Community First! Village is a master planned community for people emerging from chronic homelessness. The development features six new houses 3-D printed by ICON and designed by Andrew Logan, AIA, founder and principal of Logan Architecture. They are the first inhabited dwellings in the United States built with this new construction technology. The units sit on standard concrete slab foundations in L and C configurations, but what stands out the most about the houses are their rounded, white concrete exteriors. The curved lines of their exteriors are artifacts of their 3-D-printed construction and are interrupted by colorful window trims that individualize each home.
The director of architecture and site development, Sarah Satterlee, AIA, points out the potential issues of offering a new technology to their residents. “Even though it can be a little tricky when you experiment with different materials or methods on people who have been typically marginalized, we are giving this technology to individuals who don’t have access to leading technology.”
3-D printing stands to revolutionize construction, although current limitations of the technology require special design consideration. “We did a lot of work to have a site strategy that would amplify the opportunities for their printer,” says Satterlee, referring to the large-scale construction 3-D printer named Vulcan. At the time the homes were constructed, it could print up to 25 feet in width. The Community First! design called for using this maximum width. By siting multiple homes on a shared foundation, they could be printed at the same time. “We took advantage of the same inside footprint of the home, and [ICON] printed big planters out of the same material as the walls [inside the structure], and then we craned the planters out to extend the mass of the home,” says Satterlee.
These innovative strategies are part of the fast-paced culture of ICON, who call themselves a “developer of advanced construction technologies including robotics, software, and building materials.” With a seemingly endless stream of tech companies arriving to the low-tax Wild West, the Texas capital is the ideal place for the marriage of technology and boundary-pushing design. The weird world of Austin is mixing with a new futurism, changing the way we live by means that could influence cities far beyond the Hill Country.
Lavacrete, ICON’s proprietary small-aggregate cementitious material, functions as both structure and cladding. Similar to concrete, the cost-effectiveness and speed of the system has the potential to create more equitable communities by side-stepping the financial barriers at the core of constructing such developments. The tablet-based operating system controls printing of 2-D CAD drawings, using a large-scale robotic printer capable of producing “resilient, single-story homes faster than conventional methods,” according to the company. Logan was the architect for the prototype structure unveiled at SXSW in 2018 and for the Community First! Village welcome center and homes (see the January/February 2021 issue of Texas Architect). His experience as a graduate architecture student at The University of Texas at Austin helped prepare him with transferrable skills that he applied to his work with ICON. “It was just like designing for 3-D printing a model for school,” says Logan.
A major challenge, however, is Austin’s climate. Central Texas’ frequent rainstorm events led to one of the most significant changes to the new house designs. Logan explains: “The biggest step forward was getting the wall waterproofing spec fairly well dialed in. The six [housing] units were the first time using an elastomeric coating. It’s the same thing you would use to waterproof an underground parking garage.” No post-occupancy reports have been publicly shared, so, as of yet, there is no data to back up ICON’s claim that “3-D printing technology provides safer, more resilient homes that are designed to withstand fire, flood, wind and other natural disasters better than conventionally built homes.”
On October 26, 2021, ICON announced a partnership with home building company Lennar to build the largest neighborhood of 3-D-printed homes, which will be codesigned by Bjarke Ingels Group. The 100-home community will break ground in Austin in 2022. Renderings of the development echo the homogeneity of ICON’s earlier projects but feature longer, more protective overhangs. The project will also make use of the latest generation Vulcan printer, which can print wider but is still limited to single-story construction, a factor that seems to work against Austin’s goals for a denser, greener, and more sustainable city. While concrete as an industry is a major CO2 producer, the bigger environmental issue is the vast quantities of material used. Sand is a primary component and itself is a limited resource. If ICON’s intention is really to bypass “profit motivation” to bring construction advances to the built environment and transform housing, they will need to consider the repercussions of urban sprawl and offer data to support their claims of resiliency.
Jes Deaver, AIA, is an architect in Austin.