“The Same Technology that Will Allow Us to Address Housing Challenges on Earth, Will Allow Us to Venture Off to Space”: Interview with Jason Ballard of ICON
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Founded in late 2017 and named one of the “Most Innovative Companies in the World” in 2020, ICON is a construction company that pushed the boundaries of technology, developing tools to advance humanity including robotics, software, and building materials. Relatively young, the Texas-based start-up has been delivering 3D-printed homes across the US and Mexico, trying to address global housing challenges while also developing construction systems to support future exploration of the Moon, with partners BIG and NASA.
Featured on Times’ Next 100, as one of the 100 emerging leaders who are shaping the future, Jason Ballard, CEO and Co-Founder of ICON spoke to ArchDaily about the inception of the company, worldwide housing challenges, his ever-evolving 3D printing technology, and process, his partnership with BIG, and the future of the construction field on earth and in space.
Read on to discover more about the construction technology that is changing the game and shifting all the rigid rules of the profession.
BIG Partners Up with 3D-Printing Robotics Company, ICON
ArchDaily (Christele Harrouk): Originally you are a conservation biologist. How did you do the shift from nature to construction and more specifically to construction technology?
Jason Ballard: It turns out that if you care about ecological conservation, the built environment is unavoidable. Buildings and the building industry are at the top of the list when it comes to energy, water, and resource use, waste production, and almost any other environmental metric that we track. My interest and past education in conservation biology spurred me to start a company of ecologically forward home- improvement stores. After working on literally thousands of homes, I thought, “Surely there is a better way to build homes that is more affordable, less wasteful, and more energy-efficient than conventional building methods.”
Approaches to construction hadn’t changed in so long it was like people had forgotten how to even imagine a different way.
That began a months-long study and research project looking into prefab, insulated concrete forms, advanced framing, robotic bricklaying, architectural fungus, and more. Ultimately, I landed on 3D printing as the most promising technology to create a true revolution that checked all the boxes I cared about. I reconnected with my TreeHouse co-founder and friend Evan Loomis and started working on building a prototype in a warehouse in Austin on the weekends. We teamed up with Alex Le Roux, who was also working on a similar project in Houston. In 2017, the three of us co-founded ICON to re-imagine the homebuilding industry and help solve some of the most pressing global challenges of adequate shelter.
AD: How were you propelled into this field? Do you see any similarities between the two professions?
JB: I have a natural proclivity to think about problems at the highest level… not just narrowly, so eventually I started not only wondering about how we make conventional homes better, but I started to reject the premise that stick-frame or brick & mortar were the only way to do things. It turns out that no true innovation has been introduced to solve our global housing problem as well as mitigate the ecological impact that the built industry has on our society. Homebuilding has seen no significant changes since the Middle Ages. It’s time for a paradigm shift. My background in conservation biology has just been one of the many contributions toward working to solve a better way to build houses at scale and with less environmental impact. Additionally, it drives my interest in off-earth exploration. The very same technology that’s going to allow us to address our housing challenges on Earth are the very things that are going to allow us to venture off to a new world.
AD: What was the initial trigger behind it all and the drive behind this radical new way of creating a house?
JB: I knew I wanted to build upon the work of imagining more sustainable ways to build homes and because millions of people globally are without the basic need of shelter and that is just unacceptable. In 2014, as part of a research project, I decided to learn everything there was to know about the 3D printers currently on the market. What I found is that what can be done with small-scale printers is rather limited. I hypothesized that by making printers larger, new and interesting, opportunities could arise.
That sent us on a multi-year mission to build our own printer and develop the basis for the Vulcan 3D construction system we eventually unveiled during SXSW 2018 in Austin, TX, and showcased the first permitted, 3D printed home in the U.S. From that point, ICON was able to continue to innovate the technology so we can imagine a world where we are capable of 3D-printing multiple homes simultaneously with each being unique. These advancements aim to create dramatic improvements in speed, quality, resiliency, and sustainability in homebuilding.
AD: How is your 3D printing technology different from other technologies that are being developed worldwide?
JB: Our focus at ICON is to innovate this technology to impact the cost and scalability of housing worldwide. Our diversity of skillset, backgrounds, and ideation is what continues to drive our progress. I am impressed every day with the talent of our team and the technological breakthroughs we are creating both on Earth and for off-world construction.
AD: The world is obviously facing a huge housing crisis. How did you get into social housing specifically? When did you realize that 3D printing houses could be a solution?
JB: The United States needs 3.3 million homes per year. The United States builds 1.3 million homes per year. There is a 2 million home deficit each year. Just let that sink in….1 billion people around the world lack adequate shelter. Over the last 25 years, the construction industry has lost productivity as there is a severe skilled labor shortage that’s only going to get worse. In general, the process of home building is inefficient and wasteful. I knew I wanted to find a way to help find solutions to this global issue.
ICON’s proprietary 3D-printing technology advances humanity by providing dignified housing at scale by leveraging robotics, software, and advanced materials. With digital and automated processes, we are able to mitigate the current labor and productivity crisis and create better housing at a better value, faster, and more affordable.
The global housing crisis is a problem at scale and thus the solution will need to be at scale.
AD: What can you tell us about its timeframe? How much time does it take to print one single home?
JB: The 400-500 square foot homes ICON has 3D printed to date using the Vulcan construction system as taken around 24 hours of print time per home spread across several days. We have printed three homes at a time, simultaneously, in Austin, TX and two at a time, simultaneously, in Mexico, which further increases the speed at which we can deliver homes.
The team printed the first mainstream housing development of 3D-printed homes for developer 3Strands ranging from 1,000 – 2,000 square feet and each home took between 5-7 days of print time per home.
