3D-printed steel future for B.C. home construction?
LifeTec founder and president Krishna Jolliffe said 3D-printed steel’s advantages over wood include durability, resistance to mould and warping, environmental friendliness and shorter construction time.
“Right now, on any construction project in the Lower Mainland, time is a huge factor,” Jolliffe said, citing Lower Mainland’s construction labour shortage and its impact on building timelines and costs. “When you are dealing with a lack of labour, speeding up those time frames creates huge efficiencies for any builder. So, I don’t think we’ll always be able to show people savings, because we aim to come in at the same cost as traditional methods, but on any project, we’ll have a significant time advantage.”
LifeTec uses the Framecad system, which was first introduced in New Zealand but is now available throughout Australia, Asia, Europe, Africa and South America. Under the process, a building’s frame is designed on a computer, then individual modular parts, beams and panels are manufactured by specialized 3D printers that use lasers to shape the steel source material. The parts are then shipped to the construction site and assembled, with minimal on-site cutting, drilling or modifications.
The printers can reach extremely high temperatures during operation, but the overall space requirement for a single machine is much smaller than what is needed for production-line steelmaking equipment.
“If we can work with the developer early enough, we can show up right when the foundation is complete, and it’s three to five days from there to assemble the house – as opposed to three to five weeks for building it from wood,” said LifeTec COO Jesse Goldman, pointing to a two- storey demonstration structure in the company’s warehouse that took under two days from conception to completion.
“Steel is just a way better product. If you look down the list … there’s just no doubt about what’s better in every category in terms of being a construction material.” Jolliffe and LifeTec co-founder Mckinley Hlady, originally from Salt Spring Island, have been involved in the construction industry for years but first came into contact with 3D-printed steel as recently as 2016, when working on a sustainable housing project in South Florida. There, Jolliffe said, all of the project’s specified framing was done through printed steel.
That’s when the two B.C. men decided to bring the concept to their home province despite the dominance of wood as a structural building material in the local construction industry.
LifeTec started earlier this year with a team of 10, and the builders who were introduced to the building method were all receptive to the innovation, the company said. And although the five current projects LifeTec is working on are all private detached homes, Jolliffe said they want to move into multi-family residential and mid-rise commercial/industrial because it’s in these larger construction projects, which have a need for a higher level of uniformity across a bigger scale, that printed steel’s efficiencies really shine.
“The sky’s the limit,” Jolliffe said. “We can do anything that can be done with wood. The only construction we can’t do is for highrises, but we can still do all the infill framing. We can do that at the same cost of existing providers, but at three to four times the speed. So, we can create efficiencies in practically every construction process going on in the market.”
“The end goal is that I don’t want to see anything built out of wood anymore,” Goldman said. “This system of building in every other part of the world is huge. It’s just here, in this little pocket in the Pacific Northwest where you have so much access to lumber, that it’s not as big. But it doesn’t mean [Framecad steel] isn’t a better system; it’s just that people haven’t been give a reason to switch up to this point.”
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