ICON’s first 3D-printed house prototype in Austin (photo courtesy ICON)

This week at South by Southwest, Austin-based startup ICON revealed an extremely ambitious plan to build a community of 3D-printed houses in El Salvador. Made of concrete poured in less than 24 hours out of a Vulcan 3D printer, the single-story houses would range in size between 600–800 square feet and cost about $10,000 each — with a goal of lowering the price to less than $4000.

ICON has been working with San Francisco-based housing nonprofit New Story on the project, “designed to tackle housing shortages for vulnerable populations instead of building with profit motivation,” ICON said in a statement. The houses include a living room, one bedroom, a bathroom, and a wraparound porch. Although a majority of the house is 3D printed, manual labor will still be necessary to install the plumbing, wiring, windows, and roof. In the future, ICON hopes to design robots to install the windows and drones — that’s right, drones — to paint the exterior, reported Mike Murphy in Quartz.

ICON’s first 3D-printed house prototype in Austin (photo courtesy ICON)

“Conventional construction methods have many baked-in drawbacks and problems that we’ve taken for granted for so long that we forgot how to imagine any alternative,” Jason Ballard, co-founder of ICON, said in a statement. “With 3D printing, you not only have a continuous thermal envelope, high thermal mass, and near-zero waste, but you also have speed, a much broader design palette, next-level resiliency, and the possibility of a quantum leap in affordability. This isn’t 10% better, it’s 10 times better.”

ICON and New Story aren’t the first to dabble in 3D-printed housing built quickly. A few years ago, Chinese company WinSun made headlines when it printed ten houses in a day. More recently, a company called Apis Cor printed a circular house in Russia in less than 24 hours for about $10,000.

ICON imagines a community of 3D-printed houses (photo courtesy ICON)

Earlier this week, ICON and New Story unveiled their first prototype. Printed in a backyard in Austin, the 350-square-foot house is permitted and adheres to the city’s building codes. ICON plans to use the house as an office space to test it out and make any necessary tweaks before transporting the 3D printer to El Salvador and starting construction there next year, according to The Verge’s Tamara Warren. But Ballard doesn’t want to stop there. “One of the big challenges is how are we going to create habitats in space,” he told Warren. “You’re not going to open a two by four and open screws. It’s one of the more promising potential habitat technologies.”

Elena Goukassian is an arts writer based in Brooklyn. Originally from Bulgaria, she grew up in Washington state and lived in Washington, DC before moving to New York in 2017. Her writing has also appeared...