Barely a month ago, a 3D-printed house was listed for sale to the public for the first time in the U.S.
Now, a small, 3D-printed community in Texas is following suit. Another, larger community in California is also in the works.
In other words, 3D-printed real estate is taking off in a big way.
That first home that went up for sale hasn’t even been built yet. The company, SQ4D, printed a model home at a concrete yard on Long Island, New York, and hosted more than a hundred showings. The new home will be printed on a lot nearby.
ICON, a pioneer in 3D-printed homes in the U.S., just completed four homes in East Austin, Texas. In partnership with Kansas City-based developer 3Strands, the two- to four-bedroom homes are now on the market, starting in the $400,000 range.
“The demand has been off the charts, hard to manage even,” said Gary O’Dell, co-founder and CEO of 3Strands. “The feedback could not have been more positive.”
The city of Austin, one of the fastest growing metropolitan markets in the country, has already embraced the concept of 3D-printed homes, so the zoning and permitting process was relatively easy, O’Dell said.
“We built four homes in the configuration we did because we could do it in the existing zoning,” he added.
A year ago, ICON printed seven, one-story, 400-square-foot homes in Austin, in collaboration with Mobile Loaves & Fishes, an Austin non-profit. The homes are part of a community for the homeless. That experience, along with printing about a dozen homes at another project in Mexico, gave ICON all the knowledge it needed to move forward quickly on the new larger homes that are now for sale.
“We are going to be graduating from homes by the dozen to homes by the hundred,” said Jason Ballard, CEO of ICON.
How they’re made
ICON prints the homes on site, using its Vulcan construction system, which spits out a “proprietary extrudable concrete,” according to Ballard, who added that this is the highest speed, lowest cost method. It also allows for the most flexibility in floor plans.
At the new development, ICON 3D-printed the first floor and then built the second story conventionally, but that allowed them to certify the wall system for two-story construction.
“It’s the quickest path from imagination to built options,” said Ballard. “You can produce things that look very elevated and very high end but are no more expensive to deliver than a straight wall would be.”
Ballard said construction of the homes is 10% to 30% cheaper and several months faster than conventional construction. This is especially important given the rising costs builders are seeing for conventional construction materials, like steel, aluminum and especially lumber.
“Housing has been an economic bright spot amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but the industry’s potential to lead the economy forward is limited as long as building materials remain expensive and scarce,” wrote researchers at the National Association of Home Builders earlier this month. “Builders are doing everything possible to avoid pricing consumers out of homes while still maintaining competitive prices necessary to operate their businesses.”
There is also an acute labor shortage in the homebuilding industry. 3D-printed homes require very few workers, as the printer does the bulk of the construction.
The ICON community in Texas may be the first, but right on its heels is a much larger community being planned in Rancho Mirage, California, by competitor Mighty Buildings.
In conjunction with developer Palari Group, the company just announced it will put up 15 3D-printed homes in what it deems “the world’s first planned community of 3D-printed homes … centered around integration of technology and sustainability.”
Mighty Buildings claims the 3D printing production process eliminates 99% of construction waste and is 30-40% cheaper than traditional construction. It will also use solar energy.
Mighty Buildings started in 2017, inventing a polymer composite that could be compared with synthetic stone. It made the home in panels in a factory and then moved them, but for the Rancho Mirage community, the homes will be printed on site.
“This is totally different from concrete because our material is thermal efficient,” said Alex Dubov, chief operating officer at Mighty Buildings. “We are targeting to get to a net zero energy standard for each unit. Our material has lower thermal conductivity. There is no loss of heat and cold between the interior and exterior.
Against the elements
Whether made of concrete or a polymer, these homes have shown to be far more energy efficient, sustainable and resilient than conventional wood-built homes.
Just ask Tim Shea, 70, who lives in one of the ICON homes built for the homeless in Austin. He weathered the recent cold and ice storm there with no problems at all.
“I didn’t even know there was one until I lifted up the blinds,” said Shea. “It’s awesome. I can just deliver a slew of adjectives, but it’s a fantastic place. It’s the most unique place I’ve ever lived in. Houses, apartments, I’m like a bug in a rug in this place.”
ICON’s homes in Mexico have already withstood a major earthquake with no damage. Given that the homes are concrete, they are resistant to mold, termites, water and rot.
Mighty Buildings is still assessing if its material is strong enough to withstand hurricane-force winds, as it looks to expand its geographical footprint.
“We have some interest from Florida and the East Coast,” said Dubov. “We are serving customers all across California so we are 100% sure that our homes can withstand earthquake or wind. The only exception is hurricane tests are not completed.”
With demand for 3D-printed homes now so strong, the biggest challenge for these companies is how to scale up quickly. ICON has four printing systems, and is already building more. Ballard, who now employs 40 people, said he expects the company to grow to a staff of over 100 this year.
ICON announced a $35 million series A round of financing led by Moderne Ventures in August, 2020. The investment brings ICON’s total funding since launching in 2018 to $59 million. Seed round investors included Oakhouse Partners, Cielo Property Group, the nation’s largest homebuilder D.R. Horton and Emaar among others.
“The biggest challenge for ICON is we are supply constrained. We have more people asking for us to build houses than we know what to do with now,” said Ballard. “Every construction system we have is booked up for the next 24 months.” He calls it a “champagne” problem.
“It’s every entrepreneur’s dream,” he said.