Building a construction technology industry

As with many other industries, residential construction is turning to technology and automation to deal with product demand coupled with a lack of skilled workers. Organizations such as the National Association of Home Builders have reported worker shortages in from 55% to 90% of their members.

Robotics

Particularly in multifamily construction, which can feature repeated, standard construction, Idaho builders are turning to robotics.

Robots construct wall sheathing at Autovol. Photo courtesy of Autovol

Nampa-based Autovol, for example, helps builders construct multifamily units of up to five stories. While the technology isn’t widely used in Idaho itself, its clients are primarily in California — where labor and building costs are particularly high — but are also anywhere in the western United States, said Rick Murdock, cofounder and CEO of the company. “We really service the area from Colorado west,” he said. “We’re the first fully automated robotic plant in the United States.”

So far, Autovol has built four projects, all in California, Murdock said. The company can manufacture about four modules per day, with each module consisting of two units, he said.

Robotics also reduces the cost of construction for affordable housing, Murdock said. “We can build affordable housing using robotics,” he said. “There has been increased demand for affordable housing. Obviously, part of that is the cost of housing continues to rise. And the demand for housing keeps rising because there are more people who can’t afford where they live.”

Lindley

House of Design Robotics, also in Nampa, uses robotics specifically to build trusses for roofs and floors. “Roof trusses are the triangles on your house that hold up your roof,” explained Michael Lindley, vice president of sales and marketing. “Floor trusses are supports that hold up your floor.”

The company sells robots to building components companies, which then use them to build their trusses. Thus far, House of Design has sold more than a dozen of the robots, mostly in the upper Midwest, the southeast and internationally, he said. He wouldn’t say how much the robots cost but characterized it as a multimillion-dollar investment. “We’re after the people making 5,000 to 10,000 trusses a year,” Lindley said.

While house construction is traditionally something that’s been done by people, it makes sense for it to be automated, Murdock said. “Everything else we do is from factories, and automation is taking a large part of that,” he said. “Automation robotics takes the heavy lifting off people, puts it on machines, and lets the people do what people are more built to do.” For example, the framing — floors, ceilings and walls — is built by robots, while people assemble and finish the units, he said.

Similarly, House of Design uses robotics not just to alleviate labor shortages, but because building trusses is hard. “There aren’t enough people to build them, and the people often have a lot of workman’s comp issues due to overwork,” Lindley said. “It’s not a real desirable job. You’re standing on a table, bent over at the knees, swinging a hammer into nail plates.” Robotics also requires fewer workers, he said — four people are taking the place of 12 manually.

In addition, because robotics reduces the need for brute strength, technology allows for a more diverse workforce, Lindley said. It’s also generally a more fun job. “Working with robotics is a more stimulating and engaging job than swinging a hammer,” he said.

Off-site construction

In addition to robotics, Autovol uses offsite construction, which means the units are built in the Idaho factory and then shipped to the housing site, where they’re assembled. “In California alone, that’s saving 20% of the cost,” which is $100 to $110 per square foot, Murdock said. Off-site construction also saves time — up to 40%, he said — because the workers don’t have to deal with weather issues. Because other markets are less expensive, off-site construction results in smaller cost savings, but generally has the same time savings, he explained.

House of Design is also working in off-site residential construction, particularly for affordable housing in California. “Studio, 1-bedroom and 2-bedroom apartments are manufactured off-site and built like Lego blocks into three or four affordable housing units,” Lindley said. “When you build off-site, you build with precision and save quite a bit of final construction time. We’re building the whole thing within four weeks, as opposed to multiple months on-site.”

Other sources of savings include material costs, particularly the loss of material on the job site, Lindley said.

Building a construction technology platform

Several Idaho construction automation companies partnered to create Smarter Housing Solutions, which was behind the Autovol plant, Murdock said. It consists of Autovol, Prefab Logic, House of Design and The Pacific Companies. “It’s a collaborating piece to put this whole thing together,” he said. Pacific is supplying the building projects to build modularly, House of Design performs integration and Prefab Logic supplies the data and drawings from which to build.

photo of rick murdock

Murdock

Whether Smarter Housing Solutions will have any projects beyond the Autovol plant is not yet clear. “It’s too early to tell,” Murdock said. “I’m not sure if another one is coming.”

Part of House of Design’s technology, in addition to the robotics, is a software platform that ties into the architectural design and translates that into machine code. “We’ve created a way to go from the building design to the build,” Lindley said. “That’s a big thing because our technology has been built in such a way that a lay person can run them. It’s run by typical operators in the field, who want to learn some new skills, but not trained technicians. We want to meet the industry where it is.”

A House of Design robotic arm performs automated truss preplating. Photo courtesy of House of Design

“We own the intellectual property to take those products and offer them to the world,” said Tanda Weeks, marketing manager for House of Design. “We can go forth and build many other factories, take pieces of machinery from that project and sell those in multiple industries.”

Moreover, the software is flexible and can accommodate multiple designs. “It makes robotics very dynamic and not just ‘X’ amount of a design over and over,” she said. “It takes a building design and moves it into a language that machines can understand no matter what the design.”

Construction technology in education

Idaho’s colleges and universities are also looking for ways to bring construction technology into the classroom, to train future construction workers to be prepared for the new automated construction methods.

