Why did you start this company?
While I was working with Amazon on Amazon Go and Amazon Books I started to connect the inefficiencies of custom built architecture and construction with what I was seeing with homelessness and housing affordability in Seattle. There was a huge need for new housing but no way to place an order. Every build was a custom job that started from scratch and took many months or years to build even the simplest of projects. The process was incredibly inefficient; like hiring a team of people to take a year to build you a car in your driveway. It seemed obvious that someone needed to build a housing product that could be ordered, built just in time in a factory, delivered on a truck, and installed on site in a matter of months or weeks.
I took my family to Detroit for Christmas in 2015 and visited a number of shipping container housing developments. Here’s a city where there’s a lot of available land and people want to build communities and bring new, creative ideas to life. They were experimenting with shipping container housing but to me the quality just wasn’t there. I kept thinking, ‘what if you could just design and order housing the way you design and order a car?’ Someone needed to build a housing product that people could just buy to simplify the process and unlock a stuck market. The same product could solve a giant market problem and create positive social impact.
Through the fall of 2015, Michael Duncan, our VP of Manufacturing, and I had been talking about manufacturing, 3D printing, and materials and how to apply them to build new and innovative forms of housing. In October of 2015 I let him know that I was serious and wanted to start a company that would create a product that could be purchased and delivered like a car and Michael said that he was in. In December, Michael introduced me to Blair Barnes, our VP of Product, who heard the idea and jumped in with both feet right away. Since we started, I’ve been amazed by how much passion there is for our vision and how many people want to contribute.
Building a product that could deliver immediate value for developers was key as they know how to build economically viable projects and how to bring housing to market right away. By taking big blocks of time out of the design and construction processes, we can then simplify the entire process and give people the tools to build their own communities.
What gave you the idea?
Blokable was an idea that I couldn’t shake. For years I had been fascinated with shipping containers. They’re such a great symbol of human ingenuity and creativity. In 2014 and 2015 I worked with Amazon on their first two physical retail stores: Amazon Books and Amazon Go. There was tremendous innovation in technology and supply chain but also frustrating bottlenecks in building physical space. We were working with advanced materials, 3D printing, industrial design, and mechanical engineering to build new parts, but the whole, the building, was still designed and constructed in a very inefficient way.
While I was researching alternatives I became fascinated with shipping container architecture. Here’s a global movement of people turning shipping containers, which are terrible building materials, into shelters, homes, stores, and even shopping malls. Early adopters are always great signals of a nascent product market as they’re willing to do a tedious, specialized work to achieve their goals. I became convinced that the world needed a beautifully designed, safe, and software enabled building that could be ordered and delivered rather than built on site. To achieve this, we’d have to design a building system that could produce different lengths, achieve different sq footage, and give customers the ability to create different designs, forms, and price points. The biggest need and where we could provide the most benefit to start was to enable developers to reduce the cost and complexity of building housing.
Who’s on your team? What was the thinking behind putting this team together?
We have a great team. There’s no blueprint for what we’re doing so we’ve had to build and tear down our product development process many times. That will continue. We have people on our team with deep industrial design, manufacturing, advanced materials, product management, architecture, building and assembly, software development, city planning, and political experience. Component fabrication, hardware / software integration, regulatory approvals, and manufacturing assembly are all areas of innovation and value creation. Our team brings all of these disparate disciplines together in a cohesive end to end product development and delivery process. More than that though this is a group of people who believe in what they’re doing. Bringing a new idea to market is a lot of work and having the knowledge that our efforts can help struggling people and families brings focus and humility to the entire effort.
What problem does Blokable address or solve?
It takes too long and it’s too complicated to build housing. Our whole mission is to empower communities to build their own housing. If you can acquire and title land, manage the permitting process, and hire a general contractor (GC) to build a foundation and connect utilities then you can build with our system. For developers, our system gives them a competitive advantage, reducing project time which saves huge amounts of money, and giving them a model they can scale.
I’ve worked on challenging and innovative products and technology over the years but leveling access to housing is by far the most exciting. The current built environment is an artificial construct. We’ve designed and built our cities in a very top down manner; it’s trickle down housing and as with trickle down economics it doesn’t work for anyone who’s not on top. Our mission is to make housing accessible and affordable for everyone which means we have a lot of work ahead of us and there will always be more to do. Imagine a world where communities can design and build their own housing in weeks rather than years and where smart home technology is for everyone and integrated into the cities and communities where we live.
