Monday, May 13, 2013

Where LEGO meets GREEN construction: RamRocket!

Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  Today I’m talking with David from RamRock Building Systems LLC to talk about their premier product, the RamRocket! Thank you for joining us today David.

Thanks so much, James.  Great to be with you.

The RamRocket Kickstarter is a very unique project, can you tell us a bit about it?  

As our Kickstarter site states, the RamRocket is the centerpiece of our green building system a portable machine that uses intense hydraulic pressure to fabricate interlocking masonry blocks, directly on the building site, out of urban-industrial wastes of one sort or another. Hydraulic cylinders will compress these materials into interchangeable molds of various sizes and shapes, the resulting blocks fabricated in accordance with the requirements of each particular RamRock structure.

We call the machine a RamRocket, not just because it's a natural extension of our process ramming materials into rock-like blocks but because the contours of the machine's "guts" are such that when we put a skin on them to protect them from the elements, the result will be something akin to the Space Shuttle.

RamRock™ Compression-Formed Masonry is what this project is really all about isn’t it?  While the funding is going to be used to build the RamRocket itself, it’s all about this strange new building material you’ve created am I correct?  

New but not strange. For as you yourself said when you contacted me, "I've always wondered why we haven't been building real buildings out of Legos, and now here you guys are doing exactly that!" Which is to say that it's all about taking an intuitively obvious idea and not only turning it into reality but doing to by dipping into the billions of tons of urban-industrial wastes (e.g., construction & demolition debris, mine tailings, and incinerator ashes) that are generated each year all around the world most of which are non-hazardous and using them as our raw material. Those that already contain binders (e.g., waste roof shingles) can be made without additives (just shredding), while those that don't already contain binders will have them added as needed (blending not shredding), the formulas for the latter compiled into a "recipe book" as time goes on. So while we might use the plentiful supply of waste roof shingles here in Chattanooga, we might use another indigenous waste, or a combination thereof, elsewhere.

The process sounds a lot like oriented strand board (sterling board) or particle board but with mineral waste?  How are these different/better than concrete blocks?  

While all of these are made with compression, RamRock's compression is particularly intense, differing from concrete blocks in that the latter must be made in a factory and conveyed to a drying room for 24 hours before it can be handled, then palletized and flat-bedded to a wholesaler. There, the pallets are off-loaded for resale to subcontractors, requiring flat-bedding yet again and off-loading at the building site.

RamRock, on the other hand, is a far simpler process in that the RamRocket is the factory, the raw materials hauled in bulk to the building site, where the RamRocket will process them as described above. The resulting blocks will then be hand-palletized for installation 24 hours later in accordance the structure's building plan, our proprietary software specifying in advance the location of every block and block type for every course in every wall. And because our interlocking system precludes the need for mortar, the blocks can be laid far faster than concrete block, and without the need for skilled masons.

Along with using urban-industrial wastes as your raw materials, what else makes RamRock green?

Let's start with the raw materials. As I say in the video, we're using these wastes "so that Mother Nature will never have to supply the raw materials again." This is what job one in terms of sustainability i.e., closing the loop on the global production/consumption process in keeping with Henry David Thoreau's famous dictum: "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone." For what is true for a man is true for all humanity, and it is humanity's task, therefore, to enrich every member of it in this fashion, as it's the only way that all the world's people can hope to avail themselves of the goods and services that have so enriched the lives of people like you and me.

Our next job in terms of sustainability is ease of installation, since the more people who can build the RamRock way, the more RamRock buildings will be built. And as this includes the ease of integration with all the other components of the building process e.g., plumbing, electrical, and HVAC we believe we've created a building system that will appeal to all involved owners, contractors, and subcontractors alike.

And finally, RamRock serves the cause of sustainability by being highly energy-efficient, as well as extremely strong and durable; highly resistant to wind and fire damage, insect infestation, sound infiltration, and projectile penetration; adaptable to virtually any architectural style; flexible in its other uses, e.g., retaining walls, seawalls, roadway sight/sound/safety barriers; expandable into other products lines, e.g., pavers, floor tiles, and roof tiles; and applicable to all sectors of the construction market residential, commercial, institutional, and industrial.

All in all, this is what we mean when we say that RamRock is "earth friendly and human kind," as it will allow us to relate to the natural environment more in terms of what it is than what it has, while being more compatible with our own needs and wants.

Since no wall framing is needed for the home, do the usual rules of brick or concrete block buildings apply for painting, sealing, and hanging paintings on the walls?   

For the most part, yes, though we hope to simplify at least some of these processes as we work out "the tricks of our trade."

I’m from California so building codes are something I’ve heard about all my life and new construction methods always have major regulatory hurdles it seems.  How long a legal road do you think you have ahead of you getting RamRock approved for use?  Does it just fall under established masonry rules?  

Let me say, first of all, that California is like every other state, just as your city is like every other. Both have two building codes a green building code and the one that everybody uses. Why? Because that's the one that people can afford. And simply put, we're trying to merge the two codes into one by making truly green building cost-competitive with conventional construction methods.

