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UMaine unveils first 3D-printed home in a bid to mass-produce affordable housing

Nicole Ogrysko
Maine Public
The University of Maine unveiled the first, bio-based 3D printed home at a ribbon-cutting celebration on the Orono campus Nov. 21, 2022.

Researchers at the University of Maine on Monday unveiled what they say is a promising, climate-friendly response to the nation's affordable housing crisis: the world's first, bio-based 3D printed home.

University, state and federal officials joined Maine Gov. Janet Mills and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins at a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the 600-square-foot-home.

"We are pleased to unveil the first 3D printed home, made of.... bio-stuff," Mills joked, as a large black cover was lifted, revealing the one-story house.

On the outside, this home looks like any other new construction. It has white siding and black trim around four front windows. The only difference is that the roof is curved, and the corners of the home are rounded.

Inside, a short hallway leads to a titled bathroom and furnished bedroom. Another doorway leads to small living area and open kitchen with all the appliances.

The entire house, from the ceiling to the walls, has been printed with the university's 3D printer.

Some of the walls have been painted; others are sheet-rocked. Some of the floors are tiled or covered in laminate flooring.

But as they were printed, the walls and ceiling offer an indication that something about this home is different.

"This was printed at 90 degrees, so from the back of the house to the front of the house is a series of lines going along the roof and down the wall, about a quarter of an inch apart," Tomlinson said from the living room. "So it looks like you're in this beaded ceiling wall combination."

Nicole Ogrysko
Maine Public
The roof, walls and floor of this house were made using the University of Maine's 3D printer.

The home has been printed using a material known as wood flour. It's essentially the waste left over from a sawmill — and mixed together with a binder made from corn.

"There's 1.2 million tons of wood residuals in our sawmills right now in the region that could go to print housing," Habib Dagher, executive director of the university's Advanced Structures and Composites Center, told the crowd gathered inside the large lab space.

The center has spent years experimenting on the material with help and funding from U.S. Department of Energy and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Dagher said the material presents a potential business opportunity for Maine's forest products industry, and it could serve as an inexpensive, renewable and recyclable building material.

Nicole Ogrysko
Maine Public
The entire home was printed using a material known as wood flour, the residuals left over from sawmills, mixed with a binder made from corn.

The next step is to scale up the printing process.

The goal, Dagher said, is to print one of these homes within two days.

Maine is short about 20,000 units of affordable housing for low-income households. And while money has flooded into the state for construction, progress has been slow with supply chain challenges and a limited workforce to build new units.

But Dan Brennan, executive director of MaineHousing, says this project could achieve what's previously alluded the state so far — speed.

"We all know of our labor force challenges, and that is not going to go away," he said. "The idea that we can create housing units in a fraction of the time with a fraction of the workforce adds an efficiency that we've never experienced before."

Dagher said the lab is a long way away from producing 3D printed homes at a mass scale. This first prototype will sit outside for several months, and sensors will collect information about the impact of the cold, snow — and eventually heat and humidity — on the house.

After her tour of the 3D printed home, Gov. Janet Mills said she believes these houses will put Maine on the map.

Nicole Ogrysko
Maine Public
Officials from the University of Maine, the U.S. Department of Energy and MaineHousing joined Gov. Janet Mills and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the first-ever, bio-based 3D printed home.

"It's extraordinary. I didn't know what to expect," she said. "I thought maybe some hunk of clay kind of looking thing, but this is a real house."

It could be another tool to address Maine's housing crisis, she added.

"This has the potential to help us with the homeless population, the homeless problem. Not this winter, because it's not ready to be mass produced yet," Mills said. "But once we get our factory of the future up and running, we will be able to produce homes of this sort."

University officials say an expansion of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center is in the works. The addition will serve as a training ground for the next generation of scientists and engineers. And it could allow the university to print more homes, more quickly.