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3-D Printed House Offers Quick, Cheap Solution for Poor Worldwide

Imagine building a stronger, cheaper home in as little as 12 hours. That goal now appears feasible with the help of a 3-D printer. A 3-D-printed home was unveiled in Austin, Texas, during the South by Southwest (SXSW) technology conference and music festival this week.

“So I’m standing in front of the first permanent 3-D-printed home in America,” said Jason Ballard, co-founder of Austin-based ICON, a construction company that uses robotics, software and advanced materials to build houses.

The two-bedroom prototype contains space that can be used as a living/dining area, as well as three rooms that can be converted into bedrooms, a study or a bathroom, depending on where the home is located and the resources available. The homes will be anywhere from 56 square meters to 74 square meters in size.

At 35 square meters, the prototype home was successfully printed in a neighborhood near downtown Austin during a rainstorm, as strong winds kicked up dust in the area, according to Ballard.

3-D-printed homes for the poor

The goal is to print homes in developing countries during extreme weather conditions and amid the unpredictability of having electricity and water.

“We work with really the poorest families in the world that don’t have shelters,” said Brett Hagler, founder and chief executive officer with the nonprofit organization New Story. It aims to bring 3-D-printed homes first to Latin America and then expand to other developing countries. Hagler notes that using innovation and new technology will change how homes are manufactured to meet the need for housing around the world.

“The magnitude of the problem that we face is so big, it’s about a billion people that don’t have one of life’s most basic human needs, and that’s safe shelter,” he said.

“What we really need for the size of the issue is exponential growth,” he added, “and that has to come through significantly decreasing cost, increasing speed while doing that without sacrificing quality.”

ICON says the 3-D printer is 4.5-meters tall, 9 meters wide and made of lightweight aluminum. ICON created the device, software and unique mortar material it describes as “proprietary small-aggregate cementitious material” used to print the house. The 3-D printer is transportable because homes are printed on site. Ballard said he can imagine having many 3-D printers scattered around the world making homes.

“It’s actually a lot more simple to build a printer than it is to build a house,” Ballard said.

​Faster and cheaper

“We ran this printer at about a quarter speed to print this house, and we were able to complete the house in less than 48 hours of print time,” Ballard said.

At full speed it could be as little as 12 hours to print a house. Building a traditional New Story home would take 15 days.

“Instead of it taking about a year to build a community, we could do it in just a few months,” Hagler said.

A 3-D-printed home is also less expensive.

“Traditional style on a New Story home is about $6,500 per home. We believe over time, we can get the new home below $4,000,” Hagler said.

Ballard said the material used to print the home is another highlight to this innovative way of building the property.

“We believe the comfort and the energy dynamics of this building are actually going to be once again better than conventional buildings. These houses should be more comfortable and they should require less energy to stay comfortable.”

Ballard said that a 3-D-printed house, “is a complete paradigm shift that has unbelievable advantages in speed, affordability, resiliency, sustainability, waste reduction, you name it. This isn’t just a slight improvement. This is a revolutionary improvement that I think is going to be quite disruptive in the industry.”

This new building technology will be brought to the world’s poorest and underserved first. New Story is working with local nonprofits, governments and families to help fund these homes. The nonprofit plans to start printing homes in El Salvador this year.

The goal is to create permanent 3-D-printed homes and communities in developing countries and beyond that will last for generations.

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