A staggering one billion people in the world don’t have access to adequate shelter. It’s hard to imagine just how awful that must be. Now though, two companies have teamed up in an attempt to reverse this terrible statistic. And the way they’re doing it is going to blow your mind.
The time it takes to build a house can vary greatly, depending on the materials, design and other factors. A construction survey conducted by the Census Bureau in 2016 suggested that the average time to erect a family home is about six months. The one you’re looking at right now took less than a single day. You’re probably wondering how.
The truth behind the incredible speed of the build comes down to two things. Or, more specifically, two companies. One is called Icon, the other New Story. And no, the home you see on your screen is not a miniature house. The home actually covers some 650 square feet and is made out of cement. However, it’s not just the pace at which the dwelling is put up that’s incredible.
You see, the house wasn’t just quick to build, but it was also relatively inexpensive. All told, the making of this building cost somewhere in the region of $10,000. And Icon, the company behind it, is hoping to one day get costs down as low as $4,000. But what’s the catch? And where does New Story come into the narrative?
You’ve almost certainly heard of 3D printers. Well, this is a house that’s been created by one. Albeit a much bigger one than the printers you’ve seen before. It’s called the Vulcan, and in March 2018 at SXSW in Texas it unveiled the first model of Icon’s new kind of house. But the story doesn’t stop there. Not by a long shot.
That’s because the plan isn’t to stop at one 3D-printed house. Nope, Icon and New Story intend to print an entire community. Indeed, over the next year the two companies will build around 100 houses in El Salvador. And while Icon might be providing the equipment, it’s New Story that’s providing the drive to create the more affordable housing.
New Story had been building housing for people affected by the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, as well as working in El Salvador. But while immersed in their estimable endeavors, the company’s CEO Brett Hagler explained to Fast Company, it came across a problem: there were too many people needing too many houses. And that got the team at New Story thinking.
“We thought, what would it look like to have more of an exponential breakthrough for such a big challenge?” explained Hagler. To this end, New Story came up with three points it realized needed addressing. The price of building houses, the speed at which it could put them up and the quality of the finished article.
Eventually, after seven months of analysis and discussion, New Story settled on 3D printing. Although, it was by no means an easy decision. “We were very skeptical of the viability of this,” Hagler said. “It took doing a lot of research and a lot of due diligence to figure out that it could actually solve those three design questions.”
And while other startups in the same vein are focusing on the higher end of society, New Story looked at things in a totally different way. “We thought, okay, what if the bottom billion weren’t the last ones to get this, but the first ones to get this?” Hagler explained. “It made sense for us to try to leapfrog what’s happening domestically, because our homes are so simple.”
However, just because the homes are simple, that doesn’t mean they’re not flexible. Indeed, because they’re printed, the possibilities are manifold. For example, in the future a few tweaks to the printer’s software will enable the Vulcan to alter the design of each house. In this way, the needs of different families could be accommodated. And there are other things, too, that make the plan New Story and Icon have come up with so effective.
For one thing, the materials that the printing process uses are incredibly easy to come by. The Vulcan works with a mortar that can be sourced pretty much anywhere in the world. And the concrete foundations of the houses are identical to the ones New Story was using before the 3D printing brainwave struck.
Jason Ballard, one of the cofounders of Icon, explained to Fast Company just why that was so important. “The big difference between a developed world and developing world context is you have a much more limited set of materials to work with,” he said. “You want to restrict your material mix to things that you could find very ubiquitously around the globe. And you also want to avoid expensive materials.”
The Vulcan also fits on a truck, which means it’s easy to move around and can be transported to rural areas where people need help. It’s strong as well, meaning it should be able to withstand any harsh conditions that might be thrown in its direction. But how does it actually work?
Well, the Vulcan is mounted on rails. It moves back and forth, delivering the concrete mix in a series of different layers which make up the walls and floor of the building. The only part of the house that isn’t printed is the roof; this is added once the four-room, one-story house is completed. Moreover, although each dwelling is comparatively cheap to produce, it’s not just a cost issue that these houses solve.
Ballard explained that the resulting house is actually incredibly hard-wearing. “There are fundamental problems with conventional stick-building that 3D printing solves, besides affordability,” he said. “You get a high thermal mass, thermal envelope, which makes it far more energy-efficient. It’s far more resilient.” And that meets the third criteria New Story was looking at.
The plan now, with the first of the printed houses, is to use it as an office in order to test its viability. The house has been erected just behind the Icon offices in Austin, TX. “We are going to install air quality monitors,” Ballard explained to The Verge, citing a need to answer his question, “How does it look, and how does it smell?”
But sustainable, well-built and low-cost housing for those who need it isn’t the only thing that Icon is aiming for. Ballard explained that in the future there’s a good chance that similar technology to that powering the Vulcan could be used an awful lot further from home. In fact, it’s somewhat fitting that the printer shares a name with an alien race from Star Trek.
“One of the big challenges is how are we going to create habitats in space,” Ballard told The Verge. “You’re not going to open a two-by-four and open screws. It’s one of the more promising potential habitat technologies.” In other words, one day we might be 3D-printing new homes on some of the other planets and moons in the solar system.
For New Story, though, the immediate future is looking a little more terrestrial. Once the community in El Salvador has been completed next year, it plans to spread the technology far and wide. Not just to other non-profit organizations, but to governments also. Hopefully that’ll go some of the way to putting roofs over the heads of the people who really need them.