Can 3D-Printed Homes Be Built for Under $99,000? ICON Wants You to Figure It Out

From Kenya to Mexico, Texas, and beyond, 3D-printed houses are starting to go up all over the world. Besides providing a durable and aesthetically pleasing structure, one of the biggest goals of 3D-printed homes is affordability. The technology replaces part of the human labor needed for building, cutting the cost of construction and lowering the home’s final price tag.

But so far this seems to be harder than anticipated; while a handful of 3D-printed homes have been priced well below their conventionally-built competitors, many others have sold at parity or just slightly undercut average market prices. Given that there’s a housing shortage of somewhere between 2.3 to 6.5 million homes (depending on whether multi-family construction is included) in the US, we’re going to need to do a lot better than that.

Construction technology company ICON is aiming to find a way forward. The company (which is currently building a community of 100 3D-printed homes outside Austin, Texas) is launching a competition for disruptive solutions for affordable housing. Called Initiative 99, the contest will call for 3D-printed home designs that can be built for under $99,000.

ICON released the submission details for the contest yesterday. Its parameters are fairly general, which opens up a lot of possibility for different designs. All homes must have a minimum of one bedroom and one bathroom—sorry, studios—within flexible square footage. They have to be designed with a target group in mind, such as young families, people who were formerly homeless, the elderly, etc. The homes also have to comply with residential building code requirements, and be possible to build using ICON’s Vulcan 3D printer.

Outside of those must-haves, participants are encouraged to think about how their design could be scaled, i.e. for a community of 20 or more homes. They should take climate and sustainability into account. Rainwater collection system? Great. Solar panel ready? Even better. Hypothetical occupants should be able to expect “low, consistent, and predictable utility bills over the entire year” because the homes should be as energy-efficient as possible.

In terms of costs, the $99,000 threshold must include printing, additional construction costs, and finish-out costs (like mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems). It doesn’t include land, labor, utility connections, or permits.

The most expensive parts of building a house the conventional way are labor and materials, with labor being most expensive. You need carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and roofers. Window installers. Kitchen cabinet specialists. Someone to lay the concrete foundation. For custom homes, an architect. And the list goes on.

One of the biggest ways to save on these labor costs is to use a fixed design and panelize the building. Studs for the interior walls—that is, the two-by-fours that are put up to create rooms, then covered by drywall—can be prefabricated. Floors can be panelized too (not the finishes, like hardwood or carpet, but the structure).

Companies have come up with all sorts of creative ideas to reduce homebuilding costs in ways similar to this. Boxabl makes prefabricated “foldable” homes that can ship on an eight-foot footprint, and they start at $49,500 (though that’s for a 400-square-foot studio). Similarly, NODE makes prefab homes that ship in kits then are assembled like Ikea furniture. Vantem Global makes energy-efficient prefabricated homes out of structural panels, and Automatic Construction is trying to build houses by pumping concrete into inflatable forms.

What sorts of similarly innovative ideas might builders and entrepreneurs come up with for ICON’s competition? How much can be done within 3D printing as a building technology to further reduce its costs and make it more scalable, all while producing appealing, comfortable homes?

Entrants will have their work cut out for them. Their design submissions won’t just be judged on constructability and innovation—the judges will also consider aesthetics, sustainability, cost, and scalability. The winning design will receive $75,000, second place $50,000 and third place $35,000. Submissions will open this summer.

Image Credit: ICON

Vanessa Bates Ramirez
Vanessa Bates Ramirez
Vanessa is senior editor of Singularity Hub. She's interested in biotechnology and genetic engineering, the nitty-gritty of the renewable energy transition, the roles technology and science play in geopolitics and international development, and countless other topics.
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