Building a Sustainable Future for all: Natural Building Systems’ Mission to make buildings a carbon sink

The built environment has a big influence on local jobs, quality of life, and several economic sectors. Its footprint is huge: it accounts for almost half of all extracted materials and demands enormous resources as over 35% of the EU’s waste is produced by the building industry. 

The carbon footprint of the building industry is also very high: an estimated 11% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the extraction of building materials, the production of building goods, and the construction and refurbishment of structures. 

While operational carbon emissions (heating, cooling, and powering buildings) have been falling in line with targets, embodied carbon emissions have only seen a 4% reduction from 2018 to 2022, significantly below the required 17% reduction.

Natural Building Systems

According to projections, the building industry will be crucial to meeting the European climate objectives. A number of policy tools have been established to help achieve these objectives, including the new Emissions Trading System (ETS-2) that will include greenhouse gas emissions from the construction industry starting in 2027 as well as other regulations like the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation which is being phased in up to 2030 and encourages circularity and traceability in construction material supply chains.

In order to reach these objectives, the British startup Natural Building Systems (NBS) combines low embodied-carbon materials and modern construction methods to create a new ADEPT approach to building. The ADEPT construction system is a scalable, modular, digitally manufactured kit-of-parts solution featuring a patented bio-composite for sustainable, breathable buildings. 

Chloe Donovan, Managing Director of the company, explains how their journey started and what they are doing to meet these climate objectives. 

Beginnings and motivation

With a background in youth work and rural community development, Chloe Donovan brings a unique, people-centric approach to sustainable construction. She co-founded the company with a developer, architects and a material scientist who are united in their passion to improve the health and quality of housing by increasing the use of regenerative crops as construction materials.

“I started out with an interest in growing industrial hemp because of its ecological benefits, but also because I saw lots of farmers and people within agriculture struggling for income and looking to diversify, leading them to grow crops for bioenergy and biodigesters. When I realised that locally grown crops were capable of creating healthier and high-performing buildings, I realised that we should be putting more energy into growing and systemising the use of these materials to make houses that are more sustainable and healthier for people”- explained Chloe.

Current projects and opportunities in the industry

The NBS team has been conducting intensive research and development for the past four years, combining engineering and design innovation with material research. Under the supervision of Dr Mike Lawrence, an esteemed material scientist and academic NBS has designed ADEPT a systemised solution for more sustainable and healthier buildings. 

“That’s been an incredible learning journey and opportunity. And within that, we’ve been trialing lots of different markets and different applications for our product. Now we’re in this phase of building on our successful pilots and scaling up and optimizing our manufacturing capacity with plans for our first pilot factory in the east of England next year. The project I’m most excited about is doing our first residential house but we also have a number of community buildings such as youth centers and classrooms on the horizon, and some of these are in my local area and so it’s really exciting to see how we’re building on and learning from our previous pilots”- said Chloe.

NBS is working with agricultural partners and farmers on strengthening local supply chains and improving the performance of biobased construction materials which use short-cycle biomass crops through the £5.9m four-year Centre for High Carbon Capture Cropping Project. Their goal is to have a new factory coming online next year that will allow them to produce approximately 100 to 150 projects annually. This increase in production capacity is an essential stepping stone towards making a substantial impact on climate initiatives and the housing supply.

According to Chloe, the construction manufacturing industry is full of opportunities:

“The incumbent industry, which is mainly steel, concrete, and glass has its days numbered so there’s a massive opportunity for more sustainable products to emerge in their place”- stated Chloe.

Vision for the future

NBS’ primary objective is to develop a network of distributed manufacturing partners. They already have partners across Europe and beyond interested in licensing their products and over the next decade the company plans to improve its digital infrastructure and replicate their factory to align with the raw material supply chains so they can build hundreds of thousands of low-carbon buildings through this network.

“Whatever building you want to design we can use generative design to configure it with our system and provide upfront cost and carbon estimates.  Then you will be able to place your order to be delivered from your nearest manufacturing partner. Because of the adaptable and hybrid design approach which combines standard and bespoke elements, you’ll be able to get your project delivered in a matter of weeks if not days. So you can go from having your design of a house to having all of the bits you need to build that house arriving on your building site very efficiently which saves everyone time, money and stress”- explained Chloe.

Challenges and difficulties

Chloe described the difficulties of working in a start-up business in a male-dominated industry without having a technical background:

“I’ve consciously tried to build an inclusive organisation and I’m really grateful to have recruited numerous  women who are technically experienced in construction. The industry is sadly still male-dominated with the biggest gender pay-gap of any sector in the UK and only around 16% of senior roles being held by women.  Although there are signs of some improvement with more than a third of new entrants being female which is something I’m keen to support and encourage.”- said Chloe.

Beyond this experience, the NBS team has encountered numerous challenges on their journey, especially since they launched the organisation just before COVID, which was challenging in many ways. Commercialising a new product is hard enough but especially when you are also trying to prioritise sustainability, this often comes at a cost.

“I’d say creating a circular construction product designed for disassembly was our biggest technical challenge, but our most pressing challenge is convincing investors that this has commercial viability because a systemized solution has inherent complexity and they are used to dealing with simple silver bullet propositions. Investors want a simple product for a simple pithy problem but that’s not the world we live in. We think that it needs a much broader front which is why our system is called ADEPT, because it’s designed as a comprehensive solution to a complex problem. And that I’d say is our biggest challenge”- explained Chloe.

How NBS met Strata

They met a few years ago through an investor who recommended Strata for connecting with European partners and potential investors, which was useful to build and expand their network. 

“It made sense to try and learn more and build connections with European based companies and networks around investment in particular, and working with Strata has been fantastic. We worked on a European Innovation Council bid, and it’s the kind of thing that we would never have had the capacity or the background knowledge within the team to be able to do efficiently. And so it was really fantastic and helpful to work with some very professional, very skilled people that could help to tease out the narrative that would fit the best with this particular challenge”- said Chloe.

As Chloe explained, applying for grants is quite challenging, but worthwhile, and partnering with a consultancy firm like Strata simplifies the process allowing them to focus on developing their products and technology.

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