Breakthrough in developing future buildings
KvalhoTalks with Reto Largo | Managing Director of empa NEST
Welcome to KVALHO TALKS – a series of interviews and discussions with experts, innovators and entrepreneurs within the AEC & real estate industry. This time I travelled outside of Zürich to the city of Dübendorf to speak with my guest – Reto Largo, Managing Director of empaNEST– the largest European platform where new technologies and materials for future buildings are tested, researched and validated in realistic conditions. All of this to help launch innovative building and energy technologies on the market faster.

Enjoy reading KvalhoTalks with Reto Largo and learn how he and his team at NEST accelerate innovation within the building industry.

Can you please explain the concept of Nest and how the idea of setting up such a platform was born?
The idea started 18 years ago and was driven by Peter Richner, the deputy CEO of Empa. It all started as a small mock-up of a fully self-autonomous cabin – which turned out to be a success. Understanding the challenge of the building industry – which is testing new building materials in live projects quickly – Peter decided to scale up the demonstrator. He approached several companies and at the end received government funding allowing us to build the NEST– a full scale innovation platform, 5 years ago. Today NEST is the largest and most flexible testing platform in Europe. We work on the energy, water, building material here which is unique in the world. We are very proud here in Switzerland we are leaders in research and innovation. This is a great achievement for all of us, including the research, companies, and government. NEST gives us the possibility to work together and drive things forward.

What is your role within NEST?

I personally have split roles at NEST – as a Managing Director, I am responsible for the internal processes and our NEST Team. As an Innovation Manager, I lead our partners and researchers to jointly create and develop the units.

Currently NEST has 7 thematic units already installed, and several are under development. Could you please walk us through the process of creating a unit?

In our case, the innovation and new ideas arrive from many places. There is the top down approach where our experienced advisory board highlights the current trends and areas of innovation which have a high research potential. We also have the bottom up approach where the enterprises or even start-ups come directly to us with new concepts. And of course, our NEST team is very proactive in generating ideas.
Our role is to facilitate the process, select the ideas with the most potential and put together a team consisting of the right people who will create a unit where we can validate and test all of the important elements.
How proactive are the industry partners in developing units?
It really depends. Some companies are used to an open innovation process because they know it is the key to speed. They understand that any other way won't be able to replicate them anyway. The partners from the construction industry tent to be more reserved in terms of sharing information but this is also changing. NEST helps them to learn what the open innovation is about and how it works. Everything is a process.

The construction industry is slower to adopt change than other industries. Do you have an explanation for it?

I think there are some external factor which don't make it easy for the building industry to come up with a great business case. For example, the energy is still too cheap to make people think about saving energy or saving CO2 which is key to driving new building technologies. Establishing new regulations would be helpful to create a market pull. Also, the existing business models in construction industry don't provide any incentives to work together. In the contractual model everything is extremely sequential. It is not so much about the lack of technologies but rather the way we work together. Having and sharing 3D models is one thing, but we really need to improve the way we collaborate and involve the manufacturers into the early design process – not when we are just about to enter the construction site. Integrated Project Delivery contracts are a good way to start. This is how we can create joined value. This is also what we try to do at NEST when working on the thematic units.
Do you have any ideas on how to change and improve the business model of construction?
The change will happen naturally when some companies will go out of business and the innovative companies will survive. Surely the building owners need to be more responsive and aware of what's possible in terms of construction e.g: they want to use prefabricated systems because its more predictable in terms of cost and its quicker to install. Now, there is not enough pressure from the building owners towards construction companies.

You have mentioned that the building owners should be more proactive. How about the planning teams – shouldn't they better support clients in the decision-making process?

I think this should be their main role. At the end, they should deliver a high-performance building and not only an aesthetically pleasing building.
A high-performance building delivers profits, its flexible giving the investment security and its energy efficient. And at this moment this is far from reality.
If you look at buildings as assets, the ecological factors are not on the agenda at all. The focus is on achieving a higher rent. But the demands of the target group are now changing. There is a new group of buyers, a younger generation which is more aware of the ecological impact and demands a different type of buildings. So, the demand is slowly changing which at some point will change the action and decisions of the investors.

NEST is known for being an innovation accelerator. What actions are taken to accelerate innovation?

NEST works on 2 challenges: 1. Validating the new technology in real life applications (getting faster into the market) 2. Diffusing innovation, educating and familiarising potential buyers with new materials and technologies. We have approximately 1000 visitors per month (an increasing portion who are from abroad) and over 80% of them are experts from the building and energy sector. We are a B2B platform allowing the architects, and planners to come here to check and validate the new materials and technologies.
Are there any success stories of someone who visited the NEST and quickly implemented what they saw into a real project?
Yes, there are already success cases. We have the future office Unit – Meet2Create – with flexible furniture which has already been used in real projects. The other success is the beach wood plywood was used in the very first unit – Vision Wood – which is now successfully produced and used in various applications. We don't yet have the right resources to track all the business cases with our Partners, so there might be more success stories which we are not yet aware of. This is something we are planning to focus on more in the near future.

You are known for having high energy and motivating others to collaborate to create moving the industry forward. What motivates you every day to run such a platform?
The things motivating and driving me most is connecting others to create something new, something impactful together.
I also like the visitors to NEST and to hear their feedback which is very valuable. I have been running NEST in the last 5 years and I very quickly learned that in order to give a lot of energy and motivate other I also need to recharge ''my battery'' regularly. I do that through sports and recreation activities.

Is NEST open to engaging industry related start-ups?

Absolutely. We can implement some solutions in the new and existing modules of the NEST. We first check the application; target group and we verify which of our existing units can be most usable for pilot projects. If we don't have any place to use a particular solution, we put it in a pool and monitor which future units will be most suitable for it. We advise the startups to be in a more advance stage – preferably they are not startups but scaleups. We would love to have more of these in the NEST.
What is the vision for NEST for the next 5 years?
The vision remains the same – we are an accelerator, where research, industry and public meet, connect, work on new projects, implement new units and projects in a real environment. We are the accelerator of innovation in the building industry. Our Mission for the next 5 years is to attract new partners – also from abroad, get new scale-ups on board and work on new research programs.

You are touching innovation and future every day. What do you think the industry and buildings will look like by 2030?
We hopefully will have more companies that have a better integration of the supply chain.
The companies who think innovatively in terms of digital fabrication and efficiency will survive, and those who do things in traditional ways might have to leave the market. We will have disruptive companies with completely different construction methods than today, including robots, automation and drones to build buildings. We will have more companies which deal with recyclable materials because the limited natural resources like copper will become a real issue.