We're going to see increasing news about house printing in the next couple of years. This, and the recent news about the 3D printed canal house in Amsterdam ( http://3dprintcanalhouse.com/ ) are the trickle ahead of an imminent flash flood. But there are two critical obstacles for this technology; the scale of systems and cultural resistance imposed by the real estate and finance industries.
This is successfully demonstrating that there are at-hand applications that justify the development of large format 3D printing systems, and we are going to to see an increasing number of such systems in the immediate future. But as long as there is a high capital investment for these machines and they remain large in scale the technology will be subject to a certain Catch-22. That high cost will preclude application of printed housing in the low-income markets where it has the most potential impact. It will be limited to use in the industrialized world and higher-end housing markets. But, at the same time, there is no interest in disruptive innovation in the mainstream housing market.
All across the 20th century designers and inventors sought to revolutionize housing and overcome the problems of homelessness and substandard construction, usually through industrializing production in some fashion. Thousands of innovations were explored, and almost all of them failed, sometimes because the innovations demanded too large a speculative investment in production for industrialists to stomach, sometimes because proprietary technology doesn't make a safe investment in a world of short-lived companies, but chiefly because the housing market resists design and technology that is disruptive in any way.
Mainstream housing is deliberately intended to be as inefficient and expensive as possible in order that it support a perpetual ingression of labor into real estate value through perpetually recycled debt. This depends on the fact that, in most of the world, the value of property and housing are allowed to be interdependent based on the totally nonsensical presumption of 'permanent' construction as an 'improvement' to land. This is why, in a stable market, you can magically increase the net value of property by around 20% simply by building a house on it and property values perpetually increase with the generational recycling of mortgage debt. There's no logical basis for this. It's a cultural convention that persists because it suits the interests of the finance industry (when they all play by the same rules...) and allows banks to sell mortgages as 'investments' rather than what they really are--life-long debt. But at the same time it must moderate that market growth--apparent gentrification--by limiting divergence in appearance so as to not compel bureaucrats to increase property taxes too frequently, which drags value growth. This is why suburban housing is so self-similar and why racism and classism is such a common aspect of suburban communities. Housing always has to 'fit the neighborhood' to maintain the regional market status quo--and that goes for the people living in it as well. It can't be too different so as to seem too poor, too rich, or too strange.
There were very few ways to industrialize the production of housing--either by prefabrication or modularization--that didn't fundamentally break the connection between property and housing value while, simultaneously, visually telegraphing the disruption they represented through overtly different design. This was especially damaging if such housing was specifically intended for low-income residents and thus became associated with a particular economic class. That was guaranteed to see it damned from the presence of suburbia--as happened to the mobile home. This is why organizations like Habitat for Humanity focus less on housing that is efficient by design--as one would logically expect--and instead focus on insuring low-cost housing is sufficiently class-camouflaged to allow it to co-exist in conventional suburbs. This is not only critical to the existence of the housing but also the ability of its residents to climb out of poverty. Where you are allowed to live determines your job prospects in this culture.
And this is also the reason why what few disruptive innovations in housing did manage to persist still ended up being damned architecture relegated to use by maverick owner-builders on the edge-of-wilderness. That's where most of the Modernist housing ended up, along with the kit houses, the geodesic domes, the Futuros and Venturos and other high-tech prefabs, the Earthships, the straw bale and cob cottages, and other green housing, the cargotecture, the free-form organic designs, and every other disruptive innovation in design or building technology that was barred from co-existence in suburbia. And this is where the 3D printed house is destined to end up, even if its technology can prove sustainable at modest enough scale to allow its persistent use by owner-builders.
The only hope for mainstream use of this technology rests in it being made invisible because the only innovations in housing technology that survived in mainstream housing were those that could be kept hidden behind the sheet-rock and introduced chiefly by mass housing developers. And most of that was about materials as the lumber industry coped with over-exploited timber sources through a trend of using source lumber in increasingly basic forms. Timber to stick framing to engineered lumber products to Structural Insulated Panels. Plaster and lathe to sheetrock to composite boards. Clapboard siding to aluminum and vinyl siding, to fiber-cement panel. We mock the quaintness of the retrofuturist Monsanto plastic House Of Tomorrow that once sat in Disneyland, but those designers were right on the money as housing is in a long-term trend of evolution toward a kind of high-tech Papier Mâché, and ultimately plastic. We don't notice or care because it's all kept hidden behind the sheet-rock. Where the House of Tomorrow got it wrong was industrialized production.
The key for 3D printing may be in the development of panelized building systems based on modular geodetic microlattice structures made of recycled materials that can, literally, be hidden behind conventional finishing materials and thus enable visually indistinguishable housing design. And we are seeing the emergence of recycled printable wood materials that would fit this bill. But this isn't what we expect from this technology. We expect it to enable new kinds of architecture not possible before--organic designs without the hassle of hand-scultped ferro-cement. And that will never co-exist.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out--particularly in terms of just how long our weird economic culture and its delusion of building permanence can hold out against current trends and advancing technology. I'm personally very excited by this technology and the potential empowerment for the owner-builder it may offer if system scales can be reduced. But I'm not hopeful for its mainstream application. That will take much more than technology.