This article is part of Upstart, a series about young companies leveraging new science and technology.
Last year, Starbucks opened a sustainably built drive-through cafe in Abbotsford, British Columbia, about an hour southeast of Vancouver. The store was the first of its kind, built in six days with almost no construction waste, and the components—the walls, floor and roof—were precision machined to form an airtight seal when assembled. The makers of the design say it is expected to cut heating and cooling needs by 30 percent, reducing the store’s carbon footprint.
This Starbucks store was built by Nexii Building Solutions, a Vancouver-based construction technology start-up that has become a rising star in the growing green construction industry. Nexii was founded in late 2018 by entrepreneur Stephen Sidwell, now the company’s chief executive. The company achieved “unicorn” status — a valuation of more than $1 billion — in 31 months, the fastest company to do so in Canadian history, according to Nexii.
While we don’t often associate climate change with buildings and construction, they are responsible for nearly 40 percent of global energy-related carbon emissionsaccording to the United Nations. About 30 percent of these emissions come from construction activities (mainly heating, cooling and lighting), and another 11 percent is “embodied” carbon, or carbon released during the building process itself.
Sidwell created Nexii after being introduced to Ben and Michael Dombowsky, brothers who are both inventors and have worked in construction since the 1970s. Over the years, the brothers suffered from the rampant waste and inefficiency in the industry and, more recently, their impact on the climate.
Michael Dombowsky, now vice president of construction technology at Nexii, experimented for many years with various efficient construction techniques before creating what eventually became Nexii’s proprietary construction system. It involves prefabricating panels for use as part of walls, floors and roofs in a factory and then sending them to a construction site. There, a small team quickly assembles the components into a building. Nexii, who uses its own data and data from Starbucks store development team, has found that this method is 75 percent faster than it normally takes to build these stores, said Gregor Robertson, the executive vice president for strategy and partnerships at Nexii and a former mayor of Vancouver.
The building system is based on advanced technology, in particular the use of: 3D modeling softwarewhich ensures a very accurate production.
“Building design software has advanced tremendously in recent years,” says Robertson. “So we can use augmented reality to walk on a screen through an entire building and look at every little detail to make sure everything fits together very precisely.”
The digital 3D plans are then sent to a factory, where the panels are produced to exacting specifications.
“In the past, construction firms built a mini-model or built directly from paper plans, solving problems or errors that occurred during construction,” said Mr. Robertson. With 3D modeling, all problems arise virtually and are solved long before construction begins.
Michelle Meisels, a partner who leads the engineering and construction practice at the consulting firm Deloitte (which has no professional relationship with Nexii), said that while prefabricated and modular building has been around for a long time, “it’s now a huge trend in engineering and construction because This allows companies to really control how they design a building, what materials they use and their ability to reduce waste.”
But the Dombowsky brothers wanted to change more than just the construction process: they wanted to find an alternative to traditional concrete, which is expensive, heavy and has a high carbon footprint.
For more than 150 years, cement, steel and concrete have been the primary materials used for construction, and in a world without climate change, that wouldn’t be a problem, said Gaurav N. Sant, the inaugural Pritzker professor of sustainability at the Henry Samueli School. of Engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the director of the Institute for Carbon Management.
“But there is an urgent need to reduce emissions right now, so we need to produce these building materials differently or replace them with materials with a lower carbon footprint,” he said.
Ben Dombowsky, now vice president of product development for Nexii, spent 10 years trying to create an alternative to concrete. In 2017, he introduced Nexiite, the non-toxic proprietary building material now used to make Nexii’s panels. The company has ordered Rob Sianchuk Consulting in British Columbia to conduct third-party testing of the panels, and the preliminary findings (which themselves have yet to be critically reviewed by a third party) showed that Nexiite has a potential range of 20-36 percent lower carbon emissions compared to Portland concrete, the industry standard. And testing concrete strength Nexii on behalf of Metro testing and engineeringalso in British Columbia, found Nexiite sets faster – takes seven days to reach maximum power instead of 28 days.
The company faces some competition in North America from the large modular industry, in which many companies claim to use green building materials. However, Nexii uses third-party testing to validate its green stats and publishes those results on her website. Nadav Malin, the chairman of BuildingGreena Vermont information and consulting firm focused on the green construction industry, said that while it is not possible to comment specifically on Nexii’s claims about Nexiite, as the company will not disclose the material’s ingredients, if the company ” can live up to their claim of putting health and sustainability at the center of their entire process in a comprehensive manner, they will certainly be a leader in the space.Nexii’s customers include a growing number of companies working to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions. For-profit organization, one-fifth of the world’s 2,000 largest public companies are now committed to achieving net-zero emissions. Intelligence unit for energy and climate†
Today, Nexii has 400 employees and two factories in Canada. The company plans to grow and scale using a franchise model, in which it certifies and licenses local manufacturers in North America to produce its green building panels. Factory owners would gain access to Nexiite, as well as the systems and processes needed to produce Nexii building panels. Once certified, these manufacturers were able to market and sell Nexii’s construction products in their region. Ten plants in North America are in various stages of development, including one in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, which opened in October, and another soon in Pittsburgh. The manufacturers pay licensing fees and a certain percentage of their revenue goes to Nexii.
The company’s biggest challenge right now, said Mr. Robertson, is to scale as quickly as the leadership and more than 1,000 investors would like.
He recognized that there were risks of growing too fast. Katerra, a modular building technology start-up that was founded in 2015 and has raised more than $2 billion, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last June† One of the issues that led to the company’s demise was that: it tried to do too much too fast† Despite all the investments, Nexii is not yet profitable. (The company declined to say when it expected to turn profitable, but said it was a “major short-term priority.”)
“We’re scaling up as a software company, but this is hardware,” Robertson said. “And it takes time to assemble factories, to put people on production lines and in the assembly process. We don’t want to get burned out by growing too intensively. But it is also a very hungry market.”