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Laying the Foundations with 3D Printing

New construction technology can help the world re-imagine the way it thinks about housing.

It has been roughly 35 years since the first 3D printers were brought to the consciousness of a shocked-and-awed mainstream audience. For exorbitant amounts of money, you could have a machine that oozed streams of acrylic-based materials to create small trinkets to decorate your desk or be your character piece on a board game. Fast forward three and a half decades — almost an eternity in the world of technology — and common patterns of price reduction, widespread industry adoption and general public acceptance have taken their course. But that doesn’t mean there is no room left in our technologically jaded world to be shocked-and-awed by what this technology can do. Such is the case with the U.S.-based ICON’s Vulcan construction system and 3D printer for homes, designed in collaboration with product development firm M3 Design.

A deserved winner in the 2021 Red Dot Awards in the Product Design category as a Best of the Best, the Vulcan is a potential game-changer in the “digitally native” approach to building construction. Laying rows of lavacrete (a proprietary Portland Cement-based mix) around a space of up to 2,000 square feet leads to a resilient single-story building that is made faster, cheaper and with less waste than many traditional construction methods.

Since its creation, ICON’s Vulcan construction systems have 3D-printed two dozen homes and structures across the U.S. and Mexico. Yet as impressive as the machine is, both through its capabilities and as an object of design itself, it is the bigger-picture potential as a force for good that is so remarkable. In the wake of COVID-19, as a lack of housing supply is skyrocketing and affordability plummeting, homelessness is a growing crisis. To combat this, ICON partnered with a non-profit organization to 3D-print (using architecture designs by Logan Architecture and structural engineering by Fort Structures) a first-of-its-kind neighbourhood of seven homes in Austin, Texas for individuals experiencing homelessness.

Photography by Regan Morton Photography

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