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In some parts of the world houses are being built using the 3d printing technology. Countries as rich as the US and as poor as Malawi are constructing dwellings using this technology which not only scales down the cost of construction considerably but also brings down greatly the time that it takes to complete the construction. It is said one can print a house in just 12 hours, with a price tag of less than Rs 1,000,000!

The use of this technology is expanding in the Middle East and Asia. Dubai's government wants a quarter of new buildings in the country to be 3d-printed by 2030, and is dedicating a district on the outskirts of its eponymous capital to host 3d-printing companies and their warehouses. Saudi Arabia wants to use 3d printing to build 1.5m houses over the next decade. And India's Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs wants to use 3d printing to address the country's housing shortages.

We in Pakistan also suffer from huge housing shortages. Affordable housing has remained a thing of a life- long unattainable desire for most Pakistanis. There is a backlog of about ten million housing units in the country of which around 3.5 to 4 million are in the urban region and most for low-income groups. However, since on an average only 300,000 housing units are being built annually, the backlog continues to bulge. That is perhaps why 68 per cent of Pakistan's population has only one per cent of total housing stocks, whereas 56 per cent of housing stock is meant for 12 per cent of the upper income segments. Indeed, there is a huge unmet demand for affordable housing units in the urban areas particularly for the labor classes and low and lower-middle income segments.

Katchi abadis and shanty towns have sprouted all over our cities to serve those who fail to find an affordable shelter in the cities and towns as the demand for housing continues to expand while the supply remains too far behind. And every now and then one witnesses the heartless official campaigns of eviction of the poorest of the poor from such katchi abadis and shanty towns.

Despite the huge demand for housing, the overall contribution of housing finance has remained very low in Pakistan - less than one percent of the GDP. The stakeholders argue that multiple risks impact the performance of the housing finance sector. Lack of transparency in property markets is said to be a key constraint. The market has been unable to meet the growing demand to supply housing stock at affordable prices. An individual earning between Rs20,000 to 25,000 per month (working in the public/private sector or self-employed) and responsible for maintaining his/her nuclear family as well as members of the extended family would save (after all expenses relating to rent, food, utilities, transportation and miscellaneous are deducted) no more than Rs1,500. With the average person saving Rs 1,500 and the average 80 square yard plot costing Rs 700,000, it would take nearly 40 years before one could afford such a plot. The result is the current housing crisis Pakistan is faced with.

The recent announcement of a long list of tax and other concessions to the construction industry, including the fact that the real estate activity has been granted the status of an industry would surely encourage increased investment activity in the housing sector. And what is most attractive about this package is that it grants generous amnesty in exchange for investing money in construction. No questions asked about the money to be invested in house building activity. But then the fixed rate tax being applied to the new house building activity ensures immense benefits for even those who wish to invest their white money in house building.

And mindful of the fact that the investors would continue to avoid housing for poor despite the introduction of the foreclosure law, the government has at the same time announced a public sector housing scheme called Naya Pakistan Housing Scheme carrying a subsidy of Rs 30 billion. Already thousands have registered to avail the benefits of this scheme.

On the face of it, the entire baggage of concessions announced for kick-starting the house building industry contains just the right kind of financial and other incentives in kind for providing the low-and middle-income population of the country access to affordable housing. But minus the Naya Pakistan Housing Scheme, the government plot seems to have gotten lost in the usual dark hole of private sector labyrinth. And it seems that the private sector part of the scheme has been designed to benefit the rich and the mighty, the real ruling elite in Pakistan and not the poorer section of society. It appears as if by the end of this scheme, that is by September 30, 2022 the rich will have built for themselves more huge villas and spacious flats whitening in the process billions of their undeclared tainted money without having to pay legitimate taxes on these declared black money while the labor classes and low-and middle-income groups would continue to be denied access to affordable housing.

The private sector has never honestly responded to any of the past amnesty scheme for declaring their black loot and it would, it is feared, continue to do so even while the new house building scheme is being implemented. In fact the possibility that it would make another big killing employing the new scheme to use the real estate for camouflaging even more of the tax evaded and unearned incomes from bribery, smuggling and black marketing cannot be ruled out.

Therefore, in order to save the interests of the poorer sections of population and enable them to have easy access to affordable housing, the government needs to ban construction of houses on land beyond the size of 120 sq. yards and restrict only vertical housing schemes and no stand- alone houses in urban regions. And to deny the rent seeking unscrupulous elements a readily available safe haven for hiding their loot, the government should make it legally almost impossible for private sector to invest in house building activity declaring it a strictly public sector business and divert the private sector investment to building physical infrastructure like roads, bridges, railway tracks and the like.

Following this up, the government could look rather closely at the three-dimensional (3d) printing technology for building low cost houses for the low-income earners and quickly as well. This technology has been around since the early 1980s, but is now gathering steam. It is already employed to make things ranging from orthopaedic implants to components for aircraft. The details vary according to the products and processes involved, but the underlying principle is the same. A layer of material is laid down and somehow fixed in place. Then another is put on top of it. Then another. Then another. By varying the shape, and sometimes the composition of each layer, objects can be crafted that would be difficult or impossible to produce with conventional techniques. On top of this, unlike conventional manufacturing processes, no material is wasted.

For the houses printed in California, the printers used are rather larger than those required for artificial knees and wing tips, and the materials somewhat cruder. But the principle is the same. Nozzles extrude a paste (in this case a composite) which is then cured and hardened by ultraviolet light. The parts such as eaves and ceilings are printed without the need for supporting moulds-as well as simpler things like walls. These are then put together on site and attached to a permanent foundation by construction workers.

Not only does 3d-printing allow greater versatility and faster construction, it also promises lower cost and in a more environmentally friendly approach than is possible at present. That may make it a useful answer to two challenges now facing the world: a shortage of housing and climate change.

Automation brings huge cost savings. Computerising 80% of printing process in 3d houses means the builder needs only 5% of the labour that would otherwise be involved. It has also doubled the speed of production. This is welcome news, the construction industry having struggled for years to improve its productivity.

A batch of new 3d printed houses across California is selling unusually fast. 82 have been snapped up within months, and the waiting list is 1,000 long. That demand should, though, soon be satisfied-for, while it can take weeks to put up a conventional bricks-and-mortar dwelling, Palari Homes and Mighty Buildings, the collaborators behind these houses, are able to erect one in less than 24 hours. They can do it so rapidly because their products are assembled from components prefabricated in a factory. This is not, in itself, a new idea. But the components involved are made in an unusual way: they are printed.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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