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Are robot-made 'printed' buildings a solution to Bay Area housing crisis?

Ethan Baron, The Mercury News on

Published in Business News

In a cavernous warehouse near the Oakland Coliseum, a 3D printer extrudes a secret blend of minerals and plastic polymer that's hardened into a heavy stone-like form under ultraviolet light.

The end result of that alchemy? A move-in-ready, robot-made modular home from technology startup Mighty Buildings.

Backed by $30 million in venture capital, Mighty Buildings is following a classic Bay Area startup recipe: use technology to address a big problem and — it hopes — disrupt an existing industry. The company claims it will be able to make homes faster, cheaper and greener than traditional builders and help solve a persistent housing crisis in the Bay Area and beyond.

"We are revolutionizing an industry by introducing more efficient materials and more efficient technology that isn't tailored to certain designs," said chief operating officer Alexey Dubov, an engineer who co-founded the company in 2017 with physicists Slava Solonitsyn, the CEO, and chief technical officer Dmitry Starodubtsev.

But while housing experts see promise in the technology and the product, they say serious hurdles must be overcome if Mighty Buildings is to gain traction in the market and make a dent in the housing crisis. Beyond the sheer scale of the problem — state officials estimate that California needs nearly 2 million more homes by 2025 — Mighty Buildings is seeking to disrupt a development process notorious for slow-moving bureaucracy and resistance to change.

For now, the outer shells of Mighty Buildings' studios and small, one- to two-bedroom homes are 30% 3D printed — and can be milled by the firm's giant robots to resemble bricks or stonework — but the company expects larger homes that it plans to start installing this year will be 60% to 80% 3D printed.

 

"We do it all with zero waste because we print exactly what we need," said chief sustainability officer Sam Ruben, adding that the process results in 99% less construction waste than standard home-building.

While the startup's goal is to print any kind of building to an architect or designer's specifications, including multi-family structures and office buildings, Mighty Buildings is presently focused on small "accessory dwelling units" that can be installed as second houses and used by homeowners who may rent them out.

"For us it's a stepping stone," Dubov said.

So far, six units have been installed, including one in San Ramon, one in Hayward and one in Livermore. The startup has the capacity to make 20 homes per month but intends to boost that to about 80 by the end of this year.

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