A San Francisco nonprofit and an Austin, Texas, tech firm aim to bring printed concrete homes to El Salvador next year.
San Francisco nonprofit New Story and Austin, Texas-based for-profit firm Icon printed this 350-square-foot home in Austin as their test case for bringing 3D-printed homes to the developing world.
“Our goal is to prove this technology as a better way than the traditional way,” says Brett Hagler, the 28-year-old CEO and co-founder of New Story. “Not to keep it to ourselves, but actually to democratize this to other organizations.” The partners plan to bring the first 3D-printed homes to El Salvador by early next year.
Hagler got the idea for New Story after a trip to Haiti, where he met families living in slums. He co-founded the nonprofit in 2015 and the next year took it through the prestigious Y Combinator startup accelerator. In its first three years, New Story has raised funds to build 1,300 homes in 12 communities in Haiti, El Salvador, Bolivia and Mexico, and has built 850 homes that families have moved into.
Through mutual contacts, the New Story team connected with the founders of Icon, a for-profit construction technologies firm working on 3D printing technology. Though Icon aspires to bring its technology to the U.S. commercial market and even to space, its founders also share a passion for bringing shelter to families that need it. Together, the parties came up with a plan to create 600-to-800-square-foot 3D-printed homes for the developing world.
Icon printed the home pictured here in just under 48 hours. The company used a 20-by-11-foot, 2,000-pound gantry-style printer set on tracks. Dubbed the Vulcan I, the machine extrudes a proprietary concrete mix that prints layer by layer, leaving minimal gaps between layers and adjacent walls.
The partners faced challenges during the test print, which they completed on site in time for this year’s South by Southwest festival. For one, the concrete pump that pulls the concrete mix and pushes it into the printer for extruding got stuck. Icon’s staff had to clean it for about every eight layers of printing.
While this print job was done on a flat site and with easy access to power, a printer in El Salvador or Haiti would need to be able to handle power outages, uneven ground and rainstorms. New Story is raising money to develop the next phase of the Vulcan printer, which the partners say should be able to print a single home in less than 24 hours. They’re also upgrading it to include a generator and possibly solar panels, Lee says.
First, it’s fast and cheap. But it also offers environmental benefits. Because the 3D printer extrudes just what is needed for the home, little material goes to waste. In conventional construction, materials are purchased and cut down to size, with extra pieces tossed aside.
Because the printer creates one continuous building envelope, there are minimal gaps where energy or heat can escape. The material itself is also energy-efficient. Concrete is more resilient than drywall and particle board and has a high thermal mass, which means it can store heat energy, helping to moderate indoor temperatures by averaging out daytime and nighttime extremes.
Icon expects the printed homes to last as long as or longer than standard concrete masonry homes. Printing the homes offers more design freedom than building them with concrete masonry blocks, since it’s just as easy to print curves and slopes as it is straight lines. A home can be customized to fit a family’s needs and preferences — a level of personal service that most families living on less than $2 a day aren’t used to, Hagler says.
One downside to the new technology is that it requires fewer workers. New Story’s conventional homes currently provide about four jobs each. The 3D-printed homes would provide only two or three, Hagler says.
But because the cost for these homes is less — $4,000, compared with the $6,500 New Story has been spending on conventional homes — Hagler hopes that increased building volume can offset potential job losses. The new jobs would be higher-tech compared with conventional construction, though how translatable those skills would be isn’t clear.
For now, New Story is raising funds to bring the first 100 3D-printed homes to El Salvador and to support the research and development of the next-generation Vulcan printer. The partners plan seismic and strength testing over the next six months; Lee says the first test showed the concrete mixture is three times stronger than the cinder blocks New Story currently builds with.
For the reveal of the test home at South by Southwest, Sara Barney of Bandd Design decorated it to fit in with its East Austin location. “I wanted to bring the bohemian, charming, Southwest flavor of this neighborhood into the design,” she says. “Bringing the outside in and keeping the furniture minimalistic was important to reflect how these homes will be used as part of this project in the developing world.”
Barney sourced products from lower-cost retailers and used vintage pieces to keep the decor relatively affordable.
Bed: Ikea; lighting and bedding: Amazon
Donors who support a New Story 3D-printed home are matched with a family so they can see the impact of their generosity, receiving a bio and photo of the family and a video of moving-in day.
The 3D homes will be built as part of communities of 50 or more houses using local materials. If the communities aren’t already near schools or play areas, New Story will work with local partners to create those. The families will own both the homes and the land they’re built on.
Icon plans to use the test home as an office for part of its staff.