Those seeking a model of economic growth in a sea of economic uncertainty often cite those gods of Silicon Valley: Google and Apple, the latter having replaced ExxonMobil in 2011 as America’s “most valuable” company.
Not everyone can post $100 billion in annual revenue, of course. Yet wouldn’t whole other galaxies of economic growth burst out among the vendors who Apple’s and Google’s innovators tap with big budgets to help build their empires? That’s where you dig up DIRTT Environmental Solutions – an 8-year-old Calgary, Alberta, company that offers a comprehensive interior wall system with made-on-demand components that can be configured and re-configured in limitless ways. With its sleek installations in Google’s and Apple’s headquarters, DIRTT is aiming to offer its clients substance alongside style.
DIRTT (which stands for Doing it Right This Time) was founded by eccentric entrepreneur Mogens Smed, software engineer Barry Loberg, and industrial designer Geoff Gosling, whose older brother James helped invent the Java programming language and who also lent a hand to DIRTT’s proprietary and highly visual ICE software.
ICE drives development of its interior designs and differentiates it from competitors such as Techneon or KI. Customers can go online and create a 3-D model of their order with DIRTT’s walls in glass, wood, or high-gloss plastic. Detailed price and equipment lists are simultaneously populated in real-time. When the order is placed, ICE sends specifications to machines in one of DIRTT’s factories, creating an exponential increase in efficiency (so efficient, in fact, that when a truck delivering a $25,000 order of DIRTT customized glass office walls to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle was stolen in 2008, replacements where created and shipped in a matter of days).
Bay Area account executive Lewis Buchner describes his employer as “a software company with really cool factories.”
DIRTT's Lewis Buchner at his employer's Phoenix factory cateferia.
I first sat down with Buchner due north of Silicon Valley at DIRTT’s San Francisco Green Learning Center, one of a few high-tech U.S. showrooms the company maintains, in the narrow European-style streets of the city’s old Financial District. Buchner made no bones about it: “Recycling is a failure in sustainability,” he says. (Don’t tell the folks in Oregon still back-patting their 40-year-old Bottle Bill).
DIRTT allows building owners to easily reconfigure interiors from one tenant to the next, offering an 80 to 85 percent reuse of materials rather than heaps of metal studs and drywall headed to the landfill or the recycling warehouse. It allows architecture to be “responsive instead of static,” he says.
The entire industry is moving to modular, and DIRTT will be ubiquitous in commercial building in five to 10 years, Buchner says. He should know. A former entrepreneur and EcoTimber executive, Buchner was an early pioneer in sourcing sustainable wood in the Bay Area, and he was intimately involved in U.S. market adoption of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification.
The DIRTT showroom in Phoenix.
The company says it created a solution built not around market need, but around real need. Proof that its stakeholders have sipped the Kool-Aid comes in forms ranging from inadvertent exaggerations of DIRTT’s accolades to the un-P.C. labeling of employees as “DIRTT bags.” The brand is brazen and unconventional. And as the Greenbuild 2012 mega conference converges on San Francisco this November with all of its pomp and circumstance, DIRTT will be sitting on the sidelines in the role of antagonizer.
As Michelle Anderson of DIRTT puts it: “LEED is a snapshot of specifications at a single point in time. True sustainability is a motion picture of behaviors and performance over time.” A prominent display on a wall of the company’s Phoenix factory lists out all of the facility’s possible LEED credits next to a list of all features that go “Beyond LEED…”
With its focus on reuse and efficiency, DIRTT hopes its concepts will continue to resonate in a green building market hungry for sustainability initiatives built to last. It’s no small feat to be on the move in today’s sluggish U.S. commercial real estate market. The company effectively had no revenue in 2006. It did $115-$120 million in 2011, and expects to be at $140-$180 million this year, according to various guesstimates rare from a privately held company.
In March 2011, DIRTT raised $22 million in funding from venture capital firms led by San Francisco-based Expansion Capital Partners. The funding is going toward development of new interior products for higher education and also for the health-care industry, which is expected to explode with the aging baby boom generation. A push into residential markets, where many national homebuilders are formulaic and outmoded laggards on sustainable development, is also underway. DIRTT is seeking distributors in Asia and the Middle East, which the company says could account for 20 percent of its business in five years. Meantime, it’s opening a new factory in Houston, following the onboarding of a 1-year-old factory in Phoenix that now employees about 60 of the company’s 740-something workers.
DIRTT is beginning to make a play into residential building markets.
Yes, Houston – oil country. And yes, Phoenix – a state that could be the Saudi Arabia of solar power but chooses to spend its time on legislation against things rather than for things. DIRTT’s 70,000-square-foot Phoenix factory is where Buchner says you can get the “full DIRTT story under one roof.”
As such, in late June Buchner and I flew down for a site tour. There we met up with Mary Wolf-Francis, who was hired by economic stimulus funds to help the City of Phoenix focus on job creation before being wooed away by a job creator called DIRTT.
Features of the zero-waste Phoenix factory range from on-site solar power to a small vertical garden fed with cafeteria compost. But what’s most striking is its modern Apple store-like ambience and “people” perks: a nice cafeteria with organic food, ultra-clean bathrooms, even a little workout facility (though it rarely gets much use). If it weren’t for worker wages ranging from $10 to $13 per hour, you wouldn’t recognize this facility – with its “fish bowl” of office desks smack dab in the middle – as a factory.
Vertical outdoor garden at DIRTT's Phoenix factory.
Phoenix native Dave Mower, a father of two, was recently promoted from the factory floor to production lead. Mower says he takes greater pride working in a factory that actually has insulation (in this case, recycled denim insulation) to protect against Arizona’s 110 degree summer days. Shifts at DIRTT’s factories rotate 12 hours at a time with four days of work followed by four days off. This creative shift scheduling reduces commuter impacts and allows the factory to ramp up to a 24X7 schedule if needed. Says Mower: “It’s hard work but I think you get rewarded well for it.”
Of course DIRTT is also aware of some opportunities for improvement. The aluminum used in its modular walls is a mere 20% recycled – an issue exacerbated by difficulty obtaining strength and quality guarantees on recycled aluminum. More life-cycle information on its suppliers would be helpful overall.
But sometimes measuring success is as simple as talking to a company’s workers – and looking at a company’s clients.