To glimpse the future of heavy-duty construction, drop by Toggle’s workshop in Canarsie, Brooklyn. There, you’ll find an infinitely patient robot assembling steel rebar into cages destined to reinforce concrete towers and bridges. Mounted on its arm is a vise-like gripper holding rods steady while they are tied into place.
It’s tiring, dangerous work for humans, which Toggle promises to do in half the time and cost by eliminating the drudgery. That’s still not fast enough – at present speeds, the world’s cities will add 2.5 billion people by 2050, requiring $3.3 trillion annually in global infrastructure spending, according to McKinsey. This means building a new Chicago every other month for the next decade, at least.
“Everyone’s moving to cities for a better quality of life; cities are growing bigger and more complex as a consequence, and we’re enabling that – the renewable energy and high-rise housing and mass transit they’ll need,” says Toggle CEO Daniel Blank.
But breakneck growth also carries unintended consequences. Blank notes that concrete is consumed more than any material on the planet besides water, at more than 4 billion tons per year. For this reason, cement production is the second-largest source (8%) of global carbon emissions. In our rush to build better lives, we are collectively cooking the planet. For its part, Toggle hopes automation will eventually make construction more efficient, but what if efficiency isn’t enough?
Victorian England’s answer to robots was the steam engine, which kicked the Industrial Revolution into high gear by enabling factories to be built anywhere, and made Manchester the Shenzhen of its day. It also burned a frightening amount of coal – so much that by 1865 the economist William Stanley Jevons sparked a national “coal panic” by cross-referencing the country’s ravenous consumption with its known reserves.
Britain would run out in less than a century, he calculated, and worse, every attempt at making engines more efficient had only lowered costs and fueled their adoption. The switch to oil would eventually reset the clock on depletion, but the “Jevons Paradox” still troubles us: the more efficiently you use a resource, the more of it you will use.
This paradox hints at a hard truth about innovation in the era of climate change – decoupling efficiency from expanded use, and thus emissions, is devilishly difficult. Simply reducing the energy intensity of concrete or transport or air conditioning isn’t enough. As the world hurtles toward near-total urbanization, we must reimagine our desires and how to power them.
“When I was at MIT, we talked about moral hazard – if we make air conditioning better and cheaper, more people will have it; but if we do nothing they’re going to buy it anyway,” says Kipp Bradford, CTO of Treau. So, he and CEO Vince Romanin are building a patented home heating and cooling system they promise will cut energy use by 50% and remove nearly all global warming gasses from the industry. “Our goal is to change the products they were planning to buy already with ones that provide better services with dramatically less carbon.”
As with concrete, the current environmental costs of cooling are enormous – ACs already account for 6% of Americans’ electricity use, and the planet is expected to add 4 billion new units by 2050. Climate control itself isn’t the problem – it’s how they’re made, how they’re powered, and how their output is measured is what’s warming the planet. The environmentalist and Project Drawdown co-founder Paul Hawken identifies the phase-out of current refrigerants such as HFCs as the world’s largest opportunity to reduce emissions – but acknowledges their use is likely to spread until then.
Treau’s co-founders hope to accelerate this transition – and cut short HFCs’ spread – by switching to non-polluting refrigerants, thus blunting the worst of air-conditioning’s emissions. “If Treau’s successful, we’re going to shift from the track that we’re on – which is a train speeding off a cliff – to a track where the train is moving not quite so fast and maybe not headed for the cliff,” Bradford says.
To wriggle free from the paradox, both Toggle and Treau are aiming for a larger transformation in how we design, construct, and cool buildings – and how we measure their success.
For his part, Blank is confident that a combination of robotics, digital design, and fabrication will streamline the shape of buildings, permanently reducing the need for concrete while bearing the same loads. In the longer run, he sees Toggle as “helping to make the transition to manufacturing construction rather than crafting it,” following in the footsteps of similar startups such as Blokable, Katerra, and FactoryOS seeking to wring waste out of a process in which as much as 10% of materials end up in landfill.
Treau’s ultimate vision is equally ambitious – a turn away from the conventional metric of heating and cooling, air temperature, toward a more subjective measure of comfort. This shift would favor less energy-intensive approaches such as radiant heating and cooling, which in turn would encourage less wasteful buildings. Achieving this, however, will require both new technology (such as sensors replacing thermometers) and changes in what we measure, or as Romanin puts it: “focusing more on human comfort rather than efficiency standards.”
Both of these visions recognize technology and market forces are insufficient for breaking free of the Jevons Paradox. While political solutions such as the Green New Deal promise a transformation in supply, what about our demands? Simply more of the same won’t do; we must get better at articulating the world we want, not just the one we’re familiar with.
-Greg Lindsay, Director of Applied Research, New Cities Foundation