Food, water, and shelter are basic human needs, but 1.2 billion people in the world live without adequate housing, according to a report by the World Resources Institute’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. Today at SXSW, an Austin-based startup will unveil its approach to combat that deficiency by using low-cost 3D printing as a potential solution.
ICON has developed a method for printing a single-story 650-square-foot house out of cement in only 12 to 24 hours, a fraction of the time it takes for new construction. If all goes according to plan, a community made up of about 100 homes will be constructed for residents in El Salvador next year. The company has partnered with New Story, a nonprofit that is vested in international housing solutions. “We have been building homes for communities in Haiti, El Salvador, and Bolivia,” Alexandria Lafci, co-founder of New Story, tells The Verge.
The first model, scheduled to be unveiled in Austin today, is a step toward providing shelter to those in underserved communities. Jason Ballard, one of ICON’s three founders, says he is going to live in a model to test out their practical use. “We are going to install air quality monitors. How does it look, and how does it smell?” Ballard also runs Treehouse, a company that focuses on sustainable home upgrades.
Using the Vulcan printer, ICON can print an entire home for $10,000 and plans to bring costs down to $4,000 per house. “It’s much cheaper than the typical American home,” Ballard says. It’s capable of printing a home that’s 800 square feet, a significantly bigger structure than properties pushed by the tiny home movement, which top out at about 400 square feet. In contrast, the average New York apartment is about 866 square feet.
The model has a living room, bedroom, bathroom, and a curved porch. “There are a few other companies that have printed homes and structures,” Ballard says. “But they are printed in a warehouse, or they look like Yoda huts. For this venture to succeed, they have to be the best houses.” The use of cement as a common material will help normalize the process for potential tenants that question the sturdiness of the structure. “I think if we were printing in plastic we would encounter some issues.”
Once ICON completes material testing and tweaking of the design, the company will move the Vulcan printer to El Salvador to begin construction. ICON says its 3D-printed houses will create minimal waste and labor costs are significantly reduced. The company also intends to build homes in the US eventually. It’s a compelling solution to solving housing shortages but one that could be contentious among labor unions that represent workers.
It’s almost cliché that tech innovations happen in the high-end, for-profit segment long before they filter down to the masses, where innovation could serve the greatest social good. ICON and New Story are challenging that premise. Lafci uses the example of latency in cellphone availability to reach the African continent as the reason she believes in the endeavor. “(ICON) believes, as do I, that 3D printing is going to be a method for all kinds of housing,” she says.
But the company is already looking past the global housing crises to think about communities that will one day live off-planet. “One of the big challenges is how are we going to create habitats in space,” Ballard says. “You’re not going to open a two by four and open screws. It’s one of the more promising potential habitat technologies.”