Blokable's Quest to Disrupt Prefab

jessica 08/21/2018

This article was originally published by Architect Magazine

The signs have been clear for some time now: Elon Musk is planning to dig tunnels under cities for his Hyperloop transportation projects and newly announced “car skates” that will, someday, perhaps, zip vehicles from downtown Chicago to O’Hare Airport. Google is building a dense mixed-use development for its workers in Sunnyvale, Calif., and a highly optimized, sensor-filled, data-driven neighborhood in Toronto. Tech hothouses like Y Combinator have periodically announced plans to build entire cities from scratch. Clearly, the tech industry has grown bored with the virtual world and now has designs on reshaping our actual urban reality. This is happening even in the torpid backwater that is the residential construction industry.

A worker in Blokable's Vancouver, Wash.-based manufacturing site. Photo courtesy of Andrew Pogue/Architect Magazine

Consider Factory OS in Vallejo, Calif., which is manufacturing housing modules designed to be stacked into four- and five-story apartment buildings. The company delivers units “tech ready” and fabricates them with “cutting-edge software.” It’s launching an Innovation Lab at the factory in partnership with UC Berkeley. Meanwhile, Menlo Park, Calif.–based Katerra, with over a billion dollars in venture capital, is applying its technological know-how to the manufacture of engineered timber building components for use in multifamily residential and mixed-use projects.

“They Are Going to Change the Paradigm”

This comingling of tech and home building practices, driven by an urgent need to build more quickly and inexpensively, is what brought me in early April to a beige industrial park near the port of Vancouver, Wash., just across the Columbia River from Portland, Ore. I was visiting the manufacturing site for a company called Blokable—a 50,000-square-foot warehouse that the firm regards as its “prototype small factory.” The company, according to founder and co-CEO Aaron Holm, is in the business of “delivering housing development as a service.”

Blokable's Blok S Unit. Photo courtesy of Bob Martus Photography/Architect Magazine

I first heard about Blokable from an old friend who lives in Portland and sent me a message via Twitter: “They are going to change the paradigm.” I was immediately skeptical. I visited the firm’s website and found a rendering showing a 328-square-foot unit of hyper-optimized living space, standing alone against what looks like a sky at twilight, with trees and water in the background. It could be Thoreau’s Blok. Nothing distinguished it from the legions of precious mini-houses that have proliferated online in recent years, most of them more cute than revolutionary. What really got my attention, though, what made me think my friend’s claim was not just hype, was the story Holm told about his compulsion to build housing for more people, both cheaper and faster.

Prior to founding Blokable in 2016, Holm worked in project management at Amazon, handling the rollout of two of its brick-and-mortar outposts, Amazon Go and Amazon Books. That’s when he became infatuated with boxes—shipping containers, to be precise. He noticed that even though they’re made of “terrible building materials,” designers have been compelled to transform them into housing. He also noticed, as he got Amazon’s storefronts up and running, that the construction industry can be frustratingly inefficient. He realized that some part of the current shortage of affordable housing has to do with the fact that home building is a “completely opaque process.”

Interior of a Blokable unit. Photo courtesy of Bob Martus Photography/Architect Magazine

Blokable could be just another company hawking diminutive but swank homes to post-Millennials. But Holm has no interest in supplying the high-end market with prefab status symbols. Instead, he’s taking on our current housing crisis. According to a 2017 study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, on average there are just 35 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 extremely low-income families. The tech industry itself is partly to blame for rising real estate, with tech-rich cities like Seattle experiencing skyrocketing rates of homelessness. In a January op-ed for a Vancouver-area newspaper, The Columbian, Holm wrote: “We must shift the focus from a construction challenge to a manufacturing challenge and drive time, complexity, and cost out of the process to bring housing supply to the market where it’s most needed.”

Holm founded Blokable to manufacture an object that had the formal simplicity of a shipping container but that was properly outfitted as a house, and that would more or less materialize on its foundation with the myriad layers of permits and approvals signed and sealed. Holm imagined that he could “create a product that could be purchased and delivered like a car.”

