With a steady uptick in global carbon emissions and the potential for climate refugees displaced due to rising water levels, there’s a rather urgent need for alternative living arrangements. That means a new-age method of construction that can mass produce buildings compatible in non-traditional locations – like on the water, in the desert, above skyscrapers – or even on another planet.

As mentioned in a recent Cool Material article, “we may be looking at relocating sooner than later.” NASA’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge brings together experts in the fields of engineering, science, and construction for one specific goal: to incorporate 3D printing innovation in the building of sustainable habitats in challenging environments.

“3D printing decreases production times by between 50-70%”

Already being used in China to mass produce apartment complexes, 3D printing technology is poised to change the way people think about housing and construction. According to Chinese technology company WinSun, who printed 10 houses in 24 hours using a proprietary 3D printer created by Ma Yihe, “3D printing saves 30-60% of the construction waste and reduce labor costs by between 50-80%.” Even more impressive, 3D printing can decrease production times by between 50-70%. This could be instrumental in speeding up the construction process for climate refugees.

Environmentally-Forward Construction Method

Using Ma’s technology and an oversized 3D printer (20′ x 33′ x 132′), WinSun’s facility was able to prefabricate an 11,840 square foot five-story apartment building at Suzhou Industrial Park located in East China. According to a Xinhua news article, WinSun is able to print a house in a couple of months “using ground construction and industrial waste, such as glass and tailings, around a base of quick-drying cement mixed with a special hardening agent.”

Described “much like how a baker might make a cake,” a CAD design template and computer is used to control the 3D printer’s arm while it creates layers and layers of concrete in whatever pattern you program. Ma’s printer is a quick way of constructing buildings using templates and at the same time, decreasing the need for quarried stone and other materials. The end result: a groundbreaking construction method that is eco-friendly and cost effective.

Winner of NASA’s Printed Habitat Challenge

The $25K challenge went to SEArch (Space Exploration Architecture) and Clouds AO (Clouds Architecture Office), an architecture and space research collective. Armed with eight designers and 14 leading space-related subject matter experts (SME’s), SEArch used a “follow the water” approach to creating its 3D inflatable dome prototype called ICE HOUSE.

Designed to protect humans from cosmic and solar radiation, ICE HOUSE “was born from the imperative to bring light and a connection to the outdoors into the vocabulary of Martian architecture,” according to Cool Hunting. SEArch’s ICE HOUSE stood out from the 162 participants mostly because it “mined the anticipated abundance of subsurface ice in the northern regions to create a thin vertical ice shell capable of protecting the interim habitat from radiation while celebrating life above.”

3D Printing in Consumer Technology

3D image printing, whether it’s the Artec Space Spider or the Formlab Form 2, has certainly advanced over the past few years. Designed specifically for the International Space Station, the Artec Space Spider is the fastest, most reliable precision 3D scanner on the market today. The Form 2 is the printer focused on quality of the print and results are incredible compared to other 3D printers. This printer is one of the fastest SLA printers on the market.

SEArch’s 3D printed scale model of ICE HOUSE is considered rather disruptive for the industry. By experimenting with 3D ice prototyping, the team of innovative SME’s “redefined traditional methods by relying on the physics of phase transition between solid and vapor states.”

NASA’s competition is more than just crowning a winner for their fictional Mars ICE HOUSE. It’s a way to bring together the greatest minds in 3D printing. With China already using 3D printing to construct apartment complexes in less than a month, there’s really no reason we could use the technology to prefabricate eco-friendly habitats for those displace by our inevitable climate crisis.