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James Dearsley: Enough about Purplebricks, let’s talk printing bricks

It has been a busy week for investment in PropTech businesses and no doubt you have already got reading fatigue about what this all means.

Recent investments involving OpenRent, Purplebricks, and Expert Agent are hugely important and the subsequent valuations of these businesses show what investors see as the long term validation of the models - right enough of that. 

Today, I want to focus on something completely different and talk about printing bricks rather than Purplebricks. 3D Printing in the real estate sector, is something I have discussed a lot over the years and offers something totally different for you - a little 'out there' but something hopefully interesting to read. 

We have a serious housing affordability issue here in the UK. At the worst, properties in Westminster have a price to average income ratio of nearly 28:1, whilst the average for the UK is around six times that of annual earnings. 

Compounding this issue, we need to double the amount of houses we build in the UK both for sale and for rent in order to meet demand. This has been an issue for over a decade now, with successive governments pledging to solve the crisis and not quite solving it.

And, in the Construction sector itself, there is another problem:

“The construction sector has long harboured concerns about access to the skilled workforce it needs to grow and compete. The recession saw a significant hollowing out of the construction workforce and we risk losing skills and experience as a large portion of the workforce nears retirement age. Businesses fear that the pipeline of diverse and able apprentices and STEM qualified graduates to support a sustained increase in housing supply is not currently in place.“ - CBI, Housing Britain: Building New Homes For Growth.

Clearly, something’s got to give. And, as usual, technology offers a solution, however far fetched it may seem initially. Could we live in 3D printed houses?

This video at the bottom of this piece shows the work of a new 3D printing machine Russian company Apis Cor. The machine was responsible for creating the first 3D printed residential building to be printed in one location, during the freezing Russian mid-winter. The house cost just over $10,000 to build, and was completed in 24 hours. This remarkable project demonstrates just how easy it could be for us to start meeting that critical housing demand in the UK with the help of 3D printing tech.

And on a rather far-out note (excuse the pun), NASA has announced plans to 3D print human habitats from Martian soil. That’ll come in handy if we run out of room down here! Though the fact is that only 10% of the UK is actually developed, so even if we pull our finger out and meet our housing demand, we’ll still have plenty of space in Britain, at least for a while.

Whichever way, I suppose I’m questioning a need for a more modern look at how we construct buildings, and our mentality as to how we do so. 

Thinking back to the Seedcamp conference that I recently moderated, “BuildTech: Innovation in Construction”, where we discussed other exciting tech, such as new materials, robot bricklayers, and the use of VR and AR in the Construction process. One of the issues that came up was that of Modular Construction. Matt Gough, of Mace Group, pinpointed why modular is a hot topic in industry offices right now:

“Focus is on improving productivity, efficiency and outcomes. All the investment we see in modular is in residential; it’s the basic economics of supply and demand.”

Of course, efficiency is at the heart of the issue here. Streamlining the process by any means necessary is what we need to drive Construction forward. And streamlining productivity, efficiency and outcomes is the central reason why humanity ‘does’ technology in the first place.

PropTech, therefore, is just part of a wider picture. Construction technology is coming, and will have a significant impact as we move forward. We need more houses in the UK, we need them quickly, and we need them cheaply. However far fetched it may sound, 3D printing could offer just one way to do this, especially as the technology is accelerating in adoption right now. 

But would you live in a 3D printed house? Answers on a postcard (or, preferably, a tweet!).

*James Dearsley is founder of the Digital Marketing Bureau and a PropTech communicator. To sign up to James’ Sunday PropTech Review, click here.

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