3D printing homes: 80% automated, 50% faster, 99% less waste?

3D printing homes

We need more homes for people. We need them cheaper so people can afford them. And we need them eco-friendly and carbon-neutral and self-powering so that our planet doesn’t die in the process.

Is the answer 3D printing homes?

Perhaps, partly.

In this TechFirst with John Koetsier, we chat with the CTO of Mighty Buildings, Dmitry Starodubtsev. We talk about the fact that the construction industry in the US produces 600 million tons of waste annually, that we need robotics, automation, and 3D printing involved in home building, and we talk about Might Buildings, which says they have a solution that is 80% automated, 50% faster, and produces 99% less construction waste to create Net Zero communities: communities that produce all the power they need.

We also chat about Light Stone, which Mighty Buildings has pioneered, which the company says is lighter than concrete while 4X stronger.

Scroll to watch, listen, or read, and check out the story on Forbes here

Watch: 3D printed homes by Mighty Buildings

(Subscribe to my YouTube channel)

Subscribe to the TechFirst podcast: 3D printing homes

Transcript: chatting with Mighty Buildings CTO Dmitry Starodubtsev

(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)

John Koetsier: The construction industry produces 600 million tons of waste every year, and that’s just in the United States. Globally, it’s probably something like 10X that. At the same time, we have an affordability crisis, we’ve got an environmental crisis, and another problem — too many of the houses we build just suck. They’re ugly. There are too many of them. Too built-up together. McMansions, all that stuff. Can we solve all these problems with robotics, 3D printing, and maybe some good old-fashioned Henry Ford style automation? Welcome to TechFirst. Today, we’re chatting with Dmitry Starodubtsev, CTO of Mighty Buildings. Welcome, Dmitry.

Dmitry Starodubtsev: Thank you. 

John Koetsier: What’s wrong with the way we build houses today? 

Dmitry Starodubtsev: Yeah, I think there are three problems. So, first is the housing supply chain. It is highly constrained. And second one is the labor crisis at the market, especially in the well-developed countries.

And the third reason is that, you know, the current housing is not like well enough for the market requirements which are changing. For example, net zero requirement or, you know, higher wind load or earthquakes requirement, especially in the regions like Florida and etc. So, in the regions where there are hurricanes etc. 

John Koetsier: So, you’re applying 3D printing, robotics, automation. Give us the big picture. How are you building houses? 

Dmitry Starodubtsev: We are changing several parts of the construction process.

So first of all, we start with building the so-called housing envelope, which is a wall system together with the ceiling and some other major components which are part of the envelope. We’re building those components on factory and procure those to the construction site very fast and quick.

And the additional advantage here is that we can easily localize the product for any particular market in the world without any issues with, you know, changing the requirements for higher wind loads or higher earthquake requirements and whatever. 

John Koetsier: Interesting. So you can build whatever local requirements there might be right into the system as you’re building it. What do you use 3D printing for? 

Dmitry Starodubtsev: We’re using 3D printing to accelerate and speed up the manufacturing process. We’re manufacturing wall systems, and 3D printing allows us to eliminate human labor, increased quality, and as well as increase the overall throughput of the factory.

Because we are using factories as a tool, you know, to produce those housing components — highly finished, highly completed housing components in different parts of the world. So, the factory itself is a very important part of our value proposition, and 3D printing is part of this factory.

John Koetsier: It’s interesting, because you must have fairly custom houses, because 3D printing makes a lot of sense when you’re building sort of one-offs or few-ofs, right? But if you’re building sort of the same house a thousand times, or 10,000 times, or a million times, then often a sort of a stamped or poured or cast type of manufacturing would work better, correct?

Dmitry Starodubtsev: Yeah, you are a hundred percent correct here and we are actually changing the way how we approach market with the 3D printing technology.

So, for example, we are talking about concrete 3D printing. So, most of the cases they’re leveraging technology in order to build one-off projects with very unique architectural style, you know, with very unique exterior look and etc. 

