Conference Board of Canada suggests 3D printing could help solve Northern housing issues

'It takes little imagination to understand the potential uses of 3D printing in the Canadian North,' says the report.

Uncertainty as to how effective 3D printing would be in Arctic and sub-Arctic climates

An employee works to build a 3D printed social housing building called "Yhnova", using a construction 3D printing technique known as BatiPrint3D and developed by researchers from the University of Nantes, in Nantes, France, September 19, 2017. A Canadian think tank says 3D printing could be an option to help mitigate the high cost of housing in the North. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

Could printing homes be a viable option for Canada's North?

That's the question the Conference Board of Canada is asking in a report released Thursday as part of their​ Cool Ideas series, which aims to introduce innovative ideas for Canada's North and start up conversations about their merit.

The report says that "it takes little imagination to understand the potential uses of 3D printing in the Canadian North."

The board writes that construction in the North needs to work around the short transportation season, which means planning has to happen months in advance, and noting that "in Nunavut, it costs between $400,000 and $550,000 to construct a new public housing unit — three times the cost for the same unit in Canada's southern urban areas."

The report points out that housing availability and affordability is an issue across the North, and and "the high cost of standard building systems has prevented governments from coming close to meeting the urgent construction, maintenance, and repair needs of northern communities."

Polyurethane and concrete are pictured as an employee works to build a 3D printed social housing building called "Yhnova", using a construction 3D printing technique known as BatiPrint3D and developed by researchers from the University of Nantes, in Nantes, France, September 19, 2017. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

Building houses using 3D printing could cost a third of current prices or even less, according to the report, "but only if the technology works in Arctic and sub-Arctic settings."

However, the idea is far from flawless. The conference board says issues could include suitability for the North in terms of construction materials.

The board questioned whether concrete would be suitable as the shell of a home, suggesting it "may not be ideal for ensuring heat efficiency in extreme cold or structural integrity under snow loads."

It writes that perhaps using 3D printers to build components for houses would be more cost-effective and the printers are likely won't prove a "panacea."

The board says using concrete for the frame of the house may not be a suitable option because of the heavy snow and cold temperatures. (The Conference Board of Canada)

5 recommendations

The report provides five recommendations for the region's policy-makers to begin investigating in the technology, including changing the policy environment by working toward investigation and investing in innovative construction approaches.

The role of the policy-makers is relevant because "market-based solutions are generally not realistic for Northern housing," the report says.

It also recommends determining whether 3D printing is a viable option for the North by researching the materials' viability in the North, making sure that research is driven by Northerners.

The board also recommends preparing for negative outcomes and new opportunities. Its final recommendation is: "don't give up on innovation."

It says if the value and feasibility of 3D printing in the North is limited, "we should not give up on the critical objective of identifying new and innovative ways to address the significant housing issues that confront the North."