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3-D Printing Could Help Solve a Housing Crisis

A Texas firm says that a house can be built in one day, offering a way to provide shelter quickly in impoverished or storm-struck areas

Posted on Mar 15 2018 by Scott Gibson

New Story, a housing charity based in San Francisco, can build a community of 100 houses in El Salvador or Haiti in about eight months, with each dwelling costing about $6,000. But in a partnership with an Austin, Texas, technology company called ICON, New Story can look forward to building a new home in a single day at a cost of $4,000.

What's putting this within reach is ICON's 3-D printing equipment that created a 350-square-foot prototype house in Austin earlier this month. The building, described by as the first 3-D printed house to be code-compliant and approved for occupancy, was unveiled at the South by Southwest conference.

ICON's Vulcan printer dispenses a concrete blend in strands roughly 1 inch thick, laying up the walls of the house layer by layer. The mix retains its shape as it's placed and allows the printer to continue its programmed journey until the walls are complete. A crew must still install windows and doors, and frame the roof, but the entire process can take place in a day.

The houses may not look like high-end architectural award-winners, but they offer a way of providing safe, comfortable housing in regions of extreme poverty, and at a pace and price far superior to conventional construction.

Alexandria Lafci, a co-founder and chief operating officer at New Story, told that ICON's technology is attractive because it can help alleviate a critical housing problem in much less time than conventional building programs could.

"There are over 100 million people living in slum conditions in what we call survival mode," Lafci told the magazine. "How can we make a big dent in this instead of just solving it incrementally?"

Great potential ahead

As the article in Wired notes, architects and construction companies have been tinkering with 3-D printing technology to create buildings for a number of years. In 2013, a Chinese company printed 10 houses in one day, and later a six-story apartment building, and then an 11,000-square-foot mansion.

A San Francisco-based company called printed an igloo-shaped house for about $10,000 in less than 24 hours at a site in Russia. The head of marketing for the company told Wired that the technology could be used to provide affordable housing for a large number of people in a short amount of time.

The prototype in Austin, however, is apparently the first printed house that could meet local code requirements and was ready for people to move in. ICON envisions upgrades to the process that would allow the robotic installation of windows after the walls have been printed, with drones spray-painting the walls. It may even be possible to develop techniques for printing roofs as well, although that's not possible with materials and techniques currently available.

In addition to offering speed and lower construction costs, 3-D printing also makes it easy to create features that would be difficult with conventional construction. Printing complex shapes and curved walls, for example, would be no more difficult than building a plain box.

The printer ICON developed for the Austin house had to meet a number of conditions set by New Story, and overcome some technical hurdles in its inaugural run. Lafci told Wired that the plan now is to ship the device to El Salvador later in the year where it be put to work printing its first community of houses.

The Austin house is the only one that ICON's Vulcan has printed to date, so how the printer performs on real job sites has yet to be seen. The process is still being refined, Quartz reports, but New Story hopes it will soon be possible to print an 800-square-foot house in just six hours.

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  1. ICON

Mar 15, 2018 5:04 PM ET

by Walter Ahlgrim

Is there any rebar or other reinforcement in the wall?

If not what prevents the concrete from cracking?

Does it start on bare earth? Or does it require the require excavation, footing, foundation and floor slab be done manually?

How many operator hours are requires building the walls.


Mar 15, 2018 6:12 PM ET

Edited Mar 15, 2018 6:13 PM ET.

Stone soup
by Charlie Sullivan

This strikes me as another flavor of stone soup. We can build a wall with a 3D printer! All we need tradespeople for is site prep, installing windows, doors electrical, plumbing, the roof, trim, painting, insulation, drywall over the insulation, HVAC, etc.

Building walls is the cheapest, easiest, fastest part of building a house. Clients are convinced that they'll be ready to move in in just a few weeks when they see how fast the walls go up. Then it's many months, and many dollars later that the building is finished.

So is this a better way to build walls? Maybe it could eventually make sense in a region with really high labor costs. El Salvador doesn't seem like the most likely place for that. But for now, it doesn't sound like there's much savings in labor:

When it came time to test the printer in Austin, Ballard says there were a few surprises. The concrete pump kept getting stuck, and heavy rain in Austin jammed up a few parts. "We had to clean it, like, every eight layers," says Ballard. "Just stop, clean." But eventually, the house was printed, and the finished structure met all of Austin's permitting standards.

Mar 15, 2018 8:57 PM ET

by Malcolm Taylor

I agree. I keep seeing these printed dwellings being touted as the answer to third world housing problems - and now disaster relief. If they are so efficient, why haven't there been any commercial applications? Why not directly compete against other construction methods? I understand the usefulness of 3d printing to make small objects, but so far scaling it up looks like a solution in search of a problem.

Mar 16, 2018 5:14 AM ET

Response to Charlie Sullivan
by Martin Holladay

Your "stone soup" analogy is a good one -- at least for First World houses.

In rural areas of Africa and Asia, though, homes can be quite simple, without any insulation, plumbing, or wiring. In such circumstances, a fast, cheap way to build walls might help shelter people after a natural disaster. However, having responded to an earthquake in Armenia, I can't imagine that this type of 3-D printer would be the cheapest, most efficient way to build walls in a devastated country after a natural disaster.

So I agree with you and Malcolm: This sounds like a solution in search of a problem.

Mar 16, 2018 1:06 PM ET

by Walter Ahlgrim

If an earth quake knock down your unreinforced masonry house and someone prints an unreinforced masonry house are you safer?

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