SAN FRANCISCO --- It’s green. It’s groovy. It’s customizable -- and the total costs will likely come to less than if you used conventional contractors.
There is not a lot, except for who pays the bill, to dislike about the DIRTT modular office system.
DIRTT has created a technique for modular retrofits of commercial office space and hospitals. Rather than hang drywall to create office space, the company has developed a system that lets building owners or architects customize their interior office spaces online. Once the design is complete, the order is sent to the factory.
The factory then produces all of the modular pieces required -- the posts, walls, plant wells, doors, etc. -- to the particular specifications and ships them to the site. Local contractors then erect the interior space; everything goes together like IKEA furniture. Floor posts and frames allow the installers to built straight walls onto floors that slope and ripple.
A complete office might take four to six weeks to build. With conventional construction techniques, the same space might take 9 to 12 weeks to erect. While the individual building components might cost more than drywall, the modular technique pays off in terms of less onsite labor, less wasted materials and cheaper subsequent retrofits.
CEO Mogens Smed emphasizes that building in this manner also reduces waste, but what sells customers are the aesthetics. You can eliminate right angles in your office space, or incorporate glass and plants more easily. As green products go, this constitutes better eye candy than a voltage regulator.
“We didn’t do it by getting all misty-eyed about a tree,” he joked.
Other companies such as Project Frog and Zeta Communities are building completely modular buildings and homes. The difference here is that DIRTT focuses on inserting modular components into existing buildings, which could be a larger market, with a Dell-like build-to-order system.
The space in the video was completed in two weeks; it used to be a furniture store. Besides regular offices, the office also includes a wine cabinet chilled to a lower temperature than the rest of the space that is built from modular components. Other companies have produced moveable wall systems, too, but DIRTT claims that its system allows for more customization with a quicker delivery time for less money.
Either way, business is growing. DIRTT (which stands for 'doing it right this time') pulled in $100 million in revenue in 2010. It built a second factory for building components in Savannah, Georgia (the first is in Calgary, Canada) and laid plans for a third facility in Phoenix.
The company recently redid the headquarters of Levi Strauss. James Gosling, the inventor of Java, is an investor an on the board, and his brother Geoff heads up product design.
Construction, of course, remains in a funk and the building industry still suffers from “split responsibility” issues. While tenants might love a Scandinavian-like modular interior, the landlord may not want to pay for it. Most of DIRTT’s customers are owner-occupiers. Oil companies and web companies, which may seem to occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum, are both some of the firm's most frequent customers.
Health care, however, is picking up. With this system, builders and building owners can put things like TVS behind wall curtains, potentially reducing the opportunity for infection, said Gosling.
Here's more from Gosling on finishing wall joints.