A typical single-family home in the US takes an average of six and a half months to build, according to the Census Bureau’s latest survey. Now an Austin-based startup called Icon can erect a house nearly 200 times faster—in a day.

  • WHAT:
    The Vulcan, a house-building 3-D printer
  • SIZE:
    12.5 x 22.5 x 35 feet
  • WEIGHT:
    1 ton
  • TOP SPEED:
    5 inches per second

To be fair, the company is building houses that max out at 800 square feet, but that’s not the limit. The hyperspeed fabrication is the work of a megasize 3-D printer—picture a MakerBot on steroids—named the Vulcan. Engineers run digital blueprints for the home through so-called slicer software, which translates the design into the programming language G-code. That code determines where the printer moves along its track, extruding 3⁄4-inch-thick layers of concrete like icing on a cake. The base material—a finely calibrated mix of cement, sand, plasticizers, and other aggregates—gets poured into a hopper at the top of the printer and flows onto the rising walls below.

Casey Dunn

The resulting abodes, which will cost $4,000 to build, are the latest addition in the ubiquitous tiny-house movement. (Icon’s ultimate goal is to alleviate the housing crisis; the company is exploring partnerships with FEMA and Fannie Mae.) In 2019, Icon intends to ship the Vulcan to El Salvador, where it’s slated to print 100 homes for disadvantaged families. But the startup’s next excursion may be even farther afield: Icon is participating in a NASA competition to develop printable space habitats using “indigenous materials,” the planetary soil available onsite. Once again, the Vulcan may boldly go where no human has gone before.

1. Mortar Mix

The base material is finely tuned to prevent sagging. In the future, Icon also plans to print materials such as insulating foams and plastic.

2. Energy Efficiency

The Vulcan runs on six electric motors that require only 240 volts of power—roughly the same as a clothes dryer—so it won’t overwhelm fragile power grids in developing countries or disaster zones.

3. Flexible Design

Slicer software is used to interpret digital blueprints that plot points in three-dimensional space. Code can be written for any type and size of building.

4. Frame

The lightweight aluminum frame disassembles quickly for easy transport. It’s stabilized by triangular trusses, allowing the printer to emit concrete with 1/4 inch of the points laid out in the plans.

5. Moveable Tracks

The printer rolls back and forth along 10-inch-wide tracks, which are repositioned as the home rises. There’s no limit to how long the wall can be.

Casey Dunn


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