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Are the walls moving?! These modular homes and offices can transform in hours

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Image used with permission by copyright holder
From Marriott’s widespread adoption of modular hotel rooms to the emergence of factory-built homes in New York City, prefabrication and modular technology seem to be popping up everywhere. DIRTT Environmental Solutions — a 15-year-old Canada-based company whose acronym stands for “Doing It Right This Time” — is encouraging its clients and colleagues to look at modular construction from a different point of view, by producing modular walls and rooms that can be reconfigured in hours. Imagine instantly turning a hospital ward into a triage unit or turning an empty shell of a building into a functioning school in a matter of days.

The company’s vice president of development and co-founder, Geoff Gosling, told Digital Trends that the concept of DIRTT originally came from the founders’ experience in building command and control spaces for applications like 9-1-1 operations and NASA space launches. Because these spaces are in operation 24/7/365 and are technologically and ergonomically intensive, they’re challenging to reconfigure.

Those constraints inspired Gosling and co-founders Mogens Smed and Barrie Loberg to look at modularity from a different point of view.

Rethinking prefabrication and modular construction

“Prefabrication is a difficult term, because you’re just talking about where something is built,” Gosling said. “What we were trying to do was to create a new notion of modularity. Could we achieve environments that were nimble, expressive, and adaptive and still create them through a somewhat contained manufacturing process? This was the heavy lifting we were trying to achieve.”

The DIRTT concept originally came from building applications for 9-1-1 operations and NASA space launches.

The platform that enables DIRTT to function is really built on multiple aspects. The first innovation was the company’s ICE software program, created by Barrie Loberg, which the company likens to a video game for design. Based on the Java object-based programming language (which Geoff’s brother James Gosling, the “father of Java,” invented), ICE enables architects and designers to create a fully enabled 3D environment in real time.

Recent innovations have included the ICEreality technology platform, which uses Microsoft HoloLenses to combine virtual reality with existing spaces, enabling designers and clients to see proposed interior designs in real time.

“ICE was really meant to allow designers to design,” Gosling said. “It’s disposable in the sense that it allows designers to explore without a significant investment of time. It enables the ability to explore and get real-time feedback in terms of not only space but also cost. It’s also a unified dataset in that it will only point to real, manufacturable items. Unlike a CAD program, ICE won’t allow you to create anything that isn’t real.”

Technology independent of context

The development of ICE enabled the founders to launch DIRTT in 2003 and land their first project in 2005. Since then, the publicly traded company has grown to include nearly 10,000 employees (affectionately known as “DIRTTbags”), with manufacturing facilities in Alberta, British Columbia, Arizona, and Georgia.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

The company also maintains Green Learning Centers in cities throughout North America, as well as a software development team in Salt Lake City. To date, it has worked with 7,600 unique businesses and organizations to create custom interiors and spaces around the world.

Essentially, ICE enables a language for objects to talk to each other, independently of context.

If one object cares about what its neighbor is up to, you create a domino effect anytime you change something.

“We started to break the world down into layers,” he said. “If one object cares about what its neighbor is up to, you create a domino effect anytime you change something. If they’re not related, we can change small things or big things without penalty to the things around them. That behavior allows for reconfiguration over time, but it also allows us to invent new things.”

DIRTT’s products include highly flexible products like its new LEAF line of folding walls, which can not only be reconfigured on the fly but can also be retrofitted into existing construction.

“Rather than having to understand what the future state is, corporations can now just design the space for what they know today with the understanding that it can be reconfigured for a future application,” Gosling said. “For example, a hospital is not one thing; it’s patient-care spaces, residential units, offices, and all sorts of other applications. With our technology, a piece of a hallway can become part of a patient-care space, which can then become an office. Just about anybody can reconfigure our products, which gives our clients ownership over their own changes. We take a very populist approach where everybody has access to reconfigurations and design.”

Building custom solutions

DIRTT works in all sorts of fields — the founders consider DIRTT to be a construction company, rather than a modular product manufacturer. But the technology lends itself well to evolving spaces, such as age-in-place facilities where spaces may need to move from residential units to health care facilities and back again. Gosling explained that a DIRTT team can completely configure 20,000 square feet into a ready-to-use space in less than five days, while existing spaces can sometimes be reconfigured in a single day. The company also has a dedicated team to respond to clients that require custom solutions.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

“DIRTT has allowed people to understand that you can have all the things you want in terms of self-expression and adaptation without any constraints on the idea of modularity,” Gosling said. “A lot of that has to do with our willingness to let our clients completely express themselves. If something doesn’t exist in the world that our clients would like, we have a product development team that does nothing but project-related unique design. That expression can be an aesthetic expression, a technological need, unique environmental constraints, etc. The other thing that is unique about our framework is that our designs can carry just about any material on the planet. If a client has a unique material that they want to employ, the DIRTT solution can just grab it and assimilate it.”

Moving forward without a plan

Even as competitors in the modular construction industry continue to emerge at a breakneck pace, the founders of DIRTT find themselves completely unconcerned with what other companies are doing.

“Our clients drive where we’re going,” Gosling said. “Our clients’ needs cause us to respond from project to project. We have no clue where we’re going in that sense, and it’s the most exciting aspect of this business. What I’m most excited about is that our clients push us and make us better and more engaged with what we’re doing. Even greater work is going to come out of this experience; I know it.”

DIRTT continues to innovate, grow and evolve in the modular construction sector, using its pioneering technology and manufacturing platform to help clients adapt, evolve and grow themselves.

“We’re very proud that DIRTT has taken the concept of modularity and proven its power,” Gosling said. “I think we’re at a point now where people understand the value of our approach from a precision standpoint as well as the benefits of manufacturing things inside of a controlled environment and the velocity you can achieve when working this way. Modularity is here to stay, and the more that the industry understands the potential for a different perspective on modularity, the better.”

Clayton Moore
Clayton Moore’s interest in technology is deeply rooted in the work of writers like Warren Ellis, Cory Doctorow and Neal…
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