Researchers Solve Construction Waste Problem with Help of Amazon Catalyst Grant

David Drake with several graduate students pose with Drywall Waste Blocks.
David Drake with several graduate students pose with Drywall Waste Blocks.

Construction waste is a growing problem in the United States. Waste consists of unwanted materials left over during new construction or renovations from both residential and commercial buildings. The waste consists of materials such as bricks, concrete, wood, asphalt shingles, and gypsum drywall. Some construction waste can be recycled and reused, but much of it ends up in landfills. This is especially true for drywall waste, which makes up nearly 10 percent of unrecycled construction waste.

In an effort to solve this problem, two Washington State University faculty members began developing masonry blocks using leftover drywall waste. The blocks are made from a high percentage of waste drywall. Taiji Miyasaka and David Drake, from the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture’s School of Design and Construction, are leading this effort.

The team of researchers had a concept and a prototype of the blocks, but they needed to conduct thorough research to determine the durability and insulation value of the blocks. The Amazon Catalyst grant program was a perfect fit for their needs. The program fosters innovation by encouraging people in all fields to think big, invent solutions to real-world problems, and make a positive impact on the world.

“We were intrigued by the openness of the grant. We felt our concept fit what the grant program was looking for in innovations that addressed social issues,” said Miyasaka.

After receiving the grant, the researchers continued to develop the product, testing for water absorption and compressive strength. Additionally, the researchers plan to begin testing the blocks to see if they would meet building, seismic, and fire codes.

“Our research shows that blocks created from drywall waste are surprisingly lightweight and strong, with good insulation value. We expect them to be highly fire resistant and have good acoustic performance,” said Drake.

The team handcrafted a machine used to form the first block prototypes. But the machine was small and not durable enough to make the blocks required for further testing. So Miyasaka and Drake used part of the Amazon Catalyst funding to equip their lab for more efficient processing of drywall waste and higher production of blocks.

“The majority of our lab equipment was purchased or fabricated thanks to the Amazon Catalyst grant,” said Drake. “From here, we were able to more efficiently create more blocks in less time. In the beginning, we were only able to create one or two blocks every 15 minutes with our original equipment. With our new equipment, we are able to create one block per minute.”

As part of the application process for the Amazon Catalyst program, Miyasaka and Drake had to create a press release. While writing a press release is unique in a grant process, both Miyasaka and Drake expressed how valuable it was going through the process of learning how to explain their research and product to non-academic audiences, such as people within the building industry and the general public.

“We had to be able to talk about the product, which required us to see the product from different perspectives,” said Miyasaka.

The grant opened doors for Miyasaka and Drake within the building industry. Amazon connected Miyasaka and Drake with industry contacts interested in their product. They also met with King County officials in Seattle to see if their product would be a viable option to use for construction of several tiny home communities being built around Seattle to house the city’s growing homeless population.

“Prior to receiving the Amazon Grant, we weren’t aware of the commercial interest the industry would have in our product. Through meeting with King County officials and people within the industry, we were able to see how people engaged with our product,” said Miyasaka. “Their responses to our product have helped inform our research, as we continue to look for ways to solve an industry need.”

The building industry continues to take notice of Miyasaka and Drake’s work. In July, the Drywall Waste Blocks received an American Institute of Architects R & D award, which recognizes innovation in architectural technology. The award was announced in Architect Magazine and is one of eight awarded nationally.

Additionally, in May Drake traveled to Banff, Canada, to present their initial research at the Modular and Offsite Construction Summit 2019. The summit brings together researchers and industry leaders in modular construction, offering presentations and exhibits showcasing leading-edge research and best practices in the area of modular and offsite construction.

“The funding from the Amazon Catalyst grant has covered a wide variety of expenses, from helping us to fund research assistants to conduct our research, to equipment and travel. The grant has really helped us get our research and lab up and running,” said Drake.

Miyasaka and Drake will continue their research, looking at different ways the blocks can be used, including in sustainable solutions and potential interior finish uses. They will continue to work with industry to find a niche use for their product.

“Amazon Catalyst is a unique grant to help us develop the drywall waste blocks. We are very thankful to Amazon,” said Miyasaka.

The researchers participated in WSU’s I-Corp program and received Gap Funding through WSU’s Office of Commercialization. They also received some initial funding from the American Institute of Architects.