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.