3D Printing Is Being Used to Build Houses for the Homeless With ‘Lavacrete’ Walls

An Austin, Texas, technology company named Icon was the winner of the “general excellence” category in this year’s World Changing Ideas Awards by Fast Company for their development of a 3D printer for building houses.

Their Vulcan II machine is already at work building a neighborhood of homes for Austin’s homeless population and building homes in Mexico for that country’s poor population currently living in shacks. Below is a picture of one of those Mexican homes and a closeup showing how Icon’s 3D printer works, applying layer upon layer of a specially designed mixture called Lavacrete. That product sets quickly enough that another layer can be applied on the machine’s next go-round.

All the walls of a home can be poured in 24 hours spread out over two or three days. The framing of windows and doors and construction of a wooden roof is then done using, when possible, local workers who get on-the-job training, learning skills they can apply in other jobs.

Lavacrete is a propriety adaptation of concrete which overcomes many of the shortcomings of concrete, especially in terms of aging. Because the walls are solid (no room for ducts), the homes are heated and cooled using my favorite method — heat pump mini-splits — which are also far more economical than gas forced air furnaces.

The Mexican project is in a rural area near the southern city of Nacajuca under a partnership with New Story, an international non-profit whose mission is to “pioneer solutions to end global homelessness.”

I remember seeing TV footage showing Icon’s 3D printing machine at work. Prior to that, I attended a presentation by New Story at the Rotary Club of Golden, which, as I recall, joined Rotary International in providing financial support. I am proud to be a financial supporter myself, and you can do so too at www.NewStoryCharity.org.  

3D printing of homes makes sense. I have seen how 3D printers can build various products applying layer upon layer of resin as instructed by a computer program. As with those table-top machines, all that’s needed to build the interior and exterior walls of a home is a larger flat surface (a concrete slab) and a massively larger printer to float above it. Taking the process to yet a higher level, Icon has successfully built the walls of three side-by-side homes simultaneously in Austin, which is impressive and, of course, more cost effective. Here’s an aerial view of 3D printing at work:

Partnering with local non-profits and using local materials and laborers, New Story delivers its fully finished homes free to the Mexicans it is serving, but I can see it being practical in our country to offer such homes with low-cost mortgages and nominal down payments to the homeless or working poor. 

The homes built by Icon for the Austin non-profit Mobile Loaves & Fishes were permitted by that city. When fully built out, their Community First Village will house an estimated 480 formerly homeless individuals, representing 40% of that city’s chronically homeless population.