Is 3D Printed Housing the Future?

Written by Ashley Sutphin Posted On Friday, 12 April 2024 00:00

In a location outside of Austin, Texas, machines are creating three- and four-bedroom homes—100 to be exact. Lennar, one of the country's biggest homebuilders, partnered with ICON, a 3D printing company, on this project. They are creating the first housing development that's 3D printed on-site.

Lennar invested in ICON early on, printing out more than a dozen homes in Texas and Mexico. The houses hit the market in 2023, starting in the high-$400,000s.

Stuart Miller, the executive chairman of Lennar, said they are working on the first 100 homes but are hoping to scale the project. At scale, Miller says they can bring cycle times down and costs.

ICON says it can build the wall system of the house, including the mechanical, plumbing, and engineering, two to four times faster than traditional homes and at as much as 30% of the cost.

Jason Ballard, co-founder, and CEO of ICON said that they're going beyond code requirements for wind and compressive strength by four times, and they're currently around 2 ½ times more energy efficient.

ICON says its printers can operate 24 hours a day but don't because of noise restrictions. Three workers are at each home, so the printers are almost entirely automated. One worker will monitor the process on a laptop, one checks concrete mixtures to make sure they're adapted to current weather conditions, and another will provide support, like adding new materials to the system.

The robotic construction could reduce labor costs significantly, and ICON says it's working on getting the number of needed operators down to two over the next 12 months.

Eventually, Ballard says his hope is even fewer than this, with one person watching a dozen systems.

So how does it work?

First, a digital floorplan is loaded into the software system used. That software, Build OS, then prepares it for construction robotically. The structural reinforcement is automatically mapped out, and the electrical and plumbing outlets are placed during printing. The printer will then squeeze rows of concrete mixture like toothpaste, slowly building the structure up.

Companies like Mighty Buildings, based in California, also work with 3D printing, but they print their homes in factories and then move them on-site, whereas ICON's factory is on-site.

Ballard says ICON has plans to work with other builders already, with DR Horton being one of their early investors.

Plans for the project with ICON started during the frenzied pandemic housing market. Now, mortgage rates are much higher, so demand has fallen significantly, introducing a new risk element into the whole concept.

Housing availability was prioritized at this year's Austin-based South by Southwest festival. Ballard spoke at the festival, saying that the buildings and homes of the future have to be different than what they are currently.

Four years ago, Icon debuted the first permitted 3D home at SXSW. This year, Icon presented House Zero. These homes, which are what we talk about above, are ranch-style.

The current designs can have cave-like elements because a sense of organic form comes with 3D printing naturally. Some have described it as being like a bunker but also having a sense of coziness. There's an open concept currently pervasive in these designs, where you can see throughout the house when you're inside, and the doors are open.

It remains to be seen if there's going to be delivery on the promise that 3D printing will open up new possibilities to provide sufficient housing for the world. Still, for the few people who currently live in these unique homes, they do feel like the future.  

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