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The Inventivity Pod
Recycled Plastic, the Future of Low-Income Housing?
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Josh McCauley, the founder of COMB, discusses how his innovation could help provide environmentally-friendly housing to 20 million people worldwide that can’t afford to put a roof over their heads.  COMB is a new system of construction consisting of interlocking blocks made from recycled plastic, utilizing mankind’s abundance of ecologically damaging plastic waste to provide environmentally sustainable and economically viable housing to everyone.

TRANSCRIPT:

 

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade the podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida, the museum is named after James Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We’ll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we’ll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

James Di Virgilio:

Welcome to Radio Cade. I’m your host James Di Virgilio on today’s episode, we’re going to talk about something that may be controversial. Everyone loves their primary residence. And generally we think of building it out of brick or stone or wood or a variety of other materials that have been used for a long, long time. But what if I told you that using recycled plastic could result in a better home? Not just because it’s economically more efficient, but that it’s actually better. My guest today, Josh McCauley , the founder of COMB is doing just that. And he is here to convince all of us that this is in fact, a reality and a possibility Josh, welcome to the program.

Josh McCauley:

Hey, thanks, James. Happy to be here.

James Di Virgilio:

So tell us about this new system of construction. It’s fascinating to me at first, you look at it and think there’s no way on building a home out of plastic. What is it that you’re doing and how are you doing it?

Josh McCauley:

COMB is a new system of construction that consists of interlocking blocks that are made from the recycled plastic. So the goal is to utilize our abundance of ecologically damaging plastic waste in a long-term application to provide environmentally sustainable and economically viable housing to everyone.

James Di Virgilio:

Walk me through this. What does this look like? Is there a place I can go online to see this, I’m listening today? Are there pictures of what this home may look like?

Josh McCauley:

Uh , yeah. On my LinkedIn profile, there are a couple of pictures up of , uh , renderings and really, I guess the easiest way to describe it would be to picture a honeycomb sort of the basis of the name. The main wall block is a hexagonal shape block. And so all the other blocks sort of are designed around that. And so the overall effect is kind of a honeycomb appearance.

James Di Virgilio:

And so that’s obviously a very strong structure engineering wise. And the idea here, right? You might be thinking, well, what kind of market is this for? Are we talking about the million dollar market? Are we talking about the inch level market? But your idea at least initially is to attempt provide housing to people that basically throughout the world don’t really have housing at all.

Josh McCauley:

Yeah, absolutely. My ultimate target market is the over 20% of humanity that is currently living without adequate housing. 1.6 billion of us not having our fundamental human right met . So any market outside of that is really just sort of a way to get to that market by selling COMB to people that can afford it. I hope to be able to give it to the people that can’t.

James Di Virgilio:

Sure this sort of like the Tom strategy Tom’s shoes once upon a time started as a nonprofit , he sold out of the shoes, but really couldn’t make enough of an impact on giving free shoes to kids in South America. Somebody tells them , Hey, sell the shoes for a profit, take all your profits, pass that onto the kids in South America, you can give them a lot more shoes, right? So you have to have a market. You have to have someone who’s going to buy your products. You can eventually potentially provide these things pro bono or et cetera. So let’s talk about that market. How much does it cost to build a home like this? What would you market this for?

Josh McCauley:

It would really depend on the size because each block would have a certain cost. And so I’m estimating that for a roughly 1000 square foot home. Ideally the cost for those blocks would be under $10,000 and that price would only go down the more of these blocks that I can produce. And so at full-scale sort of global production, I would ideally like this to be the most affordable way to provide housing, maybe even removing that comma from it and not even top out over a thousand dollars.

James Di Virgilio:

And so you mentioned a thousand square foot house, right? For $10,000. So let’s just imagine it’s on a small plot of land. How is this with regards to the durability here? If you live in the state of Florida, you have hurricanes. If you live in the Midwest, you have tornadoes, How strong is this structure?

