Can thick walls built with a mixture of clayey loam, straw and limestone mud help solve the nation’s affordable housing shortage?
The five founders of Terran Robotics believe their Adobe building process offers a viable and affordable solution to the rising cost of owning a home.
So did the National Science Foundation, which awarded the Bloomington-based company a $256,000 Small Business Innovation Grant in the summer of 2020.
Terra’s mission statement consists of eight words: “Turning dirt into affordable, sustainable, comfortable and beautiful homes.”
The grant comes from NSF’s Technology, Innovation and Partnerships initiative, which funds breakthrough technologies that address challenges facing society and business. The state has allocated an additional $50,000 to the Adobe project.
The money is powering a new artificial intelligence-powered construction model never seen before, using an ancient material: adobe made from earth.
During an open house in late October at Terran Robotics’ Bloomington site, visitors were able to get an up-close look at and demonstrate a cable-powered, 80-pound robot designed and built by mechanical engineer Nick Ely with funding from the Science Foundation grant.
The AI-controlled robot has pincer arms that can pick up and move heavy globs of wet clay, which are then transported to plywood molds on a conveyor belt. Impulse hammers then pound the material, creating 12-inch-thick walls that are heavy and durable when dry.
It’s mainly the high labor costs and time involved that make adobe construction an unlikely choice for builders outside the south-west of the country, explained Ely.
The vision at Terran is to use artificial intelligence to automate much of the process, reducing costs and streamlining construction while using local materials. For example, the clayey soil that is the primary ingredient in the adobe mix is a by-product of crushed limestone at Ben’s Quarry in Springville.
The mud is free. Terran will cover the cost of transportation to their production facility.
The goal is to produce robust, energy-efficient mud homes that people can afford “to significantly reduce the cost of building new green homes,” wrote Zach Dwiel, CEO of Terran, in his NCCR grant proposal.
Funding from the grant also funded the development of a lightweight 3D printer used to manufacture components for Adobe’s design.
Is Adobe Affordable?
The price of this innovative design style will become competitive, predicts Daniel Weddle, Terran’s chief design officer, as the process becomes more automated.
“Adobe’s inherently low material costs, combined with labor savings from automation, make Terran’s approach promising to address the nation’s housing shortage,” Dwiel told NSF.
He said the market research confirms interest from home builders, who say they will use the new technology and adobe building material once it becomes available and cheaper.
The company’s website is offering a spot in the queue for anyone who deposits $100 as a down payment for a Terran-designed and built home in the future. About 50 people have put their names on the list so far, Weddle said.
While Terran focuses on building walls, the company hopes to expand the automation concept to other housing components such as floors and roofs.
Terran’s founders say the technology is having far-reaching implications for the housing market. By simplifying the design process, designers can build faster and at lower cost.
Adobe homes are soundproof, fireproof, and energy efficient. The company says Terran walls regulate indoor humidity, improve air quality and eliminate costly air conditioning.
First mud houses?
With the robot fine-tuned, the wall construction process refined, the 3D printer technology finalized, and a prototype built, Terran is moving forward with plans to build some houses.
The company is in the process of moving to a larger indoor location in the Industrial Park at 45 Ind. across from Bloomington’s Walmart. Air-conditioned and three times the size of the 11th Street location, staff can continue to develop the AI robot and materials throughout the winter.
From there it moves on to the local housing market, just like the NSF plan details.
“The company will advance commercialization efforts by completing its initial home construction projects in partnership with regional real estate developers,” Dwiel wrote in an NSF project update in August.
Terran Marketing Director Nate O’Donnell said the company expects a price per square foot in 2023 that will be competitive with the market price for a new custom-built home in Bloomington.
He compared the initial home ownership cost to other high-end local businesses like Loren Wood Builders and Bailey Weiler Design. Costs will come down as AI automation technology is refined and expanded, making “Terran’s approach promising for addressing the country’s housing shortage in the US,” according to NSF’s grant application.
Next spring, the Terran team and equipment will construct a 1,000-square-foot Habitat for Humanity home on West Cottage Grove Avenue in Bloomington, near other Habitat-sponsored homes.
“It will be built at a price slightly below a normal Habitat for Humanity project in Bloomington,” O’Donnell said, adding, “It will be well below the market price for a home in Bloomington.”