Where do you see the company in five years?
We will continuously simplify the design and installation process for customers and increase the number of units we can build every week. In five years customers there will be much more self-service. Customers will be able to pull 3D Bloks into their own design and modeling tools. Building inspectors will have real-time inspection tools, and Blokable communities will be fully integrated into their cities including transportation and energy, financial, social, and support systems. Imagine a world where a community or a developer buys a plot of land to build a 3 story housing complex. They create the full building layout and get an immediate cost and time estimate for delivery and installation of the project. In a matter of months the project is completed and people and families are moving in. As more housing is needed it can be ordered and delivered. We’ll have to push on regulatory, finance, and land use boundaries to get to a more sustainable way of building but it has already started.
At Blokable we live at the intersection of industrial design and architecture. We have a deep appreciation for people who apply industrial design, manufacturing, and technology to bring new ideas to the housing market. This post is an appreciation of Tony Hsieh who has invested and continues to invest his own money to re-imagine downtown Las Vegas.
I learned about Tony’s work during my time at Amazon when I worked on both the Amazon Books and Amazon Go businesses. At Zappos, Tony had created a unique culture and a fantastically successful business that caught the eye of Jeff Bezos and was subsequently acquired by Amazon. Tony took some of the transaction windfall and purchased a block of land in downtown Las Vegas where Zappos had built its headquarters. I won’t get into the specifics of his investment or vision as those are well documented. Instead, I’d like to share some pictures and say thank you to Tony for inviting me to tour his vision.
It takes a unique blend of vision, fearlessness, and patience to go after a mission like downtown Las Vegas and I would encourage anyone who’s interested in urbanism and modular building to make the trip. I plan to return in 2017. As for us, keep an eye on the Blokable website as we have some exciting announcements planned for 2017.
Amsterdam has a reputation as an innovative city in a challenging physical location. As the city has pushed growth to the water’s edge it has slowly embraced new concepts such as modular building and floating communities. One result of this thinking is a neighborhood called Ijburg. Approved in 1997, Ijburg is built on a string of artificial islands connected by bridges and integrated into the city’s rail, auto, and bicycle transport networks. This is a neighborhood built on water and designed to deliver housing for 45,000 residents, employment for 12,000, and full services including schools, shops, restaurants, a beach, and a cemetery.
It’s not clear whether modular development was considered in the planning phase but it has clearly been key to the buildout. I had an intuition that it would be worth spending the better part of a day in this new enclave to tour the architecture and get a feel for the community.
Amsterdam was a stopover option when flying from Seattle to Stockholm. Tyler Crowley had invited me to speak at this year’s STHLM tech conference in Stockholm. My presentation was part of the ‘Sustainable Cities – Solutions’ track where tech companies were demonstrating their products and solutions to address global sustainability challenges such as food, water, energy, transportation, and cities. Modular building is an increasingly attractive option for developers to quickly build energy efficient and connected communities in urban areas. This method of development can also significantly reduce the material waste that is produced in the traditional construction process.
There are no direct flights from Seattle to Stockholm so I decided to stopover in Amsterdam to visit a neighborhood named Ijburg that I had read about and was eager to visit. As I hopped into a Tesla Model S taxi from Schipol Airport it was clear that I changed continents. I told the driver that I wanted to go to Ijburg and after giving me a slightly confused look he turned on the meter and we were off. I really had no idea what to expect and had not spent time looking at maps of the area or prioritizing my time. My goal was to walk the neighborhood and simply follow my intuition. I exited the taxi into a seemingly typical European suburb: Working families, ethnically diverse, narrow roads, wider sidewalks, lanes and signals for bicycles and pedestrians, apartment blocks with courtyards, and multi-generations shopping for groceries and attending to daily life.
Walking through the low rise apartment blocks I emerged to the waterfront and saw new construction. The new units in various stages of completion were modular structures with different forms and designs but all integrated into the neighborhood. These were single family homes with water views using different materials and colors and wide open interior spaces. I was starting to see that there were many different flavors of modular development in Ijburg which was exciting and not something I had seen in the US. While the center of Ijburg was more concrete and higher density apartment blocks, the edges were more steel-framed modular, a wider variety of styles, and lower density.
