By Ted McIntyre

Three Fronts That May Soon Redefine Residential Construction

The future seems to get here quicker than it used to, with innovation leaping out from around every corner. It can be both imposing and challenging for builders, determining what technology should be adopted and how to implement it.

But it can also be exciting.

We take a look at three innovative fronts that will have short-term and long-term impacts on the residential construction industry—one already trending, another in its earliest phases of taking hold and a third that just might revolutionize the world as we know it.

Breathe Deeply

To say that consumers, given recent history, have grown more conscious of the air they breathe is to understate the emerging trend of health and wellness in residential construction. Manufacturers are catering to the trend, with air purification devices and even furnaces that inhibit the growth of pollutants such as allergens, bacteria, moulds, odours and, yes, viruses such as COVID-19.

One new company looking to break into the Ontario market is Poppy, whose extensive team varies from University of Toronto advisors and Stanford graduates to NASA scientists. Poppy offers a turnkey solution in monitoring for pathogens within an enviroment, with no upfront costs or installation required. For a monthly subscription service starting from a few hundred dollars, the company will deploy monitoring devices throughout facilities, which collect from your site’s air and surfaces. Poppy then processes and analyzes each zone’s collection, 24 hours a day, with its customized dashboards providing updates, alerts and next-step recommendations.

Exquisitely sensitive, the monitors “can read all variations of COVID,” notes Poppy co-founder/CEO Sam Molyneux. “Research has shown that the higher settings of the devices can offer up to seven days’ advance warning of a rise in infection rates and even uncover the presence of asymptomatic individuals.”

One company with boots already on the ground in Ontario is Delos Canada. Delos has been elevating health and well-being as central values in the spaces where we live, work, sleep and play for nearly a decade. Having recognized an opportunity to integrate health and well-being programs and solutions into the built environment, Delos has fostered research collaborations with leading medical institutions, architects, scientists and wellness thought leaders. 

Delos’ wholly owned subsidiary, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), has seen a rapid adoption in Canada of the WELL Building Standard and WELL Health-Safety Rating. With these programs, the company offers various pathways to certifying or rating buildings based on health and wellness-focused standards and protocols.

In addition, Delos has a number of science- and evidence-based solutions, including advanced air purification, water filtration, circadian lighting and their proprietary home wellness system. And with air quality becoming an acute concern throughout the pandemic, Delos has the advantage of having studied all types of air purification technologies in recent years to determine what technologies offer the highest efficiency in various environments. 

“Not all air purification systems are created equal,” says Isaac Mulvihill, Senior V.P. at Delos. “Advanced systems are a critical supplementary approach to reducing transmission rates by remediating airborne pollutants and contaminants. Evidence suggests that small aerosolized particles carrying SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) are about .06 to .14 microns in size and can remain suspended in the air in aerosol form for long periods of time indoors. Delos’ advanced air purification units are equipped with technology that filters particles as small as .007 microns, at 99.97% efficiency.” This also helps filter out contaminants and pollutants from the air, expel odours, and remove toxins, harmful chemicals and allergens.

“We are speaking with a number of prominent developers across Canada who are showing a heightened interest in building healthier residential units,” notes Delos Canada President Brandon Crombeen, “and they are now hearing consumer demand to address indoor air quality and other health and wellness components of a development.”

See Spot Run

Viewer discretion advisory: If you watched Season One of War of the Worlds on CBC last year, this might freak you out a bit, because those dog-like alien quadrupedal bots that terrorized the remaining population on earth are more real than you may think. 

They are, in fact, based on Spot, an agile mobile four-legged robot created by Boston Dynamics. To quote the product’s Massachusetts-based manufacturer, “Spot is designed to navigate terrain with remarkable mobility, allowing you to automate routine inspection tasks and data capture safely, accurately and frequently. The results? Safer, more efficient and more predictable operations.”

Spot is just an example, albeit a high-profile one, of the advance of robotics into the construction industry—a world where you can now 3D-print entire homes.

But Spot stands out—literally. “We call it ‘athletic intelligence,’” the company says, “since the robot walks, climbs stairs, avoids obstacles, traverses difficult terrain and autonomously follows preset routes without constant input from users. Applications such as stopping an autonomous mission when a person is nearby or responding to voice commands can be added.”

Although Spot, the base model of which retails for $74,500 US, may provide its greatest ROI in potentially hazardous locations such as nuclear plants, Quebec general contractor Pomerleau has leased a pair of the robots to survey construction sites, documenting everything from how much drywall is up to the amount of concrete poured. The data enables contractors to better prepare for the next day’s work, meaning improved efficiency. 

