Photo of Alex Le Roux

Nanotechnology & materials

Alex Le Roux

A massive 3D-printing project in Mexico could point the way to the future of affordable housing.

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Alex Le Roux thinks 3D printing can open new possibilities for architectural design and cut the cost of building housing around the world.

As cofounder of Icon, a startup based in Austin, Texas, Le Roux is the mastermind behind the Vulcan, an industrial--scale 3D printer that can construct the wall system of an entire house in just 24 hours of print time. According to the United Nations, some 1.6 billion people lack adequate shelter, and a third of the world’s urban population lives in informal settlements or slums. Part of the reason, Le Roux says, is that traditional building methods lead to wasted materials and excess labor costs, driving up housing prices beyond the reach of many poor families.

The Vulcan is designed to change that by introducing automation to the process. The 12-foot-tall robotic device works by extruding inch-thick layers of a special concrete mix fed in from a separate machine, much like a giant tube of toothpaste. Icon programs its home designs ahead of time to make the operator’s job as simple as possible. “Once these two machines are set up on a job site, you download an app and you’re off to the races,” Le Roux says.

In March 2018, Icon built the US’s first officially permitted 3D-printed house. It has now built 16 houses in Austin and in Mexico, where it’s constructing the world’s first 3D-printed community, designed to accommodate 50 low-income families. Icon’s ultimate goal, Le Roux says, is to reduce the cost of homebuilding by 50%.