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  • Writer's pictureMolly Becker

Austin's Icon says new 3D-printing tech can help with housing affordabilty

Updated: May 8, 2019

With Central Texas in the throes of a housing affordability crisis, an Austin-based company says it might have part of the answer.

Construction technologies firm Icon on Monday showed off its next generation 3D printer for homes, Vulcan II, at its warehouse at 444 St. Elmo Road in South Austin.

“We have been hard at work developing the next generation of our technology and are thrilled to unveil the Vulcan II printer today and announce we will begin shipping them next month and actively accepting requests for 2020,” Jason Ballard, Icon’s co-founder and CEO, said in a written statement. The company has about 20 full-time employees and last year raised $9 million in a seed round of financing toward its mission to build affordable housing around the world, faster and cheaper than using traditional methods.

Ballard said Icon’s advanced 3D technology is capable of building homes that are more affordable, and more resilient, than the original 3D printer it debuted last year at South by Southwest. That printer was used to create Icon’s prototype home, a 350-square-foot house on Chicon Street in East Austin. That house was built in 47 hours of total printing time, at a cost of about $10,000.

Ballard said the Vulcan II printer marks a milestone as the company’s technology moves out of the lab and into the real world. This year, Icon and New Story, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, plan to break ground on a community of 3D-printed homes in Latin America.

The New Story project aims to serve families without access to adequate housing. When completed, it is expected to house more than 400 people. The average family in the community is expected to be four people living on less than $200 a month, New Story and Icon officials say.

“It’s our mission at Icon to re-imagine the approach to homebuilding and construction and make affordable, dignified housing available to everyone throughout the world,” Ballard said. “We’re in the middle of a global housing crisis and making old approaches a little better is not solving the problem. The homebuilding industry needs a complete paradigm shift.”

Icon’s printing uses 3D robotics, software and advanced materials with a proprietary concrete mixture called “lavacrete.” Icon says lavacrete has passed every structural test Icon has put it through.

“This means our homes will be safe for people to live in and resilient to the varieties of conditions where we may deploy this technology,” Ballard said.

He said the company aims to make homes at a cost of up to $125 a square foot. The 3D printing has the ability to cut costs of homebuilding by 30-50 percent compared to traditional construction methods, Ballard said.

Icon will begin shipping the Vulcan II to existing partners next month. One is Austin-based developer Cielo Property Group, which has commissioned a printer to be dedicated to the city of Austin to create affordable housing.

“We expect this printer to produce thousands and thousands of affordable homes in Austin,” Cielo co-founder Bobby Dillard said in a written statement. “We will begin printing the first few homes by the end of the year with production speeding up after we get a few under our belt.”

Last year, Cielo committed $1 million to provide more permanent housing for people living on Austin’s streets or in shelters.

Dillard said Cielo saw “the incredible advances Icon was making in the technology to print homes faster and much cheaper than they could be built by traditional construction methods. It just seemed like a great opportunity to commission a printer dedicated to creating affordable housing here in our community.”

With the new printer officially unveiled, Dillard said, “we will begin looking for available sites and print homes wherever the opportunity makes sense. This could include city-owned land, existing affordable housing communities or private land that someone makes available.”

It’s too early to know what the houses will cost because it depends on factors including size, finishes, layout and mechanical systems, Dillard said.

Walter Moreau, executive director of Foundation Communities, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing and on-site social services for low-income residents, said the use of 3D printing likely won’t have much impact on the issue.

“I wish that there was a magic printer that could truly deliver affordable housing, but realistically this technology might only have a tiny impact on the final all-in cost of a home,” Moreau said. “Reducing the cost of the wall construction by one third only ends up being a fraction of the overall cost to build a home. You cannot 3D print the land, utility connections, finishes, fixtures, or construction workers needed for all the specialty trades. You cannot avoid soft development costs like interim taxes and construction financing, even if the construction timeline is a bit shorter.”

Eldon Rude, an Austin-area housing industry expert, said the greatest demand for smaller 3D printed homes will be in urban areas -- but it will be difficult to build these units on a large scale in those aread.

“First, land and lot costs represent a big percentage of the cost of building a home in the urban core of Austin, and I don’t see that changing,” Rude said. “Secondly, and maybe just as significant, obtaining the necessary zoning and entitlements to build these homes in the city will likely prove challenging, not to mention getting buy-in from the neighborhoods.”

Still, Rude said the technology holds promise.

“There’s certainly no one solution to the affordability issues Austin is currently facing, but revolutionary technologies like this can be an important part of helping meet the challenges we face,” Rude said.

Meeting with Icon Friday and touring the Austin prototype home, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson also expressed optimism.

“HUD is interested in any technology that is going help us with our affordable housing situation, which is why we’ve been so active in removing barriers for manufactured housing,” Carson said.

On Friday, Ballard told the American-Statesman that if “someone like the (HUD) secretary comes out and is enthusiastic, that makes people realize this is not science fiction.”

By Shonda Novak

Posted Mar 11, 2019 at 3:15 PM

Updated Mar 11, 2019 at 6:59 PM

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