The College of Western Idaho, for example, is partnering with companies like Autovol to train workers for its robotics programs. “We have a mechatronics program with a robotics component using FANUC,” from Fuji, which teaches students how to fix and maintain the machines, said

Rood Gilhrist

Christi Rood Gilhrist, assistant vice president of economic development. “We would be the line worker feeder to an Autovol.” Even if an employer isn’t using that same kind of robotics system, the training would still be relevant, she added. “Typically in robotics training, 70 to 80% is generic, and 20% is specific to a site.”

But the potential for technology in construction is much greater.

“For years, construction was always done the same way,” said Casey Cline, chair of the department of construction management at Boise State University. “There weren’t a lot of technological changes in the industry. In the last 10 or 15 years, that has significantly changed, and we are really leading a lot of technological change, with construction adopting those changes very rapidly.”

One basic change is the use of electronic plans and specifications rather than hard copy, paper plans, Cline said. “On-site personnel are using iPads to access plans,” he said. “Field personnel are using iPads to manage the project. We have document control software, so your documents, your paper flow, your management of your projects are done via software.”

That saves time, Cline said. “If I send you an email message, that’s instantaneous,” he said. For example, if a worker in the field sees a problem, they can use a mobile device to take a picture of the problem, open a set of plans, annotate the plans to show where the issue is, attach the photograph and send it to the architect for a response. “There’s no more going back to the office,” he said. “Where before, you had hard copies or an email file or some folder somewhere, now it’s all together in one software that breaks everything up by project.”

While residential construction doesn’t use technology as much as commercial construction does, Cline said he expects to see several technological methods, currently used in commercial construction, in future residential construction.

“I can tell you where commercial is going, and residential will follow,” Cline said. Not all residential construction companies — particularly ones that are just building a few houses at a time — while find it cost-effective to adopt the technology, but some of the larger builders may, he said.

For example, commercial construction is using “building information modeling,” or BIM, which takes two-dimensional plans and uses software to create three-dimensional (3D) plans for the structure under construction, and then lets workers remove layers to see just a certain section and where there might be clashes, such as a plumbing unit and a mechanical unit occupying the same location. “We can identify those early in the process and make corrections before you get out into the field,” Cline said.

Similarly, commercial construction is using augmented and virtual reality. “Owners can see what the building is going to look like while they’re standing in the shell of a building, and make changes before the actual product is installed,” Cline said.

Commercial construction is also taking advantage of drone technology, not just for aerial photographs but also to help generate 3D models, Cline said. If a site has a pile of crushed rock, “the drone can fly over it, determine the height and diameter of the pile and tell you how many cubic yards of material you have,” he said. “There are huge tracts of land for housing. They could use drones to survey the land and get a better idea of where the existing elevations are.”

Finally, some job sites give employees tracking devices to wear on the job site to keep track of who comes in, who leaves and where they are, Cline said. “It’s used to enhance safety,” he said.

Making Idaho a construction technology hub

Framing subassembly at Autovol. Photo courtesy of Autovol

Levi Smith, president of Franklin Building Supply in Boise, sees the potential of Idaho becoming a hub for construction technology innovation. “The startup scene in Idaho had not really developed any deep expertise in any particular area,” he said. “It was broad, but very shallow, in terms of the industries and businesses. What I started advocating for is that there’s an opportunity, and I would argue a need, in Boise to develop domain expertise around a certain area and take the startup ecosystem in Boise to the next level.”

And that certain area should be construction, Smith said. “There is nowhere in the United States that has laid claim to being the place to come to solve problems in the housing construction industry,” he said.

The problem is that construction innovation has primarily focused on incremental improvements rather than in true disruption, Smith said. “We have better insulation, shingles and keyless door locks, but that doesn’t address the fundamental problem,” he said. “The big problems are that we don’t have enough housing and it’s not affordable enough, and that’s not getting solved. As long as everyone is trying to optimize their own piece, we’ll just have product-level innovation, not systemic innovation to solve bigger problems.”

What would it require? “You need entrepreneurs interested in solving problems, an industry willing to test problems and be transparent about them, investors interested in the space, and educational institutions that see an avenue for them,” as well as cities and counties, Smith said. “All these different players are involved in taking a raw piece of land and giving someone the keys to their home,” he said. “We are tangibly bringing them together to solve problems instead of solving one-off problems on their own.”

So Smith is taking steps to make integration happen, such as by sponsoring the Hacking for Homebuilding competitions in the last couple Boise Entrepreneur Week events. The 2020 event was focused more on getting the universities engaged, while the 2021 event worked to get the general public and industry engaged, he said.

In 2022, Smith is working to launch a more public campaign, creating a website and planning more events. “There are three types of events in Boise that are focused on helping unlock innovation in housing construction,” he said. “The spring would be focused on recognizing innovation that’s already happening,” such as off-site construction and off-site automation. Summer would be with universities and policy think tanks, educating people on the issues, problems and challenges. The fall would be more forward-looking, going back to the entrepreneurial startup community and holding pitch competitions.

The advantage of the events will be getting people from the different parts of the construction ecosystem. “We’ll unlock the innovation that happens when all the people from different parts collide,” Smith said.

“We’re trying to get a flywheel going,” Smith said. “If you create a hub like this, it doesn’t continue to operate because someone’s at the center. It maintains its own motion because it’s so advantageous.” And eventually Idaho will become known, he said. “If you’re trying to solve a problem in housing, do it in Boise, because they have such a rich ecosystem,” he said.

Sharon Fisher has also covered construction technology for Built in Idaho.

This article originally appeared in the January 2022 edition of Square Feet.

Building a construction technology industry

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