Roger Duncan: “Buildings may arrive on-site already 60% assembled”

3D Printing will radically change the speed and cost of new construction. ICON is now producing affordable housing on-site using 3D printers. Robotics will also accelerate factory manufacturing of modules and on-site assembly, greatly reducing construction time and improving precision and quality. As a part of our series about “Homes Of The Future”, I had the […]

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3D Printing will radically change the speed and cost of new construction. ICON is now producing affordable housing on-site using 3D printers. Robotics will also accelerate factory manufacturing of modules and on-site assembly, greatly reducing construction time and improving precision and quality.

As a part of our series about “Homes Of The Future”, I had the pleasure of interviewingRoger Duncan.

Roger Duncan is a former Research Fellow at the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin and the former General Manager of Austin Energy, the municipal electric utility for Austin, Texas. Prior to that, he served as executive manager for several City of Austin departments, including the Environmental and Conservation Services department and Planning and Transportation. Business Week magazine recognized Roger as one of the 20 leading “carbon reducers” in the world, and in 2009 National Geographic recognized him as an international thought leader in energy efficiency.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I started as a politician focused on environmental issues — particularly energy efficiency. I was elected to the Austin City Council and later joined the City of Austin as a department head over energy and environmental programs, then eventually as general manager of the electric utility. Along the way I started and managed programs on green building, energy and water conservation, city planning, renewable energy and other programs.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

We won an environmental award at the UN Earth Summit in 1992 for establishing the first Green Building program in North America. This was after we had established the first municipal energy conservation plan in the U.S.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

When I was elected to the Austin City Council I had to overcome my reluctance to put myself and my ideas out to the public. I learned to manage my fear of being criticized or defeated, as long as I felt that I was doing something meaningful and useful for others.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have found that over my career I have never had to interview for a job advancement, but that people would come to me for new opportunities if I focused on doing what I love. That includes Peck Young, who recruited me to join him as a political consultant, City Manager Camille Barnett, who recruited me for the new city environmental department, and Austin City Manager Jesus Garza, who asked me to move over to the city electric utility and make it a “green” utility.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

As a freshman philosophy major in college, I thought I had the world figured out, until I picked up a book of Zen koans that made no sense whatsoever. When I had insight and answers to the koans, my thinking and understanding of the world changed forever.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Everything changes.” This quote helps to get through the bad times and appreciate the good times.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Homebuilding in the US has grown tremendously. We’d love to hear about some of the new trends and techniques that are being used to build the homes of the future.

3D Printing will radically change the speed and cost of new construction. ICON is now producing affordable housing on-site using 3D printers. Robotics will also accelerate factory manufacturing of modules and on-site assembly, greatly reducing construction time and improving precision and quality.

Buildings may arrive on-site already 60% assembled. Construction robots will take over more of the construction process. Artificial intelligence will also automate building design, management of construction sites and schedules, and other construction activities.

Can you share with us a few of the methods that are being used to make homes more sustainable and more water and energy efficient?

Nanotechnology is creating extremely effective insulation, and phase-changing materials that absorb and release heat at comfortable temperatures are being incorporated into walls. Desiccant-enhanced evaporative cooling systems will provide very efficient air conditioning. High-efficiency heat pumps are also coming to market.

There is a lot of talk about Smart Homes. Can you tell our readers a bit about what that is, what that looks like, and how that might help people?

There are many definitions of Smart Homes, but generally the term applies to homes with increased sensors, internet and smartphone control of appliances, interactive connectivity with the electric grid, energy management systems, and more.

In Smart Homes you could control lights and temperature, and turn on and off appliances from afar, check on multiple security cameras and other sensors. The house can continuously monitor for repairs and maintenance, and further in the future, homes might be able to act autonomously to handle deliveries, repair themselves and handle other responsibilities delegated by the owner. The home may also become a heath monitor, especially for senior citizens — using sensors for fall detection or inactivity. Toilets may even become in-home labs to check certain health parameters. And speakers and buttons could be located throughout the home for easy remote monitoring.

Aside from Smart Homes, can you talk about other interesting tech innovations that are being incorporated into homes today?

Building integrated photovoltaics like solar roofs, together with energy storage. Solar paint is also in development. Smart windows that can adjust to light and temperature changes and be electrically controlled. Printed electronics could turn many of your wall and table surfaces into screens when you desired. There are also “self-healing” materials being developed to repair cracks when they occur.

Can you talk about innovations that are being made to make homes more pet friendly?

Built in sleeping beds, feeding stations and access doors to litter areas. Indoor/outdoor enclosures — “catios”.

How about actual construction materials? Are there new trends in certain materials to address changes in the climate, fires, floods, and hurricanes?

In drought-stricken areas you may see homes with built-in rainwater harvesting systems, water efficient appliances, and greywater systems. Homes in fire-danger areas will be built with more fire-resistant materials such as insulated concrete forms, metal roofing, and non-flammable siding such as brick or stucco. In hurricane prone areas we may see more concrete homes on concrete piers, and hardened window installations. And in some parts of the country there may be an increase in underground homes — both cooler and better protected. And most houses may have on-site power generation and energy storage to handle power outages.

For someone looking to invest in the real estate industry, are there exciting growth opportunities that you think people should look at more carefully?

The real estate industry is going to need to adjust to climate change and increased artificial intelligence and robotics. The home of the future is going to be very smart, autonomous to a large degree, with many sustainable features. The companies that can transition to that future at the most affordable cost should be successful.

Let’s talk a bit about housing availability and affordable housing. Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

I am not an expert on the homeless problem, because it seems to me that the problem is primarily a financial/social problem and not a technology problem. We seem on the verge of a massive increase in homelessness resulting from the Covid crisis.

The decreased affordability of single family homes seems to have risen due to increases in land and construction costs. The construction costs can be driven down.

Is there anything that home builders can do to further help address these problems?

There is an absence of the tiny housing needed to keep people and their possessions protected. Some organizations, like Meals on Wheels in Austin, are starting to build such structures and working with ICON to 3-D print small one room structures for shelter. Automated, modular construction of apartment complexes can produce low cost urban housing if the financial environment allows access for the low-income residents.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I wish I could inspire of movement of daily reflection on compassion — where every person took a brief moment each day to look about them and think about what other people need — and what you might do to help.

How can our readers follow you online?

Check out our book website:

Sorry. No social media.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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