As I continued to walk I saw more and more modular development. There were big variations in style, materials, function, and density but these were all two or three story structures. There were also modular bicycle storage structures, accessory dwelling units, and restaurants and small shops. Was this the ‘missing middle’ that folks have been writing about in the US? Was this a viable model for how we might develop infill areas in US cities? If so then we should be excited to build the next generation of communities in the US.
Across the road and on the water I could see the floating home community that I had read about on my plane ride from Seattle. As we are working with a developer in Portland to build a new floating home community using Blokables I was very curious to see this project. As I approached on the sidewalk I could start to see the scale of the community and the layout which provides a connection to the land where residents park cars and unload groceries and bags. The walkways are narrow but comfortable for two people to pass each other and with built in connections for storage of bicycles and kayaks. This was a community that was fabricated more than it was constructed. Rails, decks, foundations, sliding doors, and walkways all worked together to form a system of paths and connections that move people and things throughout this floating community.
Being next to the water in Amsterdam is convenient as was evidenced by the number of people I saw out on the water and the variety of activities. I saw a group of people repeatedly blasting off and crashing back into the water wearing small jet packs on their backs. There were boaters and windsurfers out on the water and a swim race along the main Ijburg canal. There’s something wonderful about seeing people in wetsuits, swim caps, and flip flops walking around the neighborhood and having their post race meals at canal side cafes.
Ijburg is definitely a suburb but it’s a very European suburb in that cars are not first class citizens and the community is integrated with the water and with the city. It’s a new suburb positioned at the fringe of what could be considered build-able space which is a fringe that exists in US cities like Portland, Seattle, Oakland, and many smaller cities and towns in between. Perhaps I’m predisposed to like multi-cultural, multi-generational, walkable communities with good food and smiling people. But I don’t think it’s just me.
When I first met Jason Calacanis it was literally Blokable’s first day of existence. My friend, investor, and advisor Jennifer Lum had invited me to attend the March 2016 Launch Angel Summit in San Francisco as her founder guest and introduced me to Launch’s visionary founder Jason at the opening night reception. Jason was in the middle of a conversation with a network television exec but excused himself to meet me and hear our 15 second pitch. I was taken aback as Jason seemed to immediately understand our vision. We were going to change the way we build housing and create a product that could be built in factory, delivered on intermodal trucks, and installed anywhere to create new communities. He got it right away.
Jason asked that we join his incubator which was a path that I had not seriously considered. I had built more than one business in the past with some great outcomes and the idea of going through an incubator just hadn’t crossed my mind. To me, incubators were for people coming out of college with a good idea but no background in building or operating a company. Were we too experienced for an incubator? I quickly realized that I had been thinking of incubators in the wrong way, and that while raising money was a goal we also had a lot to work out with our business model, distribution, pricing, design, and really everything so why not meet every week for 3 months with some of the smartest and most accomplished investors in the world? A few weeks later I met with Jason and gave him a more detailed pitch of our vision. He invited us to join the Launch incubator and we accepted. The commitment meant that I would have to travel to San Francisco every Thursday from late April through early July to attend the incubator and jam sessions.
Week one of the incubator was a wake-up call. The audience didn’t know what we were talking about. Brian Alvey’s feedback was, “I don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t know what I’m supposed to buy.” What had been a clear product vision in my mind was obviously not coming across in our pitch and while we had already had investment commitments I realized that we were a long way from being able to communicate our plan. Right after I left the incubator I called the team and said that we needed to have our first product design ready for the following week’s incubator.
The following week we won the pitch contest and I was hooked on the process. Now I was going to use the incubator to test every assumption and message and accelerate our product development process. For the rest of the incubator we tested different prices, messages, designs, and stories. We changed the sequence of the pitch, the customer quotes, the tagline, everything. And every week we met with investors, some of whom wanted to look at investing and others who either don’t invest in our market or wanted to wait until our product was in the market so they could see the full experience. We became part of a community that would have otherwise been unavailable to us and we will be in touch with this community as we grow. We met investors, journalists, advisors, growth hackers, and other founders who had their own challenges and stories to share. And we came to own our story and to understand how we can make an impact in the world.