Holm is, of course, not alone in his dream of the assembly-line house. The concept stands at the core of decades and decades of prefab fantasies. (See Buckminster Fuller.) Everyone thinks they can be the next Henry Ford. But houses, unlike cars, have an additional layer of regulatory challenges. Building codes and zoning can differ from town to town or block to block. It takes a lot of disrupting to upend that reality.

A rendering of Seattle multifamily made from Bloks. Photo courtesy of Blokable/Architect Magazine

For instance, consider Kasita, an Austin, Texas–based company selling a sleek 374-square-foot unit that, like Blokable’s, can be freestanding or stacked. Targeted to the individual home buyer, someone who might want an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) for the backyard or a dedicated Airbnb rental, the Kasita is available at three price points. The high end, $129,000, includes automatic blinds and a long list of brand name upgrades: Bosch appliances, a Casper mattress, a Sonos Connect streaming audio device. What’s not included in this seamless lifestyle package: an estimated $24,000 in permitting, site preparation, utility hookups, foundation work, and shipping. If you’ve ever built a house, you know that that’s an optimistic cost estimate, and the workload associated with these additional tasks can seem infinite.

Blokable, on the other hand, is unusually focused on these grittier pieces of the puzzle. The company has raised money from Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital ($4.8 million) and another $11 million, according to Holm, from “investors who believe that the built environment is about to undergo a fundamental transformation driven by technology” and also those who see “housing as a platform to create opportunity.” Although not impressive by the standards of the tech industry, the seed money has given the company an important luxury: the ability to spend the first years of its existence perfecting the box and the systems that support it.

A worker in the Blokable factory. Photo courtesy of Andrew Pogue/Architect Magazine

Legos to Build With

During my visit in April, I spent the better part of an hour in a conference room with Nelson Del Rio, the company’s co-CEO and one of its founders, and Timothy Miller, the vice president of design. Del Rio is a developer whose other company, Sonnenblick-Del Rio, specializes in upgrading the quality of public buildings by changing the financing model. He talks a great deal about “the dirt,” as in: “I understand what it means to build on dirt. I know what dirt value is.”

Miller, who got his architecture degree at Tulane University and went on to study design strategy and business, spent a few years at the Seattle office of Teague and, like Holm, is a veteran of the Amazon Go project. He thinks of what he’s doing at Blokable as developing “architecture for manufacturing instead of architecture for construction.” Miller doesn’t regard himself as the designer of the final product, whether that’s a cluster of single-family homes or multifamily developments constructed from stacks of Bloks. Rather, he sees himself as the creator of a tool kit that architects can use to design their own bespoke projects. “It gives them the puzzle pieces,” says Miller, “the Legos for them to build with.”

Whether or not architects buy in, Blokable’s vision is a radical departure from previous prefab projects, from Marmol Radziner’s line of multimillion dollar units to Michelle Kaufmann’s more attainable Glidehouse line. The first generation of 21st-century prefab designers were auteurs, intent on playing the conventional role of architect, always retaining creative control. Blokable professes to be in pursuit of something else entirely: the ideal version of the generic, replicable housing unit.

Prototypes on Blokable's factory floor. SIGA's Majvest 500 SA is being used as the weather resistant barrier. Photo courtesy of Andrew Pogue/Architect Magazine

“If you look at the type of housing that we really need to build—middle-income, low-income, no-income housing—standardization is great,” Holm argues. “The nonprofits we work with … they don’t want to pick the toilet. They want a good product team to go in make those decisions and figure out how, by using standardization, we can drive the price down.”

On the other hand, a more design-driven client might want to customize a standard module, in which case Del Rio believes the firm can accommodate those changes. “Without telling you how our buildings are put together, they’re designed to be highly flexible on the standard production process. Let’s say we had a west L.A. architect who said, ‘I want a NanaWall across the whole side of the building.’ We can handle that. If they want to put a giant window on one side and one on the end, we can handle that.”

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