So we’re approaching 3D printing differently. We’re trying to automate the construction process, increase quality, and increase factory throughput in order basically to unlock productivity in the regions with high housing demand, providing them our Mighty Factories as a tool to unlock those probably limited design options, but on a higher scale and with much more higher quality, and providing much more, you know, market features necessary for the customers.

For example, higher R value or lower weight of the system which allows, you know, install it faster and more easy, and spend less on logistics etc.

And finally, so the entire system works to eliminate as much labor hours on site as possible in order to reduce pricing and make it more affordable for different generations of people, not only millennials which was our original like value proposition, but for different types of people in the market.

John Koetsier: Talk about that process. So, is it like you get a bunch of Lego blocks and you kind of put ’em all together on site? What’s the process at the construction site? How do you put it together? How much faster is it? 

Dmitry Starodubtsev: It is very simple.

We produce highly completed, as I said, highly completed set of components which already implemented those parts, those features as, for example, exterior finishes, interior finishes, as well as connectors to assemble the entire system faster.

So we put it on site as Lego blocks, you know, and then we can easily assemble those pieces within like hours instead of like months of typical construction time. 

And actually you can see the video on our website when we are showing how we build the building envelope, which consists of like a number of panels easily assembled altogether with the ceiling which is also prefabricated part of the house. As well as we’re introducing some of the prefab elements such, for example, prefabricated bathroom unit which are produced remotely as part of our global supply chain component with super high quality finishes like tiles and everything, so from one of the best suppliers in the world. 

But at the same time by leveraging different types of prefab components from different parts of the world, we’re able to assemble those together very, very quickly and with a high quality, you know, focusing more on the energy efficiency and product features which are really important for the end customer. 

John Koetsier: So, bathrooms you can get like a prefab component. What about kitchens, flooring, other stuff like that…walls, interior? 

Dmitry Starodubtsev: Yeah, you know, we’re trying to move in both directions. So, on one hand, so we’re trying to increase [the] number of components we’re producing with our core tech with our composite materials, right? Increasing finishes, for example like exterior, etc.

At the same time, on the other hand, we are moving with traditional prefab components and unlocking more opportunities for traditional developers at the market — those we call emerging developers — to use the most high quality components from different parts of the world in their housing solutions. 

And finally, you know, you are able to do a house faster and significantly optimize this return of investment cycle for the developer by building faster with less labor hours used. And this is actually the core proposition in our new B2B model which we just announced, you know, just recently, a couple of weeks ago. 

John Koetsier: Can an individual come to your website and order a house? 

Dmitry Starodubtsev: We … it is a very good question. You know, we started with this model as a B2C company. We were approaching the B2C customers with our first product. It was like low-hanging food for our company as a startup, you know, to start building and selling homes faster with the new technology. But then we got stuck with a number of issues related to, you know, permitting process, which is very difficult in different parts of California especially, right?

And we, as a company, since we are trying to adopt this technology faster, so we are trying to figure out the ways how to make it, you know, faster and accelerate this process. And this is why right now we’re focusing mostly on the B2B developers and not working with the direct customers.

John Koetsier: That’s sad news. I like what you’ve done. I like the look of the houses there and I was hoping that, you know, maybe you could just come and order one and go for it.

Talk about cost. How much does it cost compared to standard construction? 

Dmitry Starodubtsev: You know, right now we’re targeting on like 20% less than the traditional construction if we’re talking about apple to apple options, right, when we talk about the similar quality and similar position in the market.

We’re targeting at the moment more like a semi-premium market. You know, it is common for a lot of other startups, right, when they are starting adopting their new technologies, they’re mostly focusing on those customers who cares more about the quality and design options and etc. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm. 

Dmitry Starodubtsev: But, yeah, I mean, we definitely will go back to this like mass consumer market going further, when technology will get enough adoption actually with the industry because our aim of the company and one of the major goals is to unlock the platform with the new materials and new way of producing those construction components faster and in a more sustainable way, in order to allow developers in different parts of the world to switch to our new technology.

And this is why, I mean, the larger adoption of technology is possible only when we are working with the developers as B2B customers.

By having like larger projects, you know, by having larger volumes of material which at scale will decrease in pricing and etc. Basically scaling the processes is one of the goals of the company, you know, in order to achieve a certain point when technology will get this necessary adoption to become really affordable for the entire market. 

