DIRTT Brings The Cost of Building Interiors Down to Earth

According to the US Green Building Council, buildings are responsible for 39% of CO2 emissions here in the US. Everyone understands that make buildings more efficient can have a huge impact on climate stability. In a report, discussing barriers to sustainable construction, a paper by the Rocky Mountain Institute, acknowledges that the lack of an integrated systems approach to building design is a major barrier. The same paper also notes that 37% of all construction material is wasted. A good deal of that waste comes from drywall. According to waste management specialists at the University of Wisconsin, approximately one pound of drywall is discarded fro every square foot of new constriction.

Drywall has been an economical and serviceable building material for quite a few years, but it has its problems. It is energy intensive to produce, accounting for 1% of all energy-related emissions in the US. Synthetic gypsum is made from coal plant emissions and have been found to contain mercury and other heavy metals. When placed in landfills it tends to emit hydrogen sulfide gas and leach out biocides. The material is recyclable, where it can be used to make new drywall, or used as a soil additive. But finding a recycler is not always easy.

Enter DIRTT, a Calgary-based manufacturer of modular building interior solutions. Their modular interior systems address several of these issues. DIRTT uses a 3-D software package that allows designers to fly through their simulated building environment, making changes and updating their designs in real time. This not only supports an integrated systems approach, with its many benefits, but it also provides an flexible modular environment that can be easily reconfigured, is drywall-free and can actually be built, in most localities, for less than conventional construction. In the past five years DIRTT has prevented approximately 65 million pounds of construction waste

I spoke with Julie Pithers, who is in charge of Business & Community Development at DIRTT Environmental Solutions.

Justmeans: So tell me the story of DIRTT.

Julie Pithers: We started R&D 10 years ago. Then opened for business in May 2005

JM: And how has it been going?

JP: Great. We grew by $20 million in sales each year through the recession, 85% of our sales are in the US

JM: What does the name DIRTT stand for?

JP: Doing it right this time.

JM: I see. So if I understand correctly, you make pre-fabricated, modular interiors that are reconfigurable, taking advantage of modern production methods to reduce cost.

JP: That's right.

JM: And who are your customers?

JP: Our fastest growing segment is health care. We're also education, office space, and a number of other areas.

JM: How is it that you can beat the cost of conventional construction?

JP: Because our systems are pre-configured at the factory, they can be assembled at the site very quickly. Most construction runs 70% labor and 30% materials. We turn that on its head. So, with the exception of localities with very low labor rates, we can usually provide the lowest cost. We have a software program called ICEberg. It's a database filled with every material, code and labor cost from over 1300 jurisdictions in North America. It provides an apples-to-apples comparison of the monetary and environmental cost of building your space conventionally or using DIRTT. So you don't have to just take our word for it.

JM: So your crews move fast, how fast?

JP: We’ve installed move-in ready space fast as 27,000 sq. feet per week with a 12-person crew.

JM: I see. So what do you need to plug your modules into.

JP: The contractor needs to prepare a “warm shell,” meaning exterior walls, roof and so on. We provide plug and play walls, which are pre-tested for power and data connect that to the T-bars in the ceiling

JM: And it works because factory production is more efficient than build-in-place construction.

JP: What makes us different than traditional prefab is the degree of customization, that is designed to customer’s specifications.

JM: So how does it get designed?

JP:Software developed in house is the backbone of everything. It's like a 3D video game experience. You can fly through and make changes and it will tell you what it costs. When you're done it creates a bar-code that goes right to the factory CNC machines.

JM: It's kind of like traditional CAD/CAM then that's used in manufacturing.

JP: Yes, except that it's real-time interactive like a video game. Changes and updates in real time.

JM:Who runs this software?

JP: It's available to architects and designers, but they don't always want to learn the software. So mostly we work with our distribution partners have designers on staff.

JM: So it's cheaper to build. What about the cost of ownership?

JP:Small changes can be implemented by the user, (e.g. pop a tile off and replace what's behind it) or they can be trained to make larger changes like reconfiguring a space.

JM: So it's practical and affordable, but what makes it sustainable?

JP: Well, there are a number of things. One is the element of integrated design that looks at a building as a series of systems that interact. When you look at the big picture you get a more efficient result. Designing interiors this way provides the opportunity to think about buildings differently. The efficient use of interior space allows for the reuse of older buildings which is much more efficient than tearing them down and building new ones, especially in terms of embodied energy.

JM: That's all good, what else?

JP: More efficient use of interior space allows for smaller footprint, which results in lower energy cost.

That also allows living closer to the action, where a larger space would have been too expensive. Being close in reduces transportation cost.

JM: Tell me about space efficiency.

JP: We optimize. A pivot door requires nine square feet to open. We use sliding barn doors. We also make good use of vertical space.

JM: What about materials?

JP: We don't use drywall. Not only is it wasteful and have environmental concerns, some of our clients, such as health care providers have a big issue with the dust that gets generated with even a minor modification like adding an outlet.

JM: So what do you use?

JP: Our frames are all aluminum frames are all recyclable. The panels are generally medium density fiber-board, using post-industrial recycled fiber board, that other options can be used, if you want LEED certification for example.

JM: So what about your factory operations. Are they green?

JP: We use low energy manufacturing techniques like UV cold curing. We have a small footprint factory. We use solar PV and a little bit of wind to run our computers. All of our finishes are water-based and non-toxic.

JM: Anything else you want to add?

JP: In conventional construction, a lot of time is wasted waiting for another crew to come in. Sometime they take shortcuts to avoid waiting. We don't have that problem. Also wiring inspections can be done easily without cutting holes in the walls and then having to repair them. But most of all, I'd just like to say, it's often not so much a question of what you use but how efficiently you use it.