Main image: Inside the 3D-printed home, including space for 6 rooms.

Social housing in South Africa and the massive backlog are one of the biggest issues that the government is facing. There are not enough houses being built, ongoing projects take too long to complete and budget constraints are all obstacles to the development of social housing.

Challenge addressed

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) are collaborating on a programme that demonstrates how 3D printing could transform and revolutionise housing in South Africa.

Keeping in mind that the government struggles to build one three-room RDP house in a week, students from UJ showed the possibility of building a six-room house in only one day.

Government’s promises

With the fast-changing pace of technology, it is a very valid question: Why is the government’s progress on the housing challenge at such a slow pace? Keep in mind that RDP houses were a promise from the government as part of its redistribution of resources initiative when South Africa became a democracy. Many people have been waiting for their homes for many years. But are these printed homes a solution?

3D printing as transformative technology

The UJ website states: “The DSI embarked on a programme for the piloting and demonstration of 3D printing additive technologies for sustainable human settlements in South Africa. The DSI has identified 3D printing as a transformative technology that has the potential to revolutionise housing delivery in the country.”

One of the biggest advantages of directly tackling the main issue at hand is time. 3D printing is a much quicker way to erect a house using this technology than the conventional methods, such as the brick-and-mortar method.

A 3D printed home nearly completed.

Tackling the time issue

Depending on the type of 3D printing system that is used and the thickness of the wall, it can take as little as five hours to print a whole house. The disadvantage obviously is that it reduces local labour employment and the contribution to the local economy. Considering factors such as time and cost, 3D printing technologies, as an alternative method, promise to deliver a facility quicker, with a better quality of finish at a lower construction cost.

Early stages of development

The future of 3D printing in South Africa is still in its early stages. With UJ building a six-room RDP house in one day using a 3D printer, the future of housing may change.

UJ vice-chancellor, Tshilidzi Marwala, said: “This 3D printer at the University of Johannesburg is fast. If we invest in this technology, we can provide our people with decent housing fast and end informality.”

Reduction in construction costs

The technology produces a real structure quickly, with wood used only for the windows and a door. Corrugated iron or any other cheap material could be used to build a roof, which will be ideal budget-wise, but also considering insulation and weather protection.

According to UJ, via a cost analysis from a quantity surveyor, the 3D printed wall plates and blockwork used to create the structure cost about 32% less than conventional building materials, leaving the remainder of the funds to build more structures or reinforce existing ones. 3D printed homes are usually made using a mixture of concrete, fibre, sand, and other geopolymers, according to an online guide published by Ohio University. Some projects have seen the construction of homes using biodegradable materials such as mud, soul, straw and risk husks.

The main problem with using this technique is access to the technology, as the construction supplies themselves are relatively cheap. Large-scale concrete 3D printing machines can cost from $4 000 and more per unit, which could be the main blockage to the technique becoming widespread.

Full credit goes to, Vusi Adonis,, Denika Herbst,, Luis Monzon and for the information in this editorial.

Images courtesy of Tshilidzi Marwala, vice-chancellor and principal at the University of Johannesburg.

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