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Reframe Systems wants to improve housing with the help of robots

Reframe Systems wants to improve housing with the help of robots

State officials expect that change could lead to the construction of more than 8,000 of these units over the next five years, many as rentals.

Reframe, with 18 employees, is working on its first two-bedroom, two-story house with sustainable materials and low energy needs. The company fits the classic “let’s disrupt an industry” mold, as its three cofounders worked together at Amazon’s Massachusetts-based robotics division rather than in the homebuilding business. But earlier this year, they brought on Jessica Boatright, a former director of neighborhood housing development for the city of Boston.

“If we’re ever going to catch up to the housing shortage here, we need to produce it more quickly,” Boatright says.

Workers moved a framed wall at Reframe Systems.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Reframe cofounders Vikas Enti, Felipe Polido, and Aaron Small learned to get robots and humans to work together while at Amazon, which has built more than 750,000 bots in Massachusetts and deployed them to distribution centers around the world. Advising the company are Amy Villeneuve, the former chief operating officer of that Amazon division, and Charly Mwangi, a veteran of the carmakers Nissan, Tesla, and Rivian.

Reframe raised an initial funding round of $5.7 million in 2022, some of it from Eclipse Ventures, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm where Mwangi now works.

Standing at one end of Reframe’s factory, Small explained that the company’s ambition is to build net-zero houses — houses that produce as much energy as they use — “twice as fast as traditional methods, twice as cheap, and with 10 times lower carbon” emissions.

That means using large screws called helical piles to fix the house to the site, instead of a concrete foundation. (Concrete production generates large amounts of carbon dioxide.) The company buys recycled cellulose insulation to fill the walls. Solar panels go on the roof and triple-paned windows in the walls.

Reframe’s houses have two main components: a cassette, or floor structure, and panels that get affixed to the floor to create walls. Electrical wires and plumbing are installed in both floors and walls as they’re built.

Employees toting iPads can refer to digital construction drawings and get step-by-step instructions about tasks from cutting lumber to connecting pipes.

“We like to compare it to Lego instructions,” Small said. “You can go faster.”

In the center of Reframe’s factory, Fifi Yeung, an engineer, was programming a blue robotic arm to build wall panels. It was operating at just 5 percent of its top speed, she said, but otherwise seemed to know what it was doing.

The robot can pick up 2-by-6-inch boards and position them on a steel bed, using magnetic clamps to hold them in place. It then joins the boards together using its onboard nail gun.

The robot will soon be able to affix drywall or plywood to the studs, Yeung said.

This could be seen as a threat by some — particularly unions — but it also could ensure that new housing gets built despite a labor shortage in the construction industry. Reframe, however, still has a ways to go to achieve its goal of automating 80 to 90 percent of home construction. Of 25 panels produced for the walls of its first house, the robot is making just one.

Reframe isn’t the only company trying robots to make construction more efficient. Baltimore-based Blueprint Robotics is adding a second production facility in Connecticut this year, and New Hampshire-based Bensonwood is also blending automation with energy efficiency.

Employees at Reframe Systems in Andover worked on a project for the company’s first customer, the Housing Corporation of Arlington, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Lots of startups have tried to enter this space. In 2009, I wrote about Blu Homes, which was building small, energy efficient houses in a factory in Littleton, and later East Longmeadow. In 2012, it moved production to California, and in 2020 was acquired by Dvele, a maker of manufactured houses.

MIT professor Kent Larson oversees the City Science group, which studies urban development at MIT’s Media Lab. He said home manufacturers typically run into two problems: “negative stereotypes” about prefabricated housing and unpredictable demand, which makes it difficult to keep a factory operating steadily.

“Over the past 20 years, I have seen companies launched with great enthusiasm and press, only to see them get minimal traction,” Larson said.

Reframe’s first customer is the Housing Corporation of Arlington, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing. The nonprofit is acquiring the two-bedroom ADU to replace an unused garage that sits behind a home it owns on Dorothy Road. The tenant will be selected through a lottery.

The company aims to ship the home to the site in March and have it ready for occupancy in April. This 900-square-foot home will cost roughly $300,000 — about $100,000 less than a similar custom-built home, according to Brookline architect Michael Kim, who isn’t affiliated with Reframe.

Reframe’s “microfactory” can produce between 30 and 50 homes a year, Enti said. Eventually, the company aims to set up larger factories around the country, all within an hour’s drive of big cities.

There’s a key difference between helping Amazon ship more cardboard boxes from its warehouses and trying to build energy efficient, low-cost homes, Small said.

“At Amazon, there was always a feeling of scaling things up at all costs, as fast as we could,” Small said. “And everyone with a conscience would wonder, was that the right thing for the world? If we get our business model right and the product right — low carbon and affordable — then us scaling might be something that is good for the world.”

Reframe Systems workers manually framed a wall for the Housing Corporation of Arlington project. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Scott Kirsner can be reached at Follow him @ScottKirsner.

The article was first published here

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