A solution for America’s affordable housing crisis

3D printed affordable housing is just the kind of shake-up the housing industry has needed for decades

A beautifully illuminated modern house at dusk.

Real estate is an industry in which the old is often romanticized over the new. Meanwhile, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the old way simply can’t cut it in home construction anymore. ICON 3D-printed homes are about as new as it gets — and they have the potential to transform the future of affordable housing in America.

That future means houses built in eight days that are 350% stronger, more environmentally friendly, and cost a fraction of what a traditional build would cost. 

The need for more affordable housing is clear – and growing. There’s a shortage of 10 million affordable homes in America and, more generally, about half of Americans say that finding affordable housing is a problem in their neighborhoods.

ICON CEO Jason Ballard says part of the problem is the “sticks and bricks” approach — the same house-building process that’s been around for a thousand years. “I can’t think of any other industry for which you prefer the hundred-year-old thing instead of the brand new thing.” 

It’s not just about fast homes built in new ways. It’s also about building a life of dignity. An option for people who are homeless as well as middle-class communities to thrive and live their dreams. 

“We want people from every socioeconomic background to have a decent, dignified place to live,” Ballard says.

ICON 3D-printed homes lead the way in affordability and energy efficiency

It’s clear we need more homes. It’s also clear that there are more environmentally sustainable ways to build new homes at the scale that’s necessary for solving the housing affordability crisis in cities across the country. 

According to Ballard, no industry contributes more landfill waste, uses more energy, or adds more atmospheric carbon than housing construction. One reason is that the same materials and processes are currently used for building houses in hurricane, flooding, and wildfire zones. And the current production processes for many of those materials are very wasteful in terms of the amount of natural resources they consume. 

ICON’s unique printing system solves this problem by using concrete-based materials that are customized to the needs of the unique climate and location of each house to ensure optimal energy efficiencies. Concrete reduces heat and air conditioning costs due to its ability to absorb, store, and release heat. It’s far more efficient than timber and sheetrock, costs less than other materials like tile and brick, and produces walls that are 350% stronger than building code requirements. 

All ICON 3D-printed homes are built on location, and the machinery is operated by tablets and smartphones to cut down on waste and construction time. It takes just 24 hours to build the core structure of a home, and just eight days to complete construction start-to-finish – all at a fraction of the cost of traditionally built homes.

The biggest barrier to ICON 3D-printed homes is red tape 

In general, the red tape any builder encounters when trying to build new housing can be overwhelming. Regulatory authorities have good intentions, yet in many cases, their hands are tied by outdated regulations that restrict the types of innovation ICON 3D-printed homes represent. 

As a result, many construction companies pursue the path of least resistance, using fewer design professionals, scaling pre-existing designs, and searching for cheaper materials. In turn, cities regulate even harder.

This leaves cities caught in what Ballard calls the “housing doom loop” in which fewer houses are built over time than are needed and people end up fighting to find adequate housing.

Trust Ventures – a venture capital firm supported by Stand Together Trust – is helping ICON break through this red tape. In addition to providing startup funding, Trust Ventures helped Ballard and his team at ICON earn the critical first permits to 3D-print a house, including the first in America, and pave the way to scale.

An award-winning ICON 3D printed house in East Austin
House Zero, ICON’s award-winning 3D-printed house in East Austin

ICON 3D printed homes are moving us into the future

The 51-acre Community First! Village in Austin – built by the nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes – provides housing for over 400 formerly homeless individuals. ICON built several 3D printed homes as well as the welcome center for the community. This partnership between Mobile Loaves & Fishes and ICON shows what’s possible when we marry technology and innovation to tackle social challenges. Nearby, ICON is currently printing a 100-home community at Wolf Ranch.

ICON has also partnered with iconic hotelier Liz Lambert to print 60 acres of houses on the famed desert campground and arts center, El Cosmico. Keeping affordability in mind, ICON is sponsoring Initiative 99, an architecture competition open to designers to create beautiful  homes that can be built for under $99,000.

Ballard says that the homes of the future need to be profoundly different than today’s. Humans might romanticize old houses, but ICON is building the future to provide affordable, sustainable, and dignified housing for everyone.

“Building the world is a great responsibility,” concludes Ballard. “It’s time for the built environment to join the digital automated robotic revolution that has brought so much good.”

Learn more about Stand Together’s economic progress efforts.