Aaron Holm was an important player in Amazon’s physical retail push. As a product manager, he worked on the company’s bookstores, of which there are now 10 planned or built, and he also helped develop the checkout-less Amazon Go convenience concept.
These were complicated projects to be sure, but the biggest issues weren’t in the technology. The pain points came from dealing with the building process: finding and working with the firms that design and build the stores, permitting projects and doing site work to get ready to build.
“We built and launched Amazon Books in something like nine months,” Holm said. “There was a ton of innovation that was done in a short period, and all of our constraints were architecture and construction. All of our time bottlenecks were based on those two parts of the process.”
At the same time, Holm watched as thousands of new people came to Seattle every year — many to work at Amazon — while developers struggled to build enough housing to keep up with demand. This scarcity contributed to rising rents and played a role in Seattle’s issues of homelessness and housing affordability.
Holm also carried with him a long-held fascination with shipping container construction, used in construction of everything from houses to shopping malls.
This confluence of events gave Holm the motivation to leave the online retail giant to start his own company, Blokable. The Seattle startup focuses on manufactured housing, with goals of speeding up production, cutting costs for builders and making a dent in housing affordability.
“I was really deeply involved in the scaling out of building physical space (for Amazon),” he said. “And I just saw how inefficient the industry was, and it all just sort of made sense to me in a moment, and from that point when it all came together, there was nothing else that I wanted to do.”
Saving time, cutting costs
Blokable today in San Francisco showed off a “roadshow” version of its manufactured units, which are made in a plant in Vancouver, Wash. Holm told GeekWire that these units, called Bloks, aim to cut 30 to 50 percent off build time, and save developers approximately 10 percent on costs.
Holm compared the way we build housing today with how computers used to be put together: completely customized, leading to a lengthy building process. Holm sees an opportunity to bring a technology and factory mindset to housing construction, speeding up building times.
Bloks are available in lengths from 18 feet to 38 feet and customers can add basic and premium kitchens and bathrooms as well as modular deck, stair, railing, and window systems. After being manufactured in Vancouver, Bloks are trucked to site where they are craned onto the foundation, connected utilities, and stacked up to five stories high.
Blokable will build everything from single-family homes, to accessory dwelling units that share property with existing homes, to market-rate apartment buildings, to affordable housing.
All Bloks will come equipped with a suite of smart home technology that includes a tablet on the wall with the ability to control temperature, lighting and other aspects of the unit. The technology is integrated with Slack, giving residents the ability to chat with property managers.
Blokable is ramping up production right now, and its first few projects are focused on emergency housing for homeless people, as well as a market rate project in Utah. Though Holm wouldn’t share many details of the projects, he did say the company is working on homeless and affordable housing in Seattle, Portland and Palo Alto, Calif. In Eden, Utah, Blokable is working with Summit Powder Mountain to build a 24-unit apartment project set to open in Spring 2018 on the mountain.
Jeff Werbelow, Summit’s head of development, said Blokable’s approach is saving time and money on the project.
“Instead of starting from scratch, we had designs in place in a week,” he said. “We’re looking at a one-third reduction in total project time in a difficult-to-build location at a price below the cost of traditional construction.”
Blokable is starting small, but as it ramps up, the company’s larger projects could support several hundred units each. It plans to put out about 20 units per month in the early part of next year and could expand production if it lands more customers.
Holm said the company is looking to take on projects within 1,000 miles of the Vancouver factory, which means a big chunk of West Coast is fair game. But don’t expect to see a Blokable building pop up in downtown Seattle, Portland or San Francisco. The company is focused more on areas near transit in Seattle-adjacent cities like Edmonds and Shoreline or Tukwila.
Standing out from the crowd
As developers look for ways to speed up costly projects, modular building has become a fashionable option. It allows for structures to be built in the controlled environment of a warehouse, while work to prepare the site happens concurrently, shaving time off the project. Prefabricated units are then delivered to the site where teams can apply the finishing touches.
Modular projects have popped around Seattle and in other cities as well, so what makes Blokable stand out? The smart home technology for one, Holm said.
The other is the scale, and ability to easily repeat projects. Most modular projects still come together in the mold of a traditional development. A developer finds a site and hires an architect to come up with a design from scratch. Blokable has a different model that calls back to Holm’s product management background with Amazon.
“The whole focus on product is about repeatability and scale, and having a lineup of SKUs that don’t differ from project to project. We are always using our building system product for the solution. We are not customizing anything for any given project because you just can’t reach scale when you are doing project work.”
Today, Blokable has 10 full-time employees, including two architects, builders, mechanical engineers and business intelligence people. The company operates out of a small office in Seattle’s University District, with one of the perks being proximity to all the cheap and delicious noodles they can eat, Holm said. Another, is the opportunity to change how housing is fundamentally built.
“In this particular market and in this particular business, there is an opportunity to create a wildly successful company that also makes a hugely positive impact on the society where we live,” Holm said. “It’s really hard stuff that we are working on, advanced manufacturing, changing rules for housing, shipping. The team is just incredible, and getting people behind this idea has been really rewarding.”