Paul Allen’s Vulcan backs ex-Amazon manager’s modular housing startup Blokable
Investors are taking note of Blokable, a Seattle startup founded by a former Amazon manager that aims to cut costs for builders and residents alike through the construction of tech-powered manufactured housing.
According to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Blokable has raised about $4.8 million out of a $5.5 million round. The document lists Jason Calacanis — prominent angel investor, one of the first investors in Uber and an entrepreneur known for the popular publishing site Weblogs that sold to AOL in 2005 — as director. Some of the company’s other investors include Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc.; Borealis Ventures, a New Hampshire investor that focuses on the built environment; Urban Us, a venture fund for startups aiming to improve cities; and an Oakland-based firm called Kapor Capital that invests in companies addressing social needs like affordable housing.
Vulcan is a notable get for Blokable, as it is a big local player, an experienced developer — having built thousands of housing units in Seattle and developing Amazon’s urban Seattle campus — and a philanthropic company. Aaron Holm, Blokable’s CEO, declined to discuss ongoing financial matters but said these investors all align with the company’s goals of making housing more affordable by disrupting the building process.
“Our mission is to make housing accessible and affordable for everyone, and we think to do that you need to make fundamental change in the process of how we build it,” Holm said. “What everybody was investing in was our ability to start ramping up our output.”
The company’s modular units are pre-fabricated in a warehouse in Vancouver, Wash. Because units are pre-made, Blokable can reduce design time by as much as 70 percent and cut building time in half. And in the real estate industry, time most definitely is money.
After being manufactured in Vancouver, units are trucked to the construction site where they are craned onto the foundation, connected to utilities, and stacked several stories high. The units are already wired up when they arrive at the construction site, and customers have the option of adding basic or high-end finishes.
Eventually Blokable plans to build everything from single-family homes, to accessory dwelling units that share property with existing homes, to market-rate apartment buildings, to affordable housing. The company’s first projects focus on affordable and workforce housing developments, student housing and senior living. These projects feature Blokable’s first product, MicroBloks — units that are approximately 260 square feet with full bathrooms and kitchenettes.
Blokable has projects in the Seattle area, Auburn and Vancouver, Wash., as well as Portland and the San Francisco Bay Area. Blokable is working with Seattle affordable housing developer Compass Housing Alliance on a Seattle-area project set to open in January. Blokable also has a project in East Palo Alto, Calif., where it is working with Soup, a nonprofit founded by Google design director Joshua To that aims to solve social problems like affordable housing and access to clean water.
“What we can provide is the ability to build housing to groups for whom it’s otherwise difficult to scale anything and get anything built,” Holm said. “To go through the traditional process can be very complicated and time consuming and difficult just to get anything built. We can work on projects that can move quickly, and we can provide a lot of help because we have in-house architecture, we have in-house engineering, so we can really help the customers work out how to get projects through.”
MicroBlok units cost $85,000 for a fully furnished “plug and play” unit, Holm said, and $58,000 for an unfinished unit.
Blokable projects will come equipped with a suite of smart-home technology called Bloksense that includes a tablet on the wall able to control temperature, lighting and other aspects of the unit. The technology can integrate with programs like Slack, giving residents the ability to chat with property managers.
As the company prepares to complete its first projects it is growing as well. The company is expanding to a larger manufacturing warehouse in Vancouver, from 30,000 square feet to 50,000 square feet in the new facility. The company also signed a lease for a new Seattle office space in the Little Saigon neighborhood.
Today, Blokable has approximately 16 employees, including architects, builders, mechanical engineers, business intelligence people and more. It should get up to 20 by the end of the year, Holm said. Some of the company’s recent hires include former Expedia senior director of technology Sandy Anuras, who is the Blokable’s vice president of technology; award-winning architect Yassi Esmaili; PicMonkey co-founder and engineer Justin Huff; and former Expedia engineer Jason Kim.
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 13 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.
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 Blokable.
One of Holm’s primary goals is to open up greater access to housing, both for residents and builders. Many of the projects Blokable will pursue might not otherwise get built Holm said, due to the financials not adding up for traditional developers, and a labor shortage in the construction industry impacting on-site builds.
“It’s a split market: If you’ve got a lot of money, and you’ve got land and you want to build your own home, there’s a lot of different options where the need in housing is building affordable housing and building workforce housing,” Holm said. “You’ve got people traveling hours and hours everyday just to get to work because they cant afford to live near where they work. The current industry is not capable of building enough housing to meet demand, and part of it is due to the built-in inefficiencies in the construction process.”
Nat Levy | GeekWire