the first one. It would be controlled by a simple interface
on a tablet computer, the material-delivery system would
work, and it would be able to print a 2,000-square-foot
building in as little as a few days. Meanwhile, HUD secretary Ben Carson visited Icon. Fannie Mae called. So did
FEMA and the U.S. Army. Other o;cials in Washington
alerted Ballard that rival countries were trying to obtain
Icon’s technology secrets. (“I can’t say any more about
that,” Ballard says.)
On March 11, 2019, Ballard stood on
a stage at one end of Icon’s hangar-like
headquarters and delivered a rousing
sermon about the need for cheaper, faster,
and better homebuilding to a packed room,
and then issued the command to lift a
black veil and reveal the hulking new
printer, as Steve Jobs once might have.
The cocktail hour that followed felt like
a victory party. Austin’s mayor and other
luminaries grinned and congratulated the
Icon team, while a publicist frantically arranged media
interviews with Ballard, who’d donned his white cowboy
hat after leaving the stage. But Icon had arrived only at the
starting line. T he Vulcan II, silent but for the rumble of a small gas-powered gen- erator and an occasional hiss and click, scoots its preprogrammed route around the slab foundation at Com- munity First, eerily snaking out its gray, tube-shaped layers of concrete. The walls of the community center ise almost magically and reach their
full height within two days, until, when the building is all
but done, at midnight on a Friday, the generator fails. Its
primary gas tank has run out of fuel, and its auxiliary doesn’t
switch on. If the team doesn’t fix it immediately, the concrete in the tubes will harden and ruin the printer. Ballard
spots a bulldozer, races over, siphons out some diesel the
old-fashioned way—with his mouth—and gets the generator
working long enough to clear out the concrete. “Luckily, we
have a CEO from East Texas,” he cracks.
The earlier concrete problems, the team learned,
stemmed from a supplier’s improperly formulated batch.
Once the new shipment arrived, after about 10 days of
downtime, things worked again. But Icon aims one day to
have third-party builders using its technology all around
the world, and when that day comes it will inevitably have
to rely on a patchwork of suppliers. Inconsistencies will
happen. And if those inconsistencies brick the expensive
printers or create misshapen, droopy messes, the promises
of revolutionary advances in a;ordability, speed, and resilience will mean little.
Ballard is unfazed. To him, the slowdown is just one more
natural step on his journey, a minor mishap in the grand
scheme—the kind of thing that simply informs his next
moves, like a new quality-control step in the concrete supply
chain. “It’s so fortunate that you got to witness that,” he says.
There are real-world implications, though. The partner-
ship with New Story is in a new phase: The nonprofit has
arranged for Icon to print an entire community of 50 small
homes in a mostly rural part of Mexico. That project,
the world’s first 3-D-printed neighborhood, was originally
slated to get under way in midsummer. Now, the delays
mean it will start in the fall.
By early September, Ballard and a few members of the
25-person team he hired in the previous year are living
in Mexico, laying foundations for the homes, working to
get their giant robot through customs, and girding for
whatever unexpected events might befall them next. Jenny,
now about 18 months cancer-free, will soon join him and
bring the kids.
But on September 10, Ballard is back in Austin for a few
days to unveil the completed community center, now painted
gleaming white and standing alone in a dirt clearing like a
temple. The temperature hits 100 degrees as Ballard steps
out onto the concrete porch to address the hundred-some
attendees. A lot has happened. In addition to the Mexico
project, the company will soon begin printing six homes for
the homeless at Community First. It’s finalizing a deal to
print middle-market homes in Central Texas at 30 to 50
percent below market rates. The ink is still drying on a
grant from the Air Force to explore printing facilities for it,
and a deal with NASA looks imminent: The agency wants to
enlist Icon to help it build on Mars.
Now, though, it’s time to preach. “With all the cynicism
and negativity about the intractability of people experiencing chronic homelessness, this feels like a miracle, does it
not?” Ballard begins. A few audience members murmur yes.
His voice inches into a higher register: “Does it not feel like
a miracle?” More yeses, now louder, and some whoops. He
talks about empathy and imagination, about seizing Austin’s
booming growth as an opportunity to build a better, more
compassionate city. Somewhere along the way he segues
into pitching his company, but nobody seems to notice.
“We believe that 3-D printing can deliver dignified housing
faster and cheaper, and with less waste and better performance and better design,” he declares, his voice rising. “We
will show the world that there is a better way, and that way
is love.” The audience has stopped its call and response.
They are rapt. They believe.
TOM FOS TER is an Inc. editor-at-large.
“This feels like a miracle, does it not?” Ballard demands of the crowd. “We will show the world there is a better way, and that way is love.”