The Black Buffalo printer at work. This structure was for demonstration only and would later be knocked down. Photo by Randy Walker.

The occasion was a demonstration of a construction technique. The material was concrete. The mood on Friday, April 29, on Pierce Avenue in Pulaski, was jubilant, like that of a political party sensing victory. 

“We believe in getting back to the American dream,” Zack Mannheimer told the crowd. “That’s what this is. Most people can’t afford homes anymore, whether they’re renting or buying. We need to get back to the American dream. That’s exactly what our goal is.”

Pulaski Mayor Shannon Collins stepped up to the mic. 

“Pulaski is like a phoenix,” he proclaimed. “We have been down for a long time. And now is our time. We are coming into the 21st century with this, and we’re coming in hot.”

Jane Miller of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said, “It is truly my pleasure to be here and witness this amazing machine — robot — I’m not sure what we want to call it.”

For good measure, Congressman Morgan Griffith dropped by to say, “May God continue to bless the United States and projects like this, thank you!”

Politicians, government officials, corporate execs, academics and media reps were among the 75 to 100 people who helped Iowa-based Alquist kick off Project Virginia, which the company claims is the “largest 3D-printed home building project in the world.”

Alquist founder and CEO Zack Mannheimer at the Project Virginia kickoff in Pulaski on April 29. He stands in front of the Black Buffalo concrete printer. Photo by Randy Walker.

Mannheimer, 45, CEO of Alquist, has the unlikeliest of backgrounds for a construction executive.

A native of Pennsylvania, Mannheimer earned degrees in theater and philosophy from Muhlenberg College in Allentown. Like many another aspiring actor he moved to the Big Apple, ran a theater company and worked in restaurants. 

Realizing that New York already had enough theaters and restaurants, he embarked on a journey to discover his next direction. He settled in Des Moines, Iowa, and in 2009 founded a nonprofit arts and education center. His focus gradually broadened to encompass community revitalization on a national scale.

Around the country, communities told him, “Yeah, cultural center is great,” Mannheimer recalled in an interview at the Project Virginia kickoff. “‘But we have trouble with childcare. Our infrastructure is crumbling. We have issues with workforce development, broadband, etc.”

He continued: “But the number one need was always housing. And we couldn’t figure out how to drop the housing cost. And for years, we looked at it. Six years ago, I discovered 3D printing, I got obsessed with it, learned everything I could.”

In 2020 he co-founded the for-profit, privately held Alquist in order to not just address, but “solve,” as his bio boldly states, the rural housing crisis.

Fans of science fiction recall “R.U.R.” (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Capek. Here’s where Mannheimer’s theater background comes in.

“The show is about a man [who] has a manufacturing facility, wants to speed it up and make more money, creates robots. This is where the term ‘robot’ comes from. Robots learn more about the surroundings. They don’t like it, they revolt. They kill all the humans — spoiler alert — but there’s one human who’s spared, and that’s the character named Alquist, who’s the lead engineer. And he is the only character in the show who believes that humans and robots can coexist together peacefully. 

“And so we named the company Alquist as a reminder to us that we are using automation, and this is going to replace human jobs with robots — and there’s no way around that — but the reminder is so that we can create far more jobs than might be taken away.”

At a housing conference in Dallas, Mannheimer met Andrew McCoy, director of the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech. He helped secure a $500,000 grant from Virginia Housing to  fund the construction of a 3D-printed prototype house in Virginia.

Exterior of the new Habitat for Humanity 3D-printed house, the first occupied 3D-printed house in the country. Photo courtesy of Alquist.

Two houses were started, one in Richmond, one in Williamsburg. The Williamsburg house, built for Habitat for Humanity, became the first 3D-printed house to be owner-occupied in the United States. Habitat handed the keys to a grateful single mom in December 2021. 

Constructing the exterior shell of the three-bedroom, two-bath home took about 22 hours, compared with around two weeks for a stick-built home. The design required less lumber, which has escalated in price over the last few years. 

Success in Williamsburg led to Project Virginia. The goal is to build 200 3D houses in Virginia over the next four to five years, Mannheimer said.  Most will be in Southwest Virginia, starting with two in Pulaski. Other houses will be built in Roanoke, Wise and Newport News. 

