Is This Ultra-Affordable 3D-Printed Tiny House the Home of the Future?

published Mar 19, 2019
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(Image credit: Courtesy of ICON)

In a quiet East Austin neighborhood, newly-constructed homes sit side-by-side with the time-weathered structures in need of a fresh coat of paint, homes where overgrown grass reaches out to touch the cracked sidewalks. But, along with the apparent signs of gentrification, there is also something quite unexpected hiding behind a fenced-in backyard: the first permitted 3D-printed house in the world.

(Image credit: Courtesy of ICON)

The house was originally built during SXSW 2018 by ICON 3D Tech (and open for tours during this year’s festival which took place recently), and the company is on a mission to reinvent the homebuilding industry and provide affordable, sustainable housing. Last year, the 350-square-foot structure was built in under 48 hours with concrete three times stronger than lumber, making it able to withstand hurricane-level winds. The printed portion of the Austin house cost $10,000, but could be built for as little as $4,000 in underserved communities.

ICON CEO and Co-founder, Jason Ballard, is a conservation biologist by trade, but became interested in the sustainable-building movement when he realized it’s where he could really make a difference.

“It turns out that all these human and ecological health issues come from buildings,” Ballard tells Apartment Therapy. “Buildings are the number one consumer of energy by sector, the number two user of water, the number one source of toxins that we will be exposed to in our lifetimes, and the number one producer of landfill waste. There has to be a better way.”

For the last decade, he’s been involved in the industry, but continues to see the struggles everyone faces with homebuilding. With the housing crisis, choosing between health, sustainability, and affordability is a “horrifying choice.” A small-town East Texas native, he’s also come face-to-face with the fact that the way we build is seriously flawed.

“My hometown has been destroyed by hurricanes twice in the last 11 years,” he recalls. “We’ve been building buildings the same way for 1,000 years. It’s been sticks and bricks ever since we figured out how to do it.” But, the future of building is about to change. 3D-printed homes produce nearly zero waste, can be any shape (even a Fibonacci spiral, Ballard jokes), are currently 30 percent cheaper than traditional building—but he is hoping to reach 50 percent later this year—and can be constructed in record time. The new printer from ICON, the Vulcan II, could have built the Austin home in under 24 hours—it’s able to print up to 2,000 square feet and uses concrete strong enough to land a military jet on.

(Image credit: Courtesy of ICON)

Upon walking through the front door, it’s surprisingly comfortable with full air conditioning, large windows, and bohemian decor. Staged by Sara Barney, founder of BANDD Design, each room features locally-sourced, small-batch items. And keeping affordability in mind, many pieces were even purchased at Target and Cost Plus World Market.

“I wanted [the house] to feel like someone actually lives [there],” she says. “Because so much of the space has black-and-white and concrete floors, I knew cozy furnishings were a must with both a masculine and feminine touch, so it would appeal to a broad audience.”

The home is split into three separate rooms, a living room/office, a smaller communal space, and a bedroom. Throughout, baskets and convertible seating make the space feel much larger than it is, while shag rugs, along with geometric-printed pillows and blankets from Barney’s own BANDD Design shop bring in color and warmth. A leather butterfly chair in the living room offers a comfortable spot to dive into a good book and prints from local artist, Roxi Miras, add an iconic Austin funk.

(Image credit: Courtesy of ICON)

Now that ICON has delivered its proof-of-concept, it’s time to make 3D-printed homes available to the public, and not just for those stateside. Ballard and his team have partnered with New Story, a nonprofit aiming to end global homelessness, and will be shipping Vulcan II printers off to South America where they will build 2,000 homes.

“There’s not a robotics crisis,” Ballard says. “There’s a housing crisis. It’s time to get the technology out there and get building.”