CEO Aaron Holm in The Columbian: Even housing can be an Internet product
CEO Aaron Holm was recently featured in The Columbian’s special insert as part of its annual Economic Forecast breakfast. His op-ed, which can be found in its original format here, is below.
Even housing can be an Internet product Drive costs down by producing homes like mobile phones
We are experiencing a severe housing crisis in the Pacific Northwest. Homelessness is increasing, and housing affordability is in peril. These problems cannot be fixed by simply adjusting. We need to rethink housing in its entirety: land use, regulation, finance and construction methods.
Though we have more computing power in our smart phones than we had in data centers 20 years ago, we still build housing as if most modern technology didn’t exist. Your mobile phone is an incredible camera, GPS, audio recorder, health tracker, personal assistant, and augmented reality interface. Yet it still costs less than $1,000 is because it’s mass-produced. If you were to build that same phone the way we build housing, each device would cost millions of dollars.
Your smart phone has hardware and software that work together to deliver useful features and experiences. We don’t think of housing as technology, but we should because housing should be the ultimate technology product.
Vancouver could be the center of the housing innovation we need. The city already boasts a high-quality manufacturing supply chain, a strategic geographic location and a talented workforce. All this makes Vancouver an ideal hub to change our economy. It’s why my company, Blokable, chose the city for its manufacturing headquarters.
We started Blokable to help solve a huge problem in the Pacific Northwest. While productivity in manufacturing has nearly doubled in the last decade, it has remained flat in construction. To address the housing crisis, 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.
Blokable’s manufacturing facility is already ramping up to deliver housing supply and improve the lives of our neighbors in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California.
Our first product is the Microblok, an Internet first. The Microblok is a 260-square-foot, single-story, beautifully designed apartment that is manufactured in Vancouver, transported by truck, and installed and connected to the Internet, other Microbloks, and to utilities on site.
Microblok is plug-and-play housing for students, veterans, people experiencing homelessness, teachers, firefighters, service workers, seniors and others for whom quality housing is not currently attainable. Microbloks are installed in clusters to create integrated communities.
In the same way water, power and sewer must work for housing to be livable, we see the Internet as a core utility without which housing is severely compromised in its capabilities. That’s why the Internet is the first utility we connect.
Each unit can report performance. It’s equipped with fire and smoke detectors, security, temperature control, power consumption tracking and leak detectors. Each Microblok can even be regularly updated via software to improve performance and advance user experience. These are basic features that should be inherent in every new residence, not added on as an afterthought.
Changing behavior won’t be easy. Shifting to manufacturing and buying product rather than building custom projects threatens the profits that complexity creates. The way we entitle land, regulate, finance, build and even measure success is based on the traditional model of site-built construction. However, building endless custom projects limits innovation.
Urbanist Jane Jacobs famously wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” And we in Vancouver can help pay off that vision by building smarter communities with technology that serve each member. When we build Internet-first housing products we can open up a new market for technology and services that are truly built for the communities they serve. We can provide housing as a platform on which new tools and services can be built.
But we must have the courage to change the way things have always been done. We must work across industries to eliminate friction against new kinds of housing, meaning the public and private sectors must partner. Traditional real-estate leaders must be willing to try new products. And emerging industries such as technology must support policies and technologies that help populations vulnerable to spikes in the housing market.
We’re not alone in this vision; investors such as Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital, Urban.us, Borealis Ventures, Jason Calacanis and Kapor Capital have invested $6 million to build a technology company that can dramatically increase the supply of high-quality housing at the fastest pace and lowest cost. But we cannot rely on funding and technology to solve the problem. Public officials, civic leaders, architects and urban planners must all work together.
Given the seriousness of the housing crisis, we must move quickly to provide new tools and options. We need to build long-lasting communities together - and now.
BIO: Aaron Holm founded Blokable in 2016.