Buildings are the bedrock of civilization – places to live, places to work (usually in a world free from COVID-19), and places to play. But how we conceive buildings, design them for their purposes and ultimately erect them on a site has changed remarkably little in the last few decades. Housing and construction costs continue to rise and for most projects there remains a slow linear process from concept to construction. Why can't the whole process be more flexible and faster?
Well, a trio of engineers and architects from MIT and Georgia Tech are studying that very question.
Former MIT Treasurer Israel Ruiz and architects Anton Garcia-Abril from MIT and Debora Mesa from Georgia Tech have teamed up to create a startup called WoHo (short for “World Home”) that is trying to build a modern building Rethinking more flexible buildings "components" that can be linked together to create a structure.
WoHo's goal is to reduce construction costs, maximize flexibility for architects, and provide convincing spaces for end users to create more environmentally friendly projects by creating components that can be used in a variety of building types and simply constructing them in a factory in a climate-friendly world.
The team's ideas caught the attention of Katie Rae, CEO and Managing Director of The Engine, a special fund spun off from MIT, which is characterized by its long time horizon for VC investments. The fund supports WoHo with start-up capital of USD 4.5 million.
Ruiz has spent the last decade overseeing MIT's capital development program, including the continued expansion of Kendall Square, a neighborhood adjacent to MIT that has become a major hub for biotech innovation. Through this process, he recognized the challenges of building, particularly in terms of the types of unique spaces required for innovative businesses. Over the years he also made friends with Garcia-Abril and Mesa, the duo behind Ensamble Studio, an architecture firm.
At WoHo, "the integration of the process from design and concept into the architecture through to assembly and construction of this project," explained Ruiz. "Our technology is suitable for low to tall buildings, but offers the best results in particular for medium to tall buildings."
What exactly are these WoHo components? Think of these as well-designed and reusable blocks that can be pushed together to create structure. These blocks are consistent and designed so that they can be easily made and transported. An important innovation is an improved reinforced cement, which enables better building quality with lower environmental costs.
We have seen modular buildings before, usually apartment buildings, where each apartment is a single block that can be tucked into a constructed structure (for example, this project in Sacramento). However, WoHo would like to have even more components that offer more flexibility and arrangement and also function as the structure itself. That gives architects a lot more flexibility.
It's early days but the group has already made some progress in the market and has partnered with Swiss concrete and building materials company LafargeHolcim to bring their ideas to market. The company is building a demonstration project in Madrid and is planning a second project in Boston next year.