For those of us who still equate the word “printer” with a dusty inkjet contraption used to print your homework, the concept of printing a 4,000-square-foot house may be out of this universe. And soon, it might be: Icon, a maker of 3D-printed houses here on earth, wants to take that groundbreaking construction onto the moon and Mars.
The company, based in Austin, Texas, produced America’s first fully permitted 3D-printed house in 2018. “It’s been a wild rocket ride ever since,” says Jason Ballard, cofounder and CEO. Icon, our World Changing Ideas General Excellence winner in 2020, has since been printing properties with specific attention to helping solve housing affordability for the poorest in society. “Icon was born out of a frustration with the housing situation,” he says.
On this week’s edition of our World Changing Ideas podcast, I spoke to Ballard about the mind-boggling construction process and Icon’s larger goals. Ballard was dismayed with early renderings of 3D-printed objects, “plastic octopuses and spoons” that were not addressing real issues. “3D printing would be best on things that are big, slow, and bespoke,” he thought.
The 10-by-35-foot printer, called the Vulcan, extrudes layers of concrete—or “Lavacrete”—from the concrete-maker, dubbed the “Magma.” (You may sense a theme.) Ballard claims that the concrete-based houses are sturdier than timber, that the process is speedier (you can print a house in 24 hours), and that cheaper materials and labor cut overall costs by 10% to 30% compared to our current construction model.
He believes all that could help solve the housing crisis, where there’s not enough housing and many are shut out of available units due to high prices. In its early partnerships, Icon joined with Community First! Village to build six houses in Central Texas, and with another nonprofit, New Story, to build a community in a rural area of Mexico. In both cases, the 3D-printed homes were for those struggling to afford housing. “It’s often the poorest who are the last able to access new breakthroughs and technology,” Ballard says.
Now, Icon is well into discussions with NASA to experiment with printing houses on the moon and Mars. They’ll have to think big once again: Because of the challenging atmosphere in outer space, they’ll have to use different types of concrete made with local geology. Experiments with melting simulated moon dust in the lab have been successful, Ballard says.
So, if there’s a housing crisis on our planet, why head further out into the galaxies? Ballard believes spacefaring will be necessary to address that very Earth-centric problem. “I think the kind of civilization that learns to explore outer space, and to live in outer space, will be the civilization that is able to solve homelessness,” he says.