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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

New View on Sustainability: 3D Printed Housing for Underserved Populations

April 6th, 2018 by Susan Smith

In a day and age where affordable housing is at a premium, along comes the company ICON, a construction technologies company with the primary goal of revolutionizing homebuilding. How do they propose to do that?

First permitted 3D printed home in Austin, TX

In such a way that you might not first imagine: using proprietary 3D printing technologies and cutting-edge materials. The end result provides sustainable solutions to address one of the world’s most dire issues – that of homelessness across the globe and the rising cost of home ownership in the U.S. and abroad. It also addresses issues of sustainability, resiliency and building performance of existing construction methods. Looking further into the future, ICON takes on the challenge of building off-planet space habitats.


Side-view of first permitted 3D printed home in Austin, TX

ICON is a for-profit construction technologies company using robotics, software, and advanced materials to reinvent the homebuilding industry.  The 3D printer dubbed the “Vulcan I” is the first product/project and was developed in collaboration with New Story, the non-profit bringing homes to underserved populations. Together they have 3D printed the first site-printed, permitted permanent 3D printed house in America.  It is truly the first of its kind.

And then, of course, how much does it cost to 3D print a house? Created in partnership with the non-profit New Story, the first permitted 3D printed house was built for $10,000 (the printed portion only) in Austin, TX, which has some of the toughest building codes. The home is 350 square feet and serves as a proof-of-concept home created in -48 hours of actual printing time.

New Story’s goal is to print a community of homes in El Salvador in the coming 18 months with each home being around 600-800 square feet, printed in less than 24 hours and cost $4,000 per home.

ICON 3D printer

According to New Story, 133 Million people live in slums in Latin America. Globally, 1.3 billion people live in slums. That’s 14% of the world population, and growing. New Story is focused on impacting those 1.3 billion in slums by providing safe housing.

The majority of these families live on less than $2 per day. The countries in question – Haiti, Bolivia, El Salvador and Mexico – have no support systems for homeless families, such as homeless shelters.

The Vulcan I was able to deliver the first house running at roughly 25% speed in less than 48 hours. The Vulcan II is being worked on currently and should be able to print a standard house in under 24 hours which is the company’s goal.

ICON’s goal is that you will be able to download and print your own home in 24 hours. Beginning in 2019, ICON plans to begin printing homes in the U.S.

3D printed home in progress

ICON plans to move into the Austin space for their offices over the next few months. The company is not yet working with individuals but encourages interested people to keep track of their progress.

Once completed, ICON’s partners at Alchemy Builders constructed the finishing touches including the roof, windows, doors and electrical/plumbing with conventional methods for the Austin home.

To demonstrate that ICON is considering no boundaries, they are looking into the advantages of putting 3D printing into space, where they can make use of local materials.

They are also researching printing technologies for off-planet space habitats. Co-founder, Jason Ballard, will be speaking on the subject at Silicon Valley Comic Con April 7, 2018 in San Jose.

3D printed home in progress

Research and development has been gestating over the past two years, with the Vulcan printer and material formulation coming about in the last nine months.

Jason Ballard, co-founder of ICON; co-founder and president of TreeHouse, a company whose mission revolves around sustainability ad the heath of the built environment, believed there was a better way to build homes that was more affordable, made better use of resources, and was more energy efficient than conventional building methods. That began a long study and research project including prefab, insulated concrete forms, SIP panels, advanced framing, robotic bricklaying architectural fungus, etc.) that led to Ballard finding 3D printing. Together with TreeHouse co-fonder and friend Evan Loomis, he began to work on a prototype in an Austin warehouse on the weekends. Alex LeRoux, a new college grad and engineer, was working on a similar project in Houston, after hearing about one another, LeRoux and Ballard met at TreeHouse and that began their collaboration.

ICON’s leadership team includes:

Alex Le Roux, co-founder and CEO

Jason Ballard, co-founder of ICON; co-founder and president of TreeHouse

Evan Loomis, co-founder of ICON; co-founder Saturn Five

The Austin building was printed during Austin’s terrible rainstorms. Because the city had never seen a building of this kind before, most housing code adjustments were to structural engineering and foundation adjustments.

Known as the “Vulcan”, the printer is the first of ICON’s construction technologies to be unveiled in partnership with New Story, and was designed specifically for the developing world. The mobile printer fully prints on-site and does not require printing in an off-site location nor does it need to stitch together different portions. The Vulcan I is a gantry-style printer on rails. ICON has several patents pending on both the hardware and materials. The printer is the largest in the world. With an axis set upon a track, the printer theoretically has an unlimited print area. The entire Austin home is printed seamlessly and is sustainable, produces nearly zero waste and is highly durable, low maintenance, and energy-efficient to operate.

