Can a 3D-Printed Hotel and Residences Bring a New Dimension to Marfa?
Hotelier Liz Lambert has teamed up with Austin-based home builders Icon and architect Bjarke Ingels on a promise to transform the West Texas art town—with affordable housing to boot.
With a resident population of just under 2,000, Marfa is a tiny town with an outsized reputation as an unusual art mecca in rural West Texas. And, although it’s about 60 miles from Interstate 10 and nearly 200 more to a major airport, Marfa—with its massive modern art installations, vibrant, quirky culture, sparse landscapes and dark skies—has been luring visitors and newcomers from far beyond the high desert plains for decades.
Now, a 62-acre site here may become host to an innovative development project involving 3D-printed buildings. Often touted as a revolutionary game-changer that builds faster, cheaper, and more sustainably than conventional methods, 3D-print construction features large-scale printers and robotics to automate much of the building process, producing walls in layers of excretable concrete.
The endeavor involves a trio of giants in their respective fields, beginning with native daughter and hospitality industry magnate Liz Lambert.
"A hotel is a good place to let people try new things," says Lambert, who grew up in Odessa and spent much of her formative years on a family ranch near Marfa. "So, this would enable people to experience staying in, or even buying, amazingly designed 3D-printed lodgings."
Lambert is talking about El Cosmico, billed as a "Bohemian West Texas nomadic hotel," replete with trailers, yurts, and teepees, workshop areas and a performance venue, all set on a 21-acre pasture she bought back in 2005. It’s been what she calls "an experiment to create a place for folks to disconnect, see the stars, and feel the vast sense of space."
Her plan is to relocate El Cosmico to a nearby site three times the size—and double the number of existing units to 120 sleeping accommodations, many in 3D-printed structures. Also planned are 3D-printed houses for sale, ranging between 1,200- and 2,200-square-feet. These proposed two- to four-bedroom "Sunday homes"—a nod to ranching culture when cowboys could enjoy a dignified reprieve on weekends after long weeks working the range—are targeted for a variety of buyer types around the country. A lobby, small restaurant, new workshop spaces, and new stage are also planned for printing.
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Significantly, too, Lambert says she hopes to produce affordable housing on the original El Cosmico site; and that her team will assess the opportunity to 3D-print such housing in Marfa as well to serve the town’s evolving needs.
To help realize her vision, Lambert has partnered with global architecture firm BIG and Austin-based Icon, a major player in the rapidly growing 3D-print building world.
"I often say the shortest path from imagination to reality is via 3D printing," says Icon CEO Jason Ballard. "With El Cosmico, the technology was there, but because the designs are so unique, the project required us to stretch our capacities, which is enabling us to show what is possible."
The "stretch" is in no small part due to Bjarke Ingels, founder of BIG who’s good at staying busy, and whose designs for El Cosmico are in keeping with its theme of otherworldliness.
"Our collaboration allowed us to pursue the possibilities of cutting-edge 3D-printed construction untethered by the traditional limitations of a conventional site or client and to pursue a new architectural vernacular," Ingels said in an email. "Organic shapes, Euclidian circular geometries and a color palette born from the local terroir make El Cosmico feel as if literally erected from the site it stands on."
Yes, the renderings are stunning. Reality, the collaborators hope, will bear them out by the end of 2024.
What this will mean for Marfa is hard to say. But even a cursory glance at its history reveals its odd trajectory—and the trouble it faces today. Established in the early 1880s as a railroad water stop for steam trains, Marfa had been primarily an outpost serving the surrounding ranches. The federal government set up a cavalry post during the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s, which was subsequently used as a German internment camp during World War II.
When Donald Judd arrived in the early 1970s after having gained esteem in New York City as an art critic and sculptor, Marfa’s course was fatefully altered. According to a New York Times piece, Judd was "looking for space and conceived a singular vision integrating art, architecture, and landscape."
Judd bought more than 20 buildings in and around town, including some of the defunct military facilities, then renovated them, and used them to display massive minimalist art installations. In 1986, he established the Chinati Foundation, where he showcased works by a raft of gifted and unconventional artists. Per the NYT piece: "Judd expressed … deep antipathy for museums and for the commodification of art—‘conquered as soon as it’s made,’ as he wrote in 1987. ‘The public has no idea of art other than that it is something portable that can be bought.’"
