🎙️ Housing Revolution

[4 minutes to read] Plus: Could 3D printing solve housing issues?

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Today, we'll discuss how 3D printing could create affordable housing and put a dent in the homeless problem.

All this, and more, in just 4 minutes to read.

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3D Printing a Housing Revolution

Icon’s Jason Ballard

Grand visions

“If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, then we’re going to get what we’ve got—and what we got ain’t working.” — Jason Ballard

Meet Icon’s Jason Ballard, who wants to put a dent in the affordable housing crisis. Could his tiny Austin, Texas-based company disrupt the trillion-dollar construction industry?

In 2018, Ballard and his team presented at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin. The idea: 3D print a house sustainably, cheaply, and efficiently. Ballard believes a new construction approach is the key to transforming the housing market, solving homelessness, and creating affordable housing for all — without breaking the bank.

Icon delivered the world’s first permitted, 3D-printed home worldwide. Today, Icon has 3D-printed over 100 homes in the U.S. and Mexico and, soon, will complete the world’s first 3D-printing housing community north of Austin.

“To address the global housing crisis, something radical and courageous needs to happen,” Ballard says. “Construction-scale 3D printing is designed to not only deliver high-quality homes faster and more affordably, but fleets of printers can change the way entire communities are built for the better.”

100 3D-printed homes in Texas

The problem

So much of today’s new construction is about building fast and using cheap materials without regard for the environmental consequences, all with the goal of driving profits and then moving to the next build.

Ballard wants to change that.

He knows that construction is a major contributor to landfill waste. It’s a big user of water resources, and a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found about half of Americans reported affordable housing was a “major problem” in their area.

Ballard believes his company can 3D-print homes for $99,000 or less in under a month. There’s not much hammering or sawing at the construction sites, just a robot 3D printing concrete homes built to last.

“We need innovation like our lives depend on it,” Ballard says. “There is not a bright human future if we cannot shelter ourselves appropriately.

“I think [the housing crisis] is worse than you imagine,” Ballard adds, noting that most new housing today is built fastly, with low-quality materials. “It’s rather soul-less housing.”

How it works

Icon launched in 2017 and has since received nearly half a billion dollars in funding. It’s earned a contract with NASA and partnered with leading architects. It uses strong concrete, which is called “Lavacrete,” printed in layers to form walls.

A large machine Icon called the “Vulcan” prints by stacking ¾-inch layers of concrete. For now, human construction workers add roofs, windows, and other parts.

“The way people try to make affordable housing today, they trim quality of materials, they trim quality of labor,” Ballard says. “The result is these cookie-cutter developments.

“We are not succeeding at something we have to get right. On top of that, the way we build is an ecological disaster. It is existentially urgent that we shelter ourselves without ruining the planet that we have to live on.”

Today, homes start at about $500,000. Ballard says the hope is that the price will fall over time, just like electric vehicle costs have decreased drastically since around 2010.

Reasons for optimism

Here’s why 3D printing is seen as a beacon of hope among construction investors:

Speed and efficiency: Robots can print homes in two weeks (sometimes even quicker), an increased speed that could help solve the urgent need for housing in crises or rapidly growing areas. For example, 3D printing could quickly provide temporary or permanent housing, allowing communities to recover faster from natural disasters.

Cost-effectiveness and environmental benefits: Construction costs could fall because robots can better optimize material usage while minimizing waste, thus limiting its impact on the environment.

Localized construction: 3D printing can be performed exclusively on-site, without transporting materials from counties (or states) away. This becomes especially beneficial in remote or hard-to-reach locations, keeping costs down.

Resource efficiency: Not all 3D-printed homes need to be boring concrete structures. They’re customizable and can be designed based on specific needs and preferences, accommodating various family sizes and lifestyle requirements, including for people in hurricane-, flood- and earthquake-prone regions.

Investors hope 3D printing helps solve housing shortages

Final thoughts

To be sure, 3D printing for housing isn’t prevalent. Widespread adoption still faces challenges such as regulatory approval, scalability, and the need for further technological advancements.

But Ballard has raised hundreds of millions of dollars and hopes to be a role model for the industry. He believes robots will build “almost everything” in the future.

“I don’t think that’s very far away,” he says. When that happens, “housing will be more abundant, more affordable, and more beautiful.”

“I would resign if I was only allowed to build luxury homes,” Ballard continues. “But we would go bankrupt if all we built was 3%-margin homes for homeless people…But once this technology arrives and it’s in full force, I think it will fundamentally transform the way we build.

“I have this one precious life to live, and I’m using it to do this.”

Dive deeper

For more, check out Ballard’s interview on the How I Built This Podcast.

See you next time!

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