Atelier Aitken's erosion protection and sandune home (Image: Atelier Aitken).

The housing crisis could be solved by 3D printing and growing homes from seeds

What if you could grow a house from seed or 3D print a new subdivision in a week? The housing sector is ripe for disruption – could technology be the magic bullet we need?

Jo Aitken sounds like she’s pitching an episode for the next season of Black Mirror. Her ideas about the future of housing sound wonderful and exciting. But they also sound dangerous. I thinks she knows it.

“In some ways I think it’s really cool, but it also freaks me out a little bit.”

The internationally-acclaimed New Zealand architect is talking about manipulating nature to create houses. Treehouses, to be precise. She thinks, in the not too distant future, scientists, using genetic engineering, will be able to grow houses in the same way that we grow trees. 

“Scientists we work with, synthetic biologists, believe this is genuinely possible,” Aitken says. “They believe you can absolutely, in the future, program the DNA and build what you want. If we want to make a treehouse, we could literally program a seed before it germinates and tell it what shape we want it, what size, what colour, what behaviour, what pattern.”

Joanna Aitken, celebrating at the 2018 Interior Awards. Photograph by Matt Hunt.

It’s a concept loosely defined as ‘biodesign’. And it’s not as out there as it sounds. People have been experimenting within its realms as a housing solution for well over a decade. 

In 2010, urban designer Mitchell Joachim gave a TED Talk titled ‘Don’t build your home, grow it!’ in which he shared the possibilities of merging architecture, design and nature.

Joachim’s experiments include the ‘Fab Tree Hab’, a hypothetical home which is grown from trees grafted together, and the ‘In Vitro Meat Habitat’, a “victimless shelter” made of lab-grown pig cells.

Aitken is convinced biodesign is the future of housing. But it will start with integrating the living world into building materials. These technologies are already available. There are mushroom bricks that are fire-resistant, non-toxic, and stronger than concrete. There is living, breathing wallpaper that can purify the air and generate energy through photosynthesis. This is just the beginning.

Atelier Aitken’s FutureLab has created a series of hypothetical housing options, including a sand dune dwelling that uses bacteria and urea to convert the sand into stone (that’s the one in the image at the top of this story). This, in turn, helps to control coastal erosion and filter pollutants entering the ocean.

It’s fantastic, but is it viable? Aitken says biodesign is the inevitable housing solution as the planet is running out of resources and the environment is collapsing. Unlike traditional building materials, these ‘living’ alternatives are 100% renewable, biodegradable and, in many ways, superior.

“It’s about creating housing that’s completely healthy and in harmony with nature. It’s non-toxic, it’s not causing any future problems down the line and it’s not causing problems during construction. 

“In many ways, it is quite perfect, but it’s also completely imperfect because it is living.”

New models of ownership

All of these radical ideas for housing might sound great in theory, but what about the housing affordability crisis New Zealand’s facing now? What does the future hold for aspiring first-home buyers who haven’t got the mental bandwidth for visionary ideas while saving for a 20% deposit on a doer-upper?

Thomas Nash is one of those aspirational first-home buyers. He and his partner both have good jobs and are earning “above average” incomes. But living in Wellington, buying a house is “out of reach” for them, he says. Nash, Massey University’s social entrepreneur-in-residence and a co-founder of alternative housing start-up Shelter, sees two potential futures for home ownership in New Zealand.

The first is that the country descends deeper into a rental culture: there’s a greater class divide between homeowners and renters, for whom ownership becomes increasingly unattainable. But the optimist in Nash believes the housing affordability crisis will lead to more ownership pathways. That could include the Scandinavian model of long-term or lifetime leases, as well as collective urban housing where people – friends, neighbours and co-op members – pool resources to buy land and build houses and communities.

Co-housing developments like Earthsong in Auckland, Delhi Village in Whanganui, and Riverside Community in Motueka are examples of how stepping into the past and embracing a more communal, social and sustainable way of living might play a part in our housing future.

Building materials and components used at Auckland’s Earthsong eco-neighbourhood fulfil sustainable architecture criteria. Image: Cohousing NZ

Nash says he also expected to see a resurgence of the papakāinga model, a Māori approach to collectively-owned housing, in post-treaty settlement New Zealand. For those who aren’t so keen on village life, alternatives like Cohaus, a $11 million, 20-unit development in Grey Lynn, Auckland, are likely to become more commonplace.

Post-suburbia: Growing up and downsizing

These alternative housing options might sound undesirable today, but Mark Fraser says New Zealand – particularly Auckland and Wellington – is warming to the post-suburban age. Fraser is project director at HLC, a subsidiary of Housing New Zealand responsible for delivering the Auckland Housing Programme. The Auckland Housing Programme is a massive project that involves building 5200 new state houses and 12,800 “affordable” homes across 120 small and medium developments over 10 years.

HLC is building Auckland’s houses of the future. Fraser says New Zealand needs to grow up – both figuratively and literally – when it comes to housing. That means letting go of the “Kiwi dream” of a standalone house on a quarter-acre section. If New Zealand is going to house its growing population, the future is higher density housing – more terraces, flats, apartments, multi-storey walk-ups;  anything that makes better use of our limited space.

When HLC built its first terrace homes in 2012, a row of eight attached houses at Hobsonville Point, Fraser says “everybody thought we were nuts”.  But he believed in the possibility of doing density well, so he bought one himself.

“Of course, they were all sold before they were finished,” Fraser says. 

He thinks a terrace house will become the new Remuera mansion – a desirable home for the rich and a status symbol. In the future, size will matter less. The average new build in New Zealand is about 200 square metres. HLC has built and sold a 40m² one-bedroom home at Hobsonville Point, proving that there’s an appetite for well-designed small dwellings.

So what will post-suburban Auckland look like, according to Fraser?

“I think you’re going to see a shitload more houses, some apartment-type form for the majority, and they’ll be smaller and more functional.” 

Hobsonville Point is an example of what the future might look like: a village approach to community with a range of house typologies, sizes and price points, well-connected to public transport, along with options to work and play close to home. Fraser says New Zealand has historically built “absolutely shit houses” and we’ll need to embrace innovation to deliver higher-quality, healthier homes at scale to solve the housing crisis.

“If we don’t innovate, then it’s not going to happen. If we keep building houses one at a time, really big, really inefficiently, then housing in New Zealand will continue to be expensive and not accessible to all. We need to take some risks, innovate, show some leadership, get stuff done, probably make some mistakes.”

The 3D printing of houses could become a solution to the housing crisis. Image: Getty

Fraser says in the near future you’ll be able to order a house online, customising the design and materials with a few clicks. Swedish company Lundqvist is already doing this and has just announced plans to introduce its digital platform to New Zealand.

Fraser says 3D printing will also revolutionise housing. There are already examples of this: one house in Italy was made earlier this year out of soil and agricultural waste; another took just 24 hours to build at a cost of US$6000. Construction companies could use 3D printing to complete entire developments in weeks rather than years, drastically reducing the cost. And they could choose from a range of high-quality, sustainable materials to print houses with.

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“If design and construction becomes fully digitised you can massively automate the production.”

Fraser says the building and construction industry needs to lead the way and redefine the future of housing. That could be co-housing, it could be high-density dwellings, it could 3D-printed homes. It could even be a house grown from a genetically-modified seed in a lab. It might not be the quarter-acre dream, but it might be what’s required to keep roofs over our growing number of heads.

Quoting Steve Jobs, he says: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”


The Future of the Future is a high-speed, high-impact business briefing series from leaders of some of the world’s most disruptive companies presented with Spark Lab. Get your tickets to the August 15 event here.

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