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Future now: Additive manufacturing and construction

By Melodie Yashar posted 09-06-2023 04:18 PM


By Melodie Yashar

Portrait of Melodie Yashar


Future now: Additive manufacturing & construction  

Additive manufacturing (commonly known as 3D-printing) is frequently used in architectural practice as a rapid prototyping technique to advance early design visions and formal concepts in three dimensions. However, one of the most disruptive aspects of 3D-printing is that it enables the realization of new computationally generated design possibilities, which have been difficult or impossible to fabricate using conventional construction techniques and methods.


Enabling architectural design freedom. 

The great benefit and appeal of large-scale additive manufacturing processes in construction is the versatility the technology provides. As both a design and construction platform, 3D-printing enables firms to manufacture a limitless range of structural geometries on-demand. With additive manufacturing, advanced CAD geometries can be realized in record time as compared with traditional design, engineering, and construction workflows, introducing drastic time savings. 

BIM software in the AEC industry is in large part to represent planar geometries for wall, floor, and roof families. However, additive construction technologies and software workflows enable the fabrication of amorphous and eccentric geometric structures, including lofted forms, single- and double-curved surfaces, as well as free-form geometries. Our experience indicates that 3D-printed construction is uniquely suited to introduce the potential for courageously divergent architectures to emerge that are costly to manufacture using traditional construction means and methods at scale. At ICON we strive to demonstrate how 3D-printing is not only a technology platform, but a new design medium for architects to capable of introducing new design possibilities befitting a wide range of stylistic approaches in different markets and geographic regions.


Delivering new architecture. 

At ICON, I lead a team of designers, architects, and engineers comprising the Architecture & Building Performance department. Together, we facilitate project delivery of ICON’s built work, while also conducting ongoing research and development in ICON’s wall systems and building performance measures. The department develops standard architectural and structural details and manages regulatory affairs and certifications for construction, which can involve educating regulatory agencies and their staff. Also essential to our work is the development of specialized BIM-based workflows in design, evaluation and development of sustainability standards, ongoing building performance testing, and translation of design vision into functional print paths and G-code for construction. 

Building ICON’s practice has involved collaboration with visionary firms such as Lake Flato Architects, the Bjarke Ingels Group, and more. These practices help us push and advance the status quo of 3D printed construction, but our practice also has in-house design capabilities to introduce progressive ideas for our construction technology. The result has been new design vernaculars, tectonics, and interface details with the 3D printed wall. New firm collaborations bring the potential for generating design and technological advancements on an ongoing basis. 


BIM workflows 

Design-to-print workflows at ICON are embedded in building information modeling (BIM) approaches, where a digital twin of the project allows all elements of design, structure, electrical, and plumbing to be coordinated in an accessible, shared, and dynamic model. BIM serves a vital purpose in coordinating the design of 3D-printed wall systems and structures. BIM’s unique capacity to merge 3D-information models with 4D-sequencing information makes it a critical tool for capturing and understanding time-sensitive build processes and interventions over the course of additive manufacturing processes. We use and develop proprietary software to generate the print path of the wall system, the architecture, and the structure of the wall, in addition to coordinating when traditional construction components are placed within the print. 


Case study: Cosmic Pavilion. 

In 2023, we partnered with The Long Center for the Performing Arts to design and construct the first 3D-printed performance pavilion in downtown Austin. The pavilion is inspired by architectural themes planned within an upcoming expansion of the El Cosmico development in Marfa, Texas, in partnership with Liz Lambert. Referred to as the Cosmic Pavilion, the structure introduces a continuous 3D-printed single-curved surface that acts as a landmark and gathering space for culture, community, and the city. 



The pavilion demonstrates new design possibilities in large-scale cementitious additive manufacturing using ICON’s Vulcan (deposition), Magma (material handling), and Lavacrete (material) systems. Designed by BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, the pavilion features abstract geometry that merges two different curvatures to loft a wall in 3D space. The result is an undulating wall that pushes the bounds of unsupported cementitious 3D-printing angle limitations. 

While small-scale polymer additive manufacturing techniques can demonstrate sufficient tension capacity across extruded filament bonds, cementitious extrusion has little to no such tension capacity—a classical limitation on realizing loft designs when printing. However, in the case of the Cosmic Pavilion, printing limitations were mitigated through calibrated rheological properties of ICON’s material design (how the cementitious material flows and responds to certain stressors), alternate deposition methods, and a highly specific tension reinforcement strategy. The pavilion is an example of ICON’s continued work and advancement in developing cantilevered geometries and realizing greater overhang angles with no shoring or scaffolding. In the future, technology advancements such as these will enable us to construct arched, domed, and vaulted geometries with greater ease and with fewer limitations. The pavilion represents an incremental advancement in our technology and construction capabilities that will grant architects and designers the ability to construct cantilevered forms and complex amorphous geometries more easily than ever before. 


Prior work.  

