“HUMANITY’S RETURN TO THE MOON.” That’s the headline on NASA’s Artemis project landing page, emblazoned over a rendering of the arcing surface of the moon in the foreground with the sphere of Mars peeking over the horizon like a nosy neighbor. The Artemis project can effectively be understood as the long-awaited sequel to NASA’s first blockbuster, the Apollo program, and you can almost hear the gravelly voice-over in the background: “We’re going back… and this time, it’s for keeps.” 2024 is the Artemis program’s most widely publicized milestone, when NASA will be sending the first humans to the surface of the moon since 1972, but this historic return is only, well, one small step towards interplanetary colonization. The moon, with its craters full of oxygen-rich ice, will serve as a fueling station; the next stop, as the logo suggests, is Mars.
Space programs are by nature highly collaborative and technical endeavors, and NASA’s reliance on private sector innovation has grown significantly in the decades since Apollo. From the Johnson Space Center in Houston to the SpaceX launch site in Boca Chica, Texans will once again be playing critical roles in this next space launch. Perhaps unexpectedly, however, an Austin-based construction technology company, ICON, is at the forefront of establishing the first permanent architecture on the moon. In October of this year, ICON announced the NASA-funded Project Olympus, a research and development effort to create a “space-based construction system” that builds upon the company’s 3-D printing technology. To bring critical architectural expertise to the project team, Bjarke Ingels Group and SEArch+ (Space Exploration Architecture) have been engaged as partners.
How does a building technology company get from Austin to the moon? The previous business experiences of ICON’s founders trace an ongoing engagement with advancing broader social good through transformative technology and industry disruption. Two of ICON’s co-founders, Jason Ballard and Evan Loomis, previously started TreeHouse, a chain of home improvement outlets that sought to spark a green revolution from the front lines of retail. Modeled on the example of Whole Foods, TreeHouse first opened an Austin store in 2011. After an expansion to the Dallas market and a few strategic pivots, the company folded at the end of 2018. Dmitri Julius, vice president of operations at ICON, who previously oversaw sales at TreeHouse, explains: “The goal [of TreeHouse] was to make housing incrementally better than what existed. But it was always in the back of our minds that in order to make housing fundamentally better, the structure itself would need to become better. So you could improve the windows or improve the doors or make other incremental improvements, but ultimately, if you could effectively alter the envelope, you’d have a better overall condition. So as TreeHouse was making its exit from the market, Evan, Jason, and Alex [Le Roux, the third co-founder and now CTO of ICON] started permeating the idea of printing at scale.”
The home construction industry is ripe for disruption, Julius says, not just because it’s a multi-trillion dollar industry, and not just because of its significant environmental impacts, but because it’s not actively working to house people. Creating dignified housing for people who are unhoused has been central to ICON’s mission from the outset. “I’ll tell you, every executive meeting we have starts with the same opening slides about the 1.2 billion people that are actively homeless or home-insecure,” Julius says. “That’s not something that leaves our line of sight, ever.”
The ICON founders found compelling the concept of a single monolithic wall that could eliminate a slew of less resilient materials, like sheetrock, framing, and siding, and their associated labor and cut-off waste. After a year and change developing a prototype 3-D printer by using personal funds, ICON emerged with a printer (the Vulcan), coding, and a proprietary 6,000-PSI concrete mix, Lavacrete, that is compatible with the unique technical requirements of the printer and adaptable to different climatic conditions. In 2018, they came out swinging at SXSW with a proof of concept: a 3-D-printed, 350-sf house, building permit approved, in East Austin. (Andrew Logan of Logan Architecture was the architect, Sam Covey of Fort Structures, the engineer, and Alchemy Builders completed the finish out of the home.)
Next, the ICON team needed a larger project to test their technology’s potential. Community First! Village, a nonprofit providing permanent housing and a supportive community for formerly homeless residents, offered the perfect launching pad for the next round of ICON prototypes: The Village (under the leadership of staff architect Sarah Satterlee, AIA) has worked with an impressive lineup of local design and construction talent to create housing and other structures. ICON again collaborated with Logan Architecture and Fort Structures to design and print six 400-sf tiny homes for residents and a 500-sf welcome center. The same team worked together to launch a project with housing nonprofit New Story to 3-D print a community of homes in Tabasco, Mexico. That project is still underway.
As for the architectural possibilities of ICON’s technology, the dimensional constraints of the print area are the primary limiting factor. Currently, the Vulcan printer is set up to print walls (it prints curves as easily as straight lines) up to nine feet high by printing 1-in-tall-by-2-in-wide Lavacrete beads, one on top of the other, at about six inches per second. The Lavacrete walls are generally a foot thick and include a proprietary wall system in the cavity of the wall, visually reminiscent of a truss on its side, and rough openings are framed by hand with dimensional lumber. Logan’s elegantly simple designs use a conventional roof structure, but eventually the goal is to be able to easily customize and print the entire house envelope, from foundation to roof, with precisely calibrated window and door rough-in openings. Says Logan: “It’s an ongoing feedback loop, with us designing stuff, and the structural engineer saying, ‘Well, maybe,’ and then going to the ICON guys and them coding it and coming back to us to say, ‘The code doesn’t work that way; we need a place to break the wall.’” Or, as Julius puts it, “With every customer, we learn something new about the tech.” Julius is currently overseeing the development of an open-source platform that will allow more collaboration with structural engineers, builders, and architects; ideally, this will drive the technology even further. (The permitting, Logan notes, was not a particularly big hurdle: “It was just a straightforward structural review.” Mortgage lenders, however, may still balk at financing a 3-D-printed house, something that ICON is working to address, via partnerships with lenders, as they move into the mid-range housing market).
