About two years ago I wrote about a crowdfunding campaign to create affordable, green, modular, and community-centric housing: Geoship. Now that dream has manifested in an actual physical prototype, and the company has raised over $1.5 million, taken over 500 pre-orders, and is aiming at mass production in two to four years.
What’s taking so long?
“We’re kind of innovating at three different levels at one time, which is a little unusual,” says CEO Morgan Bierschenk in a recent TechFirst podcast. “We’re developing a material science, and a product design, and the manufacturing technology, kind of all at once.”
We’re in a tough spot for housing right now. Prices have soared during the pandemic, and now just as the sticker tags for home start to drop, high inflation is making them less affordable. Plus, the homes that we traditionally make have a huge carbon footprint, aren’t particularly green in materials or lifetime energy consumption, and serve more to separate and delineate people than bring them together.
Geoship’s audacious vision is to fix all of those problems with a carbon-neutral non-polluting building material — bioceramic — that can be manufactured in local microfactories close to where people need them, assembled simply and cheaply by homeowners themselves, placed in conjunction with additional domes for modular and expandable living space, and integrated into communities rather than plopped onto individual plots of land.
Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean impossible.
It starts with the material, which Geoship has spent years perfecting.
“What we’re building is ceramic domes that are 100% non toxic,” Bierschenk says. “So there’s no wood, there’s no metal, there’s no concrete, there’s no petrochemicals. The frame is ceramic, the exterior is ceramic, and the interior is ceramic, and it’s filled with a healthy insulation material that could be wool or a cellular ceramic.”
The chemically-bonded ceramic the company is using, he says, is a new family of materials that is related to geopolymers. It’s like a ceramic in that it’s highly crystalline, but like a cement in that it’s water-activated. The thick walls are highly insulating, don’t burn, don’t rust, and don’t rot.
Scratch it or damage it? Simply mix up another batch of bioceramic and patch your house.
The dome shape isn’t just for the cool factor. It’s an important component of energy efficiency and manufacturability.
“This prototype that we installed has about a 10-inch thick insulation cavity,” Bierschenk told me. “So, that’s a high R-value. And then also the ceramics reflect about 80% of radiant heat. So, it’s effective, [creating] insulative effects that way. And then also the dome shape just reduces the surface area by about 30% to 50% compared to a rectangular structure.”
Lower surface area means less heat loss in winter.
To Bierschenk isn’t not just about building houses, however. It’s about building communities.
“The reason we’re doing this, in the first place, has a lot to do with village building, right?” he says. “There’s so many of us out there today, myself included, that have been kind of looking for your village … looking for your tribe of people that you want to build community with and really connect with the land and have a place where your kids have many aunts and uncles around, and a village to kind of welcome them home for many generations into the future. So, it’s definitely a post-climate change utopian future … and, you know, whether it’s dystopian or utopian really depends on what we focus on now.”
The small prototype dome is about 18 feet in diameter. The bigger dome Geoship has planned will be a 30-foot diameter, which Bierschenk says will provide about 700 square feet of living space on the bottom floor, and another 300 upstairs. Pair two of them together, and you have a 2,000 square foot home. Hook a small one off at an angle, and you’ve got a media room, an office, a workshop, a master bedroom, or whatever you want.
Ultimately, what configuration of big and small domes people want will be up to them.
“You can have one big dome that has up to five small domes connected to it, or all these constellations,” Bierschenk says.
The manufacturing goal is as ambitious as the structures themselves. Ultimately, Bierschenk sees locally-distributed heavily automated micro factories that make components which are flat-packed and shipped to nearby homesites. There will be Geoship-certified installers, but the idea is that “owner builders” can do the construction on their own domes.
The process should be basically similar to assembling a piece of IKEA furniture: pre-made parts that can only fit together one way.
The components will all be about the size and weight of concrete blocks — think Allan blocks — which are produced in huge quantities: 500 billion in the last year in the U.S. alone, Bierschenk says.
And they have similar levels of manufacturability:
“If we put the kind of innovation that has gone into concrete block making for the last hundred years into ceramic dome making, we could … 500 billion concrete blocks would be like a billion homes in one year produced, if we can get to that,” Bierschenk said. “It’s like the scalability is kind of at another level of what we think is what’s possible today with building technologies.”
The homes won’t be cheap initially: with base prices around $160/square foot. But Bierschenk says that with scale, that could drop to a third — just over $50/square foot.
If Geoship can deliver on that vision, that could be significant in solving the housing crisis. And, perhaps, our environmental crisis as well.
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