How One Nonprofit Is Scaling a Cheap and Well-Built Concrete 3D-Printed House

by Susan Kuchinskas
- Oct 23 2018 - 6 min read
concrete printed house from new story and icon
The 350-square-foot 3D-printed concrete house from New Story and ICON's partnership can be built in 24 hours for $4,000. Courtesy New Story.

In 1985, the United Nations (UN) designated the first Monday in October as World Habitat Day. This year, more than 30 cities—including Barcelona, Paris, Jakarta, and New York—hosted dialogues on that day addressing the global housing crisis. Framing inadequate housing as a human rights issue, the UN’s sustainable development goals include reducing the number of people living in poverty by at least half by 2030.

The UN estimates that one in eight people worldwide live in inadequate housing, defined by lack of access to water or sanitation or lack of sufficient space or security. This includes the rising number of migrants and refugees from political upheaval, as well as countries still reeling from natural disasters.

New Story is a nonprofit that builds homes for families around the globe living in survival mode—and it’s looking to increase its reach by scaling a 3D-printed concrete house. Alexandria Lafci, New Story’s cofounder and COO, says: “We needed to build more quickly and more cost effectively without compromising quality. You can’t have quick, fast, and cheap unless there is new innovation or technology—something that can change the paradigm of how things can be done.”

IDP camp in Haiti following 2010 earthquake
A tent camp in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake

Doing Things Differently

New Story began its work in 2015 in Lévêque, Haiti, where people were still living under the tattered tarps intended to provide temporary housing for a few months after the 2010 earthquake.

“We had a thesis that the on-the-ground work of homebuilding and serving families could be done better,” Lafci says. “We also felt there was a lot of progress we could make in how nonprofits operate in general.”

Working with a local partner, the organization constructed a limited number of simple concrete block and stucco homes with corrugated-aluminum roofs, wooden doors with locks, and louvered windows. Built using local labor and materials, the homes have three or four rooms, depending on the residents’ needs and desires.

New Story’s outreach, which showed potential donors videos of the families who would be housed, helped Lévêque grow into a neighborhood of 151 houses. Since then, New Story has built 1,113 homes in 14 communities in Haiti, El Salvador, Mexico, and Bolivia, housing more than 6,000 people. Its most recent project, in Ahuachapán, El Salvador, provided 80 new, secure homes for families. The project took 10 months to build, at a cost of about $6,500 per structure.

concrete printed house vulcan 3d printer
A digital rendering of the Vulcan concrete in use. Courtesy New Story.

New Tech for a Big Need

New Story, however, wanted to move faster. After a year of researching modular and prefab options, Lafci found a solution: concrete-printed houses. Once she identified this construction method, contacts in the tech world connected New Story with ICON, one of a handful of companies providing 3D printers for concrete.

New Story partnered with ICON to test its Vulcan concrete printer. While many concrete-printed structures use exotic admixtures to get the concrete to flow and set, ICON developed a proprietary mortar mix that uses basic materials: cement, sand, and water. “When I’m working in rural Haiti, I can’t wait for some special material to be shipped in,” Lafci says.

Earlier this year, ICON created a proof-of-concept house in Austin, the company’s hometown. The 350-square-foot structure includes a living room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and wraparound porch.

Some adjustments to the device are still underway to make it viable under various conditions. For example, during printing in Austin, rain kept clogging the pump. Now, ICON is working on a next-generation Vulcan that can withstand being transported by truck to remote locations and operating where electricity is unreliable and clean water may be lacking. ICON expects the new version to be completed in the next couple of months.

Fast, Cheap, and Well-Built

3D concrete printing is a global construction trend. Designers love the freedom it gives them, allowing for complex shapes and new forms. Logan Architecture designed the Austin demonstration home using Autodesk Revit, while structural engineers used AutoCAD.

According to Andrew Logan, founder of Logan Architecture, the practical design constraints are similar to conventional concrete masonry building. Logan built a Revit family to the wall-thickness specifications of the ICON engineering team. That team then created the walls’ final internal framework using AutoCAD.

concrete printed house new story
New Story’s affordable house includes a living room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and wraparound porch. Courtesy New Story.

For the Austin demo, Logan added curved walls to show some of the possibilities of the overall construction methodology, including 3D printing. ICON has an internal software tool for translating the AutoCAD files into g-code, a programming language that instructs machines on where and how to move.

“The interesting thing about home design with 3D printers is all the new possibilities that open up that would have been very difficult, expensive, or impossible with conventional approaches,” says Jason Ballard, cofounder and CEO of ICON. “Things like curves, slopes, and organic or biomorphic forms are now possible; no more expensive; and, in fact, quite simple.”

This technology will help New Story build each house in less than 24 hours for $4,000. Moreover, because the printer spits out exactly what was designed, it eliminates human error and shoddy construction methods.

While the printer itself is expensive, the materials are inexpensive and readily available, and labor costs are much lower. What’s more, printed homes can be easily modified to suit local needs. New Story uses a community-design process, soliciting input from future residents. The idea is that designers will be able to quickly modify their CAD-based designs, and construction managers can then select from a variety of designs loaded into the printer’s memory.

New Blueprint for Social Housing

New Story needs to raise $600,000 to cover the cost of next-gen Vulcan; that money is being raised from large donors willing to fund R&D. A different donor appeal will go out to individuals, with 100 percent of those funds going toward labor and materials for homes. While that $600,000 could build another whole community, the payoff will come in more than the $2,500 it expects to save on each printed home.

concrete printed house logan architecture
Building off its successful Austin, Texas demo house, New Story is raising funds for a next-gen Vulcan printer and a Latin American 3D-printed community to begin construction in 2019. Courtesy Logan Architecture.

New Story also hopes to see other charities adopt its model and the 3D-printing process. It’s working to make the system reproducible by other nonprofit builders, with a mobile app that lets workers collect data from people living in the homes and another one to provide construction management and quality control for rural projects—perhaps even a portfolio of ready-to-print home designs.

“A lot of home building is pretty stagnant,” Lafci says. “We’ve been building the same exact homes for 30 years with very little improvement, insight into how homes are performing, or understanding of family sentiment.”

New Story is now looking in Latin America for land and a local partner to begin construction on the world’s first 3D-printed community in the first quarter of 2019. Lafci says that if New Story can make the entire ecosystem of social-housing builders better and more efficient, “We could make a tangible dent in our lifetime.”

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