Construction companies have been experimenting with 3D printing for years, but in 2021, a major developer in Austin, Texas, will begin the biggest project yet.

The new community will have 100 first-floor 3D-printed concrete houses built using traditional wood-frame construction strategies, with the construction technology startup Icon responsible for the 3D printing part, and Lennar, a major construction company, commissioned to complete the house. Bjarke Ingles Group, known for its creative and out-of-the-box buildings, offered design support.

Although the construction company hopes that 3D printing will be more affordable and much faster to implement than traditional construction methods, the houses in the planned Austin development will take about the same amount of time and require the same amount of building material as houses built with wooden frames.

The construction industry is pinning its hopes on these new technologies to help alleviate the burden of persistent labor shortages despite rising unemployment rates.

To build the first floor of a house, Icon uses a gantry-style 3D printer that effectively wraps a huge frame around the footprint of the house, helping the printhead stray. Concrete is then squeezed out of a nozzle that actually resembles soft-serve ice cream. The resulting walls have layered optics that resemble a squashed stack of pancakes. Some companies reject portal construction and instead use a robotic arm that they move around the construction site and achieve the same result.

Another typical claim is that 3D printing can reduce the environmental impact of house building by reducing the amount of waste. Because 3D printing is additive, not subtractive, printing uses only the material needed, while carpenters have to cut wood to length.

There have also been attempts to decarbonize cement, and a 3D printing company, Mighty Buildings, is working with materials science start-up Fortera to develop cement from carbon dioxide, which builders claim reduces the carbon footprint by up to 60%.