ICON has delivered the first 3D-printed homes sold in the U.S., 3D-printed homes for the homeless, a 3D-printed simulated Martian habitat for NASA, and barracks for those serving their country with the Texas Military Department and U.S. Army. The largest neighborhood of 3D-printed homes worldwide broke ground in 2022 in a newly announced partnership between ICON and Lennar, one of the nation’s leading homebuilders. The innovative 100-home community, co-designed by BIG, is a watershed moment in the history of large-scale additive manufacturing and of community-scale development. Additional social housing, disaster relief housing, and market-rate housing projects are also underway, in addition to the development of construction systems that will create infrastructure and habitats on the Moon and eventually Mars with NASA. Other residential projects we’ve completed include: 


  • Community First! Village: ICON partnered with Mobile Loaves & Fishes to print 6 homes for those coming out of chronic homelessness in Austin, TX and a Welcome Center. The first human to ever live in a 3D-printed home in America moved into his new home in September 2020 at the village and was formerly homeless (Tim Shea). This marked the first community of 3D-printed homes in the U.S. and serves the chronically homeless. We intend to do more work with Mobile Loaves & Fishes in the future.
  • World’s First Community of 3D-printed homes: ICON 3D-printed the world's first community (10 homes) of 3D-printed homes in Nacajuca, Mexico, with the housing nonprofit, New Story, and for families living in extreme poverty. This area is in a seismic and flood zone. In summer 2020, the homes withstood a 7.4 earthquake with no visible damage.


  • Series of Residential Homes, Austin, TX: ICON broke into the mainstream housing market with a series of 3D-printed homes and first 3D-printed homes sold in America in 2021. The first floor of the homes were 3D printed with traditional construction finish out and the second floor.
  • Exploration Series: ICON debuted a new Exploration Series of homes in collaboration with Lake Flato to push the boundaries of resilient and sustainable 3D-printed home designs; the first home, “House Zero”—a 2,000+ sq-ft 3bd/2.5bth home with a 350 sq-ft ADU—is the first home of its kind and a major advancement in modern architecture, only possible through 3D-printing.
  • Large-scale development / 100-Home Community with Lennar: ICON and Lennar are underway, delivering the largest community of 3D-printed homes in the world in Georgetown, Texas. The 100-home community combines innovative robotics, software, and advanced materials to create homes that are technologically advanced, environmentally sustainable, and architecturally striking. Sales begin Summer 2023.

Our vision for the future leverages increased digitization and automation to deliver the full enclosure of structures. While we currently focus on the construction of the wall system for our homes, we still rely on traditional means and methods to finish the homes and introduce roofing, as an example. In the future, we will aim to integrate other technologies to fully automate the construction process. We hope to see ICON’s robotics, software, and advanced materials in the hands of many developers, architects, builders, and organizations. We are currently working with a handful of strategic partners to deliver big projects domestically and internationally while continuing to iterate on the technology.


What’s next: Initiative 99. 

In March 2023, we launched Initiative 99, a design competition intended to reinvigorate a stagnant conversation around affordable housing via 3D-printed construction. Initiative 99 asks designers, artists, architects, and students to design a home that can be 3D-printed for $99,000 USD, a price point indicative of the home's printed structure and finish-out. The goal of the competition is to bring new and different voices to the design landscape of additive manufacturing by involving professional and academic communities. The multi-phase competition offers a total prize purse of $1 million (USD). We have committed to building a selection of the winning designs at multiple locations to be announced in the future. 



ICON has many partners in the affordable housing sector; in prior projects, we have worked with New Story Inc. as well as Mobile Loaves and Fishes, the developer of Community First Village in Austin, Texas. We believe the $99k prototypes will reinvigorate the discourse on housing affordability in our cities today. The competition also provides a clear path toward the construction of dignified and accessible housing for communities that need it most.  

The competition consists of two phases; down-selected Phase 1 entries will advance to Phase 2. Down-selected teams will have the opportunity to advance the level of development of their designs with ICON technical staff in efforts to accelerate the viability of designs for construction. Judging will take place in an “open” (professional) category as well as a “student” (academic) category. The competition jury is composed of architects, academic leaders, policymakers, and non-profit organizations dedicated to finding affordable housing solutions. 

We most value different perspectives, experiences, and ways of thinking about the affordable housing problem. We strongly encourage the AIA community to submit, as we believe architects can provide tremendous value to what affordable housing might look like in the near future, not only in Austin but at a global scale, and accomplishing this using one of the most significant technological advances in construction in our lifetime. For more information, we invite you to visit 



ICON. Large-scale cementitious additive manufacturing (3D-printing) is an automated construction method rapidly changing the landscape of architecture and engineering today. Workflows for designing and manufacturing 3D-printed wall systems are still in the early stages of development within industry at-large, and only a handful of architectural practitioners have had exposure to workflows being developed for large-scale additive manufacturing systems. ICON designs and develops 3D-printed structures that align with industry-accepted BIM standards and project management workflows in architectural practice, and we hope our workflows might establish precedent for how architectural practitioners engage large-scale additive construction in the future. ICON exists as a response to the global housing crisis. Using proprietary 3D-printing technology and cutting-edge materials, we introduce sustainable housing solutions to meet the world’s most pressing issues, including the demand for more homes across the globe, homelessness, and affordable housing. 


(Return to the cover of the August 2023 PM Digest)