Jason Ballard, CEO and co-founder of 3D printing engineering firm ICON, is not mincing his words. “There are some people who are content with building a really ugly or uninspired world,” he said. “We’re not. The day I walk outside and see something ugly being built by one of my robots – that’s a nightmare scenario for me.”
Ballard, a fast-talking Texan with a 10-gallon hat, has a vision for the future of architecture. Others buy it. Since its launch in 2017, Austin-based ICON has received nearly half a billion dollars in funding, won a contract with NASA and been paired with influential architects like Bjarke Ingels. If all goes according to plan, ICON will be built on the moon before the decade is out.
But first, the CEO wanted to discuss the idea of launching the moon close to home.
ICON made its name by constructing homes using high-strength concrete dubbed “Lavacrete” layered to form the walls. It prints a large machine icon called a “Vulcan”, and it is fed into an on-site mixing system dubbed the “Magma”.
ICON’s award-winning “House Zero” printed in less than two weeks and was designed to push the boundaries of sustainability, the company says. credit: Casey Dunn / Icon
Initiative 99 is seeking to place orders for homes that can be 3D printed for $99,000 or less. Ballard called it “a call to arms for the global architecture and design community” to deal with “one of the most pressing industries in need of rethinking.”
Peggy Bailey is vice president of housing and income security at the American Progressive Research Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Bailey explained that in the United States, many people struggle to pay for their housing. “Even before the pandemic and recession, 23 million people lived in 11 million low-income households that paid more than 50% of their income in rent,” she told CNN by email.
She added that “innovative ways of building housing is a promising step towards creating more affordable housing,” while warning that “the housing affordability crisis is not caused by a single issue or event. Multifaceted problems require multifaceted solutions.”
Wolf Ranch, a 100-home community north of Austin, Texas, is under construction and will be the largest 3D-printed housing project in the United States. credit: Linar / icon
The idea for Initiative 99 came from an internal exercise that ICON has conducted every six months for the past five years, to see what could be built for $99,000 with the technology available. “This year we’ve reached an inflection point,” Ballard said. “The results were very compelling. It immediately dawned on all of us that we had to tell everyone about this.”
ICON’s CEO said the $99 million initiative’s prize fund would be the largest ever in an affordable housing competition. The competition will kick off on May 23 and run for a year, with phases for concept development, schematic design, and design development. There will be multiple winners and their designs will be designed by ICON.
Ballard hopes that the contest will receive entries tailored to meet cultures and contexts around the world, and address specific needs and challenges.
Bailey suggested that the success of 3D-printed dwellings could hinge on how potential residents perceive them. “One thing to keep in mind with any innovation in housing development, including 3D development… is that housing must fit the rental market and be of such quality and style that anyone would want to live in it,” she said. .
R&D is out of the world
All ICON projects feed into each other, Ballard said: For example, software to monitor and support the systems it will use in the 99 Homes initiative was developed as part of the Project Olympus initiative, which is looking at building 3D-printed structures on the Moon.
Instead of Lavacrete, ICON is experimenting with using lunar regolith, the mineral- and rock-rich dust that covers the lunar surface. Ballard showed that regolith can be melted with a laser into a ceramic-like material that is hard, durable, and absorbs radiation.
He added that parts of the build system have been tested in a vacuum, and will then be tested in lunar gravity simulations, before being sent to the moon in 2026 or 2027. The CEO emphasized that there are no plans for a lunar base yet, but that the ICON tests would mark an important step in this. direction.
ICON’s Project Olympus will see a building system the company built on the surface of the moon later this decade. credit: ICON Collection / Bjarke Ingels
Some of ICON’s lunar ideas could find a civic context, too. Ballard is aware that Lavacrete contains cement, which has a large carbon footprint, and said ICON is looking at ways to use locally sourced building materials on the ground that can rival concrete.
She said there is a strong case for sustainability certifications for 3D printing. “3D-printed homes can often be built faster and more sustainably compared to traditional construction,” Harburg-Petrich said via email, noting the reduction in building materials wasted in construction.
Completed in late 2019, Apis Cor is currently the world’s largest 3D printed building by material volume. Formed using a mobile 3D printer and designed to withstand extreme weather conditions. credit: Apis Core
COBOD is responsible for what it claims is the world’s tallest 3D printed building, a three-story house in Saudi Arabia. credit: Kobod
ICON also plans to print multi-story buildings, Ballard says, and has triple and quadruple designs in the works. ICON is developing its next-generation Vulcan printing system, capable of building much larger projects, Ballard said, adding that the company eventually aims to create a system where three or four machines can be operated by a single person. He added, “You should expect it to be a lot faster, you should expect it to be a lot more independent.”
The thinking comes as the US design and construction sectors face a skilled labor shortage, Harburg-Petrich noted. Besides affordable and portable 3D printing systems, in the future, “we also need a workforce that is adaptable to 3D printing technology for construction,” she says.
ICON’s next generation Vulcan printing system is in development. credit: icon
Large-scale 3D construction, with an emphasis on affordable housing, is where Ballard wants to take ICON. In the case of Initiative 99, the winning designs will be released for free, meaning anyone with the tools can build the homes themselves.
“I feel like the future can be amazing,” Ballard said. “But I’m also haunted by this understanding of history and human behavior, because it’s not guaranteed to be amazing. We’ve got to make it that way. And we’re going to have to take some risks to make it happen.”
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