Nidus3D in Kingston, Ontario is a trailblazer responding to the housing crisis. They’re 3D printing Canada’s first buildings using innovative technology to confront the country’s shrinking housing supply.
Ian Arthur, president and co-founder of nidus3d, spoke about his company and their story.
Please tell us about your project with Habitat for Humanity Windsor-Essex. Is it North America’s first multi-unit 3D printed home?
Yes. It was also the first residentially-permitted 3D building in Canada. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation contacted Habitat for Humanity Canada to investigate construction 3D printing technology. Habitat Canada worked with Habitat Windsor and the University of Windsor, who were doing a lot of work around 3D construction printing themselves.
Habitat for Humanity Windsor had originally contracted another company, but their technology wasn’t there yet. I got a cold call from Fiona Coughlin, the executive director and CEO of Habitat Windsor. She called us out of the blue and said, “I hear you guys have this printer, are you able to come print?”
The time frame was very ambitious, and we hadn’t planned on printing that soon. But when an opportunity for a partnership like that knocks at your door, you move mountains to make it happen.
It was ambitious, but doable. Habitat was very flexible and supportive. Obviously, our first project took a little longer than we thought, but we got there. It went incredibly well.
What were some of the challenges of the project?
The major challenge was that we inherited a design that was already in place and permitted. We had to start with this design versus what our printer could do and figure out how to execute that design.
We were very successful on this project. Our crew had gone through the process of using the printer setup in a warehouse but not in the field, so of course there were adjustments made. We moved the printer partway through the project and had two printer locations. We had to print components that would connect the two sides together. You need a bit of clearance on each edge — you can’t print right up against a previous print.
On a bigger scale, there have been some challenges stemming from the innate conservatism we have here in Canada. We tend to look South and let new technologies develop down there. When you are deploying new technology up here and are ahead of the curve, it can be difficult to get buy-in from other folks at the table. This wasn’t the case from Habitat of course, but from other interested parties.
You had a huge debut with this project. Please tell us about bursting on the scene with the newest tech?
We started this company to prove that this is a viable product – that 3D construction printing is a scalable and deployable technology with a strong business case behind it. We’ve had an extremely production-orientated approach to 3D printing with an ambition of rapidly scaling execution.
Our Habitat build in Leamington was the first single story multi-unit project. Our next project on Wolfe Island was the first two-storey 3D printed building in North America. We also think it might be the first two-storey building that was printed out of concrete in the world. Everyone else has been using mortar up until this point. And we went and executed another three-storey building in Kingston; we printed a basement and then two stories on top of that.
So in our first year, we didn’t want to limit it to one home. We aimed for three to four projects, all of them increasingly more complex than the last.
We want to see other companies come up and use this technology. We could get 100 of these printers working and still not make a dent in Canada’s housing shortfall. I’m very supportive of anyone trying to push the boundaries in the sector.
When we talk about other disruptive technologies — Airbnb, or Uber — I consider how they emerge on the scene, dazzle shareholders with their impressive growth in a sector, but then fall a little flat with unintended consequences. Are you worried this technology will hurt workers or put family businesses under?
I think there are a couple things at play here. I don’t think we have a choice but to introduce new technologies to the construction sector. We used to count on abacuses and now we use calculators and smartphones. We used to dig holes with shovels and now we use excavators, and there’s still tons of holes to dig.
We have an incredible shortfall of skilled tradespeople with a massive amount about to retire. We’re not graduating enough young people into the trades to replace them, let alone meet the increase in demand we’re going to experience in the future.
We need 1.5 million new homes in Ontario and four million homes across Canada in the next decade and we have no viable path to achieve that number with our current building approach.
Our economic recovery from COVID is heavily dependent on immigration and growing the economy through the additions of new Canadians, and they’re going to need places to live, increasing demand for housing even further.
I believe that 3D construction printing is one of the first technologies in a long time that could play a significant role in addressing these problems.
Look at the process problems we have in construction. We’ve complicated the build process to an incredible level. We build homes with hundreds of types of materials, thousands of different components, and tens of thousands of process steps. We’ve had huge material changes — spray foam insulation in place of batts, or, going further back, drywall instead of gypsum board or wet walls. Or, a more recent one — ICF — is ultimately a bigger brick, but it still has to be stacked. And it has not managed to achieve price equivalency with wood frame construction, in large part due to the labour costs required.
With 3D printing, we’re using fewer materials to accomplish more of the build. And that is why I think it’s transformative. I think we will absolutely see 3D printers perfect concrete work and move on to other types of printable materials that will work for housing. I think we’ll see insulation extruded by the machine rather than be a secondary subtrade that comes on site. I think it’ll expand, but will never accomplish 100 per cent of the build.
And so, we can’t say that 3D construction printing is going to be the one thing that solves all our housing problems. It’s not. But it’s a stepping stone, and a key transformative feature in contending with our housing crisis.
What are some key characteristics of your products and in what direction is nidus3D headed?
Our buildings are cost equivalent to other forms of masonry construction right now, like cement block or brick. But there’s huge potential for the prices to come down and be competitive with wood-frame construction. Once we design a home, we can execute that home again and again. This is where we really start to see this technology shine. Our soft costs are spread out over more and more buildings.
We’re aiming to print one storey per day by next summer. The speed of delivery will be phenomenal.
We can print through eight months of the year — about the same as a regular house framing crew. We can print through light rain but must pause during torrential downpours.
We use an accelerated concrete mix, so the lower layers are solid and set by the time we are printing the new layers with new weight above. It’s about 80 per cent science and 20 per cent art on that one but I’d say we’re getting pretty good at it.
We have about 20 employees and our recent profile has helped us gain a lot of valuable and interesting people. We have some young people who sought us out, we have engineers and other technicians who are in their mid-career, and we have some skilled tradespeople who are closer to the end of their career and have some trouble with some of the physicality that traditional construction requires. This is an opportunity for them to use their skills and share their vast accumulated knowledge with us.
The most exciting thing is how infinitely scalable this technology is. We’re in the process of scaling to neighbourhood-sized projects – small subdivisions that helps us achieve that repeatability that I mentioned. I’m not saying it all has to be cookie-cutter — you vary the rooflines and do what you do, but this is the scale we’re moving towards.
Our next project is 60 units across four buildings. Pretty exciting. And we’re looking at doing one to three dozen prints per location in the coming season. So, a 60-home subdivision would be our capacity next summer with the equipment we have. But, if we get the right contract, we just order more printers, train more people, and keep putting up houses as needed.