funding materialized, the partners maxed out several
personal credit cards to build Vulcan I.
Providence came in the form of a chance connection.
The founder of Praxis, a Christian startup accelerator that
Loomis went through in the early TreeHouse days, intro-
duced him and Ballard to another Praxis alum who’d
founded a California-based nonprofit called New Story,
whose mission is to build homes for the billion-plus people
who lack adequate shelter. New Story provided funding for
Icon to complete its printer and build a prototype house.
“Aside from climate change, there is arguably no greater
emergency on earth today than the housing crisis,” says
New Story CEO Brett Hagler, who co-founded
the charity after Haiti’s devastating earthquake
in 2010. “To have the biggest impact, we needed
a breakthrough to cut costs and build faster
without sacrificing quality.”
Ballard saw it all as “a way to kill two frogs
with one stick”—line up an early partner and
some funding while showing potential inves-
tors that Icon could create a fully permitted
home. So rather than printing something in
a cow pasture outside of town, he printed
behind a friend’s o;ce in a mostly residential
area near downtown Austin. They set a goal of
unveiling the house at SXSW in March 2018.
A week before SXSW, the Icon team had a
working printer and a proprietary concrete
recipe—a tricky thing, it turned out, because
the concrete has to flow easily through the
printer but emerge in solid form, and do so
in wildly variable weather conditions. But the
“material-delivery system,” which loads the
concrete into the printer, wasn’t working yet.
March is the start of Austin’s rainy season, and
2018 was no exception. Every night for a week,
in the pouring rain, Ballard, Loomis, Le Roux, and
a rotating cast of friends working for free beer
spent their nights heaving buckets of freshly
mixed concrete, by hand, into the printer and
extruding a 350-square-foot house.
They finished printing the first day of the festival, a
Friday, and spent the weekend installing windows and
doors, painting, and hooking up the power and plumbing.
The house was finished Sunday night, just hours before
their planned launch event on Monday. Total cost: $40,000,
and 50 hours of printing time. A city inspector came out
and gave the house a temporary certificate of occupancy.
An exhausted Loomis hired a friend (now Icon’s software
lead) to build a quick single-page website that night—a
picture of the completed house with a simple contact form
for anyone interested in learning more.
Then came the flood of media reports, and countless
inquiries from investors, homebuilders, nonprofits, and
far-flung governments. Within a month, Icon had requests
to build more than a million homes. Portnoy, the former
PayPal executive, had been visiting family in Houston while
the SXSW media crush was happening; after reading a news
story about Icon, he piled his wife and kids into a rented
van and drove straight to Austin to meet Ballard and the
team at the house, where they sat on the porch and got to
know one another.
“It was clear within a few minutes that Jason was the
right person to be CEO,” Portnoy recalls. “He has such a
clear vision of what he wants the world to look like and
what he wants Icon’s contribution to that vision to be. And
he’s unapologetic about it: ‘This is what we believe, this is
what we are going to do, if you want to be a part of it, that’s
great, and if not, that’s great too. We know where we are
going.’;” In his PayPal days, Portnoy worked closely with
Elon Musk, Max Levchin, and Reid Ho;man. Ballard
reminded him of them. “They believe in what they’re
doing with every cell in their bodies. And that conviction
imprints on the people around them, who start to believe
what they believe.”
After the blockbuster debut at SXSW, Ballard wrote
a hasty strategy memo outlining two possible business
models—selling homes or selling printers—and promptly
quit his job at TreeHouse. Months later, late one night that
December, Ballard awoke to a call from one of his former
executives: TreeHouse was folding. The announcement
was going out in the morning. Ballard got out of bed, drew
himself a bath, and just sat there, quietly processing the
end of the company that had taken him from the priest-
hood and steered him toward a di;erent kind of service.
He didn’t have much time to reflect. By then, he’d set
an aggressive goal for Icon to unveil Vulcan II at the next
SXSW. The new printer would print 2. 5 times faster than
The first house printed by Icon, on Chicon Street near downtown Austin,
which the company completed just in time for the 2018 SXSW festival.