3-D printed houses popping up around Austin, Texas amid surging demand

‘We’re sort of graduating from singles and dozens of homes to hundreds of homes,’ CEO says

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Tuesday 26 October 2021 19:53
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One hundred 3-D printed homes are in development in Austin in a collaboration between a large home builder and a Texas startup.

Homebuilder Lennar Corp and Icon, a construction-technology company, are set to start building next year in what would be the largest site for this housing type in the US.

Homes of this kind have been built previously, but this will be a test to see if the technology can build a larger amount of homes as well as increase consumer interest.

“We’re sort of graduating from singles and dozens of homes to hundreds of homes,” Icon CEO Jason Ballard told The Wall Street Journal.

Freddie Mac, the mortgage-finance firm, estimated that at the end of last year, the US had a single-family home shortage of 3.8 million – something 3-D printing could help solve, specifically in areas where affordable homes are scarce.

The building of homes declined as the pandemic caused supply chain issues, but labour shortages have plagued the industry for years.

The president of LenX, which focuses on venture capital and innovation within Lennar, Eric Feder, told The Journal: “Skilled tradesmen are a dying breed, so there have to be alternative building solutions to help with this labour deficit.”

Most newly built homes in the US are built in place and use a framework made of wood and traditional building methods, while Icon’s 3-D printed homes use frames made out of concrete. The company’s printers are 15.5 feet tall (4.7 metres) and can construct the inside and outside walls of a house measuring 2,200 square feet (204 square metres) in a week’s time, according to Mr Ballard.

The Journal writes that the printer “squeezes out concrete in layers, like toothpaste out of a tube” and that the printers can create curved walls.

Lennar will then finish the construction of the houses using more traditional methods. The wall system can be printed in the same time range that it takes for Lennar to frame and drywall a house using more old school methods, but the company has said it hopes to make that process faster in the future.

Icon states that 3-D printed houses are be cheaper to build with fewer workers present and less waste produced compared to traditional house building. But Mr Feder told The Journal that the planned homes would be priced on a similar level to that of other homes by Lennar in the same area.

The Austin Board of Realtors say that the median price of a home in the metro area of the city was $450,000 last month.

Icon has previously built 10 two-bedroom houses in Tabasco, Mexico and seven tiny houses with one bedroom each in Austin. The company also built four single-family homes in Austin earlier this year alongside developer 3Strands.

Since its founding in 2017, Icon has raised $266m, with both Lennar and fellow home building company DR Horton Inc investing in the company.

While Icon’s projects have been approved by local authorities, getting approvals from municipalities in new areas may prove difficult as the technology is unknown to some. They could also face hesitation from home buyers.

The CEO of housing industry investment bank Whelan Advisory, Margaret Whelan, told The Journal that home buyers should be interested in houses built with less waste as it could mean lower costs.

Gary O’Dell, the CEO of 3Strands, told the outlet that a two-bedroom home they built with Icon was priced at $450,000 and sold for $530,000, with the four home project applying a small discount to the market prices when they were sold. A home with four bedrooms sold for almost $800,000 – just below similar houses in the same area, Mr O’Dell said.

Other companies are also planning on printing similar homes elsewhere, with California-based Mighty Buildings saying that it plans to start building 15 homes in the Coachella Valley in 2022. The CEO of developer Palari, Basil Starr, said the interest has been strong enough for them to plan to build additional units.

The demands for homes spiked during the pandemic as buyers took advantage of low interest rates on mortgages as they transitioned to working from home leading them to look for places with more space.

The chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders, Robert Dietz, told The Journal: “I think 2022 is going to be a year where we are going to see a renewed emphasis on innovation. Any productivity gain, any innovation, will help add that additional supply.”

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