Companies like Nexii are committed to sustainable construction

This article is part of Upstart, a series about young companies taking advantage of new science and technology.

Last year, Starbucks opened a sustainably built drive-through coffee shop in Abbotsford, British Columbia, about an hour’s drive southeast of Vancouver. The store was the first of its kind, built in six days with almost no construction waste, and its components – the walls, floor, and ceiling – were manufactured with such precision that when assembled they created an airtight seal. The creators of the design say it is expected to reduce heating and cooling needs by 30 per cent, reducing the store’s carbon footprint.

This Starbucks store was built by Nexii Building Solutions, a Vancouver-based building technology startup that has become a rising star in the expanding green building industry. Nexii was founded by businessman Stephen Sidwell, now its CEO, in late 2018. 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.

Although we don’t often associate climate change with buildings and construction, they are responsible for nearly 40 percent of global energy-related carbon emissions, according to the United Nations. About 30 percent of these emissions come from construction operations (primarily heating, cooling, and lighting), and another 11 percent is “embodied” carbon, or carbon released during the construction process itself.

Mr. Sidwell created Nexii after being introduced to Ben and Michael Dombowsky, brothers who are inventors and have worked in construction since the 1970s. Over the years, the brothers have become concerned about waste and rampant inefficiency in industry and, more recently, by its impact on the climate.

Michael Dombowsky, now Nexii’s Vice President of Building Technology, experimented for many years with various efficient building techniques before creating what eventually became Nexii’s proprietary building system. It involves prefabricating panels for use as part of walls, floors and ceilings in a manufacturing plant and then shipping them to a construction site. There, a small team quickly assembles the components into a building. Nexii, using its own data and data from Starbucks’ store development team, found that this method is 75 percent faster than what is typically needed to build these stores, said Gregor Robertson, executive vice president of strategy and partnerships. of Nexi. and former mayor of Vancouver.

The construction system is based on advanced technology, specifically the use of 3D modeling software, which guarantees high-precision manufacturing.

“Building design software has advanced dramatically in recent years,” said Robertson. “So we can use augmented reality to walk around an entire building on a screen and look at every little detail to make sure everything fits together very precisely.”

The 3D digital plans are then sent to a manufacturing plant, where the panels are produced to exact specifications.

“In the past, construction companies would either build a mini model or build it directly from paper blueprints, and deal with any problems or errors that arose while they were building,” Robertson said. With 3D modeling, virtually all issues arise and are resolved long before construction begins.

Michelle Meisels, a partner who heads the engineering and construction practice at consulting firm Deloitte (which has no professional relationship with Nexii), said that while prefab and modular construction have been around for a long time, “it’s a big trend now. in engineering and construction because it allows companies to really control how they design a building, the 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 and heavy, and has a high carbon footprint.

For more than 150 years, cement, steel and concrete have been the main materials used for construction, and in a world without climate change that would not be a problem, said Gaurav N. Sant, inaugural Pritzker Professor of Sustainability at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the Institute for Carbon Management.

“But right now there is an urgent need to reduce emissions, so we need to produce these building materials differently or replace them with materials that have a lower carbon footprint,” he said.

Ben Dombowsky, now Nexii’s vice president of product development, spent 10 years trying to create an alternative to concrete. In 2017, he introduced Nexiite, the proprietary non-toxic building material now used to create Nexii panels. The company commissioned Rob Sianchuk Consulting in British Columbia to perform third-party testing of the panels, and their preliminary findings (which have yet to be critically reviewed by a third party) showed that Nexiite has a possible range of 20-36 per percent less carbon. emissions compared to Portland concrete, the industry standard. And concrete strength tests that Nexii commissioned from Metro Testing & Engineering, also in British Columbia, found that Nexiite sets faster, taking seven days to reach full strength instead of 28 days.

The company has some competition in North America from the sizable modular industry, in which many companies claim to use green building materials. Nexii, however, uses third party tests to validate its green metrics and publishes those results on its website. Nadav Malin, president of BuildingGreen, a Vermont-based information and consulting firm focused on the green building industry, said that while it’s not possible to comment specifically on Nexii’s claims about Nexiite, as the company will not disclose the ingredients of the material, if the company “can live up to their claim to center health and sustainability throughout their process holistically, they will definitely be a leader in the space. Nexii’s clients include a growing number of companies that are working to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions. . A fifth of the world’s 2,000 largest public companies have now committed to net-zero emissions, according to the nonprofit Climate and Energy Intelligence Unit.

Today, Nexii has 400 employees and two manufacturing plants 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. Plant owners would have access to Nexiite, as well as the systems and processes needed to produce Nexii building panels. Once certified, these manufacturers would be able to market and sell Nexii’s building products in their regions. Ten manufacturing plants in North America are in various stages of development, including one in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, which opened in October and another soon to open in Pittsburgh. Manufacturers pay licensing fees, and a certain percentage of their revenue goes to Nexii.

The company’s biggest challenge now, Robertson said, is to scale as fast as its leaders and more than 1,000 investors would like.

He recognized that there were risks of growing too fast. For example, Katerra, a modular building technology startup that was founded in 2015 and had raised more than $2 billion, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last June. One of the problems that led to the downfall of the company was that it tried to do it too fast. Despite all the investment, Nexii is still not profitable. (The company declined to say when it expected to reach profitability, but said it was a “key near-term priority.”)

“We’re scaling as a software company, but this is hardware,” Robertson said. “And it takes time to set up plants, to put people on the manufacturing lines and in the assembly process. We don’t want to get burned by growing too intensely. But it is also a very hungry market.”

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