Branch Technology, an additive construction (AC) firm headquartered in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has partnered with Chattanooga’s city government to implement a pilot program that will use Branch’s proprietary Cellular Fabrication (C-Fab) technology to print shelters for unhoused individuals in Chattanooga. According to a statement from Chattanooga’s mayor, Tim Kelly, the project also includes Help Right Here, a Chattanooga nonprofit tackling the issue of unaffordable housing, and local Olivet Baptist Church.
Despite the relative newness of the AC market segment, Branch has been around for about a decade at this point, which is especially notable given how innovative the company’s tech still is. As 3DPrint.com editor-in-chief, Michael Molitch-Hou, wrote in February, 2021, “[The] C-Fab process is unique from just about every other [AC] firm in that it doesn’t simply 3D print concrete structures but uses composite polymers for the initial latticework of an architectural element… Depending on the application, this framework is then outfitted with traditional building materials, such as spray insulation and concrete, to create the final element.”
Existing Branch shelters built in Chattanooga. Image courtesy of Chattanoogan
In a press statement about the new pilot program, Mayor Kelly commented, “We remain focused on closing the gaps that still exist as we shore up our affordable and supportive housing supply over the next 18 months. This pilot program is a great example of how public-private partnership can be a force multiplier…”
By 2015, Branch had already used the C-Fab process to become the first company in the world to print walls successfully, and as of December, 2020, Branch had raised $22 million in its first two funding rounds. Thus, the pilot program is in an ideal position to achieve solutions to the issue at-hand—solutions that will surely only be needed all the more urgently by the time the project has been completed, at which point its potential to be scaled up and exported can be assessed.
Despite the countless articles with titles like, “Can 3D Printing Solve the Housing Crisis?”, with another new one published seemingly every week, the question is still very much just a question at this point. Although the unhoused population in the US continues to grow at the same time as American homes and apartments are both decreasing in affordability, companies and policymakers alike have nonetheless shown unusual prudence in not just rushing to put people into structures built with techniques that were largely unproven (particularly given America’s history of social experimentation on marginalized populations). It is true that any shelter is better than no shelter at all, but it is also true that no shelter is better than a death trap.
However, now that the promise of these technologies has been borne out to a significant extent, we should both expect and demand the proliferation of pilot programs like the one Branch is involved with. Again, since the mass deployment of AC for emergency situations can’t happen until the deployment has been proven successful on a small scale, the next two years of policy decisions on this front will be especially crucial. With such important stakes, it is particularly hopeful that a company with as lengthy and tested a track record as Branch is involved.
The problem of human beings in history’s wealthiest nation having nowhere to live is already so far beyond what should’ve been allowed to happen in the first place, that in another two years, things will certainly look far bleaker even than they do now. At the same time, rushing the job also won’t work, because failing in spectacular fashion will mean it may never be tried again. But if enough cities — and, dare I hope, maybe even the federal government — quickly take initiative the way Chattanooga is doing, then in a couple years there may be real, practical, and most importantly, scalable solutions.
Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Branch Technology