How ICON Is Building the $4,000 3D-Printed Homes of the Future

ICON wants to tackle global homelessness by changing the face of construction and home design.
Text by

In 2017, ICON co-founders Jason Ballard, Evan Loomis, and Alex Le Roux met Brett Hagler, co-founder of the non-profit New Story, and realized that they had a united mission: To employ 3D printing and new building technologies to transform the construction industry and provide affordable, durable, and sustainable homes to those in need.

This is the first permitted 3D-printed home ever completed. ICON completed the 3D-printed portion of the home in about 48 hours.

It was almost as if the two companies were destined to join forces: New Story was searching for innovative ways to bring quality housing to more families, and ICON was developing proprietary 3D printing technology and materials that could do just that.

ICON prints walls layer by layer using a new type of mortar developed specifically for the purpose. 

Just eight months later, in March 2018, ICON and New Story completed the first permitted 3D-printed home in Austin, Texas. The 350-square-foot home was printed by a device called the Vulcan I in approximately 48 hours. What’s more, the cost for the printed portion (the roof was not 3D printed) was about $10,000—a sum well below the average cost for a home of similar size and quality.

ICON developed its Vulcan I 3D printer over a period of about two years. The gantry-style printer on rails is mobile and weighs about 2,000 pounds.

How exactly is that possible, you ask? ICON's founders focused on designing 3D printing technology specifically for the developing world—and after about two years, they arrived at a feasible solution. Because site characteristics, weather, and availability of materials can vary tremendously, the Vulcan I is mobile, weighs approximately 2,000 pounds, and prints on-site in a continuous fashion.

The printing material is a type of cementitious mixture that ICON developed specifically for their needs (they have several patents pending on both the hardware and materials). Although the mortar is proprietary, it is composed of basic materials that are easily accessible throughout the world.

The home in Austin is approximately 350 square feet and features two rooms, with an interior partition made from the same 3D-printed mortar as the exterior walls.

The team wanted the home to be both recognizable and desirable as a house—but, as Ballard explains, they also "wanted to show off a few possibilities that are opened up with 3D printing," like curves and other non-uniform shapes. This is an area where 3D printing excels—elements that were traditionally bespoke can now be completed cheaper, faster, and often at a higher and more consistent quality.

For example, the home is essentially rectangular in shape, but it has two filleted, curved corners that give it a distinct exterior. On top of the 3D-printed exterior walls sits a clerestory window for ample daylighting, topped with a cantilevering shed roof that creates a wraparound porch.

Alchemy Builders installed the roof and windows using traditional materials and building methods.

ICON produced virtually zero waste while creating the home—and it's highly durable, low-maintenance, and energy-efficient to boot. The house can also incorporate sustainable features like a graywater system, solar panels, and energy-efficient appliances.

At the same time, there were some limitations to this first build: ICON partnered with Alchemy Builders to complete the home's finishing touches, including the roof, windows, doors, electrical wiring, and plumbing installation. 

Wood-framed windows sit within the home's 3D-printed walls. ICON expects its proprietary mortar to have the same durability as traditional concrete masonry (if not better).

Regardless, the Vulcan I serves as an important proof of concept, and ICON is already looking to the future. In 2019, the company plans to print a community of homes in an underserved population. Each home will run from 600 to 800 square feet, and ICON is targeting a cost of approximately $4,000 per home.

ICON's 3D-printed home is both a proof of concept, as well as an expression of 3D printing's capabilities to execute curved, unique designs.

The next iteration of ICON's 3D printer, called The Vulcan II, will be twice as large and twice as fast as the Vulcan I, explains Ballard. It will be able to print homes up to around 2,000 square feet—"this allows us to serve a much larger swath of homeowners and print a much larger array of home designs," he adds.

Expected to be unveiled later this year, the Vulcan II 3D printer will bring ICON closer to achieving its goal of enabling individuals in the United States to download and print their own homes in 24 hours.

Related Reading: Will 3D Printing Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis? 


Get the Pro Newsletter

What’s new in the design world? Stay up to date with our essential dispatches for design professionals.