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.
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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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?