3D-printed concrete houses set to improve life for slum dwellers

Residents living in slums in El Salvador may soon be able to move into brand-new 3D-printed concrete houses in what the developers say would be a world first.

The new homes were unveiled by developers ICON earlier this month in Texas and are built using a prototype mobile printer that can be transported to the developing world.

The production version of the printer will have the ability to print a single story, 55-75 square metre home in under 24 hours for less than $4,000.

As a part of this effort, ICON has developed new materials that have been tested to ensure they are safe and durable.

The printer is designed to function with nearly zero waste production methods and work under unpredictable constraints (limited water, power, and labour infrastructure) to tackle housing shortages.

“Something that sounds like science fiction is real,” Jason Ballard, ICON’s co-founder said.

“We plan on printing a whole sort of development - not just a 3D-print house, but a 3D-printed neighbourhood.”

Globally, nearly one billion people live in slums, often in shacks made from scraps of metal and wood with dirt floors, according to the United Nations, which predicts the world’s population will reach eight billion by 2030.

Innovators are racing to develop quick, cheap technology to address global housing needs. In 2016, Dubai opened what it said was the world’s first functioning 3D-printed office building.

Ballard said ICON’s house is the first to be built on site and receive a permit - from the US city of Austin, Texas - allowing someone to live in it.

“We had to build it to the highest international standards of building safety,” he said.

New Story has partnered with ICON to bring the technology to El Salvador and they plan to build about 100 homes for people in slums in the Central American nation within 18 months.

“It represents the chance for breakthrough technology to come to developing areas first,” said Alexandria Lafci, co-founder of San Francisco-based New Story.

“Having a safe home is truly a foundation.”

Living in a hazardous shack or tent is dangerous for people’s health and wellbeing, making it difficult to perform well at school or work, she said.

A mix of concrete, water and other materials are pumped through the 3D printer, which then pours out a hybrid of concrete mortar that hardens as it is printed, producing layers of structures used to build a house.

“The material has to be have some pretty unique features. It has to flow out, but it can’t flow like water as you would just have a puddle of concrete and so it has to set pretty quickly,” Ballard said.

“This is meant to be long-term sustainable housing. Concrete is one of the most well-understood materials on earth and it’s also one of the most resilient.”

Families taking part in the project will pay a small, interest-free mortgage, which should take between five and 12 years to clear.

“When they pay off their mortgage, they own both the home and the land that the house sits on,” Lafci said. “Land ownership can be a stride to getting out of poverty.”

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