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An Iconic Way to Build

Founded in 2017, ICON is one example of what the future of home building looks like—all made possible by 3D-printing technology and ambitious dreams. Cofounder and CEO Jason Ballard discusses how such a home is printed and what truly keeps the ICON team motivated.

Describe what the beginning of ICON looked like:

The initial project aimed to create the first permitted 3D-printed house alongside our nonprofit partner, New Story, an organization aiming to help end homelessness. We wanted to illustrate the possibility of delivering 3D-printed, single-story homes that could be more resilient, be more affordable, and be delivered at a faster pace with more design freedom. In March 2018, the first home 3D-printed by us was completed in about forty-eight hours at a 350-square-foot lot in East Austin, Texas. Soon after, ICON raised a seed round of $9 million dollars (where Oakhouse Partners led the funding round) and we subsequently revealed the next-generation technology, including the Vulcan II printer, which is now printing homes in central Texas and Mexico. The team recently delivered a series of homes in Tabasco, Mexico, as part of New Story’s project to 3D-print a community for families living on three dollars a day. We founded ICON because we knew there was a better way to build. With our technology, we can provide more sustainable solutions.

Photography by Regan Morton

Were there obstacles at the beginning of ICON’s journey?

When the idea was just forming, nobody wanted to fund something they were not even sure was possible. We had to come up with some form of derisking the technology, of showing that it was possible. ICON had to get houses on the ground, and, to do that, we had to get the technology ready.

Austin also has some of the strictest building codes, and we are proud of the hard work to obtain the full occupancy permit for the first home printed in East Austin. We worked with the city, inspectors, and structural engineers to follow guidelines both during preplanning and in postprint phases.

Photography by Regan Morton

What is the process like to create a 3D-printed home—from concept to final standing product?

Our tech team works closely on structural engineering and architecture plans. Once a design is finalized, it is converted to a digital file that the Vulcan II printer can then follow. The print jobs vary based on the complexity of the design, size, and other considerations, such as location and weather. For example, a 400- to 500-foot home takes around twenty-four hours to print. In terms of materials and engineering, the projects begin with the Vulcan II printer for homes being mounted to rails and affixed to a foundation. The printer can print up to 2,000-square-foot homes and prints at five to seven inches per second. The gantry system—a robotic system typically used in 3D printing—is designed to precisely control the placement of material on concrete over a large print area. Industrial software and a tablet-based user interface makes it easy to select, design, and print structures. The proprietary cement-based material that we dubbed Lavacrete is then mixed and delivered via the Magma system—our automated material-mixing system—and extruded layer by layer until the desired height is reached.

Photography by Regan Morton

Your mission is largely centered around affordability, giving back to the community, and sustainability. Would you go into more detail on these aspects of your mission?

It has been an honor to partner with Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a social outreach organization. They’re one of the most innovative companies in Texas, and they started the Community First! Village, which is the country’s only development designed specifically for the chronically homeless. We’ve built a series of 3D-printed homes in the northeast Austin village, helping to house 480 individuals who were previously homeless. We also delivered a beautiful welcome center for the village. The work Mobile Loaves & Fishes is doing to serve those who have experienced homelessness is inspiring. It makes all of us at ICON want to bring the very best of ourselves to the job each day. It pushes us to achieve our mission to deliver dignified, affordable housing to everyone, everywhere. Because, at the end of the day, it’s our goal to create homes at half the cost, and we are getting closer with each completed project. Imagine a world where no one is without shelter. That’s what keeps this team motivated.

Photography by Regan Morton

Can someone request a 3D-printed home from ICON?

Right now, ICON is working on a few big projects to deliver homes in Latin America and central Texas. While we are not currently able to accommodate individual home requests, it is a goal to get there in the future as we continue to scale by building more printers and delivering homes in more areas.

We have a survey on our website meant to understand what the desires out there are, but it is not at this time a request form for projects. Do you think 3D printing is the future of home construction?

Housing of our future must be different than the housing we have known. 3D printing offers speed and decreases the amount of manual labor needed. Concrete is also a well-understood, affordable, resilient material with a high thermal mass (which offers comfort and energy efficiency). There’s less waste and more freedom for design—curves and slopes are no more challenging or expensive than straight lines. 3D printing combines multiple systems into one system that encompasses foundation, structure, and insulation.

Photography by Regan Morton

What is your vision for the future of ICON? What is the ultimate goal?

We believe that it is existentially urgent to find a way to shelter ourselves in a way that is more affordable and sustainable. We believe 3D printing can completely shift the paradigm of home building, eliminating the need for folks to choose between things like affordability, design freedom, and sustainability. We want a world that offers resilient housing accessible to everyone.

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