The Future of Affordable Living – ICON Is Rethinking The Way That We Build Housing Around the World
ICON is radically rethinking how we will solve the worlds lack of affordable housing – the company seeks to use 3-D printing to “print” quality houses on the spot faster and more efficiently than ever thought possible.
The depressing lack of affordable housing affects 300 million families, over 1 billion individuals, worldwide. These families are homeless or forced to live in extremely poor housing situations normally categorized as slums and the number of affected families is expected to grow to 400M in the next 7 years. ICON, an Austin, TX based startup led by Jason Ballard seeks to radically rethink how we can solve this problem – they seek to use 3-D printing to “print” quality houses on the spot faster and more efficiently than ever thought possible.
Using revolutionary and advanced technology, the company has recently designed a portable robot that has the ability to lay down concrete, layer by layer, gradually building up the walls and visage of a normal house. Using this additive manufacturing method, the company seeks to minimize waste as the machine lays down only the concrete necessary to complete the structure. Additionally, the concrete used in the printing process is three times stronger than standard concrete, and the entire printing process can be complete in under 48 hours. ICON’s team believes that they can get the total costs down to $4000 each, less than 2% of the cost an average house in the US and over time, they believe that the process can be shortened to 24 or fewer hours from start to finish.
Operationalizing and testing this idea required more than the simple question of how they could use 3-D printing to build a house can be printed, the whole 3-D printing concept needed to be re-imagined to fit the desired goal. Standard 3-D printing is optimized for small, compact projects but over these past years, ICON needed to not only create a 3-D printing robot large, complex, and precise enough to print out an entire structure, the very materials (primarily concrete) that the housing would be constructed out of needed to be considered and developed as well .
Recently, ICON partnered with the San Francisco based, non-profit, New Story to begin developing a neighborhood of 100 housing units in El Salvatore’s poorest regions for $1M – a price of $10k per unit . It remains to be seen whether or not ICON can get the prices down to their stated $4000/house when they begin operating at scale. If the housing solution in El Salvador proves to be successful, it opens the possibility of ICON expanding its project worldwide. ICON’s CEO, Jason Ballard hopes to bring this technology to the hundreds of millions who are living in the packed and impoverished slums around the world. Looking into the far-future, space isn’t even off the table – Ballard has mentioned that this technology could possibly be used to build habitats in space in the future.
Stepping back from these lofty future visions, ICON has its work cut out for it in how they will scale this process. One of the biggest problem that the ICON team needs to solve is the question of how they will source their construction supplies and specialized labor. Will the team be able produce the specialized printable concrete on-site with locally sourced materials and operate the printing robot with local talent? I believe that if the ICON team truly wants to make this a global solution to the housing crisis, they will need to ensure that the machine can be operated without extremely specialized training and the concrete can be mixed onsite. Many 3-D products require extensive stabilization of the material while the item/product is being build as well as extensive post-processing . Getting this expertise out to the field in these developing countries will certainly be a problem if the team is not already thinking through this problem.
ICONs stated goal is to create the “future of human shelter.” Is it really possible to solve the dense packed housing situations in countries like Bangladesh, India, Philippines, an Haiti with this type of 3D printing technology. One begins to wonder whether the company should start to think about building up rather than simple and separate one story buildings when space for housing and land prices are just as big of an issue as the affordability of the housing. In addition, one of the biggest things that traditional manufacturing has over additive manufacturing is that additive manufacturing’s forte is in its ability to be customized while traditional manufacturing’s strength is in efficiently designing the simplest solution to scale-driven processes , is ICONs solution truly the best way forward?
 King, R., et al, (2017). Towards a More Equal City: Confronting the Urban Housing Crisis in the Global South. World Resources Report. Working Paper. https://www.wri.org/publication/towards-more-equal-city-confronting-urban-housing-crisis-global-south
 ICON Website, (2018), Retrieved from: https://www.iconbuild.com/
 Olson, C. New Story Unveils First 3-D-Printed Home, Newsroom, 12 March 2018, https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/new-story-unveils-first-3-d-printed-home]
 Anderson, W. (2018). Austin startup catches SXSW’s eye with 3D-printed tiny home that costs less than a car. Austin Business Journal.