As for the building code approval process meaning the International Building Code: we will fall under established masonry guidelines until such time as we achieve our ultimate goal: receiving our own designation within the IBC. But in any case, we will have to earn code approval for each raw material blend that we formulate, which is a process that can take up to six months. So along with the six to nine months we've estimated to complete the design/build of the first commercial RamRocket, we're looking 2014 to begin commercialization here in Chattanooga and using the experience to create the business model for expanding the RamRock building system elsewhere, letting the generators of the urban-industrial waste stream guide the expansion process. That is, we'll go where we're wanted, doing so to whatever extent we can cost-competitively convert urban-industrials wastes into RamRock and in accordance with market demand.

Speaking of California, how do RamRocks hold up to earthquake stresses compared to other building materials?  Tornados?  Hurricanes?  

We'll see, expecting that our interlocking system, combined with the resultant weight and the use of the aforementioned high-wind tie-downs, will make RamRock especially resistant to wind and seismic forces.

Being a green project aren’t there government grants and private organizations who fund projects like yours?  Why come to Kickstarter and not look for more traditional investors?   

We're already going the grant route, both applying for government grants and working with private industry specifically, industrial concerns looking for alternatives to onsite disposal or offsite landfilling of their wastes to fund R&D projects, the success of which will hopefully lead to commercial contracts. And while this could potentially fund us without outside investment, we are more than open to it, hoping that our Kickstarter campaign sends a strong message as to the general public's desire for RamRock to become a reality.

How did you discover Kickstarter?

My son Bailey (our campaign’s “budding videographer”) introduced me to crowdfunding about six months ago, and I was immediately intrigued, not in terms of our company but simply because of the Internet and its empowerment of humanity, crowdfunding striking me as yet another iteration of it. The more I thought about it, however, the more I wondered whether the world — i.e., the 2+ billion people on the Internet — would support our mission, were we to present it to them. Since we're not pre-selling CDs, DVDs, gadgets, or the like, I knew going in that we couldn't expect a "Veronica Mars" or "Pebble" response. But I did and do believe this: that not only are there 250,000 people around the world who would gladly give a dollar to support our cause; there are many millions who would do so, the question being whether we can reach enough of those who would give at least that during the course of our campaign. After all, we're only talking about 5,000 T-shirts or the equivalent thereof, so it's certainly worth trying.

A key part of successful Kickstarters is backer participation and how to convert a potential backer into a full backer.   How are you engaging your backers?  What kinds of things do you have planned for updates to give notice to those who just hit the “remind me” button and surf on?  Interviews?  Videos?  Stories from the project?

This is surely the most challenging aspect of the campaign so far, as it's easy to get a Lego-like building system but not so easy to connect it to Kickstarter, especially for the not-so-tech-savvy Baby Boomers who constitute the majority of our team's social network. I've gotten lots of email saying something like, "Great video, David, and an awesome project. Good luck!", meaning a total disconnect between RamRock and Kickstarter, the point being that unless our campaign reaches tech-savvy audiences like yours, we're unlikely to reach our goal. Because I think of audiences like yours in terms of a Venn diagram, however, I see them as overlapping to one extent or another, meaning that if your audience embraces our campaign, it might not take long for it to reach "escape velocity" and "rocket" to its goal.

On the other hand, the gauntlet was thrown down yesterday when an equity crowdfunder, having discovered us on Kickstarter, contacted me about using their service, bluntly saying that the chances of our campaign's success are "slim to none." Aside from the fact that this is a rather odd way to win someone over (!), I have to admit that the guy could well be right. But wouldn't it be that much more satisfying, then, to prove him wrong! Again, are there 250,000 people around the world who would gladly give a dollar to help make RamRock a reality? Of course there are. Millions, in fact, the question being whether we can get to enough of them over the course of the next several weeks to reach our goal.

What kind of media attention have you received with your project?  How are you spreading the word?  Facebook?  Twitter?  Google+? Youtube?  Advertising?  Are you using Kicktraq to track your progress?  

We've done radio and TV interviews, hoping to get some newspaper coverage as well, not so much to tell the RamRock story as the Kickstarter story, meaning that getting people to Kickstarter is job one, so that the easy-to-understand RamRock story can be told there.
As for spreading the word, we are using, or expect to use, all of the above except advertising, which we simply don't have the money for. And yes, we are tracking our progress through Kicktraq, which is a truly wonderful service, just like Kickstarter itself is, to say nothing of your service.

Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?

I would answer that by saying reiterating that because we aren't pre-selling a product CDs, DVDs, gadgets, etc. but are instead asking for donations in return for promotional items of one sort or another, we have to have a very compelling reason for people to do so. So anyone thinking about a donation-based Kickstarter campaign would have to a compelling story as well.
Is our story sufficiently compelling for enough people to give a little something to make it a reality? We'll see, my hope being that our conversation today goes a long in this regard.

Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

The Internet stands to be the basis of a paradigm shift of unprecedented proportions of individual empowerment, social cooperation, and human development and crowdfunding stands to be an integral part of it. So bring it on.

And while we're at it, let's prove "Slim to None" wrong!

Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from your Kickstarter!

Thank you, James! And all the best in the fine work you do!

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