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Safety and Shelter: addressing the basic necessity that has turned to a global crisis

In the era of a radical change, ICON’s Director of Building Design and Performance, Melodie Yashar sheds light on breaking the stigma of conventional building techniques with 3D printing

One of the three key needs of existence is shelter

The world has been collectively undergoing a housing crunch with housing prices booming and supply remaining static. This is making would-be purchasers scramble to find a place to call home.

Founded in 2017, ICON is rapidly growing. They have raised $451 million in equity and are approaching a $2 billion valuation. They have so far delivered over two dozen 3D printed homes and structures and won several design and innovation awards. This includes being named one of the ‘Most Innovative Companies in the World’ in 2020, and selected as ArchDaily’s Best New Practices of 2021. 

The company has pushed the frontiers of technology by producing robotics, software, and building materials to help mankind. They partnered with big names like BIG and NASA. The firm has been distributing 3D-printed homes across the United States and Mexico. Their aim is to counteract global housing concerns.

Inflation and the housing industry 

The Texas-based start-up’s first 3D printer created the first permitted, 3D-printed home in March 2018. They did so in partnership with the nonprofit organization, New Story. «We face a global housing crisis where over one billion people lack adequate shelter. The three co-founders of ICON were driven by the question of how do we house people quickly but in better and more resilient homes. They landed on 3D printing as the most promising technology to address a dire need for a more sustainable solution to home construction. And to introduce greater efficiencies in speed and cost, all the while yielding a higher quality and more resilient home from the ground up».

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (LILP) carried out a survey in 2019. It revealed that out of 200 countries involved, ninety percent were deemed unaffordable to live in with regards to average house price in its relation with the average income. The situation does not appear to be improving; quite the opposite actually. The impact of the pandemic worsened the industry.

This proves that current strategies implemented are unsustainable in the long run. Countries that have significantly increased in median house sale prices include United States, China, Australia and the UK. Residents in these places, especially with lower incomes, have had no choice but to pay higher shares from their income for their rented and purchased housing units. This amounts to the housing affordability crisis.

As a result, the housing affordability crisis generates negative consequences arising at the individual household and macroeconomic levels. Studies suggest that households with housing affordability problems, in particular their children, are more likely to suffer from adverse outcomes on health, education and employment. In addition to also contributing to longer commuting costs and delaying household formation, marriage and childbirth.

Breaking conventional practices 

ICON’s technology has been disrupting and questioning the effectiveness of traditional construction methods. The housing industry is estimated to have a brighter future with 3D printing as demonstrated by the plastic and metal 3D printing industries decades ago. «We strive to design and print beautiful homes and structures that can be built quickly and affordably. This is while demonstrating constant improvements in performance and resilience over traditional building methods. We always strive to not only create the best 3D-printed homes, but the best homes overall as a principle».

Both the pandemic and the general increase in property demand have disrupted supply chains. Therefore, building supplies have become more expensive. There are also delays in delivery, in addition to manpower shortage and the fall in quality. Yashar explains: «Sustainability and resiliency of the homes we build continues to be at the heart of our mission. Our process also immensely reduces time, coordination and the cost of labor. Taking everything into consideration, construction waste from building an average family home is equivalent to about four tons. But because our construction process is digitally automated, we only use as much material as is required to complete a print and thus, we create far less waste than traditional construction».

Using lavacrete: a cementitious material with high thermal mass

The technology used provides safe, more resilient homes able to endure natural disasters like fires, flood and wind storms as opposed to stick-frame constructions. The material they use to 3D print the houses called Lavacrete is a cementitious material with high thermal mass that slows heat transfer into and out of the home. «This means our homes are better able to withstand temperature swings. Like a cold snap or heat wave, without increasing air conditioning or heating costs. During everyday use, the combination of high thermal mass, increased insulation and an airtight wall escalates the energy efficiency of our homes and reduces utility bill costs».

3D printing homes and the technology that accompanies it develop and build more affordable homes. Additionally, it is at a lightning-fast pace compared to conventional construction means. This point omits the need to confer with building departments which are often very bureaucratic. This novel building technique makes construction safer and more practical.

