Not many years ago, people worried automation would cost jobs and ruin livelihoods, making for a horrible future in which robots run everything and most people live impoverished lives. 

Those worries were overblown, of course. As any free-market economist would attest, the technological advancements of the past 100-plus years have created many more jobs than they destroyed. 

But worries about automation aren’t heard much in today’s strange economy, where labor shortages abound. The challenge right now, as prices rise and “help wanted” signs go unheeded, is how to do more with less.

Which is why my ears perked up during the recent Utah Business Magazine Economic Outlook Summit when I heard people talking about a future full of houses built by printers.

Yes, printers. Not the kind you have to keep filling with toner, but giant steel-beamed structures that spit out concrete-based stuff in pre-programmed rows and patterns. 

We need to “rethink what a house is,” Stephen James, the senior vice president of Planning and Community Design at Daybreak, said on a panel discussion at the summit. We should be thinking about robotics, about houses being pre-printed, he said.

During the day, others echoed that thought.

A brave new world

Rethinking is right. The first time you see one of these machines in action — I’ve watched several YouTube videos now — you wonder if it’s building something from the Jetsons or the Flintstones. Concrete walls are formed in curves and shapes traditional wood-framed houses can’t mimic. 

Some consumers, the Wall Street Journal said, “might be put off by the look of 3-D printed homes … (that) have horizontal ridges in the exterior and some interior walls from the layered printing technique.”

Then again, if you’re living in your brother-in-law’s basement while endlessly putting offers on a limited number of houses for sale, you might welcome it. That would be especially true if the printed house was just as sturdy and safe as any other, and came at a better price — something that hasn’t been demonstrated yet.

Utah right now has about 50,000 homes less than what it needs to fill the demand. Nationally, that deficit is 3.8 million housing units, according to The Wall Street Journal. This supply shortage, like every other supply shortage ever, is leading to higher prices. In Salt Lake County alone, the median home price reached $550,000 during the third quarter of this year, which was 28% higher than the same time a year ago, according to the Salt Lake Board of Realtors.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports that 92% of contractors nationwide report having “moderate to high levels of difficulty” finding skilled workers, and roughly the same percentage believe the situation isn’t going to get better any time soon.

You don’t need a higher degree in math to figure out that it’s going to be tough to build our way out of this one if we do things the way we always have.

Watching Texas

Which is why we ought to keep a close eye on Austin, Texas. That’s where Lennar Corp. and a technology company called Icon are planning to build a subdivision of 100 3-D printed houses, far and away bigger than anything attempted in this country before. 

Other companies have printed smaller structures here or there. Some in Europe have built larger homes. CNN reports that the first printed house in the United States, a modest 1,400-square-foot one-story building, went on sale earlier this year for a list price of $299,000. Also, a company known as Palari Group says it plans to build 15 such homes near Palm Springs, California, starting at $595,000 for three bedrooms.

Housing is the No 1 topic in any discussion of Utah’s growth, economy and workforce. The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, based in Salt Lake City, issued a report in October titled the State of the State’s Housing Market.

As the Deseret News’s Katie McKellar reported:

Summit County, which includes Park City, perhaps one of the most desirable ski resort destinations in Utah and the West ... remains Utah’s most expensive community. The median sales price of homes there jumped from $801,274 in 2020 to $1.15 million in 2021, a 43.5% increase in just one year.

That’s not shocking. But the growth of the rest of the state suggests there may be a market for a printer-made house.

Katie wrote: “Look south, at rural Sevier County, near Fishlake National Forest and Manti-La Sal National Forest, home to Richfield, Salina and Monroe. Homes aren’t nearly as expensive there, but the area saw an even higher percent change in the median sales price of homes in the same time period, from $185,000 in 2020 to $275,000 in 2021 — an 48.6% increase, according to the report.

“Those areas saw the highest percent change in median sales price of homes among Utah’s counties with more than 100 sales transactions from January 2020 to June 2020, and January 2021 to June 2021, the report states.”

Back to Texas

The 100 homes planned in Texas will test the market value of this technique, not to mention the durability of the structures.

The videos I’ve seen show concrete walls that are reinforced with rebar, which might indicate a high degree of earthquake resistance. Because everything is pre-programmed, the walls are built with window frames and holes for electrical outlets and plumbing already in place. That cuts down on the time contractors would need to install utilities. Also, a minimum crew, some say three people, is needed to supervise the machine, rather than a full complement of construction workers. Also, little, if any, construction waste is produced. Printing machines can be assembled onsite, removing the need to ship in heavy walls or other structures.

And the whole thing, at least according to the press statements, will take a lot less time than current modes of construction.

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This all remains to be seen. If it is, future cities may be filled with, as the Christian Science Monitor so delicately put it, “row upon row of gray, toothpaste-like ribbons of mortar that have hardened into walls.”

That is, if they can pass the housing inspections.

If not, you can be sure the free market is working on some other way to narrow that housing and labor-shortage gap. 

The future tends not to be quite as awful as some of us imagine.

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