The foundation of all current legal concepts and statutes governing the construction industry are based upon more traditional building methods, and the increased interest in and use of 3D printed construction is leading to a host of new legal questions and considerations. The nuances of this new building technology raise novel questions about complying with existing building code and permit requirements that are premised around traditional methods.
One of the first attempts to address these concerns comes from the International Code Council and its introduction of Appendix AW to the International Residential Code. Similar to other construction codes, this appendix aims to create a widely adopted building code that applies directly to the 3D printed construction industry. The appendix, which incorporates the Underwriters Laboratories’ UL 3401, outlines how officials are to evaluate 3D printed construction. It covers both the evaluation of building elements and structures. As more municipalities adopt this section, it will hopefully lead to a more unified 3D printed construction building code. This will likely reduce barriers to entry by removing uncertainty at the local level, and pave the way for the approval of new projects involving established and proven 3D printing methods.
From a liability standpoint, 3D printed construction and other alternative construction methods could significantly reduce the number of jobsite injuries. This reduction may, however, be nullified by an increase in contractual and defective construction disputes. The addition of technology — namely computer software and printer hardware — adds to the list of construction inputs that can go wrong given that the technology is so new and still being developed and implemented. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether there will be any significant reduction in the construction-related docket.
To date, there do not appear to be standardized contracts specifically for 3D printed projects. This is unlike other new methods of construction, such as modular construction, in which form contracts have been prepared and circulated throughout the industry. This means that manufacturers, architects, engineers, contractors, subcontractors and technicians will need to develop new and unique contracts to reflect the nuances of the 3D printed construction project.
Using prior form contracts or modifying them may be an inferior option to creating new contracts that are tailored to this method. This can lead to additional legal expenses, but depending on the size and scope of the project, it could be a worthwhile undertaking as new contracts will help define expectations and help minimize liability with customers and other trades.
Experts' limited knowledge of and experience in 3D printed construction may also lead to challenges when evaluating responsibility for defective work.
For example, when concrete poured by a 3D printer is found to have insufficient strength and durability, who is responsible? Is it the party that designed the mix? Is it the party that supplied the materials for the concrete mix? Is it the contractor or technician who poured the mix on the project site? Or even more remote, is there a problem with the printer hardware or software?
All of these questions, typically answered by an expert, can be difficult to address given the novel nature of the technology, the relatively new and limited number of 3D printed construction projects worldwide, and the limited number of "experts" in this field. This new technology may lead to the emergence of a new category of experts in the field of construction programming and software development who were not traditionally involved or required in construction disputes. Clearly, the fewer parties involved in this process, the better to eliminate finger pointing.
Although only a limited number of construction firms have fully ventured into the 3D printed space, anyone interested in residential 3D printed construction should have the expectation that they will face heightened scrutiny from building and code officials, and will likely need to draft new contracts in order to capture the relationship nuances. Because of its perceived benefits of time and cost reduction, and it being a more environmentally conscious building method, more firms will likely be eager to use 3D printed construction in the long term, especially if it becomes increasingly difficult to find labor for projects.
Visit cohenseglias.com for a more detailed overview of 3D printed construction considerations.
This article was written by Jason A. Copley, chair of Cohen Seglias' Construction Group, and Michael I. Schwartz, an associate at Cohen Seglias. The information was provided as part of NAHB's Construction Liability, Risk Management, and Building Materials Committee's continued exploration and investigation of the construction of homes using 3D printing, which has been a topic of conversation at recent leadership meetings for residential operations.