Intelligent Living
How 3D Printers Are Helping the Homeless and Astronauts
(Credit: ICON)
Housing Innovation Sustainability

How 3D Printers Are Helping The Homeless And Astronauts

World’s Largest 3D-Printed Neighborhood

There are a handful of companies pioneering the 3D-construction field today. And while one in particular (Austin, Texas-based construction tech startup ICON) dominates the pack, they all bring something to the table. Moreover, the futuristic technology is being used with projects here on Earth and eventually in Space – from building single-family homes for the homeless to developing construction systems that will create the infrastructure and habitats on the Moon and Mars.

ICON’s 3D printer called Vulcan uses a cement-like mixture called Lavacrete that’s designed to withstand extreme weather conditions. The company’s custom-made Portland cement-based material is also mold-resistant. In 2019, ICON built a set of houses at Austin’s Community First! Village for the formerly homeless using this Lavacrete. The region has experienced harsh storms, and the houses remain unharmed.

Following that project came the East 17th Street Residences, which led to ICON getting a massive $207 million Series B raise to build the largest community of 3D-printed houses in the world. The company is collaborating with homebuilder Lennar on the ambitious new development located in Texas and consists of 100 family houses.

The project is an example of how 3D printing can deliver affordable homes to meet rising demand. The technology produces energy-efficient, resilient homes faster than traditional construction methods while reducing waste and providing more design freedom. In addition, it keeps projects on budget and schedule.

Eric Feder, President of LENX, said:

Labor and material shortages are two of the biggest factors pushing the dream of homeownership out of reach for many American families. Lennar has always expanded the boundaries of technological innovation to keep quality homes affordable, and 3D printing is an immensely encouraging approach. We are excited to collaborate with ICON to develop solutions to emerging challenges in the coming years.

Furthermore, ICON’s construction system makes houses longer-lasting than conventional building materials like Concrete Masonry Unit-built homes. It can extrude structures up to 3,000 square feet bit built to the International Building Code structural code standard.

ICON co-founder and CEO Jason Ballard said:

ICON exists as a response to the global housing crisis and to put our technology in service to the world. Construction-scale 3D printing not only delivers higher-quality homes faster and more affordably, but fleets of printers can change the way those entire communities are built for the better. The United States faces a deficit of approximately 5 million new homes, so there is a profound need to swiftly increase supply without compromising quality, beauty, or sustainability. That is exactly the strength of our technology. It is an honor and a huge milestone for ICON to partner with Lennar, an elite top-tier homebuilder committed to innovation. We believe this will be a watershed moment in the history of community-scale development and the future breaking into the present.

How 3D Printers Are Helping the Homeless and Astronauts
(Credit: ICON)

The build process for the new neighborhood’s homes will involve ICON’s Vulcan model extruding Lavacrete out in layers, building up the basic structure of each home. Then, human builders come in to finish them off, adding windows, doors, roofs, and interior furniture. In addition, the homes will come equipped with roof-top solar panels to reduce their draw on the grid.

Icon elaborated:

Designed as a diverse collection of contemporary living spaces, the homes take on a variety of distinctive spatial concepts. The design approach modernizes the aesthetic of the suburban home, while the 3D-printing technology texturizes and provides specific touchpoints for each Space. The freedom of form facilitated by this building technology – including the sinuous curves of the walls – combines with traditional construction materials to create homes that are both aesthetically and physically unique.

The project will be codesigned by the renowned architecture firm BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group and will break ground in 2022.

Martin Voelkle, Partner, BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, said:

Additive manufacturing has the potential to revolutionize the built environment as it gets adopted by the industry at scale. We can see this new technology roll out to the widest possible audience by partnering with ICON and Lennar. The 3D-printed architecture and the photovoltaic roofs are innovations that are significant steps towards reducing waste in the construction process, as well as towards making our homes more resilient, sustainable, and energy self-sufficient.

Space Missions

BIG and ICON are also working together on a project with NASA to create a 3D-printed structure called Mars Dune Alpha designed to simulate living on Mars. The 158-square-meter “habitat” is under construction at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. They find 3D-printing technology fitting for constructing extraterrestrial habitats because it requires minimal building materials and workers.

