Social Innovation

These 3D printed homes are helping tackle homelessness in the US

A picture of the inside of the 3D printed homes.

Printed living? Image: ICON

Carey L. Biron
Writer and Editor, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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  • In America, 3D-printed houses are starting to be used as an affordable alternative to traditional builds.
  • The process builds homes faster, cheaper and with less labor, and its structures are more resilient to natural disasters.
  • It's being used an an innovative way to tackle homelessness.
  • It's estimated that the 3D-construction market could be worth $1.5 billion by 2024.

After years of homelessness and hard living, Tim Shea has swapped the sharp corners in his life for the round, flowing design of his new 3D-printed home in Austin, Texas.

In August, Shea became the first person in the United States to move into a 3D-printed home, according to Austin-based developer ICON, in what advocates say is a milestone in efforts to boost the national supply of affordable housing.

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This month New York-based firm SQ4D listed what is purported to be the country's first 3D-printed house to go up for sale, while ICON completed the largest 3D-printed structure in North America – a military barracks.

Shea, 70, said his new house - which he moved into for free and is located in a community of formerly homeless people - has saved his life.

"It's just phenomenally beautiful ... it just wraps around and gives me a feeling of life security," Shea told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from his 400-sq-ft (46-sq-m) home.

The house's high ceilings, large windows and skylights make it feel larger than it looks from the outside, he added.

Shea got to watch his home being built on site by a large new "printer", developed and operated by ICON, a process which the company said took about 48 hours and is being reduced further as the technology improves.

Large-scale 3D printing is gaining steam around the world as a quicker, cheaper and more efficient way of building housing, with some projects producing a home in 24 hours of printing time for just a few thousand dollars.

ICON constructed the first permitted 3D-printed building in the United States in 2018 and is one of the few 3D construction firms focusing specifically on affordable housing.

Last year, Habitat for Humanity's Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter helped an Indian company called Tvasta build India's first 3D-printed home, which brought construction times down by more than a third and reduced waste by about 65%.

"3D printing technology has huge potential to boost the affordable housing sector," said Patrick Kelley, the center's vice president, in emailed comments.

a picture of the 3-d houses
3D-printed homes at Community First! Village in Austin, Texas, in 2020. Image: Handout photo by ICON.

Affordable and sustainable

Using 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, for construction goes back to at least 2004, when a University of South Carolina professor tried to print a wall.

Unlike other uses of 3D printing - such as medical devices or complex modeling - the process typically uses some form of quick-drying concrete laid precisely by a computer-controlled extruder.

The approach has been used for niche projects in recent years - such as the world's first 3D-printed bridge, which opened to the public in Madrid in 2016. But it is now at the cusp of a major expansion, according to market analysts.

While the global market for 3D-printed construction stood at $3 million in 2019, it is projected to grow to more than $1.5 billion by 2024, according to a study from consultancy Research and Markets.

Last year, the global industry publication 3Dnatives listed a dozen companies working on 3D-printed houses globally.

Jason Ballard, who spent a decade working in housing and homelessness before helping form ICON four years ago, said he came to 3D printing seeking a construction method that was affordable, sustainable and climate-resilient.

"For me it was always about housing," the CEO said, suggesting the technology should eventually be the "predominant paradigm" for home construction.

This week a developer is putting the country's first series of 3D-printed homes up for sale for the mass market, with printing completed by ICON and move-ins expected this summer, the firm says.

Ballard points not only to savings in cost and time but also labor, since homes can be printed off of a tablet or phone.

The structures are also more resilient to disasters such as hurricanes, more energy-efficient and easily adaptable to unique design needs, he added.

"You could imagine hundreds or thousands of these printers - ending homelessness and the affordability crisis," Ballard said.

ICON built its first homes in an anti-homelessness "village" in Austin, overseen by the nonprofit Mobile Loaves and Fishes.

The site, called the Community First! Village, is currently expanding to offer homes to about 500 individuals at the village, including tiny homes, recreational vehicles and six 3D-printed homes, said the organization's president, Amber Fogarty.

"What attracted us is the promise of this technology," said Fogarty.

"A lot of the time, innovation becomes available only for people with resources, so for this to be available to our neighbors is really special."

a picture of Tim Shea sits in his 3D-printed home
Tim Shea sits in his 3D-printed home in Community First! Village in Austin, Texas, in 2020. Image: Handout photo by ICON.

'Transformative' technology '

Although ICON has only recently started rolling out its technology, Ballard said the firm has already been inundated with requests from homeless people, nonprofits and foreign governments.

The company has partnered with New Story, a U.S.-based nonprofit that works internationally to provide housing in low-income communities.

Together, they are building houses in a community of fishermen and textile workers in Tabasco, Mexico.

Elsewhere, New Story has typically constructed homes using cinder block, but they were interested in ways to work more quickly, said Sarah Lee, the group's chief operating officer.

Housing is "such a massive problem, and without taking risks these families are going to be the last people to benefit from this technology," she said.

Although the Tabasco project was slowed by the coronavirus pandemic, families will start moving into 10 of the houses in coming months, Lee said.

ICON's work has also attracted interest from the U.S. military.

The Texas barracks - which the company finished this month - will house 76 troops as part of a project with the Department of Defense that will test a range of uses, according to Lieutenant Colonel Alex Goldberg, a lead with the Defense Innovation Unit.

The military is interested in using 3D printing to address its mammoth construction backlog and also in its response to natural disasters, Goldberg said in an interview.

He added that the building process is five times faster than traditional approaches and has "significant" cost and labor savings.

All of this means 3D-printed structures hold significant prospects for post-disaster missions, he noted.

"Having this capability where you're not just building temporary facilities but can leave behind infrastructure that can get a foothold and begin the recovery - that has the possibility to become transformative," Goldberg said.

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