Andrew Logan met Jason Ballard and Evan Loomis when they were all students at Texas A&M (future researchers of humanity on the moon may trace a connection to the Aggie Men’s Club). Logan says of Ballard: “He’s a super idealistic and philosophically driven guy. ICON has a product that’s really attractive, but they want to figure out how to make the world a better place while they’re utilizing that product.” Logan is also interested in the material possibilities of the technology. “What does the wall want to be?” he asks, echoing Louis Kahn. “It’s basically like frosting coming out of a nozzle. Really expensive frosting.” Currently, the materiality is expressed through the rounded beads of concrete — the lines of frosting, as it were — that give the wall texture and that, in Logan’s designs, are carefully coordinated with window and door heights. But, says Logan: “You think of really old masonry buildings in Europe, where the stone is rusticated in some places and smooth in others and they’ve carved in handrails. The humanistic experience of that is so wonderful, in my opinion, and relatable. You could accomplish the same thing with 3-D printing if you put enough thought into it.” The compound curves that Logan shows in the Mines Martian renderings are not quite within the capabilities of the Vulcan printer — that is, not yet. But with every loop of feedback, more possibilities become reality.
To date, these questions of refined tectonic expression are fascinating for architects and, one suspects, mystifying at best for space engineers, who are trying to solve a number of life-or-death problems largely unrelated to aesthetics. Christine Tiballi, a Sci-Arc-trained designer whose interest in space led her to a Master of Science (MSc) program at the International Space University in Strasbourg, describes some of those challenges: “a), you’re in the vacuum of space; b), you’re at a sixth of the gravity of earth; and c) you’re dealing with lunar dust, called regolith, with particles that are extremely sharp, so they’re a total hazard for humans to inhale.” (Printing with accessible on-site materials like regolith is one of Project Olympus’s core challenges.) On top of that, there’s cost: “One of the biggest impediments to space travel is that you have to get equipment off the planet, and that’s expensive. You’ve got mass/volume trade-offs, because you’ve got the shape of the rocket, which has limited payload capacity, so you have to fit the equipment in there, but you’re also dealing with weight vs. fuel requirements.” Getting one pound of material off the planet, she estimates, currently costs between $6,000 (unmanned) and $51,000 (manned). (This helps to explain why astronauts have freeze-dried ice cream instead of, say, keg beer). And if the sharp-edged regolith particles weren’t enough, the moon is also bombarded by galactic cosmic radiation and solar particle events. “You have to shield any work or habitation element from that,” Tiballi says. “And one of the best ways to do that is to use that lunar regolith and either construct a shield or bury whatever architectural element into a crater or into a lava tube. It’s pretty nuts.” Hence, the appeal of a 3-D-printed mass wall — though Tiballi says most people are envisioning that as “some kind of radiation shielding element, almost like a bandshell, built around an inflatable” structure. The promise of ICON’s technology for a lunar construction system is clear: 3-D printing is precise, requires minimal human assembly, and can utilize the heavy raw materials that are already on the moon.
While colonial forces throughout history have used architecture as a means of expressing a dominant culture and ideology, the absence of architects in space is notable. While a few architects — Bjarke Ingels and SOM among them — have tried to play a bigger role in space, architects currently play a very niche role in forming (literally) a human culture on other planets. “Have you ever seen a picture of the inside of the International Space Station?” Tiballi asks. “Wires everywhere, equipment everywhere. People are in there for six months, packed like sardines, with little personal space. These people are basically in a highly-engineered can circling the earth. It’s hard, really hard, on all the people who go up there.” As space travel becomes more common, however, more space programs are starting to look anew at design — even if only virtually. “Architects would say, ‘Look, this is really stressful,’” Tiballi says. “Maybe you ought to add a few elements that would help people deal with their time there? Things like lighting or colors or textures or materials might change things just enough … and I think most of the space programs are starting to say, ‘Okay, long term, we really do have to focus on this.’ They’re starting to integrate things like VR and AR to give people alternate options for their psychological well-being.”
At the other extreme, meanwhile, more and more companies are starting to look at space as the future of hospitality, with the ISS being considered as a possible rest stop. But tourists be warned: “There’s a really small margin of error,” Tiballi says. “If things go wrong, you could die. And people are paying a lot of money to be there, but you’re asking people not to put the windows down, and these are people who want to put the windows down. So how do you keep their arms in on the ride?” Look out, moon — here comes humanity.
At least one member of the Project Olympus team has been working for years on exploring the psychological aspects of the human experience in space. Melodie Yashar, cofounder of Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch+), is a multidisciplinary designer with graduate degrees in architecture and human-computer interaction with an emphasis in robotics. SEArch+’s work developing construction techniques specific to potential lunar and Mars habitation emphasizes that it enables humans “to not only live, but thrive in space environments beyond Earth.” SEArch+ has won a number of NASA Habitat awards, including, in partnership with Russia-based 3-D printing company Apis Cor, a prize for a dual-shell housing module inspired by Alvar Aalto’s sculptural capturing of natural light at the Church of the Assumption of Mary. SEArch+’s renderings also show, among other furnishings, what appears to be a Saarinen Tulip chair. It’s a funny detail, but it illustrates a point: What does it mean to live well off-Earth? And who is designing furniture for space?
ICON is working slowly and steadily on new prototypes for off-Earth construction. Back on this planet, however, they feel a greater sense of urgency. “There need to be individuals that are reading this article that need to be thinking about housing and the built environment in ways that are different from the ways that got us to this place,” Julius says. “All the reasons why the global housing crisis is a crisis are all the reasons why everyone needs to be working on a solution. We all need to be thinking about how to act in our own spheres and in our own backyards.” For inspiration, Ballard suggests, just look up.
Jessie Temple is an architect and writer in Austin. Greg Esparza is a partner at Moontower Design Build, also in Austin.