As a serial startup founder and former Amazon manager focused on the company’s physical retail spaces, Aaron Holm was used to seeing technology solve problems. But when he began experiencing the holdups and delays that came with building stores, and connecting some of the issues he was seeing on the street in Seattle, such as homelessness and housing affordability, with the old-school approach of much of the construction industry, he began to see a new problem that needed a tech-savvy approach.
The inspiration led Holm to found Blokable, a company that manufactures a high-tech, customizable housing unit to order, last year. Inspired by seeing individuals and DIYers renovate and redesign shipping containers, he thought there was a market for a “beautifully designed, safe, and software enabled building” that was affordable and ready to order.
Holm says the company aims to strategically tackle the big issues facing the housing market. In a larger sense, there needs to be a broader conversation going on about how to use land, what kind of housing is needed, and what gets built, considering constraints around space and labor. With homelessness and affordability such huge issues in cities across the country, it only makes sense to apply a different mindset to building homes, instead of what he calls “trickle-down housing” built in a top-down manner.
“There’s no way the current way we’re building is going to solve the problem,” he says.
Blokable plans to build what it calls Bloks, which can be trucked from its Vancouver, Washington factory, a WWII-era shipyard on the Columbia River, to sites across the northwest. The rectangular units, which can be stacked to form denser housing, will range from 18 to 34 feet in length, cost $150 to $350 per square foot, and are envisioned as the modular pieces of future apartment complexes. By manufacturing in a central facility, both the design and building processes are cut in half.
The company’s first product, MicroBlok units, are meant for workforce, student, veteran, relief, and homeless housing, “anyplace where two people could fit in 260 square feet space,” Holm says. The company sees promise and potential in the affordable sectors of the housing market, especially since they’re designed to be able to fit into infill developments as well as other vacant or underused locations. These units will cost between $58,000 and $85,000, depending on the level of customization and furnishing.
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The first MicroBloks will be installed in January in Seattle with a company called Compass Housing Alliance, in East Palo Alto with a non-profit named Soup, and in the Vancouver area with the local housing authority. Holm has says the product has been well received in general from local authorities and regulators.
“This provides a brand-new option for cities looking for ways to open up limited land,” he says. “It’s not for every type of project, but for affordable housing, it’s a new option.”
To differentiate itself, the company made a more unified design approach, as well as smart home technology, central to its product. Each unit includes a BlokSense module featuring ways to adjust, track, and control power, light, water, temperature, and security systems (units can even link up to the messaging app Slack to enable communication with building ownership). Holm says each unit will feature different modes and settings for the unit’s systems, including sleep and vacation.
The approach has also attracted funding from big names in the tech world. Vulcan, owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Kapor Capital from Oakland, California, and Jason Calacanis, a notable angle investor, have all contributed to a $4.8 million funding round, according to GeekWire.