Credit: Dall-e

I attended the Domus Ex Machina session at SXSW earlier this month, presented by ICON. CEO Jason Ballard hosted the event with his passionate, high energy, and challenging style in full display. I will admit that I have been a Ballard fan since we first introduced him to the production housing industry at DCX in 2018. However, I have been openly skeptical of the economics and wide adoption of 3D printing in home construction.

We can complain about builders and our process all day, but we must give credit to the industry for keeping margins and the cost of our supply chain under control. Because the industry does such a good job managing the costs and margins within the supply chain, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for innovations to thrive.

According to ICON, the standard wall system used by home builders today costs around $35 per square foot. When I first met Ballard, the ICON wall system cost over $300 per square foot. Albeit, that wall was R22, fire-resistant, insect-resistant, flood-resilient, and could withstand winds of up to 250 mph. Indeed, it was a better wall but at 10 times the price and we still had a plethora of unresolved issues; second-story builds, foundation and roof systems, and the inherent carbon footprint of cement-based products.

This brings me to a 1440 moment. In 1436, Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press to the world. The press unleashed a new era in human development as knowledge, information, and ideas became widely distributed. It accelerated the Renaissance and launched humanity on a new trajectory of development. Philosophers such as Locke and Voltaire were now widely read by an increasingly literate society. Their ideas laid the groundwork for change as we were encouraged to question the status quo. It helped build a better world.

It seemed to me sitting there in the audience this week that we were seeing the printing press of our time being unveiled to the industry for the first time. Ballard announced the launch of Phoenix, a new articulated multistory printer capable of printing foundations, walls, and roof systems. And the most pivotal announcement? It builds wall systems for $25 per square foot.

Now that is our 1440 moment.

When builders are presented with a building system which builds a better product for 30% less than traditional techniques, we will create our own Voltaire’s who will take this technology and begin to question everything we have taken for granted as best practice.

ICON didn’t stop with Phoenix, it has also launched CarbonX, a new lower carbon footprint material that makes the completed wall system the lowest carbon footprint wall system available today when measured on a life cycle basis, according to MIT.

For the next generation of home builders, robotics, software, and material science will be our ever-present companions just as circular saws and roofing nailers have been for years. The Phoenix will become a tool used by the curious and brave to do things Ballard never dreamed of. It will be the first of a whole fleet of robotic tools to tackle every phase of the build process.

The Gutenberg press no longer has a much-diminished place in today’s word processing and digital publishing landscape. But it was the seed that changed the industry and the world. The Phoenix will fade and be replaced by 100 newer, faster, better versions over the years. But this day seems like it should be acknowledged and remembered as the day that robotic home building came of age.