Change Maker – The Hamilton company using 3D concrete printing technology to help ease NZ’s housing crisis
As property prices across the country continue to skyrocket, Wafaey Swelim believes 3D concrete printing technology may offer an answer to New Zealand’s housing crisis.
Through his Hamilton-based company QOROX, Egyptian-born Swelim is determined to use the latest cementitious 3D construction printing technology – aka 3D concrete printing – to not only speed up the construction time of houses and other structures, but to build in a more environmentally friendly way that uses less waste, and to eventually make housing more affordable.
Swelim is this month’s Change Maker. Dell and The Project have been recognising people who have made a positive social impact in the community through the Change Maker campaign.
Swelim, who is trained in architectural engineering and has spent more than two decades in the construction industry, working on multi-million-dollar projects around the world such as the Abu Dhabi Formula One track and the Ritz Carlton hotel in Dubai, settled in New Zealand in 2015.
Having a passion for innovation, he says he was inspired to create QOROX because he wanted to help change the “broken” construction industry, which is often hampered by issues relating to materials and labour, as well as by ongoing supply chain disruptions.
The company uses a robot that can ‘print’ concrete structures such as park benches, walls, houses and commercial buildings – all up to New Zealand’s high seismic and building standards.
The technology is imported from CyBe Construction in the Netherlands and uses concrete that is specially mixed in New Zealand and designed to meet our local conditions and standards.
The robot only requires two people to run it, and Swelim says it has the capacity to build up to 75 percent faster than traditional methods and with 70 percent less waste, which he attributes to the fact the robot can build with a precision no human can match.
“By using less material you have less waste; you’re generating less carbon footprint and ultimately you’ll become cheaper,” he says.
Last year, the company made headlines when it staged a demonstration of the robot in action, constructing a waka-inspired park bench in Hamilton’s Garden Place in less than an hour.
Swelim says the printing technique has not only been used by Hamilton City Council and Auckland Council to make things such as street furniture, it is also increasingly being embraced by builders and architects, with the company having a number of unique projects in the pipeline, such as a skate park in Hawke’s Bay. It also has a number of residential projects in the consenting stage.
He says the potential of the technology is massive, pointing to examples overseas where it has been used in the construction of everything from footbridges to army barracks.
“The technology can be used to do a planter or a bridge or an army barracks and anything in between, from a structural wall to a house to a water feature – using the same robot, the same two guys,” he says.
“The only thing stopping us is our imagination.”
Swelim believes automation technology such as 3D concrete printing will revolutionise the construction industry, likening it to “life before smartphones and life after smartphones”.
He also believes the time is ripe for an uptake in such technology, with the COVID-19 pandemic revealing how weaknesses in international supply chains can affect the construction industry here.
“During a boom, nobody has time for innovation, and during bust times nobody has money for innovation, but I think COVID is forcing our hand to change the way we’re thinking about things,” he says.
“The construction industry is a broken industry and I want to find a solution for it.”
He says construction costs using the printer are currently roughly the same as for traditional methods, but he is hoping the company can bring these costs down in the future by creating an economy of scale.
And though Swelim doesn’t see technology such as 3D concrete printing immediately leading to more concrete-built homes in New Zealand, he does think it could be used to complement more traditional materials, such as timber.
“I see it as working with timber to help make houses more durable, reduce maintenance, and also make them even more heat efficient – because concrete houses use less power for heating and cooling,” he says.
“The biggest advantage that we have with this is that it makes the houses a lot more resilient than traditional builds [due to concrete’s] longevity and how strong it is. So I see it as an extra tool in our toolbox to help us build more with the little resources that we have, and also, to try to break this vicious cycle of constantly rising prices and a lack of labour that impacts everyone in the country.”