Building houses is massively wasteful. During the construction process, building projects accumulate giant piles of garbage from off-cuts of lumber and drywall to pallets that carry materials and the packaging they come in. And once operating, homes consume huge amounts of energy.
“It turns out if you triage the world and you ask where are all these ecological health issues coming from, you get a surprising answer,” Jason Ballard, co-founder and president of ICON, says. “It’s not the gas guzzling SUVs and private jets; it’s buildings, especially homes. They are the number one consumer of energy by sector and the number two user of water.”
Ballard’s company is pioneering a method to 3D print homes out of concrete that will reduce their waste and energy consumption, as well as their cost, by significant margins. And it’s partnering with New Story, a charity that builds housing in developing nations, to bring inexpensive, efficient, attractive, and innovative housing to the world’s poorest communities.
“We need a fundamental paradigm shift,” Ballard says of the way we currently build houses. He says that 3D printing fulfills a series of needs we’ll have as the climate continues to change and our homes must become more energy efficient and more resistant to the looming risk of big storms and sea level rise.
3D printed homes might offer that by being “faster, cheaper, less wasteful, and more resilient to fire, flood, and mold.”
The team at ICON has built its own printer that uses a proprietary mix of concrete, which is placed in one continuous stream to build a home. This means the house doesn’t require any mortar because it has no gaps. “When you print something onsite you’re printing a near continuous thermal envelope,” Ballard explained. “There’s a lot less air penetration. If you build a house with sticks and bricks and drywall you have to seal the house. 3D printing is a continuous monolith.”
And because of this continuous printing there’s virtually no excess left over. When it comes to traditional construction, “there are Matterhorn sized piles of waste” created every year. But with the 3D printing method, the only waste that’s left from a single house is about a wheelbarrow’s worth of concrete that comes from cleaning out the machine after it’s finished working.
The current version of the printer can build a 1,000-square-foot, one-floor house in a single day. The upgraded version two, due out in nine months, will increase the size to 3,000 square feet. And, he says, they are currently thinking about tackling the challenge of adding a second story.
The ease of building and printing these homes makes them ideal for ICON’s partner, New Story, whose mission it is to build homes in low income nations. So far New Story has built about 2000 traditional concrete block houses in countries like Haiti, Mexico, and El Salvador. The current houses are usable, according to the company’s CEO Brett Hagler, but, he says, upgrading their work to 3D printing would significantly reduce the cost and speed of building. Additionally, the homes will be more climatologically resilient—essential in regions of the world that are being ravaged by storms that are growing increasingly more powerful due to climate change.
New Story plans to get into the printing game in 2019. Working with ICON they’re developing a new version of the printer that can be shipped to El Salvador and have the capacity to print hundreds—maybe even thousands—of homes. They have a site already selected and for their first project they're planning to build the world’s first 3D printed community. The people of the community that will eventually move into the homes, he says, are very excited. They will be able to tailor each home to the specific need of each family living inside them.
“They love that fact that we’ll have better designs and better fit homes based on needs. … They love the design and that’s very important to us. We’re working with some of the poorest families in the world. Design and beauty is very important from a dignity standpoint,” Hagler says.
What’s particularly notable about the team-up between New Story and ICON is that even though ICON has seen interest from 2,500 entities looking to build nearly 1 million 3D printed homes (which includes prestigious US building companies and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia), the first people to live in these innovative and advanced homes will be some of the world’s poorest.
“It’s so exciting that some of the families that are in the most need on our hemisphere in the Caribbean and Latin America are going to be living in this new breakthrough technology first and that’s almost never the case,” Hagler says. “The world’s poor get technology towards the end and this time they'll be the first.”