With an estimated 600,000 Americans experiencing homelessness in 2021, the effects of the affordable housing crisis is clear: America has a housing shortage, and the marginalized and poor are bearing its brunt. Using cutting-edge robotics, Durham’s BotBuilt is looking to change that.
It all began with Barrett Ames’ house, a fixer-upper he and his wife bought when the couple came to the Triangle for Barrett to earn his PhD at Duke.
“The idea was that during the week, I would burn my brain out with math, and on the weekends, I would do therapeutic things to my house,” Ames said. “After a couple of years of that, I was like, ‘This is dumb, I should have a robot do this.’”
Long before BotBuilt’s founders were building homes in their Durham warehouse, Ames started talking about his robots-as-home-renovators idea to another Duke PhD candidate, Colin Devine.
Over lunch in 2019, the duo began to talk about Ames’ struggles renovating his “fixer-upper.”
Seeing a market need, Devine encouraged Ames to make his personal project into a startup/
So Ames began to talk with big names in the local housing industry, who encouraged him to seek funding for his idea. Then when Covid-19 lockdowns arrived in March 2020, Ames was stuck at home with more free time than ever, and he realized VC firms were doing the same. So Ames called his business-savvy cousin, experienced SaaS founder Brent Wadas.
At first, Wadas, who went on to have a military career and a family after several successful startup ventures, was hesitant to dive back into the startup world. But when Ames told Wadas the solution he was looking to build—affordable housing—Wadas was all in. This issue was personal.
“As a 4-year-old with my granddaddy in his Cadillac, he explained to me what those homeless encampments were in Texas when we were driving, and I was blown away to see that in America,” Wadas said. “My granddad was, in my opinion, rich, right? We’re in a Cadillac, he had two fridges–how are we this rich, and these people suffering this much? I didn’t get that disparity, it made no sense to me.”
With Wadas as CEO, Ames as CTO and Devine as COO, the trio were off to the races. They were determined to make housing affordable. Their tech and mission has already turned heads, including being accepted into the prestigious YCombinator accelerator for the Winter21 cohort.
BotBuilt looks to bring the manufacturing innovations that have made mass production of everything from cars to cell phones to the housing market, but with a twist—Ames’ technology makes it possible for homes to be custom-made by robotic arms, not cookie-cutter.
“People are under-using robotic industrial arms dramatically, and that’s one of our core beliefs,” Devine said. “They take this incredibly powerful arm, this device, and they have it do the same thing over and over again, in a car plant or wherever else—pick up this box, put it here, paint this thing. This arm is incredibly flexible, and it can do an infinite number of things. But it’s constrained by the software that powers it, so you need thousands of arms in a car plant to build a car because each one only has a tiny part of the process. What we’re doing is unlocking the incredible potential of this arm.”
The traditional approach to using robotics in manufacturing—having many individual arms focus on a single, precise task—is great for things like car manufacturing, where each car needs to be exactly the same. This tack is not-so-great for housing; even the most copied home design in the U.S. only has 1,000 iterations.
What BotBuilt does differently from traditional manufacturing, Ames said, is reprogram its robotic arms “on the fly,” so that they can build unique homes without going in to change the hardware of their robots for every task. In BotBuilt’s Durham warehouse, their robot arms build each home’s “framing”—think of this like a skeleton for a house—plank by plank from each home’s “book” of plans, derived from a single blueprint.
“Framing is kind of a long pole in the tent when it comes to building a house,” Wadas said. “It is the biggest time suck. It is the biggest monetary suck as far as material cost goes. And what it does is set up literally everything else in that house. You can’t do a thing to that house until the framing is done.”
Reduced costs mean cheaper homes
After being assembled precisely by BotBuilt’s robots, framing would be sent on-site to homes to be assembled by workers. For builders, this cuts down on monetary costs from buying wood in smaller (and pricier) quantities from lumberyards and from materials lost to human error during framing. By leaving framing to reliable machines, builders also cut down on wasted time and money down the line as it smooths the path to home inspections and makes it easier for other tradespeople like plumbers to do their work on the home.
Currently, Wadas said, these costs are passed on to consumers while home developers maintain profit margins. By minimizing costs, BotBuilt hopes to make housing more affordable.
Costs aren’t BotBuilt’s only concerns. Wood, Devine said, is the most environmentally friendly material that can build a home today. Minimizing human error also makes job sites safer for construction workers, who Wadas notes are often underpaid.
BotBuilt’s mission of translating cutting-edge technology into safer, more affordable home-building is catching the attention of investors. Recently, it caught the attention of Forbes, too—Devine was recently named as one of Forbes’ 30 under 30.
“I just wish Barrett and Brent could have been born later so they could join me,” Devine said. “That keeps them off the list.”
“Not to out anyone’s age,” Ames quipped.
For now, expect BotBuilt to be expanding its team to more Triangle engineers and technicians who share their mission focus. Wadas understands that not every home developer or investor is a “do-gooder” like himself. But he hopes their mission, and robots, will help leaders recognize that more affordable housing is an investment that benefits everyone, not just new homeowners.
Says Wadas, “You’re building a bigger client base, you’re building a better future customer—it’s just that simple. Your streets are safer, your roads are better, and your schools are improving. And society as a whole can move forward. It all comes down to having a home, having some form of stability, having a roof over your head and an address to put on your resume, a place where your kids can feel safe, whatever that is to you. That’s what housing is.”