Green construction startup Nexii first caught my attention back in the spring when the Canadian company announced a partnership with actor and Pennsylvania native Michael Keaton. The initiative — the creation of a manufacturing plant for Nexii’s "sustainable concrete" alternative Nexiite — will bring at least 300 new jobs to a redeveloped brownfield site in the "Steel City" of Pittsburgh that thrived in the era of industrialist Andrew Carnegie.
"I’ve always been interested in design and construction, but I only recently learned the game-changing impact the construction industry can have in improving the environment by adoption of innovative, lower-carbon techniques," Keaton said when the relationship was announced in April. "For me, the opportunity to marry job creation with an environmentally sustainable business is incredibly exciting."
Keaton’s involvement isn’t just money; he’s participating in a venture called Trinity Sustainable Solutions, which also includes Nexii and commercial real estate developer Trinity Commercial Development, a specialist in redeveloping brownfield sites that has done work for companies including Walmart, Rite Aid, Goodwill and CSX Transportation.
The new factory will be constructed using Nexii’s composite, a material manufactured off-site into lightweight panels and then assembled where it’s needed. The building components are modeled using 3D design software; it’s like creating pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that can be pieced together. The approach reduces construction waste and speeds development times, according to Nexii’s marketing materials.
If star power doesn’t impress you as a sustainability practitioner or climate-tech evangelist, the flurry of deals and alliances that Nexii has forged since that time will definitely get your attention.
In June, the company announced a pact with JLL Philadelphia that is intended to help increase the ranks of Nexii certified partners from among real estate companies, developers and other companies in the building sector.
More recently, Nexii created a strategic alliance with building automation technologies company Honeywell. The deal sets up Honeywell as the exclusive tech supplier for new buildings constructed by Nexii. What’s particularly notable about this arrangement is that it’s intended to encourage the use of building management software in smaller structures: Close to 90 percent of the commercial buildings in the U.S. are less than 50,000 square feet in size and lack any sort of management system, according to Energy Star data.
Nexii has also engaged a well-respected adviser from the regenerative and net-zero buildings movement as its "impact architect": Jason McLennan, co-author of the Living Building Challenge and a Buckminster Fuller Prize winner.
Nexii is living proof that entrepreneurship is alive and well and thriving outside of Silicon Valley. Founded in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, by two brothers with deep roots in the construction industry, the Vancouver company so far has raised more than $52 million in venture backing. Three-time former Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson (who made substantial updates to the city’s building codes during his tenure) is its executive vice president for strategy and partnerships, and Nexii’s board includes William McNabb, former chair and CEO of Vanguard, and Ronald Sugar, former CEO of Northrop Grumman who is also a board member at Apple and chair of Uber Technologies.
When I spoke with Robertson earlier this week, he told me that Nexii has a twofold mission: To dramatically reduce the embedded carbon associated with buildings — the sector is estimated to account for 39 percent of global emissions — while simultaneously bringing new employment opportunities to Rust Belt and Canadian industrial communities where there is a long history of manufacturing.
We are striving for that big climate impact but also competing toe-to-toe on speed and efficiency of construction.
The Pittsburgh plant is an example of that, along with a sister facility in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, and another in Louisville, Kentucky, that Nexii is planning in collaboration with Buffalo Construction, a company that has a presence in 49 states. Its specialty is restaurants, hospitality and multi-family residential structures, among other things.
Nexii’s process isn’t just hypothetical. The material was used in the construction of a Starbucks drive-thru cafe in Vancouver; designed to help reduce carbon emissions by about 30 percent. Nexiite is used in the store’s wall and roof panels and assembled in just six days. More recently, the material was used to help build a Popeyes restaurant in British Columbia in less than two weeks. And it's working with Marriott on its biggest project yet, a 172-room, 10-story Courtyard property. "We are striving for that big climate impact but also competing toe-to-toe on speed and efficiency of construction," Robertson said.
Nexii isn’t the only startup espousing some element of prefabrication: Two other startups to watch are Factory OS, beneficiary of strategic investments by the likes of Autodesk and Citi; and Plant Prefab, which counts Amazon and Obvious Ventures among its backers.