We’re living in a complex time of competing crises, where far more housing is needed as rapidly as possible, but building and construction are already responsible for 39 per cent of global carbon emissions. As we continue to experience the challenges and uncertainty posed by climate change, it’s time to consider whether standard construction materials and methods are enough to meet the housing demand while also prioritizing the health of our climate.
“Construction is probably one of the oldest industries there is and it’s incredibly inefficient,” says Allanah Brown of Nexii Building Solutions. “We build what we know, with what we’ve always used: concrete, wood, steel and conventional construction methods.”
Traditional methods aren’t just slow. Creating them uses significant resources and while their waste is filling up finite landfill space.
“The question is what isn’t inefficient. It’s an industry that really hasn’t had a lot of innovations over the last 100 years,” says Alexzi Building Solutions CEO Amber Simpson. “It’s very traditional; and it needs to be innovated; it needs to be scalable; if we want to bring down the cost, if we want to be able to supply for the demand. And we need to do it in a sustainable way.”
Leading-edge B.C. companies are at the forefront of revolutionizing the construction industry with new technologies and strategies that are making processes on construction sites more efficient and safer for workers. At the same time, they’re increasing environmental sustainability while decreasing energy consumption and costs.
Here’s how they’re doing it.
Reinventing the tried and true
Sometimes it’s a waste of time and effort to reinvent the wheel. Other times, it’s exactly what’s needed to meet unprecedented challenges. As the engineering team lead at Nexii Building Solutions, Allanah Brown is visibly passionate about her work and its positive impact.
“Nexii is a green construction technology company,” says Brown. “We’re committed to accelerating a reduction in the climate impact construction has and creating more sustainable and cost-efficient buildings.
Nexii’s proprietary building material, Nexiite, is a sustainable alternative to concrete that retains many of the same characteristics and behaviour of its predecessor at about one-sixth of the weight. Nexiite enables easier heating and cooling of buildings to reduce the average energy consumption to one-third of a traditional build. It’s also created with climate resilience in mind, developed to be resistant to increasing instances of floods and fires.
Early adopters have included major brands like Starbucks, Popeyes and more who look to Nexii to help them to hit their environmental OKRs (objectives and key results). Brown is encouraged by their ability to look ahead and envision what can be produced, which has led to the creation of Nexii’s first nine-storey building — a Marriott hotel in Nanaimo.
Mass timber is another creative twist on a traditional material. Kinsol Timber Systems CEO Mike Marshall is excited about the positive impact of using previously undesirable lumber in lieu of old growth and other vulnerable forest resources.
“When you go to the Interior, the trees are much smaller, they’re at a higher altitude, they’ve got less water, they’ve got harsher conditions, they’ve got shorter growing periods,” says Marshall. “The species that thrive are a smaller tree.”
These trees are smaller in diameter with a denser concentration of branches that create more knots in the wood. Problematic for traditional lumber, these smaller trees provide a highly productive, rapidly renewable product that’s ideal for creating large format, cross-laminated mass timber panels.
Driving past the plethora of construction projects underway on many Vancouver Island streets provides a glimpse of what it’s like to build outside in a range of weather conditions. When working on site, workers and building materials are exposed to the sun, wind, snow or the relentless west coast rain.
“Building with timber in the rain is a slow process,” says Marshall. “You can get swelling and shrinking and twisting. And because it’s an organic material, you have the possibility for mould growth.”
Kinsol, Nexii and its Vancouver Island licensee Alexzi have all moved the bulk of construction off job sites and into manufacturing facilities to maximize one of the biggest construction efficiency leverages — prefabrication. Bringing as much of the building process indoors as possible helps improve worker health, safety and efficiency while also increasing the speed of installation.
Alexzi CEO, Amber Simpson’s background in real estate made it clear to her how much housing was needed and how quickly, leading her to acquire the Nexii licence.
“When you’re manufacturing versus building on site, you have the ability where you can create a lot of efficiencies, so that it can be a lot more scalable,” says Simpson.
“You’ve just got to get the adult brain to think from the child’s imagination,” says Brown. “Have a constant vision to look beyond the boundaries that we know.”
With Nexiite, each architect creates designs, which are then put through a system at the manufacturing plant to precision cut all of the alternative concrete panels needed to assemble most of a buildings structure. Simpson is also excited about the innovation within the panels.
“We’re working with brilliant tech companies to put innovations in the panels to make the buildings themselves more like smart buildings as they’re coming together,” says Simpson.
At its simplest, Brown likens it to adult LEGO.
“You bring in panels, you put them together, you form your building and then you can have it ready to seal and take occupancy in a much shorter timeframe,” says Brown.