Josh McCauley:

It’s extremely strong. As you pointed out earlier, that hexagonal shape has so much structural integrity, that it allows each block to basically support the surrounding blocks. So it does away with any need for internal framing of walls. And so there’s nothing in the case of a hurricane for a wind to push between where if you picture a studded wall, your strength is in those studs. And then the cladding between it is all weak point. And even beyond natural disasters, sort of catastrophic events building with wood really doesn’t make any sense to me realizing that we are living in the 21st century wood rots and it warps and bugs eat it. And I believe that especially when it comes to the idea of viewing our collective resource, use the fact that it on average takes nine mature pine trees, standing 80 feet with a two foot diameter to frame out a thousand square feet. It’s much more beneficial to leave that resource as a tree sequestering, carbon filtering, water, producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide from the environment, then to cut them down, to build usually a highly inefficient structure. So the goal is to turn the attention to what most people would consider pollution. But with the understanding that pollution is nothing but a resource that we’re not currently harvesting and making the best use of.

James Di Virgilio:

All right. So there’s clearly an environmental angle that is here in the history of environmentally advantageous services and products. The initial hurdle overcome is, is it better than what I could already purchase? Is it cheaper than what I could already purchase? It sounds like in your case, you’re suggesting the answer to those two questions course are yes, but the third question is, do I desire it more human nature would tell us that people have to actually desire owning this beyond just their altruistic motive. So in your opinion, when you showed these renderings to people, what is their reaction? Are they excited by this? Do they feel like it’s something they could live in? Is it may be just too far out there for them to grasp living in a home made from plastic? Like what are the reactions to this?

Josh McCauley:

Yeah, I’ve had varying reactions. I would say that nine times out of 10 people are excited by it, which is exciting for me. And there’s always going to be the trailing end of any sort of new technology or innovation of people that are just so conditioned to accepting the way that things are, that they will be the final adopters of a new technology. But overall, I would say that everyone that I’ve shown renderings to and shown models to have found it to be a really exciting idea. And I’m thinking that fundamentally trying to change the way people think about things is much more difficult than showing them a better way of providing some sort of proof of concept. And so that’s sort of where I’m at now with that one out of 10 people is I’ll prove it to you, yeah.

James Di Virgilio:

So Josh, tell me then what does it take to actually have a house we can go look at, Hey, look, I built one. Here it is, go check it out. How far away are you from that?

Josh McCauley:

Ideally I would have one built within the next 18 months. The hurdle that I’m up against at the moment is as I think most entrepreneurs would say is funding and really the major cost and making one of these is actually having the molds made for the blocks. And so once the molds are made, it would only take a few months to produce enough blocks to actually build one. And the building process itself would only take one or two days.

James Di Virgilio:

And these, I imagine are things you could potentially 3D print, correct?

Josh McCauley:

Yes. Actually the scale prototype blocks that I’ve made I 3D printed, the main hurdle with that is the size constraints of how large a block can be printed. And also the amount of time that it takes. I remember when I first got my 3D printer, I had watched a couple of videos online of 3D printing. And then I turned mine on, I started a print and I was kind of taken aback by how slowly it goes. I guess the videos I had seen were maybe a little sped up. And so there’s kind of a trade-off of that technology catching up with something like rotational molding or blow molding that can be done more rapidly.

James Di Virgilio:

So what would it cost you right now? Let’s say, Hey, Josh, I’ve got some funding for you. I want you to build one of these. So the worlds can see it. You said $10,000. I heard that number earlier. Is that the number that it would take to get your first one put somewhere in a physical location?

Josh McCauley:

No, I estimate the with $150,000, I could have all of the molds that are necessary made and a short production run completed. That would allow me to then build one.

James Di Virgilio:

All right . Let’s talk about something very interesting. So you’re involved in building construction , which is at the University of Florida here in Florida, very prestigious program. You yourself, history, education, major. How did you get into construction? How’d you get into this? How did this idea come about? What was the origination of this?

Josh McCauley:

Yeah, well, my education, as far as going to college or anything like that, didn’t really play a part. I left college to be a musician and I did that for about a decade and I don’t know if it was inspiration or motivation, but what spurred all of this on was a really profound dissatisfaction with what I saw happening in the world with a real sense of helplessness and feeling like I personally could not make any sort of effective change and really just channeling that kind of frustration into the idea of solving as many big problems as I could with one solution being overwhelmed by looking at these problems separately, I found that looking at them comprehensively, looking at the wholeness of the situation allowed me to view where they all overlap, whether it’s a lack of adequate housing or plastic pollution or construction waste, or the waste of resources where all of these problems overlap, I think is actually where inventive people can be looking so that maybe we can have less piecemeal solutions to these singular problems that aren’t actually singular, but are interdependent of one another.

James Di Virgilio:

So how did you get the knowledge to be able to build a structurally sound building? Did you have help? Did you seek out other experts?

