A worker in Blokable's Vancouver, Wash.-based manufacturing site
Andrew Pogue A worker in Blokable's Vancouver, Wash.-based manufacturing site

This story originally appeared on the ARCHITECT website.

The signs have been clear for some time now: Elon Musk is planning to dig tunnels under cities for his Hyperloop transportation projects and newly announced “car skates” that will, someday, perhaps, zip vehicles from downtown Chicago to O’Hare Airport. Google is building a dense mixed-use development for its workers in Sunnyvale, Calif., and a highly optimized, sensor-filled, data-driven neighborhood in Toronto. Tech hothouses like Y Combinator have periodically announced plans to build entire cities from scratch. Clearly, the tech industry has grown bored with the virtual world and now has designs on reshaping our actual urban reality. This is happening even in the torpid backwater that is the residential construction industry.

Consider Factory OS in Vallejo, Calif., which is manufacturing housing modules designed to be stacked into four- and five-story apartment buildings. The company delivers units “tech ready” and fabricates them with “cutting-edge software.” It’s launching an Innovation Lab at the factory in partnership with UC Berkeley. Meanwhile, Menlo Park, Calif.–based Katerra, with over a billion dollars in venture capital, is applying its technological know-how to the manufacture of engineered timber building components for use in multifamily residential and mixed-use projects.

“They Are Going to Change the Paradigm”
This comingling of tech and home building practices, driven by an urgent need to build more quickly and inexpensively, is what brought me in early April to a beige industrial park near the port of Vancouver, Wash., just across the Columbia River from Portland, Ore. I was visiting the manufacturing site for a company called Blokable—a 50,000-square-foot warehouse that the firm regards as its “prototype small factory.” The company, according to founder and co-CEO Aaron Holm, is in the business of “delivering housing development as a service.”

Blokable’s Blok S unit
Bob Martus Photography Blokable’s Blok S unit

I first heard about Blokable from an old friend who lives in Portland and sent me a message via Twitter: “They are going to change the paradigm.” I was immediately skeptical. I visited the firm’s website and found a rendering showing a 328-square-foot unit of hyper-optimized living space, standing alone against what looks like a sky at twilight, with trees and water in the background. It could be Thoreau’s Blok. Nothing distinguished it from the legions of precious mini-houses that have proliferated online in recent years, most of them more cute than revolutionary. What really got my attention, though, what made me think my friend’s claim was not just hype, was the story Holm told about his compulsion to build housing for more people, both cheaper and faster.

Prior to founding Blokable in 2016, Holm worked in project management at Amazon, handling the rollout of two of its brick-and-mortar outposts, Amazon Go and Amazon Books. That’s when he became infatuated with boxes—shipping containers, to be precise. He noticed that even though they’re made of “terrible building materials,” designers have been compelled to transform them into housing. He also noticed, as he got Amazon’s storefronts up and running, that the construction industry can be frustratingly inefficient. He realized that some part of the current shortage of affordable housing has to do with the fact that home building is a “completely opaque process.”

Interior of a Blokable unit
Bob Martus Photography Interior of a Blokable unit

Blokable could be just another company hawking diminutive but swank homes to post-Millennials. But Holm has no interest in supplying the high-end market with prefab status symbols. Instead, he’s taking on our current housing crisis. According to a 2017 study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, on average there are just 35 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 extremely low-income families. The tech industry itself is partly to blame for rising real estate, with tech-rich cities like Seattle experiencing skyrocketing rates of homelessness. In a January op-ed for a Vancouver-area newspaper, The Columbian, Holm wrote: “We must shift the focus from a construction challenge to a manufacturing challenge and drive time, complexity, and cost out of the process to bring housing supply to the market where it’s most needed.”

Holm founded Blokable to manufacture an object that had the formal simplicity of a shipping container but that was properly outfitted as a house, and that would more or less materialize on its foundation with the myriad layers of permits and approvals signed and sealed. Holm imagined that he could “create a product that could be purchased and delivered like a car.”

Holm is, of course, not alone in his dream of the assembly-line house. The concept stands at the core of decades and decades of prefab fantasies. (See Buckminster Fuller.) Everyone thinks they can be the next Henry Ford. But houses, unlike cars, have an additional layer of regulatory challenges. Building codes and zoning can differ from town to town or block to block. It takes a lot of disrupting to upend that reality.