“We predict a huge value by implementing this robot,” Yuri Bartzis, an innovation manager with Pomerleau, told CBC News.

While most of its construction industry use has been commercial, London, England-based Foster + Partners, an award-winning architectural design and engineering firm, has used Spot to help them build an apartment building complex, among other projects. 

“The highest business value that the Foster + Partners team uncovered during testing is Spot’s ability to generate consistent, repeated scans of the same site over time,” A Boston Dynamics case study of the partnership notes.

“The technical achievement of Spot is incredible,” says Martha Tsigkari, a partner in Foster + Partners’ Applied Research + Development (ARD) group. “It’s not a matter of buzz. You need to be able to see the potential beyond that—the possibilities that these technologies will create for the future of construction.”

Ah, but that buzz! “Whenever we were on the building site, the builders would all have their camera phones out,” relates ARD’s Adam Davis.

Spot’s uses are increasing as additional partners  come aboard. “Spot is a modular platform that users can customize by adding various payloads,” the company notes. “Developers can create custom methods of controlling Spot, program autonomous missions, design payloads to expand the robot’s capabilities and integrate sensor information into data analysis tools.”

Although decidedly less sexy, a new U.S. company bringing robotics into the built environment is Canvas, whose approach combines with the skills and expertise of trained union workers. Its units can spray drywall compound while providing a dust-free sanding system and better than a level-5 finish—all while reducing typical finishing times by up to 2.5 times.

San Francisco-based Built Robotics, meanwhile, has helped automate somewhat larger construction equipment.  

Trimble and Boston Dynamics Announce Strategic Alliance to Extend the Use of Autonomous Robots in Construction

“We upgrade off-the-shelf heavy equipment with AI guidance systems, enabling them to operate fully autonomously,” observes Built Robotics’ Director of Communications, Erol Ahmed. “Our robots are deployed today across the earth-moving industry, and they’re being used to build critical infrastructure such as wind farms, gas pipelines and new housing developments.”

With work such as trenching, grading pads and earth-moving projects in the U.S. and Australia, the five-year-old company will take your equipment and modify it, Ahmed explains. 

“We made a strategic decision to make our technology available with any kind of OEM (original equipment manufacturer). We put our autonomous tech on your machine, install our AI guidance system kit—a large black box mounted on the back of an excavator over the counterweight, for example, which hooks into the hydraulics and the computer system of the machine and allows it to work autonomously. But at any time you can jump back into the cab and run it manually.”

Users pay a fee for the software licence and for per-hour usage. “The technology is pretty easy to use,” Ahmed says. “You select a starting point, end point and a few metrics around the bucket. What makes our technology different is that it’s fully autonomous—you don’t need to remote control it—you press go and the robot does the digging.”

Multiple safety redundancies are built in, and the vehicle is restrained within a certain geofence area.

Efficiency gains and cost reduction has been a clear benefit, suggests Eric McCosker, Project Manager with Independent Construction, which has worked on multiple subdivisions in California.

“Built’s autonomous dozer is the real deal. We’ve had it finish-grade hundreds of pads so far,” McCosker says. “We see it being a force multiplier for our team, where our skilled operators take on the hardest tasks and the autonomous equipment does the more mundane work. We specifically noted the benefits on straightforward design projects where there are plenty of repetitive tasks. 

“It’s a tool that can make us more productive and safer in certain conditions,” McCosker adds. “We were able to negotiate some variances and use the robots at night, which is a great use of the technology.” 

Plugged In

Canada has the second-least-expensive electricity rates in the world for both residential and industrial customers, according to the Canadian Electricity Association (CEA). But there’s always room for improvement. Geothermal/geoexchange technologies, for example, are providing more efficient, renewable ways of powering new communities and condominiums.

As electrical car chargers in driveways and apartment/condo parking lots become the norm, some of that innovation is focusing on saving energy for a rainy day. In fact, “the global market for energy storage technologies is projected to reach $21.5 billion by 2024, up from 2015’s $606 million,” the CEA reports.  

As well, there is the potential rise of virtual power plants (VPPs) in homes and condos—something Alectra Utilities (then known as PowerStream) provided a glimpse of back in 2016 with their Power.House development in Vaughan. That pilot program used an aggregate fleet of 20 residential solar and energy storage systems in customer homes that could be autonomously controlled through intelligent software to simulate a single, larger power-generating facility. The technology employs a combination of rooftop solar PV panels and a lithium-ion battery installed behind the meter at participating homes.

