Can 3-D Printing Help Solve the Housing Crisis?

    Before Jason Ballard became an entrepreneur, he considered becoming a priest. His speech is still peppered with the idiom of faith—wicked, angels, sacred—and, when he latches on to a subject he cares about, he assumes a rousing, propulsive cadence. These days, the topic he is most evangelical about is our broken housing system. “What we’re doing is not working,” Ballard told me last spring. “There are far too many homeless people. Working-class people can’t afford basic housing in regular old American cities. Construction’s too wasteful. Houses aren’t energy-efficient enough. At the suburb scale, it’s dystopian, almost, what we’re getting, right? We’re supposed to be the most advanced version of humanity that’s ever existed and we can’t even meet this basic need properly. And that means the housing of our future can’t—not shouldn’t, but can’t—be like the housing we have now.”

    In 2017, Ballard co-founded Icon, a construction startup focussed on what he believes to be a solution to the housing crisis: 3-D-printed construction, a largely automated method that creates buildings layer by layer, typically with cement-based material. The company has offices in the Yard, a mixed-use development in a formerly industrial area of Austin, Texas. The Yard is currently home to a sake company, a winery, a brewery, a canned-cocktail company, a hard-seltzer manufacturer, a whiskey distillery, and a Tesla dealership. On the morning I visited, the air was thick with the sweet-sour smell of fermentation.

    Amid supply-chain issues, labor shortages, and the rising cost of construction materials, there has been a surge of interest in novel ways of building, and Icon has grown accordingly. Five years ago, fewer than ten people worked at the company; now it employs more than four hundred. Ballard, who is forty and has bright eyes and a guileless, open face, met me in a narrow conference room. Placards on the wall read “Courage,” “Ambition,” and “Velocity.” He wore a black Patagonia jacket embroidered with the company’s name and, as he often does, a white cowboy hat.

    So far, 3-D-printed construction has generated more headlines than buildings. In the past few years, companies have announced the first 3-D-printed house in Florida, “the first two story house printed on site in Europe,” and the first market-rate 3-D-printed house sold in the United States. Until last year, Icon, one of the biggest and best-funded companies in the field, had printed fewer than two dozen houses, most of them essentially test cases. But, when I met Ballard, the company had recently announced a partnership with Lennar, the second-largest home-builder in the United States, to print a hundred houses in a development outside Austin. A lot was riding on the project, which would be a test of whether the technology was ready for the mainstream. “We almost won’t get out of bed for less than a hundred homes anymore,” Ballard told me. “This is a problem at scale, and so we need to be working at scale.”

    In Austin, where the median rent has risen forty-five per cent in the past year, the tech industry is usually considered a driver of the housing crisis, rather than its solution. “In short order, like Silicon Valley, it could result in people having to make career decisions and say, ‘I can’t live there, I can’t afford it,’ ” Henry Cisneros, a former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and mayor of San Antonio, said at a panel on housing affordability at South by Southwest last year. The next day, Ballard, one of the conference’s featured speakers, made a more techno-utopian pitch. “What if we could build houses that work twice as good in half the time at half the price? What kind of problems could we solve? What kind of opportunities would open up before us?” he asked. “Humans are amazing, life is a miracle, and we can do this.”

    When I heard that you could 3-D-print a building, I imagined something akin to a “Star Trek” replicator—a machine that would whir briefly and then spit out a fully formed house. The actual process is messier and more laborious, and, at the moment, it is largely used to construct walls, while conventional methods are used for foundations, floors, roofs, and finishes. But walls are among the most costly and labor-intensive aspects of home-building, and, in the majority of newly built U.S. homes, they’re likely to be made out of drywall panels mounted on wooden frames. Though drywall is easy to produce and relatively inexpensive, it takes a while to install, is not particularly sturdy, and is susceptible to mold. 3-D-printing advocates argue that rethinking our walls is a step toward building cheaper, more resilient houses.

    Before my visit to the Yard, I spent an afternoon watching printers in action on YouTube. The videos are hypnotically pleasurable, providing the lulling satisfaction of seeing a machine do its job perfectly. A nozzle sweeps back and forth, extruding a concrete-like substance in ascending inch-thick layers, following a blueprint fed to it by a software system. A printer can create the shell of a simple building in as little as twenty-four hours, although real-world conditions (rain, cold temperatures, operator error) slow the process. In the past two years, as Icon has expanded, its fleet of printers, called Vulcans, has printed military barracks, disaster-resilient houses, a luxury residence, and, at the Johnson Space Center, in Houston, a full-sized simulation of a Martian habitat, for NASA. Other 3-D-printing companies have produced an apartment building, a houseboat in the Czech Republic, and a house for Habitat for Humanity. Dubai has pledged that, by 2030, a quarter of its new construction will be printed.

