power, the introduction of 3D construction would make the difference.

According to experts, the process of constructing 3D-printed homes offers significant potential to increase efficiency and productivity. This is because it offers a high degree of planning reliability from the start, which lowers the chances of design errors and worker injuries, and requires low coordination and monitoring efforts. This reduces construction time drastically and lowers costs.

Construction Think Tank, DesignWanted, in a report on the efficiency of the technology said its process minimises material use; utilises natural, organic or recycled materials; generates less waste; decreases transportation needs as well as reduces carbon footprint.

In simple terms, 3D construction 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”.

Three-dimensional shapes are at first designed through a computer-controlled process without the use of formwork.

Skilfully utilising a large printing machine, concrete or other materials from soil to mortar, special polymers or recycled and other plastics are extruded layer-by-layer to then effortlessly form foundations, walls, columns, stairs as well as other building elements.

Since this system is portable, it is perfectly suitable for off-site, prefabricated production and in-situ application – eliminating the need for frequent relocation and calibration.

3D-printed homes have made inroads into the construction space due to the recent greater demand for homes and increased costs of construction materials. For a country like Nigeria with a housing deficit of over 20 million, experts believe this technology could be a game changer.

The cost to create this type of construction is relatively less and only requires one person to stay on-site and monitor the process unfold and ensure the apparatus runs properly by building a foundation and the walls.

The deployment of 3D printed construction also saves much time compared to the conventional construction process. According to experts, building an average-sized 3-bedroom bungalow using this system of construction would take approximately four to six months.

In fact, with a commercial 3D printer doing the work, it is estimated that building the structure could take about 24 hours provided the contractors have the complete doors, roof, windows, etc. Finishing the process at this instance will not take longer than weeks.

In some parts of the world, this form of construction has gained increasing traction because of its efficiency with regard to cost and timeline for construction and for its benefits to the environment, particularly at a time of global action towards climate change and its attendant effects.

In the United Arab Emirates, there is an ongoing plan to build 25 per cent of new buildings via 3D printing by 2030 with Apis Cor, a Russian company, using 3D printing technology to construct 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 constructed 4BR home printed for 170,000 Francs.

Speaking recently in Lagos during a technology fair organised by Zenith Bank, Australian futurist, Brett King said 3D printed homes would gain increasing currency before 2030, and that industry players in Nigeria and other developing countries who do not lean towards this paradigm shift would be left behind.

He said, “Homelessness is another thing that will allow us to solve some problems. With just three or four thousand dollars, we can print a 3D home for a family, and this can solve the problem of homelessness. For instance, 30 million Americans are facing eviction right now because of inflation and increasing rent prices.

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

In an earlier interview with Jennifer Tescher, President and Chief Executive Officer Financial of Health Network, the futurist said, “Well, I do think economics here can be a strong argument. So, we take the homelessness situation. The average policing and social cost to a homeless person on the streets of San Francisco is about $35,000 a year. It is demonstrably much cheaper to put people in government-subsidised housing than it is. We can 3D print a new home today for three or $4,000. Now, the administrative costs around that are probably going to result in obviously much greater costs, but there’s a very strong economic incentive not to have people homeless, not to have people sick and so forth.

And that’s where the automation comes in is that if we can improve the application of technology, then those decisions become very simple. But it comes back to philosophy. What’s the economy for? If the economy isn’t there to look after the citizens, what is it for? And that’s 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 Nigeria has yet to get a grip on the technology and expertise required for 3D construction.

Awobudu was also optimistic that with the bold attempts made by some top Nigerian construction outfits, it wouldn’t take long before the technology gets increased traction within the country’s real estate ecosystem.

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

“In fact, I established a partnership with a company that was doing it regularly in the US. My company tried to establish a partnership but Covid-19 disrupted that arrangement. So, it’s not yet a system that is popular here.”

In the same vein, the CEO of Global Property and Facilities International Ltd, MKO Balogun, expressed optimism that before the end of the year, 3D-printed homes would establish a firm presence in Nigeria’s real estate market.

According to him, the critical components of efficiency and timeline involved in printing a 3D home will ultimately trigger increased attention from developers and prospective home buyers looking to navigate through the present economic crunch.

He said, “It has been on for a long time. It’s not been fully explored here but it’s something that will happen. We’ve exploited container homes. So, definitely yes. I’m sure we will explore it. It’s faster and more than cheaper. People who are doing multiple estate development 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 question of building up capacity and setting up the necessary structures to enable property developers to explore the technology.

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 capacity to do it. They want to be sure they also have the technology to sustain it. With every new idea, that’s what happens.

“I’m very sure we will explore the technology eventually because proptech is already on the high end in Nigeria. So, technology is already driving a lot in the property sector. I’m sure before the end of this year, you will see exhibitions and conferences where the concept is displayed for people to see how it works and that’s what always happens.”

So far, within the Nigerian construction ecosystem, Lafarge Africa Plc is the only known company to have attempted the deployment of 3D-printed construction. While speaking exclusively with The PUNCH, the company’s Head Mortar, Innovation and New Product Development, Femi Yusuff, noted that even though they are not built via the time-proven conventional building process, 3D-printed homes, beyond the apparent advantages of reduced cost and accelerated timeline, offer an added advantage in durability.

He said, “The normal practice is to build onsite. If you are building a 2-bedroom flat, your blocks work. For 3D printing, the walls you are printing are actually much stronger. So, the walls can even be used as load bearing, despite the fact that they are used as a non-load bearing. They are lightweight concrete but are much stronger compared to the blocks we are using today. So, if you use 3D printing, it is going to be more durable than the conventional construction practice.”

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

He added, “The technology has two parts to it. The first is printing because you need the materials to print on your foundation. So, the first challenge is for us to be able to print this in Nigeria. That took us about a year to achieve. The second part is that after producing the material, the next step is how to make sure that we consistently produce such that the required standards are achieved, 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?”