Yashar discloses that ICON uniquifies itself by being able to transport their printers onto every site. This is in order to effectively print on-site. «It gives us more of an advantage if you come to think of pre-fab methods. The latter places constraints and hindrances on both the design and size of a project in order to fit on a transport vehicle. 3D printing is part of the toolkit for the builder of the future. It is a profoundly advanced manner to deliver housing faster, cheaper and with more freedom and possibilities to create various designs».

ICON 3D Printed Homes, Community First Village, Exteriors, Austin, TX, Image Credit Regan Morton Photography

New opportunities for designers and architects

Due to a scarcity of supply, builders turn to less-skilled labor and cheaper materials. They exclude design specialists totally from the process. Now, 3D construction techniques have been under the microscopic eye for quite some time. Thus, the term ‘3D printing’ has been circulating the design world.

It has given rise for the opportunity to personalize large-scale projects of all classes. It removes the restrictions on shape that are present in the traditional manner of building. «3D printing enables the realization of new computational and generative design possibilities that were previously too difficult to manufacture using traditional and conventional construction means and methods».

3D printers do not constrain the imagination with mundane restrictions like human labor or cost. It allows designers the freedom to imagine all sorts of ideas. This is much like how breakthroughs in printing technology liberated graphic artists from the tyranny of moveable type.

«Part of what is so exciting about the design-build landscape today is that new building systems, materials, and construction processes always introduce new opportunities for designers and architects to work and build in different ways. 3D printing is a technique used frequently in architecture as a rapid prototyping approach to advance design visions and concepts».

3D printing by ICON allows for advanced design languages and architectural vernaculars which are only possible through additive construction. «Concrete is a well understood, affordable and resilient material with high thermal mass. 3D printing with concrete produces a continuous, unbroken thermal envelope. It offers improved comfort and energy efficiency. It is also as cost effective to print slopes and curves as it is to print a straight line».

ICON Dispelling doubts

The company hopes to see the ICON’s robotics, software and advanced materials used by developers, architects, builders and organizations. All working with strategic partners to deliver large scale projects both domestically and abroad emphasizing the technology behind it.

«We recently unveiled our Exploration Series of homes intended to demonstrate new design languages only possible through construction scale 3D-printing with world-class architects. ICON’s first home in the series, ‘House Zero’, is designed by the award-winning firm, Lake|Flato Architects. It features an elevated design that highlights architectural and formal elements specifically enabled by 3D printing. The project features organic and undulating wall geometries uniquely suited to 3D-printed construction. In the Exploration Series we are leveraging the strengths of the technology to create new and exciting geometries. This is done without sacrificing cost or time in construction».

ICON also sees 3D printing as a way to battle homelessness and aid disaster relief due to speed and affordability. There are still people who question the integrity of these 3D printed homes. However, with these advanced materials, technology and sustainability practices, innovations opportunity will continue to outweigh and squander any doubts.

The challenges of mobility and scale

«Our vision for the future leverages increased digitization and automation to deliver the full enclosure of our structures. While we currently focus on construction of the wall system of our homes, we still rely on traditional means and methods to finish the homes and introduce roofing, as an example. In the future we will aim to integrate other technologies to fully automate the construction process».

Yashar confesses that a big challenge the company faces is mobility and scale. This is needed to meet the demands of the global housing crisis. «Even if we were to build one million homes per year, it would not be able to resolve the problem in our lifetime. Another big barrier that we work collectively to overcome in construction scale 3D printing is acceptance of the technology in new jurisdictions we have not yet built in yet».

As of late, the team is currently working on a number of initiatives with the purpose of offering social housing, disaster relief housing, and market-rate housing in novel and innovative ways. With increasing digitization and automation as one of their main goals for the foreseeable future.

Yashar concludes: «Currently, we are 3D printing the wall system of ICON homes, but in the future, we will aim to automate as many processes as possible. Long term, our vision is to scale this technology globally. Numerous projects are underway to deliver social housing, disaster relief housing and market-rate housing in addition to developing construction systems to create infrastructure and habitats on the Moon and eventually Mars with NASA».

ICON

A corporation that specializes in sophisticated building technology. ICON introduces sustainable housing solutions to address the world’s most pressing issues by utilising proprietary 3D printing technology and cutting-edge materials. Issues that include the increased demand for more homes across the globe, homelessness and affordable housing.

Farah Hassan

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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