Going Green using 3D Technology — Austin’s ICON Builds the Home of the Future
The company’s co-founder Jason Ballard on the thrill of challenging housing paradigms
Written by Lynn Wise
Photography Contributed by ICON
Is it possible to build houses more sustainably, faster, and cheaper all at the same time, without sacrificing design and aesthetics? Austin business ICON believes 3D printing makes it possible. And if the company accomplishes its goals, the housing market may never be the same.
ICON co-founder and CEO Jason Ballard explains, “This isn't just a thing for tiny houses or houses for poor people. But almost like the 2x4 — you could build a shack out of a 2x4 or you could build a multi-million-dollar mansion out of a 2x4 — we believe that this is not just a disruptive technology, but this is like a completely new paradigm of building that has applications up and down the market that we are only just beginning to realize.”
That’s an impressive claim, but it’s not an outrageous one. ICON has already built, in East Austin, the first permitted, 3D-printed home in the United States, and it did it faster and cheaper than building a house the standard way. The overarching goal is to bridge the gap in green building between sustainability and affordability, and then to make the technology both resilient and accessible to all.
So how does something like 3D printing houses — which sounds as if it’s been ripped from the pages of an outlandish sci-fi novel — become a reality?
It often takes a major disruption to push a person to disrupt. For Ballard, the catalyst was Hurricane Harvey. When many of his family members’ homes were destroyed for the third time in his lifetime by natural disaster, Ballard decided enough was enough and he got serious about finding a better way to build.
After the hurricane, Ballard recalls turning to his longtime business partner Evan Loomis and being like, “Dude, this is so crazy. That's it. Like there has got to be a better way.”
The real foundation for ICON, however, was laid long before the disaster, during Ballard’s childhood in East Texas near the Big Thicket area, where he spent his days roaming what could be described as an almost-fantastical natural environment.
“One of the things about where I grew up, and most people do not know this — and it’s a shame more people don't know this is — it's the most biodiverse region in all of North America. And so I grew up around giant cypress trees and giant alligator gar that were, you know, hundreds of pounds and seven feet long and look like dinosaurs … roseate spoonbills, almost like pink flamingos, and there's like four species of carnivorous plants — really remarkable to grow up in,” Ballard says.
But as picturesque as it was, the region was in many ways a paradox.
“However, the other thing that happened in my neck of the woods,” Ballard continues, “there’s the largest concentration of petrochemical refineries in America there as well. Everywhere you go, there are signs that are like, you cannot eat the fish that you catch here, and you can smell it in the air. And the light pollution coming from the refineries is really bad at night. And you know, people got sick, and it kind of created a cognitive dissonance.”
By the time Ballard was preparing to go to Texas A&M, issues of sustainability and the environment were of prime importance to him, so a degree in conservation biology made total sense. But then, after graduating and moving to Boulder, Colorado, to be closer to the woman who would become his wife, he had a revelation: Everything — all of the environmental issues he was concerned about — came back to the house.
“If you sort of chase the rabbit down the hall, everything points back to the home, and that was at the time such a shock for me,” Ballard explains. “Homes and buildings by sector are the number one user of energy, they are the number two user of water behind agriculture, they're the number one producer of landfill waste … they’re the number one source of toxin exposure for most Americans because of indoor air quality, you know, on and on and on.”
Ballard realized if he wanted to make a difference, sustainable building was the way to do it.
He took jobs with anyone who would hire him, working with a green builder, a developer, an eco-handyman. But he was left frustrated: Even though the demand for green building was high, good alternatives for standard building materials weren’t readily available.
That led him to his first business with Loomis, TreeHouse.
“Imagine Whole Foods took over Home Depot,” Ballard jokes. “That was sort of the idea.”
Ballard’s work at TreeHouse gave him a front-row seat to the cutting edges of green building technology. But as rewarding as the work was, he began feeling more and more unsettled by the disconnect between sustainability and affordability — an issue difficult to ignore in Austin, which struggles to provide affordable housing.
Ballard knew that “for sustainability to be a thing, it had to be a thing for everybody. To make a difference, it had to make a difference for everyone.”
He was convinced there had to be a way to build both green and affordable. Then Hurricane Harvey hit.