 Brown, A. Chain Reaction: Why Additive Manufacturing Is About To Transform The Supply Chain.” Mechanical Engineering, The Magazine of ASME, October 2018
 The limits of 3D printing. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles (June 23, 2015)
Student comments on The Future of Affordable Living – ICON Is Rethinking The Way That We Build Housing Around the World
Great writeup! While ordinarily I would agree that the biggest benefit of AM is the potential for customization, I am amazed at how low they’ve gotten the price-point of these houses already (~$10k). If they can get it down to their goal of $4k/house, I imagine it would be difficult for traditional manufacturing to compete (even with 0 customization), assuming they’re both building standalone houses.
I would be really intrigued to see how this technology could be applied to larger multi-level structures, although I question how much of a benefit it would be compared to modularization/assembly. Based on some of the Cemex homes that we saw earlier this semester, it seemed like you could quite easily get 2 stories primarily with cement, so I don’t see why you couldn’t use 3D printing to double the current size.
I think that ICON has a great mission and is really making gains with their 3-D printing technology. Since they have cut costs of building houses so greatly by more than two times less, it seems like ICON actually does have the potential of solving the housing problems in the countries like Bangladesh, India, Philippines, etc. that you mentioned. In addition, I think that it has further potential to solve housing crises in urban areas like Hong Kong and Singapore and ameliorate the prohibitively high costs of housing for middle- and lower-class citizens living in those cities. It seems like ICON’s additive manufacturing technology, to your point, is easily scaled but not easily customized. However, I don’t think that matters as much, given that there can always be more expensive customized options that are available for those that are less constrained.
Thank you for the essay! ICON has a great mission, enormous market to address and technology which seems to work. I would be very happy to see this company succeeding. ICON has already started being engaged in a real project in El Salvador which is very inspiring. However, I see the biggest value of the project in rebuilding already existing slums, not building houses in areas which are empty of buildings. In order to do so effectively, I believe the company needs to know not only how to build and but also how to demolish quickly. Given that I would advise the management to think about developing a product or cooperating with existing players who specialize in demolishing buildings in order to decrease the time needed to renovate slums and, as a result, magnify the impact.
This article is truly fascinating, and the topic is fascinating and quite relevant! It does appear that ICON has an interesting solution to one dimension of the housing crisis — construction costs and scalability. Similar to the previous commenters, I’m a bit concerned about resident/consumer demand for houses that need to be somewhat uniform. Perhaps this technology could be used with a design feature that allows the houses to be designed in a more modular manner and pieced together to the liking of each resident. Alternatively, if ICON can build or acquire the capability to move their homes medium to long distances, they could distribute them over larger geographical areas and make them seem more unique to each consumer.
Zooming out a bit, there is some serious critique of the notion that increasing the housing stock will actually solve the housing crisis, at least in American cities. A recent Federal reserve study (https://www.forbes.com/sites/eriksherman/2018/08/03/additional-building-wont-make-city-housing-more-affordable-says-fed-study/#61b358f9218b) shows that the housing supply has little to no effect on increasing rents and other housing costs, relative to the distribution of high enough paying jobs and
Houses or not, there’s some really interesting hardware innovation going on here. I like this idea of a large scale printing machine. I wonder if there are more monetizable applications that could be had with this printing technology. Could this concrete printing “robot” be deployed in large scale commercial construction? I think this company could do well to use it’s socially-responsible aura to move parallel into green-oriented commercial construction. A premium could probably be charged for green construction while simultaneously realizing significant cost benefit from reduced labor required to build. Where else can large scale printing go? What are the applications with materials other than concrete?
Cool unexpected application of 3-d printing technology! I think you are right that the key to commercializing this technology is reducing the cost down to where it would be more affordable than traditional home-building. Many of the places where people currently lack affordable housing have quite low labor costs to begin with, so it seems like reducing labor cost via 3-d printing is not a big relative advantage of this technology. I think the key is to reduce material costs and I’m curious as to whether the material cost savings from decreased waste are large enough to make this technology more cost-efficient overall for use in the developing world. How much of the total cost of a new build is attributable to waste?