This year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival saw its usual lineup of bands and films, but another more pressing topic was on the table. “It’s existentially urgent that we find new ways to shelter ourselves,” says Jason Ballard, cofounder and CEO of Icon, an Austin-based construction start-up. “The homes and buildings of our future have to be profoundly different than they are today.” For Icon and other disruptors in the construction industry, the solution isn’t about optimizing human labor or materials, but rather, building with robots.
Ballard and his company are imagining a future where all our housing needs are 3D printed using advanced tech. “It’s time for the built environment to join the digital automated robotic revolution that has brought so much good to other industries,” Ballard says.
Four years ago, Icon unveiled the world’s first permitted 3D-printed home at SXSW. That house was designed as a prototype affordable housing unit, and it was later translated into several tiny home villages that the company has helped to build. This year, Icon presented their latest achievement, House Zero.
Designed by Lake Flato Architects in the likeness of a ranch-style residence, the model home is arguably the most advanced formal expression of 3D-printed residential design to date. Its undulating, textural printed concrete walls are interspersed with windows that stretch from floor to ceiling, where a flat traditional timber roof caps it off. “It’s important to do deliberately provocative houses like House Zero,” says Ballard. “It’s about shifting people’s imaginative window about what modern housing can be.”
While it’s good to invite people to dream, what about 3D-printing’s promise to actually create and provide shelter? Is this something people want or need? And what kind of shelter is it, exactly?
For a select group of global citizens who’ve found themselves living in a 3D-printed homes, while the reality may not be quite as glamorous as House Zero, it’s nevertheless been surprisingly comfortable.
“I was worried,” admits Phoenix, Arizona, resident Marcus Shivers about his initial reaction to hearing he could be moving into a 3D-printed home. “It looked like a nice house in the mock-ups, but my main concern was that the technology was new—I wondered who would actually know how to work on the house if something went wrong.”
Marcus and his wife, Shawn, were motivated by the chance to stay in the Tempe neighborhood where they’d lived for decades (but were swiftly getting priced out of), so they took the leap and signed on to take ownership of the home, which was recently completed by Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona.
Targeting LEED Platinum, the Shivers’ new residence is Habitat for Humanity’s first 3D-printed house in the nation—and the nonprofit hopes to scale the design to produce other homes in Tempe and beyond. All of the three-bedroom home’s walls were formed by on-site gantry printers using Laticrete, a composite concrete material, while the ceiling and roof were built via traditional construction methods.
Now that they’re moved in, the Shivers’ initial hesitations have given way to elation. “It’s so energy efficient and tight, and the walls are so thick,” says Marcus. “We rarely have to turn on the air-conditioning, and when we do, we turn it off five minutes later.” Shawn agrees: “It feels like a fortress, but it’s not too closed-in. You can’t hear through the walls at all, and I like the safety and strength of the structure,” she says.
The cave-like quality of 3D-printed homes has made some potential homeowners wary, particularly when designers embrace the organic, undulating forms that 3D printing naturally yields (à la House Zero). In Holland, architects from Houben / Van Mierlo designed the world’s first legally habitable property with 3D-printed load-bearing walls, which takes the shape of a giant boulder with rounded walls and roof forms. Completed in 2021 by Project Milestone, the two-bedroom bungalow is currently home to Elize Lutz and Harrie Dekkers, who were intrigued from the outset by its unique form.
“For 40 years, we had a shop selling contemporary jewelry, so we liked looking at design, and the form of this building interested us,” says Elize. “It’s like a bunker, but cozy inside.” Harrie agrees, but notes that he never feels closed in. “It feels very safe inside, like a cocoon—but when the doors are open, you can see all the way through the house, and it’s a very open feeling,” he says. Now, Project Milestone is at work on the second and third of their five planned homes in Eindhoven, which are slated to finish construction by end of year.
Los Angeles–based architect Mathew Chaney’s firm EYRC Architects is working with construction company Mighty Buildings to design and construct a new 3D-printed community in Desert Hot Springs. He notes that this type of volumetric fabrication is ideal for tapping the full potential of 3D printing. “Organic shapes have more inherent form stability, making them better for 3D printing,” he explains. “However, 3D printing is typically a hybrid of organic shapes and conventional residential architectural forms because, for example, you can’t print a concrete roof very easily.”
As companies like Icon continue pushing the envelope on technology to unite 3D-printed forms with typical architectural elements, residents of 3D-printed homes find them remarkably comfortable. Tim Shea, who moved into an Icon house in 2020 in the Community First! Village, a 51-acre development aiming to provide homes for unhoused people in Austin, has been pleased by how livable and cozy he’s found his 400-square-foot home. “There are no sharp corners in the house, and the roundness is embracing,” he says. “It feels warm, secure, and comforting inside—it’s like I’m being hugged by my house.”
While it remains to be seen whether 3D printing will be able to deliver on its promise to provide adequate housing for the world, for the few currently living in 3D-printed homes, the experience has been eye-opening. “This home is a new way of thinking about how to build and what a house can be,” says Elize Lutz, who, along with her partner Harrie, have just extended the lease on their Eindhoven home because they’re so content.
For Icon’s Jason Ballard, the tech has always been a means to an end—one that strives for the most comfortable, resilient, and dignified homes possible. “Right now, we believe 3D-printed houses are the best houses,” says Ballard. “But I promise if we thought of a better solution tomorrow, we’d start doing that.”
At SXSW, a 3D-Printed House Tests a New Vision for Home Building
ICON Just Unveiled Plans for a Massive Neighborhood of 3D-Printed Homes
A Dutch Couple Are the First Tenants of This Boulder-Shaped 3D-Printed Home
Have a Look at the World’s First 3D-Printed Home Made Entirely of Clay