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3D printing could help address rising housing costs in Montana

This three-bedroom home in Williamsburg, VA is Habitat for Humanity's first-ever completed 3D printed house. The owner moved in Dec. 21, 2021.
Habitat for Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg
Habitat for Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg,
This three-bedroom home in Williamsburg, VA is Habitat for Humanity's first-ever completed 3D printed house. The owner moved in Dec. 21, 2021.

Low-income housing developers in Montana are looking for new ways to build homes as labor and building material prices skyrocket amid the pandemic.

Crews are drilling, cutting and installing sheet rock inside a home in East Missoula. They’re volunteering for Habitat for Humanity of Missoula, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing and shelter.

Heather Harp is the group's executive director.

“So for the last 30 years, we’ve been predominantly doing stick-built or wood-framed homes,” she says. “And we’ve done that because, well, we’re in the middle of timber country, right?”

But Harp says the old way of building needed to change as lumber prices soared.

The house volunteers are working on in East Missoula is part of the organization's first effort to build with insulated concrete forms. They look like giant white foam Legos that are stacked on each other. The blocks reduce the amount of wood used to build a house and are a test to keep building costs under $200,000.

“And more importantly, I think what it does is it gives us another arrow to add to our quiver, so we can do stick build, we can do [insulated concrete forms],” Harp says. 

According to the National Association of Home Builders, lumber prices in 2020 and early 2021 caused the average price of a new single-family home to increase about $30,000.

The construction industry also has felt the labor pinch. The state earlier this year launched a campaign to attract high school students to the construction industry.

Habitat for Humanity of Missoula is working with the University of Montana on a grant that could further efforts to rely less on wood and labor to build homes. They want to try 3D printing homes.

A family in Virginia recently moved into a home that Habitat for Humanity 3D printed there. The three-bedroom home is the organization’s first in the country. Another Habitat for Humanity in Arizona announced earlier this year it would also print a home in Tempe.

The process of 3D printing homes involves a large machine that guides a hose filled with concrete. The hose spits out thick layers of concrete rope which, when stacked on top of each other, form the walls of the house.

Jason Webb is the senior community and capacity building specialist at Grounded Solutions Network, which works across the country promoting affordable housing solutions. He says these methods of building could help boost the number of available homes at a price point more people can afford.

“Some of these alternative building materials literally come in and can cut 20% to 30% of the cost. Why wouldn’t you want to entertain them?”

He says shipping containers, modular construction and super insulated panels typically used for tall skyscrapers are also being used to build homes.

“We are continuing to be pushed on to stop thinking inside of the box but continue to think outside of the box as to, how do we bring materials that will ultimately solve the problem and that is not having enough affordable housing,” Webb says.

In a recent presentation to Montana lawmakers, the Pew Charitable Trusts said housing construction in the state hasn’t kept pace with population growth. The population increased 10% in the past decade, while new houses saw a 7% growth during the same period. That low supply of housing is one reason why prices are so high.

In Bozeman, the Human Resource Development Council is trying to cut down on costs by building smaller.

Associate Director and Community Development Director Tracy Menuez says tiny homes are easy to build and replicate and don’t use as much material.

“So this is a way to provide a detached home product to smaller households with less income. And that certainly is a way to do that more affordably.”

Back in East Missoula, Harp says it typically takes about a year to build a home. She says 3D printing a home can cut that time significantly.

“So when I think about our housing crisis and how many homes we are missing, how can we bring more of those online quicker? Printing can be one of those solutions that can get us more homes faster and for less cost,” Harp says.

Printing homes may take some time to land in Montana. In the meantime, local and state governments here continue to search for solutions to the housing shortage made more complicated by the cost of building.

Freddy Monares was a reporter and Morning Edition host at Montana Public Radio.
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