3D home printer opens $1M competition as ‘affordability moonshot’

Thursday, March 16, 2023, Chad Swiatecki

Icon, a 3D-printed home manufacturer based in Austin, is seeking designers and students from around the globe to suggest architectural innovations that could lower the price of homes.

The company announced its Initiative 99 contest on Wednesday at South by Southwest, offering a $1 million prize to winners of a yearlong competition that is expected to result in the top submission being built as part of the company’s projects.

Icon stated that creating affordable housing units for less than $100,000 per unit would surpass a threshold which makes affordable housing and relief structures for those experiencing homelessness much more accessible and accepted in local planning and government.

Melodie Yashar, Icon’s vice president of building design and performance, said additive manufacturing by itself can achieve lower costs, but ample room for improvement still exists in the kinds of homes that are created.

“We’re at a point in our technology development where our system is mature enough, where we can anticipate and we actually have a good sense of the time and cost savings that are introduced when you have economies of scale relative to housing, large developments, creating houses in large developments,” she said.

The contest announced Wednesday “is basically opening up the design space to universities, as well as architecture firms, to help us explore what’s possible at this price point,” Yashar said. “We also want to open up the design space to others to identify the most needed users, communities and potential homeowners for these affordable homes – and not only locally, but from a global perspective.”

The competition will be open in May and the first phase will take place during the same timeframe as the fall semester for universities and colleges.

Icon has contracts with the defense industry, as well as space exploration. It is involved in housing projects all over the country. The largest local project it is involved in is located in Georgetown. It has seven machines that print 100 homes.

Yashar said advancements made through the designs submitted as part of the contest could lead to substantial improvements in the availability of affordable housing in Austin and other cities where high  home prices trigger suburban flight and homelessness.

“Additive manufacturing hardware and technology developers have been at an arm’s length from introducing design solutions that are most needed within communities,” she said.

“We want to bridge those two worlds and show that we are taking responsibility not only for the designs themselves, but also realizing them where they’re most needed. So we’re trying to bridge that gap between what happens by developers and city planners, and with contractors for built work and for those projects as they’re realized,” she said.

Michelle Addington is the dean of the University of Texas’ School of Architecture. She said that unit costs are just one of many things to consider when improving housing affordability or reducing homelessness. However, financial stability and social connections play a significant role.

She said Icon’s advancements in making quality prefabricated housing that is created on-site without significant transportation costs represents a major shift in how housing is delivered to the places it is needed.

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