    At the Yard, two employees kept watch as a Vulcan moved along a track, its nozzle depositing lines of gray LavaCrete, Icon’s proprietary cement mixture. It had the texture of gritty toothpaste and smelled like cookie batter. The Vulcan was attached, via a thick hose, to Magma, a sophisticated version of a cement mixer, which blends LavaCrete and various additives. In the traditional construction world, concrete is considered a material with a high tolerance for imprecision, but in 3-D printing it must be liquid enough to move smoothly through the printer but then solidify rapidly, in order to receive the next layer by the time the printer head returns. The Magma’s software takes weather measurements (temperature, pressure, humidity) every fifteen minutes and adjusts the mixture—adding a superplasticizer if it’s cold, or a retarder if it’s hot. Ballard pointed out the Vulcan that had printed the Martian habitat; it was back at the factory to be serviced. “That’s also the one that printed the house you’re going to stay in tonight,” he said.

    Ballard speaks quickly and with such bright conviction that I left my conversations with him briefly convinced that the world was full of untapped potential. He grew up in Orange, the easternmost city in Texas, a humid, hurricane-battered place on the border of Louisiana. “You could throw a football from my front yard into the Gulf of Mexico,” he told me. “Except it’s like a swamp right there, not a beach.” The Gulf Coast was thrillingly biodiverse, populated by flying squirrels, roseate spoonbills, and alligator gar. It was also crowded with petrochemical plants. “There are signs all over town, like, ‘Do not eat the fish in this water,’ ” Ballard said. “Seeing the desecration—it just makes you ask bigger questions than the typical eighth grader is asking.” In 2006, he became the first person in his immediate family to graduate from college, earning a degree in conservation biology from Texas A. & M. Two years later, Hurricane Ike flooded his childhood home with six feet of water. Ballard spent weeks ripping sodden drywall and insulation from the damaged structure. “And, sure enough, they rebuilt it with drywall,” he said. Nine years later, floods from Hurricane Harvey damaged eighty-five per cent of the homes in Orange, according to the mayor. Ballard’s parents, defeated, moved inland. The experience left Ballard with a strong dislike for drywall, a material that he sometimes seems to take as a personal affront. “If I offered a one-million-dollar prize to people in this room to invent a less resilient, less durable, less healthy, less sustainable material than drywall, nobody would win the prize,” he said at his South by Southwest talk. “We literally can’t think of a way to do it worse.”

    After college, Ballard and his now wife, Jenny, moved to Boulder, Colorado, where he took a job at a homeless shelter and got to know some people who worked in sustainable construction. His new friends preached about the evils of standard building methods—how much energy they consume, how much landfill waste is produced. “I was, like, Jesus, I don’t need to be a field biologist, I need to be working in buildings,” Ballard said. He and Jenny moved to Austin to run TreeHouse, a sustainable-building-supply company he co-founded with a college friend, Evan Loomis. TreeHouse positioned itself as a green alternative to Home Depot, selling pure-wool carpets, smart thermostats, and cabinets made from sustainable lumber. In a hippie town just starting to swell with tech money, the company proved popular. But within a few years Ballard came to believe that the kinds of building intervention he was selling were not sufficiently transformative. “It was all accepting the current paradigm—this is the way we’re going to build houses, let’s just make them a little better,” he said.

    “No, mine is an appropriation of the Disney-princess imagery as a critique of the hegemonic corporate paradigm of femininity. Yours is just Elsa.”

    Cartoon by Karl Stevens

    One day, Ballard told Jenny that his heart wasn’t in TreeHouse anymore. “ ‘Guilt’ isn’t the right word,” he told me. “But I’m losing faith that the world will be different because of this business. Something much more radical has to happen.”

    After the Second World War, the housing market was unable to keep up with the demand produced by returning soldiers and their new families, a situation so extreme that President Truman appointed an official housing expediter. Subsidized by federal funding, entrepreneurs experimented with new ways to mass-produce houses. It was a boom time for visionaries, who dreamed of new forms, new materials, new ways of living.

    Buckminster Fuller had once copied a pronouncement by Le Corbusier into his journal: “The problem of the house has not yet been stated.” After Fuller’s first foray into industrialized construction, the Dymaxion House, failed, he turned to a new form, the geodesic dome. Carl Strandlund, a Midwestern inventor, claimed that his Lustron homes, one-story houses made of prefabricated enamelled-steel panels, weren’t just an improvement on existing structures but “a new way of life.” Around the same time, an entrepreneur named William Levitt applied the principles of the assembly line to home-building, first on Long Island and later in Pennsylvania. Relying in large part on drywall for its construction, a standard tract house in Levittown cost a little less than eight thousand dollars, the equivalent of about a hundred thousand dollars today. (The promise of accessible homeownership was not open to everyone. Robert Mereday, whose company delivered drywall to Levittown, didn’t even bother to put in an application on one of the new houses. “It was generally known that Black people couldn’t buy into the development,” his son later recalled. “When you grow up and live in a place, you know what the rules are.”)

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