We 3D printed an entire house in 24 hours. Here’s the story.

Maxwell Anderson
Mar 18, 2018 · 10 min read

It has been a wild week.

Icon won the Social Innovation Award at SxSW last week. The next day we hosted an open house with NewStory, and hundreds of guests were able, for the first time in history, to walk around a permitted 3D printed house. In the week since, the team has been inundated with hundreds of emails from around the world from people asking about getting a home printed near them. Dozens of VCs firms and other investors have asked if they can invest.

As Jason Ballard, one of the founders of Icon, says, homebuilding is one of the biggest industries in the world, and disrupting it could affect hundreds of millions of people. In most cases, cutting-edge technology goes first to the richest countries first then trickles down. In this case, thanks to our partnership with NewStory, we’re hoping to go to the global poor first.

The potential is enormous. For NewStory, we hope to reduce the time it takes them to build homes from 15 days down to 15 hours. We hope to reduce the cost to $4,ooo per home. If we can do this, we can serve millions of people. And that’s important. The UN estimates that 10 million people a year die due to substandard housing conditions. NewStory has found that when people have a home, their sleep increases from 4.5 to 9 hours a night on average. There are lots of studies correlating home ownership to escaping poverty.

When my business partner, Evan Loomis, first told me he and Jason were dreaming of starting a company to 3D print houses, it took me a while to get my mind around the idea. Was that really possible? Could it really work? Then, a little over a year ago, they met Alex Le Roux, a super-talented young engineer out of Baylor who had built a small concrete 3D printer himself. Together they formed a company, Icon, with the mission to build 3D printed houses, and partnered with NewStory shortly thereafter. Saturn Five became the first investor in Icon and we (led by Evan) have been working to get the company off the ground.

I’ve written before about our company, Saturn Five. We do two things: 1. Buy and run profitable small businesses and 2. Build imaginative new ventures from scratch. Icon fits in the latter category. The model is to find incredible people to partner with (like Jason, Alex, and the team at NewStory), work with them in a hands-on approach to raise capital, hire the right people, find customers. Basically, we invest some money and a lot of time to launch and grow new companies well. Icon is one of our most exciting companies to date.

But what about jobs?

Longtime readers know I’ve written about automation and technological unemployment before. There is a fierce debate about whether AI and robotics will lead to “the end of work” or whether that is a Luddite fallacy. It’s a question I wrestle with constantly. On the one hand, I’m co-running businesses where part of the goal is to employ people with good-paying jobs and treat them with dignity. On the other hand, with Icon, we are developing technology in homebuilding that could achieve major cost savings by eliminating labor.

The technology thinker and innovator Tim O’Reilly makes a compelling argument about robots and employment using the example of Amazon. In the three years Amazon introduced robots into its fulfillment centers at scale, going from 1,500 to 45,000, they also the number of warehouse employees. We think of robots and automation being ways to eliminate costs and make companies more profitable, but Amazon has become one of the dominant companies in the world by continuing to hire employees and using technology to do more, and to do things that were previously unimaginable, like offer 1 day delivery for free. Technology, in its proper place, should augment people and enable them to do things that were previously unimaginable.

Here’s the logic that makes me think the promise of the technology is worth the risk:

  1. 1 billion+ people don’t have adequate, safe, affordable shelter
  2. When people do get housing, all sorts of life incomes improve, from health to productivity to education.
  3. 3D printed housing can radically increase the speed of building homes while radically reducing the cost, making homes available to far more people far more quickly than current methods.
  4. It is likely technology won’t totally replace people working in homebuilding, but instead will complement them (more on this below).
  5. Even if technology does eliminate some jobs, the net effect of the radical increase in production and decrease in prices should be worth it.
  6. It’s nearly useless to prevent the development of technology. If new tech can create value for people, then it is certain people develop it.
  7. What is not certain is how technology will be applied. It is up to us to imagine how to use tech for the greatest benefit of everyone.
The house in Austin, in progress. Each layer of concrete forms a distinctive line.

Housing affordability is an issue all over the world.Even in my hometown of Denver, the home price is now half a million dollars. Its nearly impossible for first-time homebuyers to afford something. The issue is much worse in slums of the mega-cities of the world, where millions of families can’t afford a decent roof over their head.

We hope that Icon, and companies like it, will be part of the solution. So we plan to continue innovating and building. The next stop on our journey is to build the world’s first 3D printed community later this year, likely in El Salvador.

If you’d like to help, we’re looking for:

  1. Incredible mechanical engineers to help us build the next generation of the printer and make it modular so you can throw it on the back of a truck
    2. Brilliant materials scientists to help us figure out the ideal concrete mixtures
    3. Investors with vision who see the opportunity in this $1 trillion market and want to invest in a technology that could truly change the world.

We’ll keep you posted as we move ahead. Thanks for your support!


SUGGESTED READING IF YOU WANT TO LEARN MORE:

1. The Quest to Bring 3D Printed Homes to the Developing World
By Arielle Pardes in Wired (7 min)

An Overview of the 3D-printed house that now stands in Austin — how we built it and why.

SELECTION


2. 3D Printing Homes for the World’s Poor
by Brett Hagler in Medium (5 min)

New Story, an organization dedicated to building homes for the world’s poor, is one of only a handful of non-profits to have graduated from Y Combinator, the Silicon Valley startup factory that launched companies like Airbnb and DropBox. Given that history, the founders think like tech execs and are obsessed with quality services at scale. In this piece, New Story co-founder and CEO Bret Hagler explains why they are betting on 3D printing as a way to reduce costs and build homes at scale.

FROM THE ARTICLE


3. 1.2 Billion People Living in Cities Lack Access to Affordable and Secure Housing
in World Resources Institute (3 min)

1 in 7 people in the world can’t afford safe shelter. The problem is endemic in megacity slums. And it’s predicted to only get worse.

SELECTION


4.The Benefits of Building with Concrete
by Wright in Dwell (4 min)

Dwell Magazine considers the benefits of building with concrete instead of wood.

SELECTION


5. Robot Macroeconomics: What can theory and several centuries of economic history teach us?

and

Fish and (micro)chips: Why I’m relatively relaxed about robots

by John Lewis in Bank Underground (Bank of England) (15 min total)

A British banker and economist reviews economic history to explain why he isn’t concerned about jobs disappearing because of robots. The first post covers most of the history and theory. In the second post, he responds to his critics and questioners.

SELECTION

Saturn Five

Stories and ideas about building businesses for a better world

Maxwell Anderson

Written by

I publish The Weekend Reader. Subscribe at www.maxwella.com I’m also a founding partner of www.saturnfive.com.

Saturn Five

Stories and ideas about building businesses for a better world

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade