Special Video Series Agents of Change

How 3D-printed homes can help fix the housing crisis in America

If you’ve been in the market to buy a home in the past year or two, you’ve probably been blown away by the soaring prices. As huge institutional players such as Blackrock vacuum up the shrinking inventory and flip their new purchases into rental properties, millions of families have put their dream of buying a home on a back shelf for now. And the problem is even more acute for those hanging onto the bottom rungs of the social ladder, especially the chronically homeless. 

In Austin, Texas, a cutting-edge technology company is fabricating an innovative solution to this massive social problem. “Icon is addressing what is commonly known as the global housing crisis,” says Evan Loomis, co-founder of Icon. “The crisis can be thought about in a lot of ways. But simply put, we don’t make enough houses. And the houses that we desperately need, we cannot afford.”

Icon has designed a massive 3D printer called the Vulcan, which is capable of printing a 2,000 square foot concrete home in a relative blink of an eye. The machine looks like a giant swing set without the swings. In the center of the horizontal framing beam is a sliding hose that pours out layer after layer of perfect concrete rows.

“Your typical house produces about four tons of waste,” says Loomis. But the Vulcan prints out an entire house without wasting a drop of material. Naturally, it’s programmed through a mobile app. The groundbreaking software allows designers to make changes on the fly, and break free of the dreaded right angle. The app enables unique, creative expressions—rounded windows, triangular doors, whatever an architect can dream up.

Icon started their work in Austin by building six homes at Community First! Village, a 51-acre planned community with the mission of lifting the chronically homeless off the streets. It’s run by a pioneering non-profit called Mobile Loaves and Fishes, and is now home to more than 200 residents.

“People who experience poverty are rarely the first people to get access to new technological advancements,” says Amber Fogarty, president of Mobile Loaves and Fishes. “Icon didn’t have to choose to partner with us to build homes for people experiencing chronic homelessness. There are people lining up at their door who would pay a lot of money [for them to build a house]. What I believe about Icon and the team is that there is a deep heart to figure out how to use this technology for good.”

Icon is growing fast. They have a multi-home project in East Austin where they’re developing 900 to 2,000 square foot homes, they’ve teamed up with the Marine Corps to print resilient barracks at high speeds, and they’ve gone down to Tabasco, Mexico to print a community of houses for those living in extreme poverty.

As Icon scales up, the options for affordable housing will become more abundant. But they’re not just limiting their ambitions to our planet. Icon has also partnered with NASA and has printed a rocket landing pad and have been tasked to design printers that can build structures on the moon.

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