Five years ago, Jason Ballard had no idea he would be 3-D printing houses—let alone building a larger-than-life 3-D printer. But his passion for sustainable housing and interest in technology led him to cofound ICON, a construction technologies startup which is using 3-D printing to create entire houses from the ground up, with Evan Loomis and Alex LeRoux. "Evan and I were tinkering around and we built a prototype in west Austin about two years ago," Ballard explains. Once the pair realized the potential for 3-D printing on the housing sector, they teamed up with LeRoux, who was an engineer at Baylor University.
Eight months ago, the ICON team took on their first project from New Story—a San Francisco–based nonprofit which seeks to provide housing for impoverished communities around the world, and with which AD has partnered to build 100 homes in Haiti. New Story's request? Construct a machine that could print a home between 600 and 800 square feet for only $4,000. (Currently, New Story's homes cost around $6,500.) Though a challenging assignment, it was a serendipitous partnership rooted in the organizations' shared values. Ballard has always had a passion for sustainable housing. In addition to his role at ICON, he is the CEO of TreeHouse—a company which provides services to create more environmentally friendly homes. "It's gratifying that our first project is a really a passion project," says Ballard. Today, the fruits of their labors will come to fruition: At South by Southwest, ICON and New Story will unveil their first-ever 3-D printed home.
New Story and ICON insist that 3-D printing homes is more than a novelty—it allows a superior product to be created with significantly less waste and more resilience, and it will become a useful long-term tool for communities like those New Story is serving. When 3-D printing a home, a precise amount of concrete is extruded from the printer, negating the excess waste material that is par for the course in building projects and trucked off to the landfill post-construction. It's also quick—a New Story home can be created in 12 to 24 hours. Ballard also notes that a home printed using ICON's technology has a tightly sealed envelope—prime for insulation—and top-notch resilience, crucial for tropical nations like Haiti that are often hit by storms.
"It can print a home that's nearly identical to the ones we have already," says Alexandria Lafci, cofounder of New Story. "Actually, the printer has allowed us to design something that we feel will be a better design for families—they can be a little bit larger because of the decreased costs, which will help accommodate larger families, and the way the home prints the walls supports insulation, reducing costs that families have when there's poor insulation.
"In 2017, we challenged ourselves to increase quality, increase speed, and decrease cost," Lafci continues. "I started doing research into a number of innovations, and the two that rose to the top were prefab modular housing and 3-D printing. And 3-D printing really met those qualifications." She also notes, though, that many companies that 3-D print houses focus on the über-rich, which means that the communities that perhaps need their services most are reached last. ICON proved different.
This newly developed printer also considers the technological constraints of the nations it plans to serve. A printer that works in Austin, Texas, is not going to necessarily work in El Salvador or Haiti, where access to power and running water are more fickle. If the printer is actively extruding cement during a power outage, how would that affect the final home? Lafci explains that the teams considered these potential roadblocks. "There's a battery, a generator; and the container that the printer will be stored in will have solar panels at the top so we can take advantage of the great resource of sunshine we have in these places," she says.
New Story plans to bring the printer to El Salvador first. "Our goal is to print a few test homes at the end of this year and a whole community by next year," says Lafci.
Importantly, New Story does not intend to monopolize this 3-D printing space. The organization hopes that with this technological advance funded and proven successful, other NGOs and governments will be inclined to use similar systems to solve housing shortages worldwide. "Instead of waiting for market forces to eventually bring this technology to the developing world, we felt like it was irresponsible not to try," Lafci says. "Our goal is to open-source everything that we do. If we can outsource this printing technology to governments and other large organizations, then we can have a massive impact on how many people are being housed per year."
ICON and New Story are excited for the potential of what's to come even beyond their own organizations. "We are printing better homes when it comes to human comfort, energy use, waste, aesthetic and design freedom—you name it," Ballard adds. "This is a better way to build houses."