Alexa, build me a house

What happened: Amazon Alexa Fund and Obvious Ventures invested $6.7m Series A for Plant Prefab—a modular prefab home builder.

Who is Plant? They’re an LA-based modular, prefab builder focused on high end, single-family and low-rise multifamily homes. They build mostly in wood and have a strong eco-bent and fondness for connected homes.

Why Plant? One, there’s growing interest in modular and prefab in general, made most evident by the somewhat recent SoftBank-led investment in Katerra, as well as other investments in the last couple years like FullStack Modular, Kasita, and Blokable.

But according to Plant CEO Steve Glenn, the investment has a lot to do with providing Amazon a testing ground for their connected devices. He told Fast Company, “We will work with Amazon to integrate Alexa and other smart home technology they have into our standard home platforms…[and] working with them to create better integrated Alexa and other smart home technology solutions to help improve the quality of life and utility of people who live in the homes we build.” Continue reading “Alexa, build me a house”

Can there be an Amazon of housing?

A recent WSJ article reported that the disproportionate gains in labor productivity in recent years have affected a small percentage of companies. They write that, “the most productive 5% of manufacturers [in all sectors] increased their productivity by 33% between 2001 and 2013, while productivity leaders in services boosted theirs by 44%.” During that same period, “all other manufacturers managed to improve productivity by only 7%.” 

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the reason for the disparity is what they call diffusion—i.e. innovation and talent are being consolidated by the largest players and not diffusing to the smaller ones.

The market reach and pocket depth of giant multinational corporations—Amazon, Google, Apple, IKEA, Toyota, etc.—enable them to attract top human capital and make large technological investments. These resources create a nearly-insurmountable innovation gap for their smaller competitors and upstarts. In fact, the number of first-round VC financing was down 22% in 2017 versus 2012, and many attribute this to the dominance of companies like Amazon and Google. Investors might be asking why bother competing when the big guys will create a superior product in-house? Continue reading “Can there be an Amazon of housing?”

Affordability is the freaking amenity

If you have an hour to fill and are interested in the intersection of design and affordable housing, you could do a lot worse things than watch this talk at Harvard’s School of Design’s Reframing Housing from a few weeks ago (below). The panelists represent some of my favorite designy, affordable projects of the last decade or so. Each represents a way to develop in a different urban (or non-urban) condition and all the considerations that condition entails. All are worth knowing about if you don’t already.

From Philly, there was architect Brian Phillips. His shop, ISA, has done of a ton of cool infill projects that incorporate a variety of cost-saving, energy-saving, design-savvy stratagems for affordability. ISA is the design force behind Postgreen homes, makers of the 100k house, a LEED platinum townhouse in Philly’s East Kensington neighborhood that was built for $100/sf. Postgreen—powered by ISA—has done a bunch of similar project with names like Awesometown and Avant Garage. Continue reading “Affordability is the freaking amenity”

The (construction) robots are coming

“The machines will never replace the human,” Jeff Buczkiewicz, president of the Mason Contractors Association of America, told the NY Times regarding the role of robotics and masonry. Jeff was speaking to the Times at the Spec Mix Bricklayer 500 bricklaying competition (who knew, right?), where fast-handed masons race to build high-quality walls in the least amount of time.

Also at the competition was SAM, a $400k bricklaying robot by Construction Robotics. SAM was slower than the humans (who could lay 7-9 bricks/minute) and didn’t have the “human element” Buczkiewicz claims is necessary to lay down bricks—elements like opioid addiction and onsite deaths, we assume. Nevertheless, the Times wasn’t so convinced the masons are safe from the robots.

The article feels portentous. Things are bad and seem to be getting worse for America’s contractors, masons included. Labor shortages are delaying projects and adding expense. The workforce is aging and younger folks are showing little interest in learning construction trades. The only people who might not want robotic intervention are the current contractor labor force, who are crushing it. Continue reading “The (construction) robots are coming”

NYC gets mod complex

Interest in modular construction is exploding. Modular factors into Katerra’s product offerings. Google is working modular into their Quayside master plan and has commissioned 300 modular units from upstart Factory OS, bound for employee housing in Silicon Valley. And a handful of interesting companies are moving into the space. Now the city of NY wants to go modular. The city’s Modular NYC RFI and RFEIs are looking specifically at modular solutions to help meet De Blasio’s Housing New York 2.0’s ambitions for creating and/or preserving 300k affordable housing units by 2026.