A rendering of Seattle multifamily infill made from Bloks
Courtesy Blokable A rendering of Seattle multifamily infill made from Bloks

For instance, consider Kasita, an Austin, Texas–based company selling a sleek 374-square-foot unit that, like Blokable’s, can be freestanding or stacked. Targeted to the individual home buyer, someone who might want an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) for the backyard or a dedicated Airbnb rental, the Kasita is available at three price points. The high end, $129,000, includes automatic blinds and a long list of brand name upgrades: Bosch appliances, a Casper mattress, a Sonos Connect streaming audio device. What’s not included in this seamless lifestyle package: an estimated $24,000 in permitting, site preparation, utility hookups, foundation work, and shipping. If you’ve ever built a house, you know that that’s an optimistic cost estimate, and the workload associated with these additional tasks can seem infinite.

Blokable, on the other hand, is unusually focused on these grittier pieces of the puzzle. The company has raised money from Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital ($4.8 million) and another $11 million, according to Holm, from “investors who believe that the built environment is about to undergo a fundamental transformation driven by technology” and also those who see “housing as a platform to create opportunity.” Although not impressive by the standards of the tech industry, the seed money has given the company an important luxury: the ability to spend the first years of its existence perfecting the box and the systems that support it.

A worker in the Blokable factory
Andrew Pogue A worker in the Blokable factory

Legos to Build With
During my visit in April, I spent the better part of an hour in a conference room with Nelson Del Rio, the company’s co-CEO and one of its founders, and Timothy Miller, the vice president of design. Del Rio is a developer whose other company, Sonnenblick-Del Rio, specializes in upgrading the quality of public buildings by changing the financing model. He talks a great deal about “the dirt,” as in: “I understand what it means to build on dirt. I know what dirt value is.”

Miller, who got his architecture degree at Tulane University and went on to study design strategy and business, spent a few years at the Seattle office of Teague and, like Holm, is a veteran of the Amazon Go project. He thinks of what he’s doing at Blokable as developing “architecture for manufacturing instead of architecture for construction.” Miller doesn’t regard himself as the designer of the final product, whether that’s a cluster of single-family homes or multifamily developments constructed from stacks of Bloks. Rather, he sees himself as the creator of a tool kit that architects can use to design their own bespoke projects. “It gives them the puzzle pieces,” says Miller, “the Legos for them to build with.”

Whether or not architects buy in, Blokable’s vision is a radical departure from previous prefab projects, from Marmol Radziner’s line of multimillion dollar units to Michelle Kaufmann’s more attainable Glidehouse line. The first generation of 21st-century prefab designers were auteurs, intent on playing the conventional role of architect, always retaining creative control. Blokable professes to be in pursuit of something else entirely: the ideal version of the generic, replicable housing unit.

Prototypes on Blokable’s factory floor
Andrew Pogue Prototypes on Blokable’s factory floor

“If you look at the type of housing that we really need to build—middle-income, low-income, no-income housing—standardization is great,” Holm argues. “The nonprofits we work with … they don’t want to pick the toilet. They want a good product team to go in make those decisions and figure out how, by using standardization, we can drive the price down.”

On the other hand, a more design-driven client might want to customize a standard module, in which case Del Rio believes the firm can accommodate those changes. “Without telling you how our buildings are put together, they’re designed to be highly flexible on the standard production process. Let’s say we had a west L.A. architect who said, ‘I want a NanaWall across the whole side of the building.’ We can handle that. If they want to put a giant window on one side and one on the end, we can handle that.”

When I visited the factory floor, I saw a trio of rectilinear prototype units, each steel framed but with slightly different configurations and palettes of cladding materials, including a ceramic product, cement board, acrylic/resin panels, paper fiber composites, and Cor-Ten steel. The one that I actually stepped into is set up much like the mock-up I’ve seen on the website: It’s an extremely modest arrangement featuring a living/sleeping room with kitchenette, a closet, and a bathroom. The entrance is on the side with a big window next to the door and a slight overhang above, suggesting the potential for a porch.

A rendering of a Blokable unit
Courtesy Blokable A rendering of a Blokable unit

Each Blok is a puzzle—like a Rubik’s Cube—of functions that the design and construction teams are configuring and reconfiguring. Miller and Del Rio pointed out prosaic details like a floor drain that will help mitigate a shower or toilet backup. They told me the interiors will feature a type of bathroom wall paneling, Krion, that purifies the air and kills bacteria. While Blokable hasn’t fully embraced the “smart house” concept, each unit is designed for net-zero-energy use and is, says Holm, “fully integrated and managed by a software platform. All of the customers have a dashboard where they can see in real time everything that’s going on for power, water, humidity, air quality.”

