With an estimated 600,000 Americans experiencing homelessness in 2021, the effects of the affordable housing crisis are clear: America is suffering from a housing shortage, and the marginalized and poor are bearing the brunt. Using advanced robotics, durham BotBuilt Looking to change that.
It all started with the Barrett Ames House, a fixer-upper house that he and his wife bought when the couple came to the Triangle for Barrett’s PhD at Duke University.
“The idea was that during the week, I’d burn my brains out with math, and on the weekends, I’d do therapy stuff in my house,” Ames said. “Two years later, I was like, ‘This is stupid, I should have a robot that does that. ”
Long before BotBuilt’s founders built homes in their Durham warehouse, Ames started talking about the idea of robotics as a home to renovate to another Duke PhD candidate, Colin Devine.
Over lunch in 2019, the duo began talking about Ames’ struggles with a “fixer upper” renovation.
Seeing the needs of the market, Divine encouraged Ames to turn his personal project into a startup /
So Ames began speaking with the big names in the local housing industry, who encouraged him to seek financing for his idea. Then when the Covid-19 shutdown hit in March 2020, Ames was stuck at home with more free time than ever, and realized that venture capital firms were doing the same. So Ames contacted his business-savvy cousin, experienced SaaS founder Brent Wadas.
At first, Wadas, who launched into a military career and a family after his first venture, was reluctant to dive back into the startup world. But when Ames told Wadas of the solution he was looking to build—affordable housing—Wadas had the answer. This issue was personal.
“As a four-year-old kid with my grandfather in his Cadillac, he showed me what those homeless camps were up in Texas when we were driving, and I was blown away to see that in America,” Wadas said. “My grandfather was, in my opinion, rich, wasn’t he? We’re in Cadillacs, he had two refrigerators – how are we that rich, and these people suffer so much? I didn’t understand this disparity, it didn’t make sense to me.”
With Wadas as CEO, Ames as CTO and Devine as COO, the trio was off to the races. They were determined to make housing more affordable. Their technology and message have already turned heads, including their acceptance into the prestigious YCombinator accelerator for Winter21.
BotBuilt is looking to bring the manufacturing innovations that have brought mass production of everything from cars to cell phones to the housing market, but with a twist — Ames’ technology allows homes to be custom-made with robotic arms, not cookie cutters.
“People don’t use industrial robotic weapons very much, and that’s one of our core beliefs,” Devine said. “They take this incredibly strong arm, this device, and they do the same thing over and over again, in a car factory or anywhere else — pick up this box, put it here, draw this thing. This arm is incredibly flexible, and it can do an infinite number of “It has a bunch of stuff. But it’s constrained by the software that powers it, so you need thousands of arms in a car factory to build a car because each one has only a small part of the process. What we’re doing is unlocking the amazing potential of this arm.”
The traditional approach to using robotics in manufacturing — having many individual arms focused on one precise task — is great for things like car manufacturing, where every car has to be exactly the same. This musk isn’t great for housing; Even the most copied house design in the United States only has 1,000 iterations.
What BotBuilt does differently from traditional manufacturing, Ames said, is reprogram its robotic arms “on the fly,” so they can build unique homes without having to change their robotics hardware for each task. At BotBuilt’s Durham warehouse, their robot arms construct the “framing” of each house—think of this like the skeleton of a house—a plank from each house’s “book” of plans, drawn from a single blueprint.
“Framing is kind of the long pole in the tent when it comes to building a house,” Wadas said. “It’s the biggest time sucker. It’s the biggest money suck in terms of material cost. And what it does is set up literally everything else in that house. You can’t do anything for that house until it’s framed.”
Lower costs mean cheaper homes
After being meticulously assembled by BotBuilt robots, the frames will be sent on site to homes to be assembled by workers. For builders, this reduces financial costs from purchasing timber in smaller (and more expensive) quantities from lumber mills and from materials lost due to human error during framing. By leaving the framing to reliable machines, builders also reduce wasted time and money, as it eases the way to home inspections and makes it easier for other tradesmen such as plumbers to do their work at home.
For now, Wadas said, those costs are passed on to consumers while home developers maintain profit margins. By reducing costs, BotBuilt hopes to make housing more affordable.
Costs aren’t BotBuilt’s only concerns. Devin said that wood is one of the most environmentally friendly materials from which to build a home today. Minimizing human error also makes job sites safer for construction workers, who Wedas notes are often underpaid.
BotBuilt’s mission to translate the latest technology into building safer, more affordable homes is attracting investor attention. Recently, he also caught the attention of Forbes –Devine was recently named one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 list.
“I wish Barrett and Brent had been born later so they could join me,” said Devine. “That keeps them off the list.”
“Not to outlive anyone,” Imis quipped.
For now, expect BotBuilt to expand its team to include more Triangle engineers and technicians who share their mission focus. Wadas realizes that not every home developer or investor is a “philanthropist” like him. But he hopes their mission, and the robots, will help leaders realize that affordable housing is an investment that benefits everyone, not just new homeowners.
Wadas says, “You’re building a larger customer base, and you’re building a better customer in the future—it’s that simple. Your streets are safer, your roads are better, your schools are improving. And society as a whole can move forward. It all comes down to owning a home, having some kind of stability, having A roof over your head and an address to put on your resume, a place where your kids feel safe, whatever that means to you. That’s housing.”
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