Kinsol Timber Systems doesn’t manufacture their own panels, but they are using prefabrication to expedite the building process. Like Nexii, mass timber is designed and fabricated into panels off-site. A small team of timber framers put it together at the building site in tandem with other services and technologies.
“The off site, dry prefabrication of these panels keeps the structure drier for longer,” says Marshall. “And because we’re reducing the building cycle on site, we’re also narrowing that window of exposure to the elements down quite a lot.”
The process also allows for finishing to be completed while the building is still being erected.
“In the conventional concrete construction, they go all the way [to the top], and then they have a topping out ceremony,” says Marshall. “When that’s done, then other people can come in. We go up, floor by floor. We can close in a floor, and follow-on trades can come in and be working directly behind us. So it’s really compressing the construction cycle.”
Marshall credits the education and promotion efforts of industry organizations for helping mass timber gain the attention and trust it needs to reach mainstream adoption.
“It has caused B.C. to be a national and international leader when we talk about North America; the supply, the design, the construction and all of the ancillary components that go along with that … B.C. uniquely stands out as a bright spot for Google‘s very first mass timber project [in Sunnyvale, California],” says Marshall. “The lineup of people that designed it — from the architect to the engineer to the 3D specialists to the fastener supplier to Kinsol who was the builder — we were all from B.C.”
Beyond prefabrication, new efficiencies are also being integrated into the job site itself. On a typical building, the exterior needs to be wrapped to create as much of an air barrier as possible, with the allowable air transfer limited by the building code. It’s akin to gift wrapping an oddly-shaped gift that has lots of frustrating bends and curves that can be tricky to navigate, especially in bad weather. Once the wrapping is done, tests are run to see if the code regulations have been met.
“The challenge in doing it manually is that you never knew the results until you’d already spent a lot of time and energy doing it,” says Paul Moquin, President of Island AeroBarrier. “Sometimes you were like ‘Whoa, awesome. We nailed it.’ And then other times, there was a lot of disappointment. And then the finger-pointing starts. And it’s expensive at that point to try to rectify those issues, typically using old methods.”
The BC Building Code has an energy step code that measures a building’s level of airtightness. The required code level is currently determined by each municipality, but in 2023 a minimum of step three or higher will be required across the province. This will rise to step five in 2032 when new construction must be net-zero ready.
One way to achieve higher step levels is by increasing the airtightness of a building, preventing as much air leakage and transfer as possible. Instead of relying on extensive and complicated exterior gift wrapping, Moquin’s Island AeroBarrier can boost a building’s airtightness in only two hours by working from the inside.
“There’s a control system that pumps the sealant to these nozzles, where it gets blasted with air and it atomizes,” says Moquin. “It looks like smoke in a dance club, a thick, thick fog … as the air escapes through all those unwanted holes, it carries the sealant and forms a seal in those areas. Little particles start to form around the edges and basically form a bridge to seal it completely.”
The tightness of a building doesn’t just increase its energy efficiency. It can also prevent humidity and moisture from entering and becoming mould, while also minimizing the transfer of sounds and smells. This decreases operating costs while improving the livability of dense residential complexes needed to address the housing crisis.
Moquin is excited by the innovation at AeroBarrier but acknowledges that being a game-changer comes with its challenges.
“The construction industry is typically slow to change,” says Moquin. “Everybody wants to see somebody else do it first. They have their comfort zone, and this is what they’ve been doing. They don’t want to mix it up. Because anytime you change something, it typically slows you down a little bit. There’s a learning process to it.”
“It’s definitely hard to come into an old industry and disrupt it,” agrees Brown.
But the challenges are well worth the reward for her.
“Building something like Nexii, and just becoming a company that embodies those future values, it’s a really nice way for us to increase the sustainability of one of the largest markets for climate pollution.”
Marshall is also encouraged by the demand for his business and what it means for the industry overall.
“I think that some builders will still say, ‘Oh, I know, tilt up concrete. And I’m going to just continue to tilt up concrete because it’s what I know.’ But I’m blown away by how adopted and accepted it’s been,” says Marshall.
He’s been inspired by his work with tech clients and their approach to design and product evolution.
“We think that we’re pretty cutting edge, and we are for our industry,” says Marshall. “But you get down there with these tech wizards, and they’re just like ‘Man, you guys are idiots. Why do you do it like this?’ And it’s offensive initially because we all have ego. But then when you can put that thing down and put it away, there’s great wisdom.”
Alexzi’s Simpson is inspired by the potential to develop further innovations.
“[Nexii is] perfecting the exterior of a building,” says Simpson. “But then, the owner of that building will probably want the same efficiencies in the interior. This will open up business opportunities for construction on interior spaces, and how to make that more efficient, sustainable and resilient.”