Residents benefit from generating their own clean, renewable energy and displace a portion of their energy from the Ontario grid, providing significant bill reduction. 

An even more innovative development is occurring within the walls of Amber Solutions near Silicon Valley, just east of San Francisco. The 2021 Innovation Award winner at the CES consumer electronic trade show, Amber is developing the digital control of electricity in modern solid-state architecture. The fuses, breakers, light switches and electrical outlets in your home are ancient technology, the company notes. Amber is making the use of electricity safer and far more efficient by replacing the clumsy hardware of AC/DC converters and AC switching with smaller, more reliable, solid-state boards for prototype purposes, with a short-term path to ‘siliconization’—a silicon SOC (system on a chip) that will make that power converter the size of a dime.

“If Thomas Edison came back to life and saw how pervasive he and his peers’ breakthroughs were, he’d be very proud—until he saw an iPhone. And then he’d be horrified that his technology (has not been implemented in that capacity),” observes Amber’s CEO Thar Casey. “So that is what we’ve done—shifted from electro-mechanical—which is literally metal pieces being forced open and closed, with arcs as hot as the sun when they’re separated in a breaker—to the software-defined digital management of electricity; literally a mini computer in every electrical end-point in building electrical systems.”

That digitalization entails multiple benefits for builders and consumers, from a vastly smaller profile to increased reliability and arc-free switching in every electrical input—all without the need for added installation time or training for electricians. 

Other benefits from its solid-state solution include a wide and dynamic input voltage range (with the industry’s highest efficiency), as well as short-circuit, over-voltage and thermal protection.

“It’s not invasive, so you don’t have to cut drywall and add second or third gang boxes,” Casey says. “Now add wireless control to that. And we’re technologically agnostic, so the wireless protocols of other smart products in a home can be plugged into and leverage an Amber power grid.”

The product allows for “a unique ‘whole building’ system for energy management and savings, with sensing and automation intelligence that solves major industry problems, saves money and increases consumer satisfaction,” Casey says. 

It’s also competitive with other ‘smart’ products , Casey contends. “Let’s say you have a $90 smart outlet—single function, wireless on-and-off with power metering. It’s all you can do to stuff that thing into that gang box. But for roughly the same price we will make it thinner, and put 10 sensors into it! You’ll have such functions as temperature and air quality control in every outlet in the house and more.”

Amber also has a premium surge in the works that not only protects the device itself but stops a surge from travelling downstream within the building electrical grid, so that any appliance connected to an Amber-powered end-point will be fully surge-protected. 

While there is no official timetable, Amber has been busy lining up major international manufacturers and semiconductor companies that will be both developing and embedding their silicon chip technology in products, with sales expected to commence as early as the end of 2022.

While it’s exciting news, it’s just one of the reasons why the future is getting harder to plan for,  suggests Stephen Koch, the Director of Emerging Markets and Member Services at the Canadian Electricity Association (CEA).

“Over the past four years, my role at CEA has been to look out 10 and 20 years and try to understand the challenges that will impact us,” Koch says. “There has been so much change in the electricity industry in the past decade. But the reality is that the next five to 10 years will seem twice as fast as that.”

But what can be expected to impact the way multiple-family, single-family and commercial properties are built and operated? 

“I see three factors,” Koch says. “The first, which is already here, is electric vehicles. You’ll need charging stations not just for your own car, but for visitors—even for commercial properties, such as when people are shopping. 

“Number two is energy management and integration. The more we witness an increase in the electrification of our economy, the more we’ll have to manage it. At the end of the day, electricity companies and utilities will not be able to supply enough power if we go through these huge peaks and valleys in demand, because they have to provide enough electricity for the top of the peak. With our current generation capacity, it makes it very difficult to turn generation on and off, so these management systems will play an increasing role on the residential front. And I’m not just talking about software, but storage and self-generation as well. By having storage, you can draw off the grid at nighttime at low peak times, hold on to it and utilize it during high peak times. 

“The third front I see is the one you can’t predict—the speed at which technology moves forward,” Koch explains. “Builders have been used to hooking up to the utility and then worrying about where it goes in the house. But maybe someone is working in their basement right now, creating a way to transport electricity without wires!

“While batteries are what we’re going to see over the next five years, there are other technologies out there that may overtake batteries as a storage possibility—one being hydrogen, which can be produced by hydroelectric dams right now,” Koch notes. “By storing that and not having a high-voltage line running from one community to the next, you could actually just transport that particular fuel to wherever it needs to go to produce all the power you need.”

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