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.

As the Housing Crisis Deepens, Zoning Laws Are in the Crosshairs

In December 2018, Minneapolis made news when it abolished single-family zoning. That began a nationwide conversation about the use of zoning laws to restrict growth and density at a time when housing affordability was worsening and homelessness was increasing.

One of our broker associates, Chuck Brown, attended the National Association of Realtors convention last November in San Francisco. I had attended the same convention there several years ago. I hadn’t noticed many homeless people on the streets back then, but Chuck reported that it was way out of control now, with the streets overcrowded with homeless people.

You, like me, have probably followed the coverage of homelessness in Denver, with that city passing an urban camping ban, which was ruled unconstitutional by a lower court but is still being enforced pending an appeal by the city. It could go all the way to the Supreme Court.

The conversation over zoning created by Minneapolis 13 months ago is growing louder. That’s because the history of zoning is one of intentional discrimination. In researching this topic, I read a Fast Company posting on the history of zoning in San Francisco.. After the 1906 earthquake, the Chinese population there was targeted by zoning changes designed to promote and protect white enclaves. This was long before there were federal laws making discrimination based on race or national origin illegal.

That Fast Company article included the following detail regarding the role of the mortgage industry: “In 1934, as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was established to insure private mortgages. The FHA’s underwriting handbook included guidelines that pushed cities to create racially segregated neighborhoods and encouraged banks to avoid areas with ‘inharmonious racial groups,’ essentially meaning any neighborhood that wasn’t exclusively white.”

Another New Deal program to help homeowners threatened with foreclosure to refinance their home with low-interest long-term mortgages, provided lenders with “safety maps” which used red shading for risky areas which were under “threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population.”  This is the origin of the term “redlining,” and the practice wasn’t outlawed until the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Last week I attended a meeting of the Group Living Advisory Committee in Denver’s municipal building, where they are discussing a zoning amendment which would dramatically increase the number of unrelated persons who can live in a single family home. You can expect this proposal to arise in suburban jurisdictions, too, even if they don’t follow Minneapolis in getting rid of single-family zoning altogether.

I’ll be reporting again as this conversation evolves. Don’t shoot me. I’m just the messenger.