Ian Comishin was scrolling through the internet when a video he describes as clickbait caught his eye.
The video pitched using 3D printers to make homes, but no one involved appeared to know what they were doing.
“They were building these janky things that really looked like they’re taking small desktop printers and just trying to make them bigger and bigger and bigger,” says Comishin.
Comishin thought he could improve on the idea. He had experience in automation, having just sold a company that made wind turbine blades, and was on the hunt for a new project.
In 2018, Comishin co-founded Twente Additive Manufacturing (TAM) with five others in The Netherlands, and a year later relocated to the Kootenays where he was born and raised. In the small community of Procter east of Nelson, Comishin and his employees have just completed TAM’s first home built using a 3D printer of its own design called the Fibonacci House.
TAM isn’t the first North American company to build a home using a 3D printer — that honour belongs to Texas-based ICON. But it is the first Canadian company to develop the technology, which uses custom concrete mixes to build hollow walls that can be then filled in with insulation.
The process is also fast. The printer builds walls like a baker puts icing on a cake, with the mix coming out of a nozzle as it runs back and forth, gradually building layers. For the 300-square-foot Fibonacci House, Comishin says the printing took five days, followed by eight-to-10 days of laying the pieces down.
“One of the things that is nice about 3D printing is that, once we do have a really functional build design, you can print that same thing in Africa, or in South America, or the Northwest Territories for the exact same effort it is to print it here,” says Comishin.
“It really is set the machine up, push play. That’s going to be a great enabler for this technology.”
It’s tech that a Canadian charity hopes will bring affordable housing around the world.
Vancouver-based World Housing, which has built affordable housing in seven different countries since 2013, has partnered with TAM to print five approximately 975-square-foot homes in Procter that will be provided to single mothers in need.
If the project is a success, World Housing plans to use the same model in remote communities where managing director Don McQuaid says a 3D printer would help overcome barriers to construction such as transportation and short building seasons.
“We think that machine and two operators and the right support on the ground there could reduce the cost dramatically,” says McQuaid. “The technology’s yet to prove itself out in that sense, but that’s got to be where it’s going.”
Although TAM is exploring markets in the Middle East and Europe, Comishin wants to see houses built with his printer closer to home.
The lack of affordable housing is a pressing issue in Nelson, which had a 0.5 per cent vacancy rate in 2020. It’s also a problem throughout B.C., where the provincial government is investing $2 billion in middle-income households. The federal government has also announced $2.4 billion over five years to be spent on increasing housing supply in Canada.
“There’s so many studies out there that show how a safe living space contributes to almost everything else in people’s lives …,” says Comishin. “Whatever path to success that they’re trying to follow, it’s easier to walk when they’ve got like a safe, healthy environment to go to sleep in every night.”
But there’s still kinks to be worked out.
Comishin said Fibonacci House was printed to have no right angles, but the lack of straight lines in the home made it difficult for other trades to work in. And even though the house was printed relatively fast, it took over a year to complete while TAM waited on contractors to visit the site.
Part of the problem, Comishin said, is the construction industry, which is slow to adopt new techniques and is limited by slow updates to building codes.
“There’s this multi-thousand-year-long process of house building that’s been going on. It’s just been very slowly changing over time,” says Comishin.
“Any kind of disruptive technologies like this doesn’t immediately stand out as being something that these guys will jump into.”
For now, the Fibonacci House is finished and being used as an Airbnb, with proceeds being used to fund the next five homes. Comishin said he hopes that development breaks ground this year.
One day, he believes, 3D printers will be as common on construction sites as excavators.
“Everyone’s going to have one of these things.”
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