In rural El Salvador, a family living on $1.90 a day might live in a makeshift house with dirt floors, thin walls, and no running water. But next year, dozens of those families will move into one of the world’s first communities of 3D-printed homes.
New Story, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit whose leaders have spent the last few years rethinking how to build safe housing for those living in extreme poverty, worked with Icon, a construction tech company, to create a 3D printer that can build a house in a day for roughly $4,000. The printer, called the Vulcan, will be unveiled at SXSW today, along with a 3D-printed home that now stands in an Austin backyard.
New Story previously worked to quickly build low-cost houses in places like Haiti, where other construction efforts faltered after the 2010 earthquake, and El Salvador. But the nonprofit realized that even the most efficient process of traditional building couldn’t address the number of homes needed. “We thought, what would it look like to have more of an exponential breakthrough for such a big challenge?” says CEO Brett Hagler.
The team laid out three goals. First, they wanted to significantly decrease the cost of building a house, though the homes they were currently building–with concrete walls and a simple design–were already very low-cost, at $6,500. They also wanted to make construction faster, while improving the quality of the final home.
After seven months of research into various ways to solve the design challenge, they landed on 3D printing. When they first heard about the technology, Hagler says, “We were very skeptical of the viability of this. It took doing a lot of research and a lot of due diligence to figure out that it could actually solve for those three design questions.”
The 3D-printed house could eventually cost as little as $3,500. While the organization’s current human-built design takes between 13 and 20 days to build, the 3D-printed version will take 12 to 24 hours. Because it is built using software, it’s possible to offer families options for different designs, depending on family size. It will also be possible to quickly iterate on the design by making changes in the software.
While other startups are working on 3D-printing technology for home-building, others are targeting higher-income consumers, not people living in the poorest conditions in the world. “We thought, okay, what if the bottom billion weren’t the last ones to get this, but the first ones to get this?” says Hagler. “It made sense for us to try to leapfrog what’s happening domestically, because our homes are so simple.”
The hardware for the new 3D printer is similar to other equipment in development, but built to fit on a truck, so it can be easily transported to rural locations, and durable, so it can survive long trips and harsh conditions. The printer uses a mortar that can be found anywhere, and the concrete foundation is the same as ones New Story has been installing in remote areas for its original houses. “The big difference, between a developed world and developing world context is you have a much more limited set of materials to work with,” says Jason Ballard, cofounder of Icon Technologies. “Number one, just because of access, you want to restrict your material mix to things that you could find very ubiquitously around the globe. And you also want to avoid expensive materials.”
The printer, set on tracks, squirts out the concrete material in layers to build floors and walls, which harden as it goes, to build a 600- to 800-square-foot single-story home, with two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom. (The roof is not 3D-printed.) The result is both energy-efficient and resilient in storms. “There are fundamental problems with conventional stick-building that 3D printing solves, besides affordability,” says Ballard. “You get a high thermal mass, thermal envelope, which makes it far more energy-efficient. It’s far more resilient.”
The process requires less labor, of course, than traditional construction: Each house can be put together by two to four workers. For New Story, which has used construction as a way to provide local jobs in the past, that was “something we had to wrestle with a little bit,” Hagler says. “But we have to be true to our primary mission, which is to work with families that are living in the worst conditions without safe shelter and changing that.” They also realized that if they can hit their target cost, they can double or triple the number of homes they build; even though each house will require less individual labor, the process will still supply jobs.
“You’re also supplying an advanced kind of technical job, which right now we don’t really do,” he says. “We think that will better position [workers] for what’s going to come in the next 10, 20 years with AI and robotics. It would be amazing if the people in our communities already knew how to work with all that stuff.”
In Austin, the team 3D-printed the first home in the backyard of a converted house that serves as shared office space for Icon and an architect and developer. Icon’s staff plans to use it as an office, so they can experience spending long periods of time in the space, and tweak the design as needed. The team will also make some engineering improvements to the printer, and test it for earthquake safety (the Austin house is already the first to be permitted to U.S. building standards). Later this year, they’ll bring the printer to El Salvador, print some test homes, and finally print a community of 50 houses.
Assuming all goes as planned, New Story plans to fully shift to 3D printing. The team envisions plotting routes to bring the printers from community to community in countries around the world. It also plans to share the technology with others. “Ideally we can move from thousands of people to millions of people around the world by allowing other nonprofits and governments to use this technology,” says Hagler. “That’s the big goal, because our goal is impacting the most families possible.” The team is aiming to have the printer available for a low cost–perhaps less than $100,000. Though the longevity of the technology is not yet proven, they estimate that a single printer can produce at least 1,000 homes.
The R&D that led to the 3D-printed house is rare in the nonprofit world. But New Story has a unique funding structure; donations from most donors go solely to construction costs, while a small group of larger donors funds other expenses–including the innovation process. “We had that private group of donors that understands in order to really try to make a dent in this issue, we have to take risks,” Hagler says. “We have to innovate. There’s just there’s no other way to try to do it using the traditional and linear methods. In the future . . . we kind of see ourselves as the R&D arm to the global social housing sector. We can prove out these innovations in our communities, and then the big idea is actually not to keep it for New Story. The big idea is to democratize the innovation to the rest of other nonprofits and governments that are working on this issue.”