John Koetsier: You claim a 99% reduction in construction waste. How do you achieve that?

Dmitry Starodubtsev: You know, everything which is related to our core components — so, of the wall system which we call Mighty Kit System — so we are achieving this 99% by simply using 3D printing which doesn’t generate waste.

So there is no waste in the factory.

We are like use the same, exactly the same amount of material we need for this particular component, and that’s it. There is no, like, any other operations which would produce this waste.

I mean, there are some certain operations for this, like 1%, but it’s very little. And if you will come over to our factory you can see that there is no like dust or something like this which is very typical for traditional construction processes.

John Koetsier: Sure, sure. You are 3D printing something you call Light Stone which you say is four times stronger than concrete but also lighter. Is it using some sort of honeycomb design to be more load-bearing with less material? How is that stronger and lighter and a good material for building? 

Dmitry Starodubtsev: Yeah, that’s a very good question. So, if you’re talking about the material and comparing apple to apple to concrete, for example, even the material itself without any honeycomb structure, etc. [is] lighter than concrete.

But when we leverage this parametric design or design for 3D printing by introducing infill structure into the wall system, we can significantly reduce [the] amount of material by remaining the same mechanical parameters of the wall and leveraging more design solutions, rather than just a safety factor or factor of material in order to achieve this structurally sound wall system. Which finally, you know, like multiple times lighter but at the same time, same strong system as the … I dunno, whatever type of components we are comparing with, for example, wood or, you know, in concrete. 

John Koetsier: It would seem that at scale you have significant room to decrease pricing yet, because at a 20% sort of discount in terms of the final product, I mean, when it’s 50% faster you got way less labor — your site says three people can assemble, I think, 1100 square foot home in three months or something like that, or something along those lines.

So your components must be a little more expensive right now. I’m guessing, you know, it’s still early in the process, you haven’t gotten to the scale that maybe you want to get to in the factory, is that correct?

Dmitry Starodubtsev: Yeah. You are a hundred percent correct here.

So, the economy comes with scale, right? And this is a very specific … this is a rule for every startup. And via adopting our technology by having more larger projects, right, by leveraging more material or material volume, so we can significantly accelerate our price reduction for the market, right?

John Koetsier: Nice.

Dmitry Starodubtsev: And so, at the end of the day, so we will figure out, and together with the industry, how to reduce margins, right, for the entire industry where…in the situations where, you know, developer will choose the new technology which gives probably like a lower margin, but by having the less labor involved and the lower…and faster building time. So, finally, you know, developer will be able to build more houses, right? 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm. 

Dmitry Starodubtsev: And unlock more potential, you know, for development in their particular region or even go global, for example. And this is what actually significantly change … differentiate construction from, for example, automotive market, right?

You know, the major thing here is that there is almost no global construction companies in the world, if we’re talking about like low-rise residential housing. So, in multi-story development there are, but in low-rise there are not, because, you know, the way how the traditional industry construct houses is very different from the automotive industry, and the way how people approach design, right? And architecture.

And this is why we’re thinking about like a global company here, to build a platform that would allow people leverage very specific, probably limited design options for the end customers, but providing the highest quality, the fastest construction time, and everything which is necessary for our current time, like ZNE, right? Zero Net Energy standard, and smartphone components, and etc. 

John Koetsier: Let’s talk about ZNE just briefly, the Zero Net Energy. I saw in the two developments that you’re doing in the California area a lot of solar panels. Is that the idea there? You basically, all the energy that the community needs the community produces?

Dmitry Starodubtsev: Yeah. Exactly. So the idea is to design the home in a way where it can like consume the same amount of electricity which was generated by the alternative energy sources here. And the entire community, so we are building right now in California exactly like this. 

John Koetsier: Nice. The houses that you have on the site, I mean, you’re a California company and you’re building in California, look like they’re California houses, and that’s great. Do they also work in colder climates? 

