Serious Materials' Green Building Products Attract Serious Investment

I'm standing in a cavernous warehouse-like building in Sunnyvale, Calif., watching a run of freshly mixed and pressed drywall roll down a conveyor belt. "Here, touch it," urges Brandon Tinianov, a Silicon Valley inventor. "You see how it dries so quickly?" I put my hand down, and the moving slab of drywall is slightly wet. But five feet further down the line, the drywall is bone dry and cool to the touch. That's important because this drywall is different from the usual wallboard. It's called EcoRock, and the only company making it is Serious Materials, Tinianov's employer.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% Tinianov is the company's chief technology officer and a noted expert in green construction technologies, with 12 patents to his name and a number of useful inventions. And Serious Materials is one of the hottest venture-backed companies in Silicon Valley.

It's also a testament to how much things have changed in this hotbed of innovation. Construction materials is hardly the glamorous field that a Google (GOOG) engineer would dive into. "When we first moved here, my wife would get asked what I did, and she would say I was an engineer," says says Tinianov. "The response was always 'hardware or software'. Drywall or windows was never a question they asked."

Venture Capital Discovers Construction

But these days construction is getting an inordinate amount of TLC from a venture capital community that sees an enormous opportunity. Heating and cooling buildings consumes 39% of the total U.S. energy use, including 70% of the nation's power plant electricity, according to a recent report by the venture capital firm Nth Power (here's our Q&A with Nancy Floyd of Nth Power) and the Frauenhofer Institute in Germany. Yet 34% of this energy is lost through leaky walls, windows and doors that allow heat to escape outside. Say "building envelope" to California venture capitalists, and they get weak in the knees.

Tinianov is all about improving the building envelope. He and company CEO Kevin Surace (also an accomplished engineer holding multiple patents) are plotting ways to save energy, both by equipping new buildings with smarter materials and by retrofitting older buildings with newer windows, doors and materials. The relatively untapped retrofit market could easily be a multitrillion dollar opportunity.

Serious has already raised over $60 million in venture backing to build a portfolio of green construction products focused on the building envelope. The company is already well on its way to becoming synonymous with innovation in green building.

Which leads me to drywall and, by extension, EcoRock, which represents a revolutionary step in drywall production. Drywall -- also called plasterboard, sheetrock and wallboard -- is an omnipresent construction material around the world. In the U.S. alone, drywall covers billions of square feet of walls.

Drywall Fabrication Creates Greenhouse Gases

But the drywall production process is hugely energy intensive. Factories heat gypsum (the primary component of drywall) in huge kilns at temperatures of 500 degrees Farenheit and up in order to create the right chemistry for drywall mixtures. Heating up those kilns, naturally, requires a lot of fossil fuels. Drywall fabrication accounts for roughly 20 billion pounds of greenhouse gases per year, according to Popular Science.

What's more, gypsum is mined using heavy machinery, a process that can be both ecologically damaging and highly consumptive of energy and fuel. Drywall has been made this way around the world since the early 20th century, when the product was first invented.

Unlike traditional drywall, EcoRock can harden without any use of heat and is made primarily of recycled materials that will endure longer in buildings than traditional drywall. No heat requirement means a sheet of EcoRock can be manufactured using less than one-fifth the energy required to make standard drywall.

Serious Materials technologists tested thousands of potential recipes before settling on the final ingredients and process for EcoRock, which uses kiln dust, fillers, slag, fly ash and other industrial castoffs. Even better, EcoRock resists mold and termites, the twin plagues of drywall in the buggy and muggy Southeastern U.S.

Super Efficient Windows for Office Buildings and Schools

Aside from EcoRock, Serious also makes extremely popular sound-proofing material and is in the process of becoming the lowest-cost producer of high-performance windows that have multiple-layers of gases sandwiched between thin films, a system that allows for rigorous thermal insulation and minimal energy leak. SeriousGlass was used high-profile projects including window retrofits for the National Gallery of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and six Smithsonian Institution buildings. The company is rumored to be in the running for a window retrofit of the Empire State Building that will take place in the next year. It's expected to help the tallest building in New York City improve its energy efficiency by a whopping 40%. Serious declines to comment on whether it has any current involvement in the Empire State Building project.

Tinianov believes that he can get the cost of this glass down low enough that a building owner would be able to recoup the price difference between SeriousGlass and more standard windows within a couple of years. At that point, it becomes a no-brainer to rip out the old leaky windows and drop in more serious stuff.

How many office towers could use this treatment? Potentially thousands just in the U.S. The Empire State Building project alone would entail replacing 6,500 large panes of glass and provides a hint as to how large the business could be. Schools and other institutional customers could easily equal the market for office-tower window retrofits.

For Tinianov and Serious, that potential should yield a wealth of business -- and also likely attract the attention of competitors. Which is no surprise, given the splintered nature of the window and glazier business and the size of the market. Glass houses, however, are something that no one understands in Silicon Valley -- least of all people who seek to shake up a stodgy industry that hasn't changed much for over a century.

Note: The article was updated to correct a mischaracterization of the Empire State Building project.
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