But raising seed financing for a pre-product, pre-revenue company in the spring of 2016 was not easy. We met with a lot of folks who would have seemed, on the surface, to be obvious investors, but they wanted to see market traction and we just weren’t there yet. In June and July, we were very excited by the positive reaction from developers and have amazing and visionary customers who will use our product to build new communities in 2016, 2017, and beyond. But we weren’t there yet in April or May and hearing honest feedback from the incubator audience each week was exactly what we needed. We were building our business in front of this community and had a forum to be completely transparent about our priorities and challenges. I believe that this was the biggest benefit of participating in the incubator as we were determined to show progress every week which required disciplined collaboration from our team; a team that was just coming together.
Making progress each week in the incubator brought us to a climax on July 14th at the Launch Angel Summit where we pitched on stage to an audience of over 40 investors. The room saw our vision and we had people’s attention. We had many conversations with seasoned investors who were really thrilled with what we are doing and added a number of investors who typically focus on other markets such as mobile and SaaS.
Blokable has a mission to change the way we build. We ask people to imagine a world where we could build in days instead of years using our modular buildings that are smart, energy efficient, built in factory, shipped on trucks, and assembled on site in days. Taking millions of tons of wasted materials, millions of dollars, tens of thousands of hours, and hundreds of millions of dollars out of a broken process is worth a lot of hard work. The housing crisis is local, regional, national, and global. By 2025, 1/3rd of urban households, 1.6 Billion people, will live in substandard housing unless we change the way we build. Our team believes in our mission and the hard work it will take to bring it to reality.
Jason saw the vision in the first 15 seconds of our first conversation and has been behind us ever since. Looking back now as we have moved out of our planning phase and are now heads down building a fantastic product for our early adopter customers it’s easy to see that the incubator was a transformative experience that gave us a real advantage. We’ve met friends and have shared experiences. Building a business in front of a small community requires honesty, hard work, and trust, and we’re grateful to be a part of the Launch community.
I’ve been watching downtown LA slowly bloom for over a decade. In a previous life, as a partner in Industrial Color, we spread our wings from New York City and opened our second office in LA. Coming from New York it seemed natural to locate downtown where the tall buildings were concentrated and where the words ‘Los Angeles’ were written on the map. But in the end it was not an ideal location because of traffic patterns but also because there was not really any photo production going on in downtown. There was not much of anything going on down there. It was easy to park, but it was genuinely sketchy and for the first few years there weren’t really any options for food or entertainment. Not a lot of fun for our staff or clients. But there were early signs of change; artist studios, adventurous galleries, and bars that served cocktails I had never heard of but no obvious indication that there was critical mass. This was 2005.
Fast forward to 2016 and downtown LA is now blossoming. I visited in late February, mainly to meet with my friend Steve who owns and runs Smashbox Studios in Culver City, but also to have a fresh look downtown and specifically at the giant One Santa Fe development at the edge of what’s now called the ‘Arts District.’ The photos I had seen reminded me of a giant cruise ship built with highly modular components and living and retail units. At Blokable we’re breaking housing down to its core elements and one industry that’s long built units, in this case ‘cabins’ is the cruise ship industry. Cruise ship cabins are built in factory, on an assembly line, similar to the way in which cars are manufactured. The cabins are then installed in the cruise ships, bringing the housing units together with a foundation which in this case just happens to float. I wanted to see this fantastic structure that resembles a giant ship on the border of LA’s main railway artery. I wanted to walk the neighborhood to get a feel. I was looking for optimism and to see whether this modular building was connected to the community that it is depending on for success.
One Santa Fe
One Santa Fe is an immense building. 510,000 square feet with 438 units on a 4-acre site; a $160 Million development project. This is a mixed-use complex with a Pilates studio, grocery store, cafe, architectural and arts bookstore, and a number of other small shops all within the main structure and with a focus on the creative customer. It feels like a grand experiment, concentrating the elements of an up and coming neighborhood into a single, purpose-built complex. I visited mid-morning on a Thursday and the area immediately around One Santa Fe was quiet. Stores and cafes were open and I had a lovely fresh juice at Cafe Gratitude then strolled over to Hennessy + Ingalis which is a small bookshop with a fantastic selection of architecture books. I browsed through what was easily the largest number of books on modular, prefab, container, and manufactured housing I have ever seen. It was difficult to buy only one book.