After Judd’s death in 1994, the town’s reputation continued to flourish, and nowadays, its population explodes on weekends, holidays, and during special events. Yet, while it attracts people from all corners of the country and beyond, it’s still entirely surrounded by ranchland—and has, in many ways, retained its unique character.
"Marfa’s the kind of place where maybe a celebrated writer will be sitting at a bar and a cowboy decked out in boots and spurs, completely unironically, walks in and takes the stool next to him," says Ballard.
But it has also become the kind of place where the bartender may be struggling to make ends meet. The dynamics that have made Marfa so popular have also created a pressing need for housing locals can afford. According to Movoto, the median home list price in Marfa last year was $670K. The average salary was just $40k.
"Donald Judd’s positive influence cannot be overstated and it’s really why Marfa is still here," says Robert Arber, a printmaker who collaborated with Judd and who has lived in Marfa for 22 years. "But there are at least 200 Airbnb rentals, which take houses off the market and leave few options. Sure, some fancy architect sounds nice and all, but decent housing locals can afford is really the more important thing."
Ed McMahon is a senior fellow with the Urban Land Institute who has observed such storylines playing out across small town America for years.
"Even before Covid-19, ‘amenity migration’ was becoming a phenomenon," says McMahon. "People from cities started moving or buying second homes in the country, with natural amenities, more space, cheaper properties, less crime, and other appeals. The pandemic and remote working kicked this into high gear, creating ‘Zoom towns’ across the country. Bend, Oregon; Cashiers, North Carolina; Fairhope, Alabama; Manchester, Vermont; Middleburg, Virginia. The list goes on and on."
"Change can make people uneasy. But no change is also not good. You want to be thoughtful about what you bring, but you can’t just lock the door."
Echoing Arber, McMahon says the explosion of short-term rentals (STRs), which can earn owners considerably more than long-term rentals, has sent housing prices skyrocketing. In addition to regulating STRs, McMahon recommends surplus public lands be allocated for affordable housing, which bypasses often prohibitive land costs.
"We’re seeing affordable housing getting incorporated on top of libraries and fire stations, and other places on city, county, state and federal land," he says.
McMahon also strongly advocates for planned growth. "Tourism can bring benefits, economically, and it expands the tax base, but it can create burdens like congestion and crime. There’s a difference between mass-produced tourism and sustainable growth, and it’s about maximizing benefits and minimizing burdens. Change will happen. If done right, it can fit in with a town’s character. Unplanned, it wreaks havoc. So, in the case of this project in Marfa, it makes all the sense in the world to include and engage the community."
Indeed, Lambert says she intends to involve local residents in the process of seeing her plans through. She understands what’s at play.
"Marfa is landlocked, surrounded by large ranches, so [housing] options are limited," she says. "The cost of living has definitely changed. In order to keep Marfa healthy and vibrant, you don’t want absentee landlords. We need places for our staff to stay. We absolutely need more affordable housing and we’re working as fast as possible to make that happen."
Of course, her project’s public announcement this week will likely rouse mixed, and strong, opinion.
"Everybody here at times may feel like their ox is getting gored," says lifelong Marfa resident Ann Dunlap. "My sense is that Liz is sensitive to the community’s needs. Plus, this new 3-D print construction technology sounds fascinating. And change is in the flavor of our lives. I’ve seen Marfa go from around 5,000 in the early 1950s to under 2,000, and of course no one wants to see it go back to tumbleweeds and broken windows."
Lambert concurs. "Change can make people uneasy," she says. "But no change is also not good. You want to be thoughtful about what you bring, but you can’t just lock the door."
She imagines Donald Judd would approve.
Certainly, no one fifty years ago could have imagined Judd’s impact on Marfa. The hope now seems to be that, with careful deliberation, the future here will promise strong, successive changes and iterations—not unlike the sturdy, stratified layers in the walls of a 3D-printed building.
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