Look inside only large-scale 3D printed housing development in U.S.

It looks more like a NASA project than a home construction site.

Just outside of Austin, Texas, huge machines are squeezing out 100 three- and four-bedroom homes, in the first major housing development to be 3D printed on site.

One of the nation’s largest homebuilders, Lennar, has partnered with ICON, a 3D printing company, to develop the project. Lennar was an early investor in ICON, which has printed nearly a dozen houses in Texas and Mexico. These homes will go on the market in 2023, starting in the mid-$400,000 range.

“These are the first 100 houses, but we hope to be able to take this to scale, and at scale we really reduce cycle times and also reduce costs,” said Stuart Miller, Lennar’s chief executive.

ICON claims it can build the home’s entire wall system, including mechanical, electrical, and plumbing, two to three times faster than a traditional home and up to 30% of the cost.

“We exceed code requirements for all the different types of strength, windage, and compressive strength by about 4 times. We’re about two and a half times more energy efficient,” said Jason Ballard, co-founder and CEO of ICON.

The printers are designed to run 24 hours a day, but do not due to noise restrictions in the area. They are almost completely automated, with only three workers in each household. One monitors the process on a laptop and the other checks the concrete mix, which must be adapted to current weather conditions. Another works as a backup, spraying the area with water or adding new material to the system.

“The promise of robotic construction is a promise of automation, reducing labor and therefore reducing labor costs,” Ballard said.

ICON aims to reduce the number of operators to two over the next 12 months, Ballard added. Eventually, you want even fewer operators. “I think the kind of Holy Grail is where one person can see a dozen systems, it takes one person to see a dozen systems,” Ballard said.

The main squeeze

An ICON 3D printer in a development in Georgetown, TX.

Diana Olick | CNBC

The way it works is that a digital floor plan is uploaded to the software system called Build OS, which then prepares it for robotic construction. It will automatically map the structural reinforcement, placing the electrical and plumbing outlets during printing. Printers then squeeze out rows and rows of a proprietary concrete mix that looks a lot like toothpaste, slowly building the structure.

Other companies, such as California-based Mighty Buildings, also use 3D printing technology, but they print the houses in a factory and then move them on site. ICON brings the factory to the site.

“With this project, we are improving our total house count by 400%, and we expect to continue to at least double it over the next three to five years,” Ballard said. He said that he already has plans to work with other large-scale builders. DR Horton is another early investor in ICON.

Lennar’s Miller said his main goal is to bring more affordable housing to the market, and he sees this as one way to do it. But he knows that these are also the first stages.

“This is all about innovation. If you go around the country and talk to officials at the local and state levels, the biggest question is: How do we provide workforce housing, affordable housing,” he said.

Lennar began planning the project with ICON when the housing market was still red-hot, fueled by strong demand and mortgage rates at record lows. Mortgage rates are now more than double what they were at the beginning of the year, and demand is down sharply, suggesting additional risk could be added to this project.

“We’re still focused on our core business, getting trains running on time, building houses across the country, and as the market goes up and down, we adjust our business,” Miller said. “Innovation is a cycle as it is on our business side because we know that going forward there is a housing shortage.”

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