Signs along Santa Fe Ave indicated that a number of new shops were on the way including one called ‘Amaze Bowls’ which made me laugh out loud. Collectively, these shops are consistent with a new kind of retail that fits in with mixed-use development projects that we’re seeing in urban infill areas. Farm to table restaurants, organic grocers, interesting and ethnically diverse small restaurants, arts and indie focused bookshops, and small arts and music venues. These are generally not chain retailers and they’re selling more crafted and difficult to find items that speak to creatively minded residents. Richard Florida calls these residents the Creative Class. Creative class customers don’t want commodity goods that can be easily ordered from Amazon.com. They want experiences and locally made food and goods. They want to buy from people they know who have really curated their selection and have an idea that they want to share in the form of a store, cafe, or restaurant. I also prefer to shop in smaller stores and eat food made by people who care. It’s just more interesting, rewarding, and healthy. One Santa Fe is a mixed-use building in an urban infill area and the retailers they’ve brought on board to fill the street front retail spaces were clearly chosen to serve the needs of a creative residential community. This is the first development of this size that I’ve seen that has brought independent stores and small chains into a large development as part of the overall mixed-use strategy. There are no national retailers as they simply wouldn’t belong.
Had this been an isolated building, disconnected from the local community, the architecture and mixed-use philosophy would feel more alien. But One Santa Fe is a large-scale expression of the organic growth of the surrounding neighborhood. The ‘Arts District’ sign is usually an indicator that a neighborhood has reached critical mass on its own to reach the awareness of municipal government who then bestow the appropriate label, signage, and zoning. As I stood in the middle of the road taking photographs I could see through the window of the Southern California Institute of Architecture as a group of students mapped the future on a whiteboard; the ultimate collaborative creative endeavor. It made me happy to see these students thinking about architecture. And it made me happy that it was hard to find parking, easy to find fresh food and art, easy to find lunch for a vegetarian, easy to find locally designed and made fashions, easy to see young, creative people who are trying new ideas and ways of living, and easy to bump into a photo shoot or catch a glimpse of the downtown skyline though a little bit of smog. People are making stuff.
Southern California Institute of Architecture
Urban infill is in a different state in Los Angeles than in cities like Detroit and Oakland. Los Angeles is huge and there’s a wealth of industry and upward mobility for creative people. Unlike Detroit, there’s a large market of local buyers who have the interest and means to purchase fresh food, books, art, fashion, music, and culture. Los Angeles is on the map and connected to New York City and the global creative scene, which can help young makers build their customer base and sell into markets around the country and the world. There are also many people who work in non-creative industries but who want to stay engaged with new ideas and culture. Unlike San Francisco, Los Angeles is sprawling with miles of industrial land; enough to change zoning to allow mixed-use and experiment with different concepts of what it means to converge residential and commercial interests. For now, there’s enough space for everyone to thrive without the kind of conflict for affordable housing that we’re seeing in San Francisco and, increasingly, Seattle. Classic art deco buildings reminiscent of ‘Barton Fink’ can coexist with industrial warehouses straight out of ‘To Live and Die in LA’ and new concepts like One Santa Fe all within easy access of the busy downtown core. Vastly different models of development that happily coexist thanks to the experimental and creative preferences of the new neighborhood residents and business owners.
One Santa Fe wouldn’t work in the downtown core and it wouldn’t work in the suburbs. It likely wouldn’t work in most other cities but somehow it does seem to work in the Arts District in downtown LA. It was quick walk from One Santa Fe to Wurstkuche for a quick bite on the recommendation of an LA savvy friend. This is a lunch spot that specializes in sausages but they had several delicious vegetarian options. Again, it was clear that I was in an area where I was welcome and where the retailers had thought about me. A Lincoln Continental passed by driven by a model and tailed by a film crew who appeared to be shooting a hip hop video. There were a number of sidewalk cafes open and serving lunch to fashionable dressed millennials and boomers. Around the corner at Urban Radish, another local grocer, the lineup for sandwiches wound out the door. On every corner, in between warehouses, and in the remaining empty lots I could easily picture Blokable units dropping into place and adding residential and retail capacity to this energetic neighborhood.
