There are 1.6 billion people around the world without access to adequate housing, a number that’s only expected to increase as temperatures rise and climate conditions grow more dire.
It’s a number that New Story thinks about regularly. The housing nonprofit has been working to address homelessness over the past six years by building homes in South and Central America. “But even if we’re building thousands or tens of thousands of homes a year, it would not be sufficient juxtaposed with the magnitude of the problem,” says COO Alexandria Lafci. “So we started thinking about the state of the construction industry.”
The lack of innovation in traditional construction led New Story to partner with ICON, a construction technology startup. After 3D printing a home in Austin in 2018, New Story and ICON embarked on a project to 3D print 50 homes in a community in Tabasco, Mexico, a venture that won our 2020 Innovation by Design Award in the Cities category.
Using ICON’s Vulcan printer, they can 3D print each home in less than 24 hours. (Lafci says they were nearly done in March, but shut things down because of COVID-19; the last few homes should be finished next month.) And while the 3D-printed homes are impressive, Lafci says it’s just part of the nonprofit’s overall strategy to experiment with new technologies. New Story is building 500 houses total in that Tabasco community, all of which will incorporate at least one new innovation. For example, other homes are built using EcoBlocks, which are made of 90% local earth and just 10% concrete; Lafci says they provide superior insulation but are also less expensive and better for the environment.
“The [construction] industry is slow to adopt new technology,” Lafci says, calling it the “least digitized, least innovative” industry in the world. “One of the roles we play in this particular community is showing contractors and developers that the tech is there.”
But New Story’s innovation extends beyond mere technology. Lafci stresses the importance of involving families in the design process from the beginning. In the Tabasco community, this led to some crucial tweaks. For instance, the initial roof designs were slanted, but the families, who mostly live on a few dollars a day, said their children often continue living at home. “The families really wanted a flat roof so they could build up,” Lafci says. “That incremental design, giving families the opportunity to expand on their home, whether horizontal or vertical, was incredibly important.” (See images of a concept of the project by fuseproject above.) Initial designs also had a lot of curved edges, which are “really beautiful and get a lot of peoples’ attention when it comes to design,” she adds. “But families were like, ‘What furniture can you put in these corners?'”
It’s this commitment to low-income families and their needs that drives New Story’s work, and Lafci is excited about the innovation that companies like ICON are starting to bring to the sector. “We want to make sure the population that has the largest demand for housing is being considered in this next wave of technology.”
See more honorees from the 2020 Innovation by Design Awards here.