We see 3D printing and robotic construction as the future for how we can more quickly build resilient, beautiful, and sustainable homes at scale.
AD: Can you share with us insights about the process of work that guaranteed the creation and the delivery of two dozen 3D-printed homes/structures across the U.S. and Mexico?
JB: As I’ve mentioned, through proprietary 3D printing technology and cutting-edge materials, ICON provides sustainable solutions to a number of our world’s most pressing issues, including the pandemic of homelessness in the developing world, the difficulty of constructing off-planet space habitats, and the exorbitant cost of customized housing. Our first, proof-of-concept project was to create our first 3D printer and successfully print a permitted, 3D-printed home. We completed this in Austin in March 2018 alongside housing nonprofit partner, New Story, which launched our first project together to print homes in the developing world.
In March 2019, we unveiled ICON’s next-generation 3D printer for homes, the Vulcan, and began shipping the technology for projects in the U.S. and in Mexico. Once our mobile Vulcan technology arrives on site, we upload a digital design file of a house and it prints an entire wall system using our proprietary material. We then use conventional methods to finish out the homes.
To date, we have delivered more than two dozen 3D-printed homes/structures across the U.S. and Mexico, the most completed by any construction tech company. Today, we are using 3D robotics, software, and advanced materials to reinvent the homebuilding industry with a variety of incredible projects in the pipeline.
AD: On a more architectural level, how did your partnership with BIG start?
JB: It was a surreal moment to have world-renowned architecture firm BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group join ICON’s series A round of investors. BIG also became our architecture partner for ICON’s Project Olympus with NASA to help imagine our homes on another world. Bjarke Ingels and the team at BIG are incredible thought leaders in the architecture space. It was important to have a partner who believed in this transformative role of the future of construction and who could help us imagine pioneering new frontiers – both materially, technologically, and environmentally.
AD: What can you tell us about your future projects or ventures with BIG and NASA? What should we look forward to, what kind of new innovations you are planning to introduce?
JB: Last month, we were excited to unveil our new next-generation Vulcan construction system and debut our new Exploration Series of homes to cooperatively develop new design languages and architectural vernaculars with world-class architects based on the opportunities created by construction scale 3D printing. Our first home in the series, “House Zero,” is designed by the award-winning firm, Lake|Flato Architects, and features an elevated architectural and energy-efficient design that highlights the benefits of resiliency and sustainability only found in homebuilding through 3D printing. The home will be completed in East Austin in Fall 2021.
From the very founding of ICON, we’ve been thinking about off-world construction. We took up this ambitious project with NASA because we firmly believe that our expertise and products are well-suited for exploration of the Moon and off-world construction efforts. Building humanity’s first home on another world will be the most ambitious construction project in human history and will push science, engineering, technology, and architecture to literally new heights. We look forward to sharing more exciting news in the months to come.
NASA’s investment in space-age technologies like this can not only help to advance humanity’s future in space but also to solve very real, vexing problems we face on Earth.
AD: Are there any limits?
JB: The deposition technology is arguably the biggest challenge to building a printer that can operate on the Moon or Mars. The print-head must reliably convert regolith in powdered form into a solid material with minimal addition of additives from Earth – while in a vacuum and without human involvement.
AD: How does the construction process of project Olympus look like? How different is it to build on the moon or on Mars, than on earth?
Understanding that housing on Earth and housing in space work together is important. The very same technology that’s going to allow us to address our housing challenges on Earth are the very things that are going to allow us to venture off to a new world. I think in our lifetime we will see homes on the moon.
JB: That being said, the Moon is an incredibly challenging place: 500-degree temp variations, craters that are thousands of feet deep, extreme radiation, electrically charged super abrasive dust — and all within the hard vacuum of space. The transition from printing on Earth to printing on the Moon means making a number of changes to our approaches on Earth from materials used to operations. There are many differences and challenges and we’re up for them.
AD: Construction technology changed the game and shifted all the rigid rules of the profession. Having said that, how do you perceive the future of architecture and the construction field? On earth and in space?
JB: The 3D-printing construction sector appears ready for accelerated growth. Building codes are catching up, the technology is continuing to mature very quickly, and there is an ever-increasing demand for a new way to deliver more resilient, dignified homes and at speed. The design industry has become revolutionized through the adoption of Computer-Aided Design and Building Information Management. Regardless of how digital the documentation has become, designs still get built practically the same way as always. Robotic manufacturing will enable us to eliminate the loss in translation from data to matter and allow us to fabricate homes at great speed, with less waste, and with higher accuracy than today. The future looks bright!
AD: The company was founded in late 2017. Relatively very young, ICON has been named one of the “Most Innovative Companies in the World” and you have been featured on Times’ Next 100, as one of the 100 emerging leaders who are shaping the future. What do you think is behind this global success? Is it timing or idea?
JB: I am incredibly grateful for our hardworking team, investors, and partners. We had a good idea and continue to have great ideas, but an idea only takes you so far. What our team has accomplished in such a short period of time is not only a transformational breakthrough in homebuilding, but is going to help inform humanity on how we confront the global housing crisis.
I am honored to lead an incredibly sharp and capable team that is pioneering everything we know about this industry from construction and home building, architecture, material science, design, and off-world construction. In five years, we hope to be scaling our solution to people all around the world: getting Vulcan printers into the hands of developers, builders, and architects around the world, 3D printing more and more homes, continuing to increase the housing supply, providing architects with more design freedom, lowering construction costs and getting one step closer to the Moon.
AD: Any last thoughts?
JB: We are hiring for a number of positions. If interested in working on architecture, building performance, or engineering of 3D-printed homes on Earth and in outer space, please check out our career openings.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Automation in Architecture. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.