Lake|Flato and ICON Develop a New Design Language for 3D-Printed Houses

Because a 3D-printed wall wants to be something different.

Evening shot of House Zero with a tree in the front.

Casey Dunn

The great American architect Louis Kahn would ask his materials for advice.

"You say to a brick, 'What do you want, brick?' And brick says to you, 'I like an arch.' And you say to brick, 'Look, I want one, too, but arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel.' And then you say: 'What do you think of that, brick?' Brick says: 'I like an arch.'"
Exterior of House Zero showing the roof

Casey Dunn

I have always wondered what 3D-printed concrete wanted to be. Lake|Flato Architects is certainly helping to find out. It apparently wants to break out of the rigidity you get with conventional materials that want to be flat and straight. With the ICON 3D technology, it appears to want to be curved, free of horizontal limitations.

Jason Ballard, co-founder and CEO of ICON, describes House Zero, built with his big Vulcan printer:

“House Zero is ground zero for the emergence of entirely new design languages and architectural vernaculars that will use robotic construction to deliver the things we need most from our housing: comfort, beauty, dignity, sustainability, attainability, and hope. Houses like this are only possible with 3D printing, and this is the new standard of what 3D printing can mean for the world."
House Zero plan


The curvy elements are left in their natural concrete color and are dramatic and beautiful. The exterior walls are three wythes (usually a layer of masonry) thick with insulation in between. Being curved, they support themselves. They surround about 2,000 square feet of a three-bedroom house, plus a 350-square-foot accessory dwelling unit in Austin, Texas.

I have wondered if ICON's system can truly be called 3D because it is really an extrusion of a 2D plan into the third dimension. Compare that to Mario Cucinella's 3D-printed clay domes, where the entire building is printed, including the roof. In House Zero, Lake|Flato switches to a different material for the roof, topping it off with an elegant wood structure, also left in its natural state.

House Zero interior showing furniture and a living room space

Casey Dunn

From the website: "The house expresses its construction materials proudly: the concrete walls are framed and protected by simple ordered wood elements. Automation has been considered in all aspects of the project, which utilizes prefabrication of structural members and interior components to maximize speed and efficiency in construction. And although the house is made using new robotic printing processes, its natural wood and exposed concrete surfaces provide a timeless and rooted-to-the-earth quality, drawing attention to the natural world and its physical forces." 

As I noted earlier, I have wondered what 3D printing wanted to be. I have long thought it was a solution in search of a problem, and I complained in particular about ICON's 3D printed houses in El Salvador for charity. I wrote at the time: "I am not a total skeptic about 3D printed houses. I think there is a place for them—on the moon, for example. But here on earth, I think we should put our money into people, not giant printers and bags of goo."

Icon wall being placed


But Lake|Flato and ICON are demonstrating here that you can do things with printers and bags of goo that you can't easily or affordably do with conventional building technologies. Sure, you can build a curved wall in concrete or brick, but it is expensive and it's hard to find the kind of masons that Uruguayan architect Eliado Dieste had. The Vulcan printer doesn't care about that. The 3D-printed wall loves curves; as Dieste showed with brick, it makes them stronger and thinner.

Interior showing curves of House Zero

Casey Dunn

So let's say that my thinking is evolving, thanks to Lake|Flato and its skills at reinterpreting the technology.

“While the organic nature of the 3D-printed concrete and curved walls are new design languages for us, House Zero was still entirely in line with the natural connections we seek in our architecture,” said Ashley Heeren, an associate with Lake|Flato, in an ICON press release for the house launch. “The home expresses our shared passions for craft and performance in an inviting and comfortable family home constructed through a totally new way of building. It’s been a thrill for our team to work with ICON on such an innovative home design and be a part of the future of homebuilding.”

House Zero works because the material gets to be what it wants to be. The 3D-printed concrete wants to be a curved wall doing what concrete does best, holding up the much lighter flat and straight wood beams, and the deck is doing what it does best, spanning between the concrete walls.

Lake|Flato and ICON's printer.
Lake|Flato and ICON's "Vulcan" printer.


Lake|Flato and ICON have finally put the Vulcan printer to work doing what it does best, expressing a new design language. I can hear it talking to me.

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