Technology Profile - Sustainability
What Problem are You Solving?
To minimize the environmentally damaging impact of the new building boom, serious steps toward sustainability are essential.
By Bill Hensley
IN 2008 I WAS WITH AN ENTERTAINMENT PLATFORM START-UP and the team was about to present at a tech conference. We were doing product demos in the exhibit hall during the break and legendary tech journalist Walt Mossberg stopped by with a simple question: What problem do you solve?
Silence. Not for long, but it felt like an eternity as I had not yet voiced our offering in those terms before. Our company lexicon was heavy on words like creating, experience and entertainment. I’m sure my answer was insufficient because he moved on to the next start-up. But we quickly worked problem-and-solution into our mainstage pitch for later in the day, which went well — although the company itself eventually didn’t make it.
Ultimately, solving customer problems is what helps a company attract and retain customers. Product managers ask and answer this question daily. Delivering a great solution to a real problem creates big opportunity. The key is to be solving a real problem.
At my first CEDIA EXPO, the company I had joined just a couple months prior won multiple awards for a new speaker. A new story, a new use case, a new way of presenting a solution to a problem — a problem for which we had a warehouse full of inventory to solve. But apparently it was a problem no one really had, and the award-winning speaker died an inglorious death. A solution looking for a problem? We’ve all seen a few of those.
what if it’s a big problem?
A really big problem. Like Climate Change big. What then?
I pondered this version of a big problem this recent New Year’s morning. My family and I have a tradition of waking early to watch the first sunrise of the New Year — think of it as a clean fresh start to the year. This year it was from San Rafael’s Loch Lomond jetty looking out over the San Francisco Bay. Although surrounded by beauty this year, sea level rise will cause the place where we stood that morning to be under water in the not-too-distant future. Indeed, much of the San Francisco Bay and coastal areas around the world are in long-term trouble unless something is done.
Per the Oxford Dictionary, sustainability is the “ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level” or more to our point of focus: “the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.” As it relates to “sustainable development” the UN World Commission on Environment and Development says, “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” And at the home design and build level, a sustainable home can be defined as “one that minimizes or eliminates possible negative impacts on the environment.” This can mean a combination of energy efficiency, using materials and resources in a responsible manner to minimize construction waste, and avoiding environmental toxins.
The construction and operation of buildings (residential and commercial) account for almost 40 percent of global CO2 emissions. More than half of the world’s population is now concentrated in urban areas, and by 2060 urban dwellers are expected to account for two thirds of the world’s projected 10 billion population. To minimize the environmentally negative—some might say catastrophic — impacts of the next few decades’ building boom, serious steps toward sustainability in the building sector are essential.
a tall coffee with a shot of sustainability, please
The typical Starbucks is between 1,500 to 2,000 square feet, has a couple bathrooms, dining area, sofas to lounge on and hang out with friends, plus plenty of food preparation and storage space (kitchen, pantry, refrigerators). Other than the lack of bedrooms, this description could sound a bit like a modern single-family home. Are there lessons we can learn from Starbucks?
One thing Starbucks is all about is efficiency. And it’s not just being more efficient in serving that hot or cold cup of a favorite caffeinated beverage and getting you on your way to your morning meeting. At its December 2020 biennial investor day, the company announced its 2030 environmental goals to cut its carbon, water and waste footprints by half. The food service industry is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, so every major corporation taking a step in in this direction can help. A drop in the bucket? Individually, perhaps. But if major companies around the world embrace sustainability, that bucket could eventually fill. For Starbucks, the 2030 goal is a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Starbucks direct operations and supply chain, a 50 percent reduction in waste sent to landfill, and a 50 percent conservation or replenishment in water usage.
The typical freestanding Starbucks location, like any building, contributes to greenhouse gases during construction and during operation. In December 2020, the company opened its first on-site solar store in California. The idea, which targets operational reductions in energy use, grew out of the Starbucks Greener Stores Innovation Challenge, a competition where Starbucks employees presented ideas to a panel of judges on how to increase sustainability at Starbucks cafés. In this location, thirty solar panels deliver power—while also providing shade for the outdoor seating area—to help reduce energy emissions associated with the café operations. Add solar panels to the list of things Starbucks has in common with the single-family home.
In December, Starbucks announced an even bolder step in the direction of sustainability — a new sustainably built café in Abbotsford, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver. The café was constructed by Canadian green construction technology company, Nexii Building Solutions, Inc., using Nexii’s proprietary green construction technology, which is designed to reduce the store’s carbon emissions by approximately 30 percent.
Founded by Ben and Michael Dombowsky, Nexii combines a modular, factory-built panelized system with a proprietary ingredient—Nexiite — which the company claims is more thermally efficient and less carbon-intensive than concrete. A point of comparison in this regard is cross laminate timber (CLT).
