Stronger, Faster, and More Affordable and No Longer Just a Concept
3D-Printed Homes May Be The Answer for the Future of Housing


3D-printed houses could help address severe housing shortages that have led to soaring home prices, overcrowding, evictions and homelessness across the U.S. The next evolution will be market-rate houses that compete side by side with traditionally built homes.

 “House Zero” a 2,000 square foot, 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath home and a 350 square-ft, 1 bedroom/1 bath accessory dwelling unit
is ICON’s latest project in East Austin designed by Lake|Flato Architects.

A faster, cheaper way to build homes that cuts down on material waste is worth considering.  What if a new technology could also reduce the need for human labor at a time when home builders are struggling to find enough skilled workers to meeting housing demand?   What if a buyer could get a home that looks and lives similar to the one down the street but is proved to be safer, more resilient, better able to withstand fire, flood, wind, and other natural disasters than conventional homes?

ICON, an Austin-based construction technology company, says its 3D printing system can do the work of 10 to 20 workers in five or six different trades. And unlike humans, the machines can work up to 24 hours a day.  ICON first showed off 3D-printed homes at the South by Southwest festival in 2018 using a Vulcan printer that could create an 800-square-foot structure for about $10,000.  Since then, ICON has printed more than two dozen houses and structures over the past few years.  These include quick affordable disaster relief housing projects and social housing.  Seven of the houses were 3D-printed last year for homeless people at Community First Village in Austin.

Layers of semi-solid concrete cure to form the structural frame.

ICON’s newly unveiled Vulcan construction system can 3D print homes and structures up to 3,000 square feet, is 1.5x larger and 2x faster than the previous ICON Vulcan 3D printers.

ICON’s 3D-printed houses are created by inputting a home’s architectural plans into a Vulcan printer positioned on the jobsite that communicates with a large concrete extrusion machine.  Early pioneers of the technology have developed their own proprietary cementitious mixtures which are manually mixed and fed into the extrusion machine.  Next, the computer provides specific print paths for the extrusion machine to follow to generate uniform layers of semi-solid concrete that cure to form the structural frame.  The printer replaces the traditional methods of building the structure, insulation, sheathing, moisture barrier, and finishing. For now, the rest of the house is built traditionally.

While ICON’s Vulcan printers produce the structural frames on the job site other companies locate their 3D printers in a factory environment.  Oakland, California-based, Mighty Buildings promotes 350-square-foot backyard 3D-printed studios, known in the industry as “accessory dwelling units.” By 3D printing more elements of a house, including floors, ceilings and the roof, they deliver a monolithic shell that increases the airtightness, reduces the thermal leakage, and increases the overall energy efficiency of the structure, making it easier and less costly to meet California’s zero net energy standards.  Mighty Buildings’ mini houses can be used as extra bedrooms, playrooms, gyms or home offices. Modules are transported by truck to the owner’s property, then put into place using a crane. The unit size is limited by the dimensions of the truck bed and the clearance heights of tunnels and overpasses.

Similar progress has been made with 3D-printed concept homes and communities worldwide.  In 2017, a 400-square-foot home was printed in 24 hours in Russia. In Mexico a 3D-printed neighborhood is being built for families living on $3 a day.  An Italian company is building TECLA, the first 3D-printed home made from clay—combining the newest 3D technology with the oldest housing material.

To move beyond a niche market and into market-rate housing, the pioneers of 3D home printing will need to significantly ramp up production and persuade buyers, developers and regulators that 3D printed houses are safe, durable and pleasing to the eye. They’ll also need to train workers to operate the machines and install the walls.

ICON is moving in the right direction in building 3D printed homes that are city-permitted and built for sale. They will compete side by side with traditionally built homes. In East Austin, the first floors of four new homes are 3D printed and upper floors are now being finished using conventional construction practices.  The houses range from 1,000 to 2,000 square feet and took between five and seven days of printing time.  Starting prices will be in the mid-$400s, which is close to the current median home price in Austin.

Mighty Builders is teaming up with a Beverly Hills-based developer to create the first 3D-printed zero net energy home development in Rancho Mirage, California, an upscale community near Palm Springs.  The first 15 lots sold out quickly. and with a waiting list of 500 homebuyers, more similar community plans are in the works, say its developers. Rancho Mirage’s 1,450 square foot, single-story homes will have backyards with 700-square-foot guest houses and swimming pools in their backyards.  Both the primary houses and guest houses implement Mighty Builders’ now proven 3D built process.  The developers say the selling prices from the mid-$800s at Rancho Mirage are about 40% less than comparable quality homes built traditionally. Mighty Builders is also investing in research and technology to adapt their processes to larger single-family homes and developing a fiber-reinforced version of their proprietary material.  With structural properties similar to steel, they aspire to unlock multistory and multifamily opportunities with 3D printing.