Josh McCauley:

After I had designed it, yeah. I did speak to some professors of structural engineering at UGA, but it came to me very similarly to when I was playing music, I would hear music in my head and then it was just a matter of making those sounds audible to other people. And with this, it was seeing it. I had just come from a conversation with a good friend of mine, and we were talking about earth ships, which I don’t know if you’re familiar with, it’s a building technique that uses car tires and you have to pound dirt into them, but it provides a highly environmentally friendly and sustainable building technique, but it’s extremely labor intensive and time consuming. So after that conversation, I’d really like to be able to do something like this, but I don’t have three months or really the muscles to beat dirt into a tire with a sledgehammer on the drive home from talking with him, intuition maybe would be the best way to put it, but I didn’t study engineering or anything like that, other than personal interest and quite a variety of topics that all sort of pointed to one thing.

James Di Virgilio:

And so when you went to the structural engineers and you said to them, here’s my idea. I’m going to build this home out of recycled plastic, like a honeycomb shaped, et cetera. Did they tell you that, Oh, absolutely. This can be done and this can be strong.

Josh McCauley:

Yeah. And it really helps having the 3D printed model of the wall structure because you can basically jump up and down on it and push it and pull it and it doesn’t move it can’t move. And so it was definitely an affirming moment, having people that had dedicated their lives to understanding structural integrities, look at this and say that I was onto something. Yeah.

James Di Virgilio:

And had anybody to your knowledge designed honey comb , like structures before these structural engineers that you met with or what you’ve researched on the web, but someone else done something like this before.

Josh McCauley:

Honestly, the closest thing that I’ve ever seen to it would be Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. And although the geodesic dome is based on what he called 10 Segretti, which is instead of using compression where things are stacked together, he used tension to hold together the dome, but only similar in the sense that he utilized the same sort of geometric principles of structural integrity, especially the hexagonal shape. But to my mind, I haven’t seen any other structures that utilize it quite the way that COMB does.

James Di Virgilio:

Which is pretty fascinating to think that someone outside the construction area has done though. And also not surprising. In fact, most of history’s great innovations have come from people that were not directly involved in the industry itself. Josh, you said you were a musician, you said you’ve done a variety of things. You obviously have a lot of passion about providing housing for people. What has to go right in the next six months to a year for COMB to be able to make this a reality?

Josh McCauley:

Honestly, the only thing holding me back right now is just a lack of funding. What needs to go, right, I guess, is for the right person that has that sort of money be interested, at least almost as interested as I am in making it a reality and finding someone who is also coming from a place of compassion and cooperation over competition, and an understanding of the unity that should exist among humanity and a real sense of as the Buddha would say, there is no other that every single one of those 1.6 billion people without homing is me. And so that’s really what I’m looking for is a partner with the same sort of vision, but also with money.

James Di Virgilio:

Sure. You got to have funding and got to have a team that can get things done, right? Josh, leave us with some words of wisdom. You obviously have dreamt big here. You felt a need to help out your fellow man and woman you are taking on this challenge. There’s lots of other people that have similar thoughts and ideas in a wide variety of things, but perhaps they’re not so bold. What would you say to them since you were embarking on this kind of journey?

Josh McCauley:

I would just impress upon them that we can make the world work for 100% of humanity. We have the technology, we have the resources. And really the only thing that is lacking is the will to implement them is the will to change things that are poorly designed that are a constant hindrance to wholeness and that lead to fragmentation, whether that’s in our society or between man and nature. I think that if a person can maintain, focus on what they can do to help the most people, then it’s just a matter of rolling up your sleeves and doing whatever it is that you have to do to get to that point.

James Di Virgilio:

He is Josh McCauley the founder of COMB, also a finalist for the Cade Prize, which rewards inventors and entrepreneurs for demonstrating a creative approach to addressing problems in the world around us. Of course you have definitely done that. Josh, thank you so much for joining us on the program,

Josh McCauley:

James. Thank you. I really appreciate it. It was great talking with you, really enjoyed it.

Outro:

Radio Cade is produced by the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida. This podcast episodes host was James Di Virgilio, and Ellie Thom coordinates, inventor interviews, podcasts are recorded at Heartwood Soundstage and edited and mixed by Bob McPeak. The Radio Cade theme song was produced and performed by Tracy Collins and features violinist, Jacob Lawson.

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