Conventional construction is slow, fragmented, wasteful, and has poor thermal properties which increase energy use, increase operating costs, and decrease comfort.  Also, conventional materials like drywall and particle board are some of the least resilient materials ever invented.  By contrast, 3D printing offers the following:

  1. Speed
  2. Lack of manual labor
  3. Concrete is a well understood, affordable, resilient material
  4. Concrete has a high thermal mass (comfort & energy efficiency)
  5. 3D Printing produces a continuous, unbroken thermal envelope (comfort & energy efficiency)
  6. Replaces multiple systems of the home in one technology (foundation, structure, insulation, interior & exterior sheathing, moisture barrier, finished surfaces, etc.)
  7. Near zero waste
  8. Tremendous design freedom (curves and slopes are no more challenging or expensive than straight, plumb lines).

The capabilities of the 3D printer in terms of complexity of design, size, speed include:

Size: 20 ft X 11 ft X *infinite length* of build volume since the printer is set on tracks

Speed: The printer will be able to print a single-story, 600-800 square foot home in less than 24 hours for $4,000.

Design: Nearly any 2D floor plan imaginable can be printed.

The printer uses a proprietary small-aggregate cementitious material (also known as a mortar). Since the mix has relatively easy to find constituent parts, ICON expects to be able to find materials locally.

This first printer developed specifically for the developing world is meant to be mobile and weighs around 2,000 lbs. The code that the printer needs to print is called gcode. Then the portion of the printer where material is fed is called the “hopper” and has a level detecting switch to measure how full the container is of the material to add/adjust as necessary.

This is the first project developed between ICON and New Story and here is the timeline for their collaboration, according to company materials:

  • New Story and ICON unveil first permitted 3D-printed home created for the developing world on March 12th at a private event in Austin, TX.
  • ICON is a construction technologies company dedicated to revolutionizing homebuilding. Through their proprietary 3D printing technology and cutting-edge materials, ICON provides sustainable solutions to a number of our world’s most pressing issues, including the pandemic of homelessness in the developing world, the difficulty of constructing off-planet space habitats, and the exorbitant cost of customized housing.
  • New Story is a non-profit focused on providing safe homes for families living in slums around the globe. To date, they have built more than 850 homes for families in Haiti, El Salvador, Mexico, and Bolivia.
  • ICON has created the first 3D printer developed specifically for underserved populations with partner New Story in order to provide higher quality homes and impact more families faster at a lower cost.
  • The printer, dubbed The Vulcan, has successfully printed the first permitted, 3D home, built to US housing standards, in Austin, Texas.
  • It is designed to work under the constraints that are common in places like Haiti and rural El Salvador, where New Story works. Power can be unpredictable, potable water is not a guarantee, and technical assistance is sparse.
  • The 3D printer has been under wraps for the last 8 months during building, testing, and development.
  • ICON and New Story believe 3D printing technologies are set to transform global homelessness and will print their first community of homes in El Salvador in the coming 18 months.
  • In the future, New Story plans to open this breakthrough technology from ICON to other nonprofits and governments around the world that are focused on providing safe shelter for underserved families.
  • The high-powered innovators behind ICON and the first global initiative with New Story include a cross section of engineers, environmentalists, designers and entrepreneurs. ICON and New Story worked in close partnership with several other organizations to develop the Vulcan printer including Pump Studios, Yaskawa Electric, Alchemy Builders, TreeHouse, Keep Real Estate, Andrew Logan Architecture, Linestar Automation and The University of Texas.

New Story’s CEO, Brett Hagler got together with ICON co-founders Jason Ballard and Evan Loomis in 2017, and realized they had complementary visions of how to transform a basic human need: shelter.

New Story was looking for an innovation that could bring more homes to more families, faster than ever. ICON was developing the construction technologies and 3D printer that could address the specific challenges of building in developing countries. About 8 months later, the first permitted, 3D printed home was unveiled in Austin, TX and is the proof-of-concept they needed to move into their second phase: taking the mobile 3D printer into El Salvador to print the first community of homes for those in need.

The printed homes are expected to last as long or longer than standard Concrete Masonry Unit (CMU) built homes. The homes are built to the International Building Code (IBC) structural code standard. The printers are designed to work under the constraints common places like Haiti and rural El Salvador where power can be unpredictable, potable water is not a guarantee, and technical assistance is sparse. Building the printer to not rely on these items was crucial to bet on the reliability of the printer in the field.

Those families who receive a home through the New Story program then own their own home and are responsible for its upkeep. The homes are simple, so maintenance costs are minimal.

New Story currently provides approximately 4 jobs per home using traditional construction. It is currently estimated that the printer will reduce the number of jobs but local labor will still be required for aspects of communities such as using locally sourced materials.

New Story and ICON will be taking the printer to the field in the coming 18 months and begin in El Salvador.  Cost, quality, and efficiency once the printer is in country will determine the roll-out plans for 2019 and beyond. After the printing and safety tests are completed, families will most likely move in Q2 or Q3 of 2019.

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Categories: 3D printing, AEC, AEC training, AECCafe, apps, architecture, Architecture 2030, Cloud, collaboration, construction, field, field solutions, greenhouse gas emissions, IFC, mobile printing, project management, site planning, sustainable design, terrain, visualization

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