Are DIRTT's components the key to clean interior design?

Are DIRTT's components the key to clean interior design?

DIRTT classroom components in a classroom

When Awe Sum Organics decided to move its fast-growing workforce into a new headquarters in Santa Cruz, Calif., it was surprised by how tough it was to find a building that met its sustainable design checklist.

After passing up an "ugly," dark downtown gallery three times, project manager Elizabeth Posner and her husband, Awe Sum founder David Posner, realized that the 5,200-square-foot space was the only one that really suited their needs. So they embarked on an extensive green building remodel: one flexible enough to accommodate future growth or remodeling while minimizing materials waste.

That's when they dug up DIRTT Environmental Solutions, a line of customizable, sustainable architectural components that includes modular walls, millwork, power infrastructure and other elements that can be reconfigured and customized as needs change. "We wanted something that really embraced our core ethics and values," Elizabeth Posner said.

The 800-person company behind DIRTT -- which stands for Doing It Right This Time -- hails from Calgary, Alberta. During 2011 and 2012, the team raised $46.9 million in venture capital as part of three financing rounds; this fall, DIRTT filed papers for an initial public offering in Canada.

Over its eight-year lifespan, the company has grown sales to more than $140 million, serving 3,300 clients primarily from the healthcare, education and technology sectors. Some of its high-profile clients include Google, eBay and Devon Energy. No matter the size, they share a common sensibility: an interest in modular design components that make use of recycled materials, but that are highly customizable, leaving the door open for future modification.

"We believe your interiors should live as long as the building," said Christina Weber, who manages business and community development for DIRTT.

Progressive ideas for future-proofing interiors

For its remodel, Awe Sum used a range of the DIRTT options, making liberal use of free-standing walls that can be moved around to change the layout and that included integrated power and media cabling, which reduces the labor and work needed for moving around electrical outlets. It also opted for glass walls and Breathe Walls, which are made of plants and remove negative ions and carbon dioxide from the air within the space.

"I wanted to incorporate some progressive ideas," Posner said.

It took four months to plan the remodel and just six weeks to get the DIRTT components manufactured and installed following the initial planning phase, said Lorri Kershner, DIRTT's representative for the project. The space also makes use of skylights, energy-rated HVAC systems and LED lighting.

Kilbourne Group, a "revitalization" and "smart growth" development company in downtown Fargo, N.D., opted for DIRTT to reconfigure a historic building from circa 1909 that used to serve as a mercantile exchange. When the project started, only 9,000 square feet of usable interior space met local codes, but DIRTT's approach helped Kilbourne expand that to almost 48,000 square feet, said Mike Allmendinger, general manager.

"This building will be around for another 100 years, so we know that the uses and the tenants will change," he said. "These walls are compatible with that idea. … They respect the past, but create a new sort of working space."

Reducing waste from start to finish

One key to the success of each DIRTT project is its upfront planning and design process: The company uses 3-D software called ICE to design, envision, specify and price out possible configurations for a specific interior, Weber said.

Once the client and architects agree on an approach, the DIRTT components are manufactured to those exact specifications. "ICE eliminates the potential for human error or possible design misinterpretation by a third party, cutting down on lead times and reducing unnecessary product waste," the company writes in its promotional materials.

Generally, it takes two to four weeks to manufacture the components and another week for the buildout, helping to cut labor costs by at least 30 percent on typical projects, according to DIRTT estimates. The approach also results in far less waste for drywall and for rolled carpeting, which traditionally has to be cut around walls built in place for conventional projects.

Weber characterizes the DIRTT approach as cost-competitive with other interior design approaches, especially for projects that have a high standard of fit and finish requirements. The company's ability to provide modular power solutions that can be moved as part of the wall has proved particularly useful for fast-growing companies that can't always plan for their pace of hiring when signing five- to seven-year leases.

DIRTT was founded by Mogens Smed, a Canadian entrepreneur who made his market in high-end office furniture before selling his previous business to Haworth in 2000. The company has manufacturing sites in Phoenix, Calgary, Savannah, Ga., and Kelowna, B.C.

DIRTT will be exhibiting at Greenbuild in Philadelphia, Nov. 20 to 22. Images via Dirtt Environmental Solutions