These futuristic 3D-printed homes are a rare example of affordable housing in this historically pricey market

April 26, 2022, 3:19 PM UTC

Runaway prices. An epic supply shortage. An average build time of seven months—and growing—for a new home. You don’t have to tell a home hunter the housing market is fundamentally broken.

The average home price in the United States has soared by more than 30% in the past two years, pricing much of America’s middle class out of red-hot markets like Austin, Salt Lake City, and Boston. (Unless you’re making serious bucks, you can pretty much forget San Francisco, where the median home price now tops $1.3 million.) Another frightening data point: The U.S. has a housing gap of roughly 6 million homes, a supply-demand mismatch that will only push home prices further up, up, up.

Evan Loomis saw the problem brewing years ago. “The secular trends that were working their way through the housing space” were flashing a warning signal, says Loomis, a former investment banker turned entrepreneur. “If you live in a city like Austin, Texas, people are feeling what it’s like to not afford a house.”

“A lot of my buddies—college-educated couples that had two jobs—were saying, we can’t afford anything here,” he continues. “So, this idea of the housing crisis felt very near.”

In 2017, Loomis, along with Jason Ballard and Alex Le Roux, cofounded ICON, an Austin-based startup aimed at tackling the housing crisis head-on. ICON is a pioneer in making 3D-printed houses. With the help of its massive printer, which is powered by high-tech robotics and CAD software, ICON builds sturdy, futuristic-looking homes that have won a string of design awards.

Fighting the Truman Show–style housing development

ICON’s gargantuan 3D printer, the Vulcan, can print a 3,000-square-foot home in a matter of days, at a cost that, according to the company, can run as much as 20% to 30% cheaper than a typical new-build home. Instead of lumber and drywall, ICON uses a proprietary building material called “Lavacrete,” a quick-hardening cement formula that’s precisely laid down by the Vulcan, much like toothpaste being squeezed from an industrial-size tube. (The company says its Lavacrete formula is slightly greener than ordinary concrete.) The Vulcan follows a preprogrammed track enabling the architect to design structures that look anything but boxy and predictable. 

“With 3D printing, and automation, if you print 100 homes in a row, all 100 can be different,” Loomis says. As his cofounder, Ballard, said at the SXSW Conference in March, ICON is trying to eliminate America’s love affair with cookie-cutter housing communities.

The Truman Show is the straw man that we’re fighting,” Loomis continues, referring to the dark 1998 comedy that’s set in a residential housing community defined by row upon row of bland, same-style dwellings. “There’s something that’s very soul-sucking about that experience. And unimaginative, frankly.”

Courtesy of ICON

Since building the first permitted 3D-printed home in America in 2018, ICON has constructed more than two dozen such structures, in Austin and in Mexico. Now, with $451 million in venture backing from the likes of Tiger Global, Norwest Venture Partners, and Moderne Ventures, the startup has ambitious expansion plans to deliver thousands of new 3D-printed homes each year.

Those numbers won’t close America’s housing gap, but the company’s technology is getting the attention of some big names; both NASA and the Department of Defense are partnering with ICON. For NASA, ICON is helping the space agency develop 3D-printed structures that could be printed and utilized on the surface of Mars should scientists one day land on and inhabit the Red Planet. And, earlier this month, ICON won a DOD contract to build a 5,700-square-foot 3D-printed barracks at Fort Bliss in Texas, which is expected to be the biggest 3D-printed structure in the Western hemisphere.

Lt. General Doug Gabram, commanding general of United States Army Installation Management Command, says the U.S. military is bullish on the technology.

“Constructing facilities using this cutting-edge technology saves labor costs, reduces planning time, and increases the speed of construction of future facilities,” Gabram said. “We are looking at other ways to use this innovative technique for rapid construction of other types of facilities beyond barracks.”

Courtesy of ICON

The 3D-printed home

Architects, engineers, and green designers have been excitedly talking up the high affordability and zero-waste benefits of 3D-printed homes since the first one was laid down in Beijing in 2016.

Over the past three years, 3D-printed homes and buildings have started popping up here and there across Europe and North America as communities begin to loosen up local building codes to green-light such dwellings. In April of 2021, just as COVID lockdowns were easing across Europe, a Dutch couple became the first Europeans to move into a boulder-shaped, 3D-printed concrete home, the first of five in the city of Eindhoven. The biggest 3D-printed structure is said to be a two-story municipal building in Dubai, printed by the Florida-based 3D-printing tech firm, Apis Cor.

In further signs the market is set for liftoff, ICON last autumn announced a partnership with home-construction giant Lennar and the architecture firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) to build the world’s largest housing community of 3D-printed homes. The community, a 100-home neighborhood outside Austin, is expected to break ground in the coming months.

Following that news, the World Economic Forum pronounced 3D-printing technology one of its top five innovations to watch for in 2022.

Loomis says he and his cofounders started ICON with the idea, “Let’s reimagine the human house. And then once we started heading down that path, we realized that we need to start reimagining entire communities. That’s where we’re headed.”

Each week, Fortune covers the world of innovation in Breakthrough. You can read previous Breakthrough columns here.

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