Wednesday, September 30, 2020
Sept. 30, 2020

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Blokable’s plug-and-play home

Company based in Seattle and Vancouver hopes to change the construction industry

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
4 Photos
Blokable will make modular housing, in pieces sized like shipping containers, en masse beginning in April. Luke Olszewski, center, and My Tam Nguyen work in the Vancouver office on a recent Wednesday.
Blokable will make modular housing, in pieces sized like shipping containers, en masse beginning in April. Luke Olszewski, center, and My Tam Nguyen work in the Vancouver office on a recent Wednesday. (Photos by AMANDA COWAN/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Rather than building every inch of a new apartment complex — down to the broom closets — on site, what if developers could build the superstructure and then slot in prefabricated units?

That’s the premise behind Blokable, a new company with locations in Seattle and Vancouver that designs and manufactures modular housing. The Blok method aims to speed up construction and lower its costs, said CEO Aaron Holm.

“Development projects take a long time, and we’re introducing a new idea that makes it so that development projects don’t have to take as long,” Holm said in a recent interview.

“It’s not familiar to a lot of folks, so we’re going to have to blaze a lot of trails,” he added.

The company was founded in March 2016 but won’t begin selling the units until April 2017, after an official launch at a conference in San Francisco. Design work and software engineering is done in Seattle; manufacturing will take place in a recently leased warehouse in Vancouver’s Columbia Business Park.

Its units, called Bloks, are spiritual successors to shipping containers. In form, they are steel and rectangular; in function, they can be transported by truck, train and ship. Instead of shipping goods, they are purpose-built homes. They will be marketed less to individuals looking for portable housing than to developers of multifamily housing.

Renderings show sleek finished products, but the biggest asset is the Bloks’ potential for mass production, Holm said. He compares them to cars coming off assembly lines in Detroit. The Vancouver warehouse will house assembly lines where modules will be clapped together in short order.

“A lot of investment is going to be in R&D and engineering, then building a tight, automated manufacturing line,” he said.

Blokable employs eight people currently, but expects to employ 20 to 30 by year’s end.

“In two or three years, we’ll need a lot more people,” he said. “But this year is all about nailing the process — getting quality and repeatability.”

Building blocks

Holm came up with Blokable two winters ago while visiting family in Corktown, Mich. As in nearby Detroit, land prices fell in the recession. Artists, restaurant owners and entrepreneurs found they could buy land, and then buy used shipping containers to jury-rig into shops.

“You had a mix people creating community gardens, community art projects, doing all kinds of interesting stuff,” he said. “It just kind of hit me that containers gave them something to buy that they could build with.”

The steel made them dependable and weatherproof. It helped they could be shipped and transported via a long-established trade network.

Holm found that they lacked something, though.

“They weren’t well-finished,” he said. “They weren’t really places that I would feel proud to come home to.”

The 44-year-old already had the entrepreneurial know-how. After graduating from the University of Toronto, he helped found two companies in New York. One was a web application for digital photography for large media companies that had not yet converted from film.

“I’ve always been early on big transformations,” he said. “Nobody had any systems. So I understood how to build the systems and that became valuable to a lot of people. There were suddenly millions of pictures and nobody had any systems to manage all the workflow.”

Holm also had a stint overseeing brick-and-mortar stores for Amazon in Seattle. There, he said he saw the bottleneck of the construction industry.

“I started doing a lot of research and realized that, well, nobody had ever built a product for building and housing that you could purchase as inventory and have it show up like plug-and-play,” he said.

Plug-and-play

Blokable’s office at the Columbia Business Park is wallpapered with designs. Frames of units sit inside the nearby warehouse.

Different models will be available, ranging from $135 to $350 per square foot. They will be watertight, energy-efficient, outfitted with smart home technology and ready to be hooked in to utilities. A finished unit could cost between $25,000 and $100,000; the price tags, Holm said, are similar to units built on site but contractors would save on time.

“We can get the project done in half the time, which is a huge amount of savings for the developer,” Holm said.

Once sales are launched, a prospective buyer can configure a module online and put down a deposit. A single unit can be built in five days and Holm expects the company will quickly be capable of building 25 units per month.

But Blokable won’t target luxury homes. Instead, Holm said it hopes to tap into affordable housing complexes, like those constructed for veterans, students, workers and low-income families.

Though sales have not officially commenced, the company has five projects in the works. One project is a three-story building with ground floor commercial space, with 14 Bloks each on the second and third floors.

Currently, the company limits its business to within 1,000 miles of the Vancouver plant. Holm chose the plant’s location for its proximity to transportation channels.

Quick execution

Prefabricated housing isn’t new. Boomtowns — towns where workers moved in droves for jobs, often around natural resource extraction — often deployed such homes so they could be set up or demolished quickly.

And shipping containers, as mentioned earlier, have become popular ways to build units quickly. The Columbus Dispatch reported just last month that a 25-unit apartment complex was built from 54 steel containers in Columbus, Ohio.

Jean-Pierre Veillet, an adviser for Blokable and owner of Siteworks, a construction firm in Portland, said he sees developers looking to Bloks more for the speed in which they can be deployed.

“If you had something that was repeatable and pre-engineered so that you could execute quickly, that would greatly increase,” the entire process, he said, adding that longer construction times mean higher expenses.

He compared the idea to a larger-scale version of IKEA furniture: a dwelling that can be pieced together quickly and easily.

When asked why he thought modular housing in general would be welcomed by developers, Holm pointed to a pair of studies he hoped to upend.

One study says construction, unlike just about any other sector, has not become more productive with greater automation. Manufacturing productivity, for example, has doubled in the past two decades.

“Nothing has changed. Construction is labor-constrained, it’s materials-constrained,” he said.

The other study said that by 2025, there will be 1.6 billion urban dwellers in the world who live in substandard housing.

“I’m not worried about demand. The demand is out there. Our job is to make it so that they’re easy to buy and that we can meet them at the volume people are asking for,” he said.

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