A planned 3D-printed neighborhood has its first completed houses in rural Mexico. The houses are made with a huge 3D printer that’s 33 feet long, and the project was delayed for a few months while the machinery was held up in customs by understandably puzzled officials.
Residents are moving into 500-square-foot homes with two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room space, and an indoor bathroom with plumbing. They’re all built in one sweep of the 3D printer, ICON’s Vulcan II, which pipes a special concrete mixture to form exterior and interior walls. The new homes will withstand local weather in a way their builders say is new among 3D printed home technology, which has largely not been tested in the “real world.”
The international nonprofit New Story, working in partnership with ICON, works to reduce not just homelessness, but “survival mode” living around the world. Researchers estimate that up to 1.6 billion people around the world are housing-insecure or live in inadequate housing, like the shacks that New Story is hoping to replace in the rural Mexican community where it’s 3D-printing houses.
Shacks are informal housing put together on an as-needed basis with whatever people are able to find, and they usually lack amenities that are considered basic human rights. Residents told Fast Company they were used to placing buckets around every time it rains because of the amount of water that comes through their makeshift roofs, and most haven’t ever had indoor plumbing.
Much of the world lives in shacks—especially in slums, sometimes called “informal settlements,” which are defined as places without adequate hygiene and services and where a lot of the housing is ad hoc. Prefabricated housing is the natural ancestor to the 3D-printed housing New Story is working to promote now. In the U.S., mobile homes are the most common form of prefabricated housing, with more advanced versions shipped in halves or quarters on the backs of flatbed trucks.
And New Story owes a debt to the idea of kit homes, too. These date back much further than mobile homes, when people in the American frontier especially could send money to Sears, Roebuck, and Company, for example, and receive all the materials to build an included blueprint of a standardized house.
The 3D-printed New Story houses are a little from column A and a little from column B. The company’s 3D printer works by piping concrete into planned shapes. Instead of an enclosed chamber, the 3D printer is a free-moving overhead arm that operates in the plain air. Because of that, the printer receives and adjusts to humidity, temperature, and more conditions to slightly change up the concrete mix to ensure the best drying and fixing.
Choosing to go into rural Mexico for the company’s first project was intentional, too. The organization wanted to show it could get to a challenging location that also had regular earthquake activity. Where shacks are extremely vulnerable to any seismic activity, the New Story homes are more resilient. Having individual rooms and indoor plumbing is a huge step forward, but so is simply having a durable home with a waterproof roof that you can assume will stay standing.
New Story considers its homes in Mexico to be proof of concept in a way, both as a sign that its 3D printer technology is sound, and as encouragement to other groups that may enter the affordable housing fray.