The storm was catastrophic. More than 100,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and tens of thousands of people found themselves in need of shelter. Many of them ended up housed in FEMA trailers — which Ballard characterizes as massively expensive and inefficient. The economic cost to the government, taxpayers, and those affected is monumental, and the task of rebuilding has been slow and arduous.
As Ballard stood by his family during the rebuilding process, he couldn’t shake the thought that maybe the hurricane would have been less devastating if houses were built more resiliently, and he marveled at having to rebuild using the same inefficient and unsustainable building materials and methods that resulted in so much damage and heartache.
“If I offered you $1 million to invent a less resilient material than sheetrock, you would not claim the prize … It's the worst building material in terms of resiliency that humanity can conceive of,” Ballard explains.
Again, that nagging feeling that there just had to be an alternative better than the status quo. Together with Loomis, Ballard resolved to find it.
The two began searching through the options, even exploring for a short while what’s known as “architectural fungi,” essentially guiding fungus to grow into particular shapes. But nothing seemed more sci-fi than the possibility of using a 3D printer — a fairly new technology that has most successfully been used to manufacture smallish products — to print an entire house.
Yet, the more the pair looked into it, the more viable 3D printing seemed. The technology had been used to print a few structures internationally, and far from being intimidated by how out there the idea was, Ballard was energized by the challenge.
“As entrepreneurs it felt great. Like the harder something is to do, the more interesting it becomes, typically for entrepreneurs. At least one miracle must be required, for a startup to be interesting,” Ballard says.
When Loomis and Ballard teamed up with Alex Le Roux, an engineer who was working on a similar project in Houston, what was once a crazy idea rapidly formed into a crazy reality.
The challenge with all new, crazy ideas, though, is selling them to investors and to the public. There comes a sort of chicken and egg scenario: The public wants you to prove you can do what you claim before doling out cash, but proving your claims is impossible without funding.
Luckily, ICON found a customer willing to bet on it — New Story, a non-profit based in San Francisco working globally to “transform slums into sustainable communities.” The deal was, New Story would partner with ICON, which would build a prototype in Austin, in exchange for first dibs on a printer once they were market ready.
That prototype was built in East Austin in March, 2018, and New Story plans to print its first community of homes — designed in collaboration with local residents — in Latin America this year.
Though the New Story deal gave ICON a boost, Ballard and his co-founders still found themselves footing most of the bill for the home in East Austin.
“The week leading up to printing the house, we needed to purchase more of the concrete from the manufacturer, and I had to go to my wife and say, ‘Honey, I’m going to get a new credit card.’ Because I’d maxed out my other credit cards. … At the time, the technology had not matured enough, we felt, to start asking for other people's money.”
As for fears that 3D home printers will displace vulnerable workers in the construction industry, Ballard isn’t worried. He explains that there is a desperate shortage of labor in the sector — a claim research backs up — and that by the time the technology is prevalent enough to really affect workers on a mass scale, a generation of builders will be retiring and the new generation will have had time to develop the skills needed to print houses instead of build them.
Change can be scary, but Ballard is practically giddy he’s so excited by the possibilities. Going into 2019, ICON is using the lessons it learned from building its prototype home to refine its printers, which will number at least three by the time this article prints. It is working on partnerships with a wide variety of companies, the most exciting of which might be NASA. (I mean, how else would you build colonies of homes in space other than 3D printing?!) Ballard’s just taking it all in.
“I feel like a little kid who gets to work at NASA and gets to deploy technology that’s barely this side of science fiction to solve these like massive humanitarian challenges. It helps that we have an amazing, amazing group of teammates. I just, I don't know what I'm trying to say other than how happy all this makes me.”
Ballard has reason to be happy: If in fact 3D printing leads to better housing that is more affordable and environmentally friendly, the future might not be so scary after all.
Building America’s First Printed Home
ICON developed its own 3D printer, accompanying software, and concrete blend, which are used to print the walls of the home.
The structure is designed using ICON software.
Building permits are secured. This step was a bit of a challenge initially, because it’s a first!
Foundation is poured in standard fashion.
3D printer is used on site to pour ICON’s own concrete blend into a 350 square foot home. This step replaces multiple step of the standard building process, including framing.
Workers add a roof and finishes such as window frames, as well as electricity and plumbing. (The company is working on automated solutions for this step.)
The total price of the printed portion of the house comes out to $10,000, and the process takes ~48 hours. ICON believes it can get future homes built in half the time for $4,000, starting this year.