Jason Ballard is the CEO and founder of ICON, a 3D-printing architecture company. He doesn't mince words. "The day I see my robots building something ugly is a nightmare for me."
Ballard, a Texan with a 10-gallon hat and a quick tongue, has a vision of the future for architecture. Other people are also buying it. ICON, based in Austin, has been funded to the tune of nearly half a billion bucks since its launch in 2017. It also won a NASA contract and partnered with influential architects such as Bjarke Ingels. If everything goes according to the plan, ICON could be building on the Moon by the end of this decade.
The CEO first wanted to talk about a much more localized moonshot.
ICON has made its mark by creating houses with a concrete of high strength called "Lavacrete" that is printed in layers. The printing is done by a large ICON machine named "Vulcan", which is fed from a mixing system on site called "Magma."
The first house of the company was revealed in 2018. Since then, its operations have expanded from a group of six houses in 2020 to an entire 100-home development north of Austin that is currently being built (the largest community printed in the US). The footprint of the properties has grown from 350 square foot to more than 2,000 square foot at each stage as technology advances and 3D-printed houses have gone from novelty to mainstream.
ICON builds homes for people who are disadvantaged, such as long-term homelessness, and often works in collaboration with non profit organizations. The company's goal is to create affordable housing, and launched the design competition Initiative 99 in November.
Initiative 99 is looking for submissions of homes that can be 3D printed for less than $99,000. Ballard called it "a call to arms" for the global design and architecture community to tackle "one of the industries that is in dire need of a radical rethink."
In a survey by the Pew Center conducted in 2021, about half of Americans said affordable housing was "a major problem" in their locality. According to a late 2020 estimate, the US housing shortage was estimated at 3.8 million units.
Peggy Bailey, vice president for housing and income security in the progressive US think-tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is a native of Canada. Bailey explained that many Americans struggle to pay their housing costs. She told CNN that even before the pandemic or economic downturn 23 million people were living in 11 million households with low incomes and paying more than half of their income on rent.
She added that "innovative housing construction is a promising way to create more affordable housing," while cautioning "the housing affordability crises are not due to one issue or event." Multifaceted problems require multifaceted solutions."
Initiative 99 was born out of an internal ICON exercise that ICON has been running every six months over the last five years to see what could be built for $99,000 using the technology available. Ballard said, "This year we reached an inflection-point." The results were compelling. We all realized (that) this was something we had to share with everyone.
ICON's CEO stated that Initiative 99 will have the largest prize fund ever for a competition to find affordable housing. The competition, which will run from May 23 to December 31, has three stages: concept development, schematic development and design development. ICON will build the designs of multiple winners.
Ballard hopes to receive entries that are tailored for cultures and contexts from around the globe, and address specific needs and challenges.
Bailey said that the perception of 3D-printed homes by potential residents could determine their success. She said that it is important to remember that 3D-printed housing should be able to fit into the rental market, and that it must have the style and quality that anyone would want to live there.
Ballard explained that all ICON projects are interconnected. For example, the software for monitoring and supporting systems, which will be used in Initiative 99 homes, was developed by ICON as part of the Project Olympus project, which investigates building 3D printed structures on the Moon.
In 2020, lunar concept designs created in collaboration with Bjarke Ingles Group were released. In November 2022, NASA awarded ICON a contract worth $57 million, culminating in tests on the moon.
ICON is testing lunar regolith instead of Lavacrete. This mineral-rich rock and dust that covers the surface of the moon. Ballard explained that the regolith could be melted using a laser to create a ceramic material which is durable, hard and radiation-absorbing.
He added that parts of the construction system had been tested in vacuum and would be tested next in simulated lunar gravitation before being sent to moon in 2026-2027. He stressed that there are currently no plans to build a lunar base, but ICON’s tests will be a major step forward.
ICON's lunar concepts could also be applied to the civilian world. Ballard said ICON was researching locally-sourced building materials that could compete with cement on Earth.
Patti Harburg Petrich, principal of engineering consultancy Buro Happold noted that some companies already print with materials other concrete. The company was consulted for Mighty Buildings award-winning Mighty House in California which used prefabricated 3D-printed composite material as its walls.
She said that 3D printing's sustainability credentials were strong. Harburg-Petrich wrote via email that 3D-printed houses can often be built more quickly and sustainably than traditional construction. She cited the reduction of building materials waste in construction.
3D printing has become a growing focus in recent years. Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, wants to build 25% of its new buildings using 3D printing technology by 2030. The city also has the largest 3D printed structure in terms of volume, which is a two-story office for the local government built by ApisCor in 2019.
The tallest 3D printed building in the World is a three-story, 9.9-meter-high house completed in Saudi Arabia in November last year. Both were realized by Danish printing company COBOD.
Ballard said ICON also plans to print multi-story building, and that triplex and quadplex design are in the works. Ballard stated that ICON was developing the next-generation of its Vulcan system capable of constructing much larger projects. The company also aims to create a system where three or four machines could be operated by one person. He added that "you should expect it will be much faster and a whole lot more autonomous."
Harburg-Petrich noted that this thinking is a response to the US design and construction industries' shortage of skilled workers. She said that in addition to more affordable 3D printing systems and portable 3D printers, the future will require a workforce capable of adapting to 3D printed construction technology.
Ballard's vision for ICON is to focus on 3D-construction in scale with a focus on affordable housing. Initiative 99 will release the winning designs for free. Anyone with the right tools can build the houses.
Ballard said, "I think the future could be incredible." Ballard said, "I'm haunted also by my understanding of human behavior and history. It's not guaranteed that the future will be amazing." We must make it happen. We'll have to take risks to make this happen.