When I visited, the warehouse, apart from the model Bloks, was conspicuously empty. I was told that sometime in the near future it will support two production lines with 16 to 18 units in various stages of completion, including a village of 12 Bloks, seven one-bedrooms and five studios, destined for a site in Auburn, Wash. The client for that project is a mental health and substance abuse nonprofit called Valley Cities, which is building the homes with backing from the state. “Now,” says Holm, “we’re switching gears from two-and-a-half years of engineering, regulatory approval, different systems innovations into starting to deliver and ramping up our production scale.”

Workers are fabricating some components in-house—steel frames for example—using digitized equipment. They’re still finalizing the ways the Bloks connect to the wider world: pipes stick out of the exteriors for plumbing connections and, inside, USB ports await digital ones. And they’re especially focused on the joints, how one Blok meets another Blok. “So, when we look at the building,” Del Rio told me, “we walk through every bolt and every joint and where water is placed, where electrical is placed, and ask, ‘If and when it fails, how is it repaired?’ ”

Interior details in a Blokable unit
Bob Martus Photography Interior details in a Blokable unit

I admit to being disappointed by the prosaic appearance of the Blok prototypes. But something Del Rio told me early in our conversation started to make sense: “It’s not the box. It’s the process.” He was speaking in part about manufacturing the Blok: designing it so it can move smoothly down an assembly line. But he’s also deeply concerned with that list of tasks that most modular home vendors treat as afterthoughts: how to get a given type of Blok inspected and signed off on by, say, the state of California, so that it’s not subject to local building inspections and approvals, and how to eliminate the work of the army of subcontractors that might ordinarily be required to connect even the best-designed module to the local infrastructure.

A Return to Modernism’s Social Mission
When we were just about done touring the production floor, and I thought my visit was coming to a close, Del Rio started talking equity. “If we can get dirt cheap enough,” he told me, referring to land costs, “if we can develop houses in the most efficient way possible … ” He speculated that one of these little houses could “amortize at $500 a month or $800 a month.” (Consider that in Seattle, a one-bedroom apartment rents for about $2,000 a month.) “If we produce a home for $200 a square foot,” Del Rio continued, “even in a crash, that’s affordable.” The most up-to-date Blok prototypes include a 300-square-foot studio and a 400-square-foot one bedroom—$60,000 and $80,000, respectively. (Holm puts the actual price at “$125,000 a door,” including site work and installation costs.)

“Until you solve the production problem you’ll never solve the financing problem,” Del Rio told me. I asked him to clarify: “So you’re saying that if you can push building costs low enough in a systematic way, all the other societal problems and chronic inequities will fall by the wayside?”

“Not necessarily fall,” Del Rio responded, “but if you look at the root of education and health, living environment is key. If I’m living in a trailer or a tent or just in a sleeping bag, I can’t possibly be raising a family who’s healthy and prosperous. It’s just, there’s no way. The reason I’m in this company is because if I can solve this piece of it … it’s the linchpin.”

Of course, there are a host of other problems to solve. How to you change zoning laws to allow more multi-unit housing? How do you get the federal government to directly subsidize housing that is permanently affordable? But to Del Rio, the answers to those questions become much easier when housing costs less to produce. “How do we build working class neighborhoods? I think it’s a chicken and egg thing. They can’t make that policy until you can actually produce it cheaper.”

A worker constructing a Blokable unit
Andrew Pogue A worker constructing a Blokable unit
A worker in the Blokable factory
Andrew Pogue A worker in the Blokable factory

Over the years, I’ve had any number of conversations about different approaches to prefabricated housing, and most of them wound up being about how to supply architectural style to people who couldn’t otherwise afford it. But this is a different conversation. It’s about the basic need for affordable shelter. It’s about using architectural skills and technological chops to circle back to the original social mission of Modernism. What Blokable is doing is returning to that moment, circa 1926, when Walter Gropius asked that simple yet vexing question: “How Do We Build Decent, Beautiful, and Inexpensive Housing?”

Holm’s response, when I suggested that he’s living the Bauhaus dream, betrays a hint of tech sector smugness: “True, but we’ve taken it into the execution phase.” I’m not convinced that Blokable intends to crack the “beautiful” nut. But the upshot on the other two fronts is pretty clear: If you build housing cheaply enough, more people can afford homes. And that, as my friend suggested, could change the paradigm.