Deans’ Design Challenge finalist: Matan Mayer

This is one in a series of interviews with the finalists of the Deans’ Design Challenge. 

matan mayerMatan Mayer (DDes candidate) holds a BArch from Tel Aviv University and practiced architecture in Israel and an MDes from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. His research focuses on developing metrics for measuring material recovery potential in buildings for recycling or reuse. He has been a recipient of the AIA Excellence in Design Award and the Peter Rice Prize for innovation in structural design. His project MateriaLEASE is a finalist in the 2014 Deans’ Design Challenge.

What prompted you to enter the Deans’ Design Challenge? It was particularly the topic of the Challenge: Urban Life in the Year 2030. The brief for the Urban Metabolism track called for ideas that addressed energy, waste, the movement of energy and materials in cities, so addressing construction industry waste was an ideal fit. A major contributor is no consistent ownership in many building types: buildings change hands from developer to owner to renter throughout their lifecycle. There is no real accountability for what happens at the end.

We thought it would be interesting to offer a new model to the industry: one consistent owner of building components who leases them out. It’s a shared economy model. We’re implementing it first in office environments, which have a short lifespan. Renters typically rent up to 5 years; then a new tenant comes in and does a whole new renovation, so there’s a lot of waste. This model allows more flexibility especially for young companies to not commit to staying in one space for long periods. The selling point for young ventures is better, healthier office environments that cost less and do not involve an upfront cost for the entire construction. Minimizing waste is an added value.

How did you become interested in this topic?  As a practitioner going on construction sites, I came to understand how wasteful this industry is because there’s so little efficiency. Other design disciplines are so far ahead in making processes more efficient and eliminating waste. For example, when the EU mandated that all cars produced in the EU be 95% recyclable by 2015, the auto industry had to do a radical shift to design cars differently. Cars are close in complexity to buildings, so there’s much to learn from these other industries.

We’re starting with lighting because it has great potential for significant impact in both energy savings and waste reduction. Most office spaces are fitted with very basic fluorescent lighting. Using our service, clients would be able to easily upgrade to LED lighting, which could save a lot of energy. Renters, who might not be able to afford to buy them if they stay in a place for a short period, can lease them for what they pay for fluorescent lighting. It’s a huge upgrade in energy savings and lighting quality.

We’ll mediate changes in lighting technology by downgrading components to another use. In their first lifecycle lights would be used in offices, then for subways, and then for storage facilities. So you can use these pieces in different applications and make them useful for the entire lifespan.

At the end, the materials would be more recyclable and less noxious. Because there’s no accountability now for the life of the components, many are very toxic. Designing in a more end-of-life-conscious way allows you to have a healthier environment at the end.

Who’s on the team?
Carlos Cerezo Davila (MDesS= ’13, PhD student at MIT) and I share an interest in the lifecycle of buildings and started developing this idea last year. His thesis dealt with developing a lifecycle embodied energy analysis tool. Timur Dogan (MDes ’12, PhD student at MIT) specializes in building performance simulation. Max Faingezicht (MIT Sloan ’11) has his own startup and helped us understand many of the programmatic issues and risks young firms face.

My advisor Martin Bechthold has been instrumental in generating a meaningful discussion around these topics over the past 6 years. Our assigned mentor David Harris, director of transit and fleet management, is helping us understand the whole financial side of leasing. Diego Ibarra (DDes ’14) has been an extremely helpful resource in this process as well.

How do you imagine the project would scale up? Typically, dimmable lighting needs to be an integrated hardwired system, but a wireless dimming component would be less intrusive. It could also use light sensors and occupancy sensors for increased efficiency. If we win, the award could be useful for developing the LED wireless dimmable tubes.

Scaling up would be incremental. That’s why we’re starting relatively simply and seeing how it works. I’m sure there are challenges we haven’t considered yet. We expect to expand to other components, so eventually we’ll offer a complete package of partitions, ceiling systems, flooring, lighting–all totally removable. Our company would install everything and at the end of the lease, we would come in and take everything out so there’s no waste.

What would winning the Deans’ Design Challenge mean to you?  Because this idea is disruptive to the industry, it is great to be able to validate that it makes sense. Winning would mean the jury sees a future in this new way of doing things, and we’re not the only ones who think this thing might work. In addition, it would help us advance the company and be able to devote more time to it.

The whole experience has been really great. It made us accelerate a process that would have taken much longer, and having made it to the final round means the idea has value.