The “I” in the RFI is a brain-dump from “market participants,” explicating how modular will work in a variety of multifamily settings throughout the boroughs. The RFEI “invites expressions of interest for modular affordable housing construction on private sites within the five boroughs,” with the aim of expediting “the pre-development process” for successful RFEI  respondents. These preliminary steps will be shortly followed by an RFP for a project built on city lands. Continue reading “NYC gets mod complex”

Katerra: Construction’s $865 million question?

What?

Silicon Valley-based construction tech company Katerra announced a SoftBank-lead $865M Series D.

Why?

It’s common knowledge the construction industry is FUBAR. It’s second to last in terms of labor productivity of all major industries; it’s one of the least digitized major industries, spending <1% of revenue on R&D; and “large projects across asset classes typically take 20 percent longer to finish than scheduled and are up to 80 percent over budget,” according to McKinsey. Look no further than Denver’s unfinished VA hospital that’s gone $1 B (B as in boy) over budget as a case-in-point.    

Continue reading “Katerra: Construction’s $865 million question?”

What I really want to know is, are you going to build my way?

Robbie Antonio is a Filipino self-portrait collectorTrump friend, and real estate mogul (or the scion of one…not clear). He’s also the dude behind Revolution Pre-crafted Properties, a company offering design-y prefab homes that can supposedly be shipped anywhere in the world. Their portfolio features designs from starchitectural offices such as Libeskind Design and that of Jean Nouvel.

RRP is now getting in the city-building business with a development called “Batulao Artscapes.” BA will be “The World’s First Livable Art Park” (we know how many people want to live in art parks).

BA sits on 346 acres 50 miles outside Manilla away from any coasts. It will, according to CNN, feature “12 different styles of [factory-built] home[s] set across four ‘villages.’….residents can choose from prefabs designed by notable creatives, from artist David Salle to the musician-turned-interior-designer Lenny Kravitz.”

So far as we know, this is the largest prefab development ever conceived. The project’s ambitions are only matched by the number of unanswered questions we have: ones like who, in a country with a per capita GDP of $3K, is going to buy funky modernist homes costing $50K-$1M (USD) set Florida-retirement-community-style in the middle of a jungle?

With a completion date said to be in 2020, our questions may soon be answered.

Bigbrotherville

Alphabet/Google came out guns blazing last year with the announcement of Quayside, a planned city-within-a-city (Toronto) whose technological infrastructure will put Masdar City and Agrosanti to shame. According to The Atlantic’s Laura Bliss, Quayside will have a “self-contained thermal grid” with recirculating energy, carless sections, autonomous transit shuttles, convertible modular buildings, and much, much more.

Sounds dope. But there’s another aspect that’s less dopey: “a data-harvesting, wifi-beaming ‘digital layer’” covering the city. This layer is ostensibly designed to improve urban UX, but Bliss asks, “But to whom, and how, would this data be made available? And what would such an arrangement mean for any Quaysider who doesn’t wish to be monitored?” In other words, would you want Google or former Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s administration to know your every move? Would Ford have wanted anyone knowing any of his every move?

Lest we get too worked up about the whole deal, let’s remember building cities is hard—even within existing cities (just ask Tony Hsieh). Sidewalk Labs—Alphabet’s urban lab helmed by city-hating CEO Dan Doctoroff—has pledged $50 million to Quayside. That should cover a four-story mixed use building, and maybe a bus stop. The rest of the funds will likely come from private developers, who will no doubt make the Sidewalk project more pedestrian.

Any way you look at it, using cities-as-data-mines will be a big deal in the coming years for cities new and old alike. Expect many questions in this realm as well as a growing focus on how data harvesting affects real estate valuation.

One Step Forward, 6,533 Steps Back

Last week was NAHB International Builders Show (IBS) in Orlando, Florida. Per tradition, the show builds The New American Home (TNAH), an offsite showcase for the latest and greatest in single-family home design and construction.

This year’s entry put the “NAH” in TNAH (it’s also like real estate’s case of IBS…so many puns to choose from). The 6,533 square foot “Tuscan” five bedroom behemoth featured two double garages and a master bathroom suitable for bathing at rhinoceros. Read Treehugger’s Lloyd concise takedown of this monstrosity.

The house is a sad commentary on the mindset of American builders.

Single-family housing is still the main type of American housing, making up 76% of the housing stock. And there’s a huge deficit of low-and-mid-market new housing. Harvard reported last year that “Between 2004 and 2015, completions of smaller single-family homes (under 1,800 square feet) fell from nearly 500,000 units to only 136,000. Similarly, the number of townhouses started in 2016 (98,000) was less than half the number started in 2005.”

This deficit at the middle and bottom exacerbate an already-bleak housing situation. And while there are intermittent signals that builders are interested new, modest models of single-family housing, the TNAH shows that, despite its bad press, the McMansion is alive and well.