Fantastic sausages including vegetarian options
Local art with downtown skyscrapers in the background
Michigan Ave, Christmas Eve, 2015
For Christmas this year we visited family in Windsor, Ontario. It made sense to stay in Detroit so we found a rental apartment called Honor and Folly, located in Corktown near the lot where Tiger Stadium used to be and within sight of the Ambassador Bridge to Canada. We arrived on Christmas Eve with hungry kids in an empty city. I set out immediately to track down groceries and dinner as nothing was open on the hip Michigan Ave strip where our apartment was located. I knew that Detroit had a Yemeni community – a fact I had learned after talking to the owners of a Coney Island Hot Dog diner visited in 2003 – and Yelp pointed me to a grocery store in Hamtramck, an area that I remembered as being mostly Polish, about 15 minutes away.
I drove along empty streets, past abandoned houses and lots, and through a blend of history and the future. As I drove along Caniff Ave I rolled down the window to listen to the Azan, the Muslim call to prayer that was echoing through the neighborhood on Christmas Eve. The Yemeni grocery store and kebab restaurant were exactly what we needed and were both busy with customers from a variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. I returned to Corktown with food.
Looking South on 14th Street
Corktown was empty. It wasn’t hip or cool it was just empty. I started thinking about urban renewal and what a long and unpredictable process it can be. How is it that neighborhoods transform and cities make the transition from decline to growth? Perhaps it all starts in the fringes. The areas between the downtown skyscrapers and the sprawling suburbs. Detroit is a city of many fringes. Born of the exodus that dropped Detroit’s population from 1.86 million in 1950 to less than 700,000 today. These fringes are areas where people are inventing their lives, building communities of art and commerce, raising families, and testing ideas of what it means to live in a city. In these fringes there are fits and starts. Successes and failures. In these fringes many people want to grow their own food, buy goods from each other, celebrate homegrown music, and most importantly, build.
Previous forms of construction won’t meet the needs of these new communities. Skyscrapers, factories, warehouses, mcmansions, malls, and corporate parks won’t belong. There may be some retrofitting, but there will also be new kinds of structures and even more exciting, new models for mixed-use. What does mixed-use mean when it’s coupled with renewal? A garden, solar power generation, affordable homes, and affordable retail?
New communities have new tools at their disposal to allow them to produce rather than simply consume. These new communities of makers can grow generate most if not all of their own power, grow their own food, design schools for their children, and create art. It’s possible to see these movements as a sum of their parts: local arts, farm to table, renewable energy, makers, hipsters, off the grid, co-living. Like minded individuals forming communities based on shared values and that wonderful blend of optimism and empowerment that is required to create a cultural shift. I saw all of these qualities in Detroit, in natural tension with the neglect and fear inherent to the status quo. It reminded me of the neighborhood where I grew up in Toronto, the neighborhood where we bought our first home in Miami, the neighborhood where our daughter was born in Brooklyn, and developing areas of Seattle where we live now.
At the edge of Corktown is a structure would appear to exemplify the challenges inherent to renewal. A multi-story home, built from shipping containers, next to an abandoned house, next to an interstate, and in the middle of what feels like nowhere at the edge of what could reasonably be called Corktown. A residential builder decided to make a go of it and built a new kind of home. As desolate as the area was when I visited on Christmas day, there was a woman running her dog in the vacant lot behind this home. I couldn’t tell where she had come from but it seemed obvious that she was a local. An early member of a new community that on Christmas Day seemed nowhere to be found. The Corktown shipping container home was pushing the neighborhood outward.
A recent Curbed article claimed that shipping containers serve as a model for urban ‘infill.’ In the short time that I was in Detroit I learned of a number of projects at various phases of completion that were using shipping containers for housing, retail, and arts centers. Architects and developers in Detroit are taking urban spaces and using shipping containers as canvas for their creativity. Containers are cost effective sturdy, readily available, and easily combined to build homes, stores, retail complexes, and small communities. We started blokable because we’re excited about the potential of shipping containers to solve problems including, but not limited to affordable housing and urban renewal. We’re just getting started and the fringes of Detroit were a vivid reminder of both the potential and the challenges that lie ahead.
And then on the 26th, Corktown was busy again. Where one night before I would not have taken the kids out for a walk at night it was now impossible to find parking. The bars and restaurants on Michigan Ave were packed with generations of patrons. The block was vibrant and alive and was the most lively scene I’ve witnessed in over 25 years of visiting Detroit.