Nexii Executive Vice President of Strategy and Partnerships—and the city of Vancouver’s longest serving mayor—Gregor Robertson says the Nexii solution, “not only reduces waste to near-zero and reduces building carbon emissions, but also accelerates construction timelines to enable the rapid development of sustainable and affordable buildings.” In this first Starbucks example, the Nexii process is estimated to deliver a 20 percent reduction in construction energy and a 43 percent reduction in climate pollution during operation.
As with other panelized construction methods where walls, floors, roofing and related structural elements are manufactured in a factory and assembled on site, Nexii was able to significantly minimize time on-site building (assembling) the structure. In the Starbucks project, the onsite assembly of the building envelope was completed in six days.
There are of course a number of established players in the modular home industry, and some with serious green home credentials. Nexii is entering the market with a commercial and industrial focus but promotes that its technology is directly applicable to residential construction, particularly MDU projects that can leverage repetitive design and manufacturing. The company is in the design phase of a model home in Paradise, California, an area ravaged by wildfire in 2018.
The home’s concrete foundation will be cast on-site while the fire-resistant Nexii panels are fabricated in the factory. Assembly on-site is estimated to require two weeks, with mechanical, electrical and plumbing built into the ready-for-assembly panels.
the secret sauce
The key ingredient in the Nexii panel is Nexiite. (Quick timeout here for a compliment on the sub-branding!) Comprised of 50 percent sand and 50 percent proprietary material, Nexiite is used within the building panels to deliver a more thermally efficient and less carbon-intensive solution than concrete. The Nexii panels create an airtight building envelope when assembled, improving a building’s energy efficiency and, in turn, lowering greenhouse gas emissions during building operation. The company has commissioned lifecycle assessment and environmental studies that substantiate a 20 percent reduction in embodied carbon in commercial and retail applications compared to traditional construction methods, a reduction similar to CLT. Panels are designed to be disassembled and reused, and if there is no reuse potential, the panels can be broken into components for recycling.
That proprietary component is, well, proprietary, but Nexii says it is 99 percent free of Red List materials and they are working to remove that one last material found on the Red List from the Nexiite process. Published by the International Living Future Institute, The Red List labels the materials, chemicals, and elements prevalent in the building products industry that are known to pose serious risks to human health and the greater ecosystem. The list is not static; while the goal is to see some of the items completely phased out, future research will most likely prompt new compounds to be added.
Ultimately, Nexii seeks to create high performance buildings that are:
FIRE-RESISTANT — with global warming induced wildfires becoming more common, this can save lives and property.
WATER-RESISTANT — in flood situations, the absence of biodegradable materials means a shortened post-flood time to clean up, dry out and move back in.
HURRICANE AND EARTHQUAKE RESISTANT — able to withstand lateral force.
AIR-TIGHT AND ENERGY EFFICIENT — a 10” insulated Nexiite wall is rated at R36, exceeding LEED specifications.
Nexii's Robertson elaborated on the key benefits this approach to building can mean for architects and builders in the residential market. It represents a potential leap forward in an affordable GREEN building because of technology, economies enabled by the factory build, and speed of on-site assembly. As software and 3D modeling are an integral part of the process, mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) are pre-designed and configured in the panels that make up the installation package, although Robertson acknowledges that plumbing is still mostly after initial assembly, noting that Europe is ahead of North America in this area.
This efficiency is not at the expense of the design features demanded by homeowners and building owners. Robertson cited design as a #1 priority for the residential market, from custom homes and townhouse development. The Nexiite interior can be delivered pre-finished or paint-ready, similar to a concrete-drywall type finish. The exterior includes an array of design options, both pre-finished and ready to paint. It’s not difficult to envision smart home control and home entertainment systems being predesigned into the ready-for-assembly panels. For the custom integrator doing in-ceiling or in-wall speaker and lighting systems, this business model requires earlier involvement in the project, before wall design is finished. Pre-planning and close communication with designer, architect and client will be essential.
to quote Yogi Berra...
“It’s not sustainable to be not sustainable.” Okay, he didn’t really say that, but a well-repeated Yogi Berra quote is, “the future ain’t what it used to be.” In this world of global warming, this statement is perhaps truer than ever. That said, a global scale problem creates global opportunities, particularly in a segment as large as building construction and operation where new materials, new design ideas, new fabrication systems and new conservation methods create new markets. Good design coupled with solid technology almost always wins.
What problem do you solve?
Full disclosure: I’m an avid coffee drinker but, no, our COVID-19 compliant home delivery of whole bean coffee does not come from Starbucks.