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Are 3D-Printed Buildings the Sustainable Future of Construction?

The construction industry must adopt technologies that increase productivity while mitigating the impact of our growing housing needs on the climate crisis. Mighty Buildings’ technology may be ‘one of the only in existence’ that could unlock the needed productivity alongside reduced emissions.

The building industry is complex. It faces a range of difficult challenges to improve efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deliver low-carbon developments. The pressure is given that the use of buildings and their construction together account for 36 percent of global energy use and around 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere each year.

Right now, the sector is struggling. Globally, two-third of nations lack mandatory building energy standards. That means, in 2019, some five billion square meters of buildings were constructed without any real regard for their energy performance once they are occupied. In the last 20 years, building floor space has expanded by 65 percent, yet energy use per square meter has improved by just 25 percent.

The trouble is, the world needs more housing. In the US alone, an estimated 3.5 million more homes will be required by 2025.

The good news is, construction is a sector that has a unique ability to help safeguard our natural ecosystems, build resilience to protect communities, store carbon and deliver against net-zero targets. Construction has an opportunity to create places that are fit for the 21st century and where people want to live, work, grow and prosper. But it is imperative the construction industry adopts technologies that provide additional productivity while mitigating the impact this will have on the climate crisis.

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That is certainly the view of Sam Ruben, an entrepreneur on a mission to transform the way we make and use our buildings. As the co-founder and Chief Sustainability Officer of Mighty Buildings, he says his company’s technology is “one of the only in existence” that has the potential to unlock the needed productivity alongside the opportunity for reduced emissions.

Essentially, the firm makes construction panels that can be bolted together as the building blocks of any development. But these are not just any panels — they are made from a thermoset composite material, created using 3D-printer technology that they can be made with virtually no waste. The material, which hardens immediately under UV light, replaces the need for concrete in construction.

Compared to traditional building methods, the so-called Mighty Kit Systems eliminate the 3-5 lbs of waste per square foot generated by home construction. The company says it can produce structures with 95 percent fewer labor hours, twice as fast as conventional construction and with ten times less waste. This video shows how a fully printed 350-square-foot building can be built in less than 24 hours.

3D-printed buildings might seem like something out of science fiction, but Ruben is hoping to change mindsets.

“That is sometimes the reaction we get, but that is quickly supplanted by excitement when people get a chance to see the completed units and learn about all the work we have been doing — to not only demonstrate code compliance and safety, but to go further and help move the codes themselves.

Like many startups, life for Mighty Buildings started in a garage. Ruben and three friends — Slava Solonoitsyn, Dmitry Starodubtsev and Alexey Dubov — came together to start a 3D printing business in Redwood City, California. They wanted to leverage the technology to disrupt the construction industry by creating beautiful, affordable, and sustainable homes using 3D printing and robotics.

Prior to that, Solonoitsyn had spent the mid-2010s working in venture capital. He was searching for big, bold ideas to invest in, putting cash into companies such as Boom Supersonic — which is changing the way people commute by making supersonic flights affordable. He lived in Singapore at the time but spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley. Every visit kept him wondering why the US continued to build houses using archaic methods, even though there was so much disruption and embracing of new technologies going on in other parts of the world.

Then, he met Ruben — a sustainability and policy expert — and learned about the Accessory Dwelling Unit market, which was opened up by new state laws in California in 2017.

“It seemed to be a perfect beachhead market to produce homes built in a totally new way, using 3D printing and automation,” Ruben remembers.

The company is currently producing around 300 units a year out of its Oakland facility and is working to expand to 1,000 units a year by 2023. The ambition is to establish a distributed network of Mighty Factories across the world — in areas with builder and developer partners and demand — rather than only producing in Oakland and shipping units.

“This will allow us to expand our impact by taking advantage of idle capital,” an excited Ruben says. “We can set up in existing warehouses rather than needing large, bespoke facilities — and in doing so, reduce costs and emissions; while providing jobs and housing to those communities we serve.”

The company has already found some developer partners that share the vision. That said, the construction industry is historically slow to adopt new technology — though the severity of the housing need is beginning to change that a bit.

“We are facing challenges with the timelines associated with the permitting and entitlements process. But we’re actively working on collaborations with builders, developers, code officials, and cities to help address inefficiencies in the industry,” Ruben adds.

It’s set to be a busy 12 months for Mighty Buildings — which has joined the UN’s #RacetoZero campaign and the SME Climate Hub, the global climate commitment for small businesses that pledge to cut carbon emissions in half before 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 ("Even though we've joined the Race to Zero, our goals are reaching carbon neutrality by 2028 and carbon negativity by 2040," Ruben says). First, it will deliver the first Mighty House units in a development. Plus, it is in the throes of certifying a new, fiber-reinforced material that can be used to develop multi-story offerings, such as townhouses and low-rise apartment buildings: “We want to get that at least to the prototype stage by the end of next year.”

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