Dmitry Starodubtsev: Yes, it definitely works, because there are like several reasons for that. So, first of all, the material itself has less thermal conductivity compared to a bunch of other materials, for example, concrete. And by also leveraging different design features, like, as I said, like infrastructure of the wall and introducing new insulation materials so we can achieve much higher energy efficiency compared to traditional wall systems.

And this is why we are, for example, right now working on one of the project with a very cold region in South Korea. I mean, it’s something like our … I wouldn’t say like bad project, but we’re trying to figure out the specifics of this market by working with the very talented local architects. And, you know, the local requirements there in terms of climate are significantly different from the California.

And that is very interesting, you know, for us as a company, to design our technology in a way where we can build our homes in any part of the world. And, for example, where I am right now, so closer to like Saudi Arabia, right, or United Arab Emirates, and etc. So the climate is so hot and there is another problem, right? And your material, you know, have to withstand all possible types of climate, right? 

John Koetsier: Yeah. 

Dmitry Starodubtsev: In order to unlock this, you know, construction possibility with a new material in different parts of the world. This is why I mean, shortly, simply answering, I would say that there are like no limits in this regard for the material. We just need to little bit like localized product for very particular market. 

John Koetsier: Yeah, I mean, it’s all insulation, right? Insulation from too much heat coming in or insulation from too much heat leaving. There’s different directions there, but that makes sense.

My dream is that one of these days I’ll be able to go to a site, design a house — pretty simply, you know, I’m not a big designer, so it has to be like building blocks, and I’m pretty visual and put the big picture together — and then click ‘buy now,’ and then it gets shipped in like a month or something like that to the lot, and it just gets assembled.

Is that actually going to happen? 

Dmitry Starodubtsev: Yeah, I’m a hundred percent sure that is going to happen and so we just need to work all together. So, because the industry is so broken and that was, you know, the major reason why I personally, as a co-founder of the company, decided to start working on this technology is because I’ve seen so many potential here, I mean, so there are so many things we should do altogether, and this is why I actually really like and love the competition in this area. So, the more companies we have in the market, the faster we will unlock the potential for like higher quality of homes and faster development time, which is now like sometimes is very crazy.

And not only because of technologies, because there is like other part of this, right? So, the compliance and permitting side which is also broken, I think. But at the same time, you know, I think so there should be companies who would change this thing as well by introducing new digital ways of doing, for example, inspections on site. And it is possible. And it happened, you know, in COVID. It was a very interesting story with us when COVID came, so we changed the way how we do onsite inspections with the authorities and by leveraging new digital tools, just simply providing their like videos etc., and it was enough for that. 

John Koetsier: Nice.

Dmitry Starodubtsev: But once COVID like stopped, so they switched back to their previous model and I said, “What’s happened? Why we cannot like continue? It’s like really great. I mean, we can really improve the process.” They said, “Oh, you know, we should follow the process whatever.”

John Koetsier: Interesting, interesting. You can get a telepresence robot in there. I’ve interviewed drone companies that do inspections of large-scale construction projects, billion dollar construction projects, via flying drones. Lots of different options there. Dmitry, before we end this, I probably totally butchered your last name. Please say it properly so people can hear you. 

Dmitry Starodubtsev: Yeah. My name is Dmitry Starodubtsev.

John Koetsier: Ah, I didn’t do it too badly. I kind of, you just did it really quickly so that even if it was super bad, nobody would notice that much, so I guess it kind of worked out. 

Dmitry Starodubtsev: You did great. You did great. [Laughter

John Koetsier: Excellent. 

Dmitry Starodubtsev: Thank you for that.

John Koetsier: Thank you for your time. 

Dmitry Starodubtsev: Yeah, thank you very much.

TechFirst is about smart matter … drones, AI, robots, and other cutting-edge tech

Made it all the way down here? Wow!

The TechFirst with John Koetsier podcast is about tech that is changing the world, including wearable tech, and innovators who are shaping the future. Guests include former Apple CEO John Scully. The head of Facebook gaming. Amazon’s head of robotics. GitHub’s CTO. Twitter’s chief information security officer, and much more. Scientists inventing smart contact lenses. Startup entrepreneurs. Google executives. Former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold. And much, much more.

Subscribe to my YouTube channel, and connect on your podcast platform of choice: