It looks more like a NASA project than a house construction site.
Just outside Austin, Texas, huge machines are squeezing 100 three- and four-bedroom homes, in the first major housing development to be 3D printed on site.
One of the nation’s largest homebuilders, Lennar, is teaming up with ICON, a 3D printing company, to develop the project. Lennar was an early investor in ICON, which printed a dozen homes in Texas and Mexico. These homes will hit the market in 2023, starting at around $400,000.
“It’s the first 100 homes, but we expect to be able to scale it, and at scale, we’re really reducing cycle times and also reducing costs,” said Stuart Miller, executive chairman of Lennar. .
ICON claims it can build the entire home wall system, which includes mechanical, electrical and plumbing, two to three times faster than a traditional home and up to 30% of the cost.
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“We exceed code requirements for all different types of strength, wind and compressive strength by about 4 times. We’re about two and a half times more energy efficient,” said Jason Ballard, co-founder and CEO of ICON.
The printers are designed to operate 24 hours a day, but this is not the case due to area noise restrictions. They are almost fully automated, with only three workers in each house. The process is monitored on a laptop and the concrete mix is checked, which must be adapted to the current weather conditions. Another works in support, misting the area with water or adding new materials to the system.
“The promise of robotic construction is a promise of automation, reduction of labor – therefore reduction of labor costs,” Ballard said.
ICON aims to reduce the number of operators to two over the next 12 months, Ballard added. Eventually, he wants even fewer operators. “I think the kind of holy grail is where one person can monitor a dozen systems, you need one person to monitor a dozen systems,” Ballard said.
The main pressure
An ICON 3D printer at a housing estate in Georgetown, TX.
Diana Olick | CNBC
The way it works is that a digital floor plan is loaded into the software system called Build OS, which then prepares it for robotic construction. It will automatically map structural reinforcement, placing electrical and plumbing outlets while printing. The printers then press down rows and rows of a proprietary concrete mix that looks a lot like toothpaste, slowly building up the structure.
Other companies, like California-based Mighty Buildings, also use 3D printing technology, but they print the houses in a factory and then move them on site. ICON brings the factory to the site.
“With this project, we are improving our total number of homes by 400%, and we expect to continue to at least double over the next three to five years,” Ballard said. He said he was already considering working with other large-scale builders. DR Horton is another early investor in ICON.
Lennar’s Miller said his main goal is to bring more affordable homes to market, and he sees this as one way to do that. But he knows it’s still just the beginning.
“It’s all about innovation. If you travel around the country and talk to local and state officials, the biggest question is, how do we provide housing for the workforce, affordable housing,” he said.
Lennar began planning the project with ICON when the housing market was still hot, driven by strong demand and record mortgage rates. Today, mortgage rates are more than double what they were at the start of the year, and demand has fallen sharply, suggesting that there may be additional risk for this project.
“We are still focused on our core business, keeping trains running on time, building homes across the country, and as the market goes up and down we adjust our business,” Miller said. “Innovation is a cycle because it’s on the side of our business because we know, looking to the future, there’s a housing shortage there.”
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