Real-Life LEGO Set: Putting Together a New Way of Building
25 Top Newsmakers
The $21-million three-story, four-building residential complex in Palm Springs, Fla., built by Tom Murphy, Jr., and his company, Miami-based Renco USA, hardly appears unusual from the outside. On the inside, however, its structure represents a potential revolution in construction, Murphy and others believe. Constructed entirely from a mineral composite, fiber-reinforced building system that uses blocks that interlock like LEGO bricks to form its structural walls, floors and roofs, the Palm Springs building is stronger than concrete and rated to withstand winds up to 275 mph.
The project’s construction—overseen by Coastal Construction Group, where Murphy is CEO—required a crew of just 11 workers with varying levels of skill and experience to erect the three-story buildings using only the manufactured materials, a proprietary adhesive and a mallet. Bonded together by a methyl methacrylate bonding agent, the construction system required no heavy cutting, welding or masonry work. Murphy says the system is cost competitive with concrete as well as with wood-framed construction.
The Palm Springs project was a long time coming. Starting from the initial concept of creating a snap-into-place building block, the effort evolved into developing a comprehensive building system. Roughly a dozen years and 400 tests later—as the testing program sent them back to the drawing board to fine-tune the product—the Renco block system now is certified by the International Building Code, enabling its use worldwide.
Stronger Each Time
The team spent all that effort “trying to get this approved,” Murphy says. “We had to keep changing it to make it better and easier to work with. As we did that, making a building with it got faster and easier, and … the building got stronger each time.”
Another benefit, Murphy notes, is that the system’s embodied carbon is estimated to be about 80% lower than steel and roughly 60% lower than concrete.
Ken Smuts, president of Renco, credits Murphy for seeing the effort through to completion, despite the long process, and for constantly seeing ways to improve the product. “Tom is a meticulous planner, and he has great expectations,” Smuts says. “His attention to detail is unparalleled. You needed someone like Tom at the head of this thing to really push things through. He just perseveres.”
Tom Murphy Jr.
Photo courtesy Renco Inc.
The journey through development, testing and certification challenged the Renco team’s resolve. “There’s always setbacks, and Tom was the voice of reason through most of it,” Smuts says. Just as importantly, he adds, “Tom is a continuous communicator, and he always rolls up his sleeves and gets the work done. It’s 24/7 and then some. The guy is 75 years old, and he doesn’t stop.”
Among those testifying to the merits of the Renco system is Richard Wood, the former chairman and CEO of Plaza Construction, who viewed it in person. Remarking on the system’s easy assembly, Wood notes, “not only does it open up the opportunity to not have a quality control issue, but the resilience of the material, the simplicity of it, the strength, the confidence in it once it’s put together …this is a game changer.”
Murphy hopes Renco eventually can deliver stronger, more affordable housing where it’s needed the most. “This is a superior product that’s affordable, that can meet those needs rapidly and efficiently,” he says. “That really excites me.”
All ENR 2023 Top 25 Newsmakers will be honored at the Award of Excellence Gala on April 11 in New York City.