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Bio-based, 3D-printed tiny house offers solutions to Maine’s housing crisis

BioHome3D, the first 3D-printed home made entirely of organic, renewable materials, was unveiled on Nov. 21 at the University of Maine’s Orono campus.MJ Gautrau, University of Maine

How do you create lots of affordable housing with limited materials, labor, and other resources? One group of researchers at the University of Maine has come up with a proposed solution: hook up a 3D printer.

The United States faces rising rents and housing shortages, intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Maine has its own unique, overlapping challenges: The state needs another estimated 20,000 homes to meet the current demand for low-income housing. It also has the oldest average population in the nation, with a median age of 44.7, an issue that exacerbates the state’s labor shortage. With pandemic-related supply chain issues and rising costs of raw materials, the already-expensive housing market has surged.

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Enter BioHome3D, the first 3D-printed home made entirely of organic, renewable materials.

The home's interior contains an open-concept kitchen, living, and dining area with grooved wooden walls and tall windows.MJ Gautrau, University of Maine

The prototype, which was created by the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, has been in the works for three years, according to founding director Habib Dagher. It is 600 square feet in total, with a modern, unvaulted barrel roof, and a wide front porch with white shiplap exterior walls. The interior contains an open-concept kitchen, living, and dining area with grooved wooden walls and tall windows. The single bedroom doubles as an office, and a tiled bathroom completes the space.

The materials used to manufacture the 3D-printed home also help address another issue in Maine: the shuttering of several pulp and paper mills that once processed residual sawdust and other byproducts from local sawmills.

“In our region, there’s an estimated 1,000 tons of biomass residuals every year that’s being generated right now,” Dagher said. “We asked ourselves, could we print a home with that material?” The answer, thus far, has been yes.

The home's single bedroom doubles as an office, and a tiled bathroom completes the space.MJ Gautrau, University of Maine

The prototype, which was unveiled Nov. 21 at the University of Maine’s Orono campus, is now undergoing tests to see how the building fares during Maine’s harsh winters. Different samples of the materials used have been shipped as far as Brazil to ensure that the structure can withstand humid climates.

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Though BioHome3D has only been in the works for three years, Dagher’s lab is building on over two decades of research into using biomaterials to create sound structures. Though Dagher’s lab is not the first to 3D print a house, they are the first to use a 3D printer to create the entirety of the structure, as well as the first to use environmentally friendly and reusable materials.

“The walls, the floor, the roof are all bio-based, and it’s 100 percent recyclable,” Dagher said. “If our children, 200 years from now, don’t want that house anymore, we can pick it up, grind it up again, and print something else with it.”

While there are certain drawbacks to using engineered materials over natural ones — fire safety being one — Dagher said the homes have displayed an added durability throughout different climates, as well as increased resistance to termites.

“The house that we built meets all building requirements, whether it’s structural, or fire or toxicity,” he explained. “That’s the goal for any building that we have. Are there challenges to get there? Yes, because these materials are new. But the good news is we have 20 years of experience working with these materials, and we’ve learned a lot about what they can do and can’t do.”

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The homes are designed using modular construction, meaning that individual rooms are manufactured indoors and driven to the construction site, where they can be quickly assembled. Dagher hopes that this method will help cut down on construction time, as builders will not be as impacted by weather conditions.

As the project is still in the testing phase, there aren’t yet definitive estimates for how many people will be needed to construct the homes, or how much each tiny house will cost to manufacture. However, Dagher said the use of sustainable materials and the ability to 3D print the structure “really changes the game in terms of how we think of housing content and how we think of construction.”

Though the research process is far from over, “we’ve learned a lot,” he said. “We’ve learned what not to do, as well as what to do, and the learning has not ended.”

The lab’s next steps are to build a manufacturing plant (which Dagher affectionately nicknamed the “factory of the future”) to be able to produce the homes en mass. Once the factory is up and running, they hope to be able to 3D print a home within 48 hours, and move on to larger projects like housing developments.

“There’s a lot of potential not only to solve a crisis in Maine, but to assist in a solution to the housing crisis nationally as well,” he said.


Maya Homan can be reached at maya.homan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @MayaHoman.