For a decade and a half Greg Siener has been at work developing an alternative to stick-frame construction in residential applications. While they’re not yet on the market, Siener was able to display the first-run production versions of Lok-N-Blok at the International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas in January. We caught up with him post-show to discuss some of the features of the 12-inch-long stackable composite blocks and when builders and dealers might begin to hear requests for the new material.
ProSales: How did you come up with the idea for stackable blocks?
Greg Siener: Sixteen years ago one of my partners and I were building a retaining wall and were frustrated with how long it was taking. I used to work in a concrete-block manufacturing facility and that’s what led me, as we were working, to begin to think if we just had a big Lego block it would be so easy to build this and be done with it.
PS: How does the process work?
GS: You design the building on 3-inch increments—the block is 12-inches long but is field-modifiable into 3-inch increments. It can be cut into 3-, 6-, or 9-inch increments and stacked together just like you would kids’ building blocks. They interlock top to bottom and end to end. They self-align because of the interlocking posts and as long as you have your first course level, you’ll have a straight, plumb wall.
PS: How does the system compare with traditional stick-frame exterior wall assemblies?
GS: You can glue to it, screw to it, nail to it and it adheres perfectly fine without pullout. The material is waterproof, chemical-proof, insect-proof, resists mold, and is 20% recycled. Once the exterior wall is constructed you put a normal top plate on and tie your trusses to that. For interior walls, you would put a plate in where the intersecting wall is going to join and nail in your 2-by-4 or whatever you’re framing with. You can use any type of cladding—including masonry, for which we developed a dovetail-shaped brick-tie. Windows and doors can be framed with and nailed to the block. Preliminary tests show that these are capable of multi-story construction.
PS: Can it handle moisture?
GS: A cavity on the inside of the block serves as a moisture channel and the dovetails and run down the outside of the block also provide a channel for weeping in between your exterior cladding and the block itself. It doesn't require a weather barrier, although we’ve partnered with Resisto Waterproofing to develop a spray-on one. We also developed a tri-layer membrane for below-grade construction.
PS: How can builders and suppliers purchase the product?
GS: We’re about one month away from having product available to the public. We looked at the two-step network but decided on a network of independent manufacturers’ reps that call on dealers nationwide
PS: What was the biggest challenge you faced in getting this to market?
GS: Capital. It took us eight years before we thought we had a viable product and in that time we’ve invested a lot of money in the product. We’re patented, we spent several years engineering and developing the product and as we progressed we conducted focus groups and prepared marketing plans using outside agents. We tried to make sure we went to the market to determine whether or not people felt this would be successful. Finding capital to actually get into production was difficult and it took time with the construction sector being so uncertain.
PS: What feedback have you received from builders and suppliers?
GS: We’ve had some builders say it would be hard for them to convert because they’ve frame their houses the same way for so long. But we’ve also had some masons say this would get the structure up faster and let the contractors start work inside while they lay the finished brick. Construction costs begin the day you dig that footer. If we can cut time out of the process, then you’re shaving expense off the top. If you’re doing it at a price that’s compatible with other forms of industry construction, then it’s just bottom-line savings.
JenTra founder Travis Kelley developed the company’s flagship product, a door installation tool that uses the door as a level, after working as a field repair and sales representative for a door distributor in the upper Midwest, where many of the calls he received for warped and twisted doors revealed faulty installation. We checked in with Kelley, who was 23 years old when he started work on the product in late 2010, to get his take on launching a building-products startup in a down economy.
ProSales: Where did the idea for the CHEATAH tool come from?
Travis Kelley: I worked as a manufacturers’ rep for a door company and saw how much money door companies were losing on warranty claims. If a door fails, the door manufacturer or door distributor usually ends up paying the claim. But most of the time doors don’t fail, they were installed wrong. A lot of very expensive doors that don’t necessarily have recyclable parts are going to dumpsters all the time.
PS: Is this something professional installers would use, too?
TK: A guy who’s been installing for 25 years or more understands the little finicky problems and what to look for and what not to do. When I first started I had no clue about that stuff, but I learned through experience. Still, my wife and I tried to install a door on our son’s nursery and it was the worst installation you’ve ever seen. No matter how much knowledge you have, you still have to have done it for many years to learn all of those nuances.
PS: So it’s designed to help people who don’t have that experience.
TK: Every door is the same—inswing or outswing, side-lite or transom or brick-moulded—and our spacers work on 1 3/8-inch and 1 ¾-inch doors. You get your door unit all packaged up. You would place it in the opening and open the door almost all the way. It’ll stand up on its own because it’s got two legs and a kick-stand, so you click the parts on—H for hinge, S for strike, T for top—spaced equally with three along the hinge and strike each and one on the top of the door. Pull the door back in the opening and use the levels in each part to determine when the door is level and plumb and fasten the hinges. Shut the door and shim at the remaining four part locations—the part-T and the remaining 3-S. You can’t over-shim that gap because the plastic part is basically creating a shim for you. A lot of contractors go to the back of the door and put shims in before they fasten, so we’re taking a step out. Then you’re done. You’re leveling and plumbing, then you’re fastening, and then you’re shimming.
PS: How long did it take to develop the tool?
TK: The original prototype was funny. All the materials were bought at the lumberyard—roofing valley tin, duct tape, foam backer rod. It was two-feet long and would scratch any door you put it on. We began working on the design and on our business plan in December 2010 and filed a provisional patent, which enabled us to begin talking with manufacturers. We worked with ThermaTru and their engineers to perfect our design. The Patent Office offered pro-bono help with writing a patent. We were lucky in part because there wasn’t another product like ours on the market.
PS: What kind of capital did you receive?
TK: We put down $15,000 of our own money but knew we’d need $100,000 in all to get our molds made and begin production, so we applied for funding through our county’s economic development corporation. They helped us hone our business plan and find financing within the community. Central Minnesota’s Initiative Foundation loaned us $50,000 and Crow Wing Power, Brainerd, Minn., loaned us $38,000. The average interest between the two loans is about 6%.
PS: Have you been able to set up distribution?