In 3D construction, concrete is mixed onsite. The correct amount of water is added, based on weather conditions. The mix is pumped to a moving nozzle that deposits the concrete in a series of layers. The printer is programmed to leave openings for windows and doors. “At the moment only the only thing we’re printing are the exterior walls,” Mannheimer said. “The interior is still stick-built. But we’re hoping next year to use panelization to do prefabricated interior walls and roof and flooring.” Plumbers, electricians and HVAC technicians finish the house in the traditional manner.

Alquist uses 3D NextCon printer leased from Black Buffalo. The company builds the printers in Korea and East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, said Black Buffalo CEO and COO Michael Woods, who was on hand for the kickoff. 

“We can’t keep up with the demand,” Woods said. “We’re not even close to being able to keep up. The first quarter alone, we got orders for about 21 printers. We are probably going to be the number one sold printer this year, globally.”

3D house printing is beyond the pilot stage, he said. “The pilots and the prototypes are done. Those were the last two, three years. Now you’re seeing projects like this … Saudi Arabia and the UAE [United Arab Emirates] globally are requiring 25% of all homes to be 3D printed starting in 2025. So you’re really now starting to break out in terms of becoming much more mainstream and regular usage rather than the experimentation. The experimentation is totally done.”

Compared to conventional construction, Mannheimer said, “there’s a savings of about 5% today, maybe close to 10% when we’re doing two [houses]. This really needs to scale. We know that when we are doing 50 or more, the savings are going to be probably between 15 and 20%. But the technology has to advance. Like as a good example, this printer takes two days to set up and two days to take down. The new ones that are going to be available the end of the summer will take a matter of hours to set up and break down. That’s going to change our numbers quite a bit. The goal is to hit 30% savings which we’re hoping to do in two years.”

Alquist chose Pulaski to kick off the Virginia project because of rising local demand. Volvo in Pulaski County and Blue Star NBR and American Glove Innovations in Wythe County are bringing more than 3,000 new jobs to the area. 

“We believe rural America is opportunity America, this is the next place to innovate,” Mannheimer said. “For the first time in human history, people don’t have to be tied to a city to experience the best culture, business opportunities and education. But that means that you have a good broadband signal and a quality home to live in. So we think this is going to take root here.”

In urban areas, “the cost of land and availability of land, the zoning regulations, and many other barriers still have to get worked out. So it’s going to be a couple more years before it takes root in urban [areas]. And so we’re starting in rural for those reasons.”

Mannheimer is nothing if not ambitious, but he’s not trying to monopolize the 3D house market.

“There’s no way we could. Right now we get between 25 and 50 requests per hour for 3D homes, all over the world. There’s no way we could even do it ourselves. We need 50 to 100 more companies like ours even to make a dent in the housing issue that we see in America today.”

Trained workers are also needed. The Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech is seeking a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund two programs, said McCoy, the center’s director. One is a basic training course that quickly prepares people to  operate printers; the other, a broader survey of construction and innovation topics preparatory to a career in the industry.  

The two houses at 205 Pierce Ave. will each be one story, 1,300 square feet, with three bedrooms and two baths, similar to the house in Williamsburg.

Alquist does not yet have a completion date, according to an email from Marin Fulton, a publicist working with Alquist. One will be used initially as a model home. “All homes will be sold on the market like any other home, but before they reach the market, Alquist will discuss a pricing with local officials to ensure that all homes for this project are affordable for those in the community.”

Sitting under the canopy at the kickoff, McCoy, the Virginia Tech professor, struck a more measured tone than some of the other stakeholders. 

“We have a lot of questions still about the carbon footprint, I think, of this,” McCoy said. “And we already have shortages of concrete around the country. So it’s the kind of thing where it’s got to get worked out. But you don’t move forward without some preliminary prototyping and somebody’s got to take the risk.” 

More on 3D printing: Christiansburg company plays a role in using 3D printer to make the hull for a tank.

The future site of two 3D-printed houses on Pierce Avenue in Pulaski. Photo by Randy Walker.
Video of the 3D printer in action. By Randy Walker.

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism...