Building blocks at Blokable may change industry

After $4.8 million in investments, Seattle-headquartered company plans ramp-up at Vancouver operations

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer

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There are a few numbers that seem to drive Blokable, the local startup company with deep-pocketed investors.

One is that global construction spending is a $10 trillion endeavor. Much in the same way HP Inc. is drafting ways to upend manufacturing with 3-D printers, Blokable has set its sights on disrupting housing construction as we know it.

Another number is more alarming: according to The Brookings Institute, more than 1.6 billion people will live in substandard conditions by 2025.

“We have to make big changes,” said Blokable CEO Aaron Holm.

With plans to mass produce sleek yet affordable housing units, Blokable has the designs for change. Its grand plan is to mass produce dwellings — called “Bloks” — cutting costs dramatically and making them more affordable. Its first product, the Microblok, is in essence a 260-square-foot studio apartment, with a living space, bathroom and kitchenette. Bloks can be combined and configured into bigger dwellings.

“Mass production is the big opportunity to drive costs out of the process,” Holm said. “The opportunity is to use advanced manufacturing, materials and fabrication to fundamentally change the way we build housing.”

Blokable’s production facilities are located in Vancouver.

Some big names and wealthy investors have bought into that idea. Recent filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission show Blokable has raised $4.8 million in startup capital, backed by a mix of tech, real estate companies and organizations with tilts towards social justice.

Jason Calacanis, an entrepreneur and veteran of the dot-com boom, joined its board of directors. Based in San Francisco, Calacanis rose to prominence after founding Weblogs.com, which AOL bought in 2005, and he became an early, “angel” investor in ride-hailing service Uber.

Vulcan Inc., a real estate developer, philanthropic organization and investment firm from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, also put its weight behind Blokable. Holm said signing Vulcan underscores its potential to leverage tech and automation to shake the residential construction sector.

“They’re venture capitalists, philanthropists and developers,” Holm said. “They understand the industry and understand the changes going on and they believe in what we’re doing.”

‘Interesting DNA’

Blokable, founded in March 2016, has turned some corners this year.

Though headquartered in Seattle, Blokable’s day-to-day progress hinges on work in Vancouver. Its operation here has grown; last week its local facility moved from the Columbia Business Park to a 50,000-square-foot facility on West Fourth Plain Boulevard.

Blokable is still months away from rolling any Bloks off an assembly line, though. Holm said they have to design the mass production process from the ground up. They have assembled some Bloks for demonstration.

“The whole process is: for every part that we’re assembling, we have a path to look at how to automate,” Holm said. “It will be a work in progress as we move from manual assembly to automated assembly.”

Two sales are on the books, for housing projects in Seattle and Palo Alto, Calif.

Blokable’s workforce has grown, as well, from about eight employees earlier this year to 20, Holm said. Specialists such as structural engineers, software developers and industrial product designers are woven together. It has hired veterans from Boeing and Fathom, a 3-D printing company in Seattle, and Holm himself is an Amazon alum. That makeup has caught investors’ eyes.

“There is some interesting DNA that understands these products really well (and) at the same time understands how to bring about a highly-scalable operation,” said Travis Connors, a venture partner with Borealis Ventures, a New Hampshire investment firm. Connors said Borealis invested two months ago.

Upscale and scaling up

A closer look at the early investors shows Blokable’s attributes.

Borealis Ventures brings sharp focus on innovation in the construction world. Half of its investments fall under the so-called “build environment,” technologies such as 3-D printing and the Bloks.

By targeting affordable housing, Connors said Blokable has the potential to be “an industry standard.”

“All of our metropolitan areas around the country are suffering from a lack of affordable housing and our current techniques of construction don’t scale for providing housing” at an affordable price without government subsidies, he said.

That its goal is addressing a crisis for low-income people, and oftentimes minorities, attracted investment from Kapor Capital. The firm is an investment arm of the Kapor Center for Social Impact in Oakland, Calif.

Driving through Oakland on her commute, Carolina Huaranca Mendoza, a principal for the firm, saw tent cities swell over the past two years. She said Blokable can help close the gaps for the disadvantaged.

“There are a lot of risks in it, and we recognize those, but we think given who (Holm) is and the team in place, that it’s on path to doing something that could have a great impact on a problem that is extremely pressing in our society right now.”

Vulcan Inc. is likely the marquee investor. The multibillion dollar firm has stakes in hot companies such as Spotify, DreamWorks Studios and Redfin.

Besides splashy investments, Vulcan is also a philanthropic agency and a prominent real estate developer in Seattle, responsible for corporate campuses and residences in the city’s South Lake Union tech hotbed, among other places.

Stacking up

Blokable has a lot of promise, many say, but it is also still very early to tell if it will succeed.

From its new location at the Westside Business Center, Blokable can truck units to developers, stack them and plug them into utility lines. Because it sells to developers, as opposed to direct sales to occupants, investors hope that will drive adoption.

“There’s this whole movement now of stackable shipping container homes, teeny homes, but you have to have the land or accessory dwelling (capability) that assumes you have a home,” said Huaranca Mendoza.

By the same token, convincing many developers to look to plug-and-play homes as an answer isn’t going to come overnight, she said.

Bloks will also come equipped with in-home software to provide data on energy consumption and more.

Coupled with the mass production, the company is one of the most promising in Clark County, said Mike Bomar, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council.

“It’s not just a local product, but their look is more national and global,” he said.

Still, companies aren’t called disruptive because everyone is happy to change. If Blokable or a company like it succeeds, it would mean change for traditional construction companies.

Huranca Mendoza said she expects workers will have to “level up.”

“In this process, they may be creating new types of jobs,” she said, adding that she has been visiting schools where students are taught how to use 3-D printers and taught fabrication. “I think there’s a lot of opportunities for them to create new types of jobs for people that may have been overlooked and it’s a pathway for people to break into tech.”