How 3D Printers Are Helping the Homeless and Astronauts
(Credit: ICON)

Four people will occupy Mars Dune Alpha at a time. They’ll remain in the building for extended periods to help the space agency understand the mental and physical challenges that may impact a crew on a long-duration space mission. The design consists of four private quarters on one side, work stations like medical and food-growing labs on the other, and shared living spaces at its center.

BIG founder Bjarke Ingels said:

Together with NASA and ICON, we are investigating what humanity’s home on another planet will entail from the human experience. The data gained from this habitat research will directly inform NASA’s standards for long-duration exploration missions, and as such, will potentially lay the foundation for a new Martian vernacular. Mars Dune Alpha will take us one step closer to becoming a multi-planetary species.

The ceiling heights will vary to provide visually unique rooms and avoid spatial monotony, which can cause crewmember fatigue. In addition, every room will feature customizable temperature, lighting, and sound control. Furthermore, some of the furniture will be movable to allow the inhabitants to reorganize and personalize the interiors.

ICON co-founder Jason Ballard added:

This is the highest-fidelity simulated habitat ever constructed by humans. Mars Dune Alpha is intended to serve a specific purpose, to prepare humans to live on another planet. We wanted to develop the most faithful analog possible to aid in humanity’s dream to expand into the stars. 3D printing the habitat has further illustrated to us that construction-scale 3D printing is an essential part of humanity’s toolkit on Earth and to go to the MoonMoon and Mars to stay.

How 3D Printers Are Helping the Homeless and Astronauts
(Credit: ICON)

ICON is also working with BIG, NASA, and the firm SEArch+ (Space Exploration Architecture) on Project Olympus, a mission closer to home involving the development of robotic construction techniques for the Moon. The purpose is to create a system that people can use to construct a 3D-printed infrastructure on the Moon using materials found on its surface so people can live there for extended periods.

Ingels enthusiastically said:

With ICON, we are pioneering new frontiers – both materially, technologically, and environmentally. To explain the power of architecture, ‘formgiving’ is the Danish word for design, which literally means to give form to that which has not yet been given form. This becomes fundamentally clear when we venture beyond Earth and begin to imagine how we are going to build and live on entirely new worlds.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center team in Huntsville, Alabama, uses a moon soil simulant to investigate a 3D-printable construction. This project differs from others that suggest metal structures or inflatables because 3D printing should be more manageable and sustainable, reducing waste. Furthermore, the study’s findings should improve sustainable construction methods here on Earth.

SEArch+ said:

We have explored various building forms ideal for containing atmospheric pressure and optimized for protection from cosmic and solar radiation. The habitat will be designed with the inherent redundancy required for extraterrestrial buildings while also using groundbreaking robotic construction that uses only in-situ resources with zero waste left behind. 3D printing with indigenous materials is a sustainable and versatile solution to off-world construction that will prove to be vital to our future here on Earth and in Outer Space.

BIG partner Martin Voelkle added:

With the technologies and efficiency parameters developed for the construction of extraterrestrial buildings, Project Olympus will also help us to build sustainably on planet Earth as we strive to reduce the carbon footprint of the built environment.

ICON Co-founder Jason Ballard concluded:

Building humanity’s first home on another world will be the most ambitious construction project in human history and will push science, engineering, technology, and architecture to literally new heights.

New Story In Mexico

Bringing Icon’s missions back to Earth and into the present, it has been working with two other organizations on the world’s first 3D-printed neighborhood. The collaboration involves a foundation building homes for at-risk people in Mexico and a non-profit organization dedicated to resolving homelessness globally, dedicated to making dignified housing the norm. Their first project together is in Tabasco, Mexico, where they build 50 homes for families in need using 3D printing technology.

How 3D Printers Are Helping the Homeless and Astronauts
(Credit: ICON)

Each house is built atop a foundation reinforced to withstand seismic activity. They are 500 square feet with a flat roof, reminiscent of a traditional southwestern design. There are two bedrooms, a living room, one bathroom, and a kitchen.

Other 3D-printed housing projects worldwide, not by ICON, include a dome-shaped, low-carbon house prototype made from clay by an Italian firm called Mario Cucinella Architects and a 3D-printed floating house in the Czech Republic by sculptor Michal Trpák. Also, construction technology company Mighty Buildings is planning a neighborhood in Rancho Mirage, California, that will consist of 15 houses made of prefabricated 3D printed panels.

Clay Domes

Mario Cucinella Architects partnered with WASP (World’s Advanced Saving Project) to design an innovative, 3D-printed home inspired by the potter wasps’ nests. The homes, dubbed TECLA, are currently being built in Bologna, Italy. The TECLA house design is an experimental 3D-printed prototype crafted from the local terrain and could potentially offer a sustainable option for urban housing. TECLA’s round and bubbly shape, natural and earthy color, and layered texture gives the home a resemblance to non-human habitats and prehistoric dwellings.

How 3D Printers Are Helping the Homeless and Astronauts
(Credit: WASP)
How 3D Printers Are Helping the Homeless and Astronauts
(Credit: WASP)
How 3D Printers Are Helping the Homeless and Astronauts
(Credit: WASP)

The TECLA housing plan addresses the need to build sustainable housing for the rapidly rising world population and the environmental impact linked with the building industry. Around 80 million people are born every year, resulting in cities struggling to find adequate housing solutions that are both sustainable and affordable.

As a solution to curb the massive housing crisis, architect Mario Cucinella and WASP developed TECLA. The homes are 3D printed using locally sourced clay, which is both biodegradable and recyclable. The natural substance is also inexpensive and allows a zero-waste construction process. That substance is extruded through a pipe to a modular ‘Crane WASP’ 3D printer, dedicated to printing houses, that can print objects up to twenty-one feet in diameter and nine feet in height.

WASP told Dezeen:

Gaia is the result of limited and optimized use of agricultural resources, which have been converted into a complex building with a minimal environmental footprint through technology. If the building isn’t maintained, it will turn back into the soil.

Floating House

Czech Republic’s first 3D-printed house, called Protozoan, took only 48 hours to build and a few weeks to dry. The building has a curved body with flowing walls and big circular windows. It’s inspired by nature and organic shapes, particularly by protozoa.

How 3D Printers Are Helping the Homeless and Astronauts
(Credit: Michal Trpak)

Czech sculptor Michal Trpák envisioned Protozoan as a home for people traveling in nature or the countryside. It includes a bedroom, a living room with a kitchen, a bathroom, and a big circular skylight; but, the most distinguishing feature of all is that it floats on water.

The ‘Prvok’ project demonstrates how people can use 3D printing technologies to create more sustainable housing. Trpák joined forces with a group of architects to develop the 43-square-meter prototype in the Czech city of České Budějovice.

The house includes self-sufficient and eco-friendly features such as a green roof, a recirculating shower system, and utility, drinking, and sewage reservoirs. The house’s exterior printed shell is allegedly three times stronger than traditional concrete and has at least 100 years of life expectancy. Once it has expired, the building material can be crushed and reprinted on the spot.

The 3D-printed floating house can be completed seven times faster than building a conventional brick home, lowering the costs by 50% while reducing carbon emissions and construction waste. The World Green Building Council claims that the construction and building industries are accountable for 39% of the world’s carbon emissions.

Mighty Buildings

Mighty Buildings collaborates with the developer Palari Group on plans to build a set of homes using prefabricated 3D-printed panels in California. The houses, set to be finished by Spring 2022, will be the world’s first community of net-zero emissions 3D printed homes.

How 3D Printers Are Helping the Homeless and Astronauts
(Credit: Mighty Buildings)

Every home’s energy needs will come from solar panels with optional Tesla Powerwall batteries for backup power storage. Other optional features include artificial intelligence wellness technology called DARWIN (filters air and water and programs lighting patterns to encourage circadian rhythm) and electric vehicle charging stations. Each property will be 10,000-square-foot (929-square-meters), accommodating a swimming pool and gardens.

Related Articles

Thermite RS3: America’s First Firefighting Robot

Andrea D. Steffen

IOON: A Portable Spray Bottle That Turns Tap Water Into Sanitizer

Andrea D. Steffen

Researchers Create Contact Lenses That Zoom In And Out When You Blink Twice

Luana Steffen