Start-Up City: BLOX

Written by Jen Barnett

 Imagine that every new car had to be built by hand in the driveway of the customer who bought it. You would have to hire a contractor to manage the job, order components from thousands of vendors, and coordinate specialized workers from multiple unions. You’d have the car built in stages—chassis, body, electrical, interior, and finishes. Unhurried county safety inspectors would need to approve each stage of the build before starting the next. A mistake found at a later stage of the process could halt production and send you back to square one. Your next Toyota Camry might cost you $150,000 and take six weeks to build.

Thanks to Henry Ford and others, we take the assembly line production of automobiles for granted. Building construction, on the other hand, nearly always goes through a laborious process like the one above.

Why is that? It’s mainly because of size, mobility, and geography. Commercial buildings dwarf your four-door sedan, they don’t have wheels, and they need to be permanently built in the designated location.

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BLOX is revolutionizing that process. They believe that everything can be better and that people, communities, and the environment matter. This worldview led them to question how they could improve the building process for hospitals, where identical rooms were built across the country one at a time—much like the process for building a car in
your driveway.

The business builds entire rooms for the healthcare industry on the shop floor of a massive facility in Bessemer. Surgical suites and hospital rooms don’t need to be unique—they just need to work. BLOX standardizes things like the plumbing and head walls of a room, turning a typically three-month process into a single day of work. Rooms ship complete and ready to go—all the contractor needs to do is install them.

These aren’t the traditional Butler Buildings that
dominate the prefab space. Each innovative hospital room or surgical suite meets the quality standards of thousands of complicated healthcare codes. The plug-and-play units slip seamlessly into the most massive modern healthcare facility.

As pioneers in this field, they have no head-to-head competitors, and their first-mover advantage is a significant contributor to their success. They spent five years in research and development to develop their highly efficient process, using their combined 45 years of experience in architecture and healthcare to become a formidable player in a $40 billion industry. They’re experiencing 244 percent growth this year, and there’s no sign of a slowdown. As baby boomers age and healthcare continues its extended boom, BLOX is poised to become one of Birmingham’s biggest and best manufacturers. Read on to hear CEO Chris Giattina’s take on BLOX and its future.

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1. What’s your elevator pitch?

The cost of healthcare includes $40 billion spent annually on the construction of facilities. Healthcare systems demand that the Architecture Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry improve hospitals and lower costs, but the industry lacks the tools to comply. BLOX targets this gap with products and services that improve healthcare facility quality, deliver them faster, and reduce their cost.

BLOX extracts the most complicated conditions of traditional construction—including headwalls, bathrooms, operating rooms, and multi-trade racks of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems—and then standardizes the components at a program level, manufactures them in a LEAN plant, and inserts the completed modules into any project in a day.

2. What’s your value proposition?

The owner gets better buildings
faster. BLOX allows the owner to open a typical 50-bed hospital expansion 100 days earlier. A typical hospital may have an EBITA (earnings before interest, taxes, and amortization) of $500 per bed day, so the potential exists to harvest $2.5 million in additional profit (50 beds*100 days*$500 EBITA=$2.5 million). It is particularly enticing for a healthcare system that builds multiple projects every year.

3. Tell me about your founders and their experience. How many employees do you have?

As principals of Giattina Aycock, Laura Donald and I started BLOX as research and development project within the architecture studio. We approached it like an architecture project, studied manufacturing, tested ideas, got help from friends, borrowed a temporary manufacturing space, and launched BLOX V.1. We kept iterating, simplifying, and adding talent until it worked. Now we have 200 people including architects, engineers, programmers, managers, and craftspeople working around the country designing and manufacturing hospitals, clinics, and free-standing emergency rooms.

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4. How did you get the idea to launch BLOX?

Designing training facilities for Honda and Kia introduced me to manufacturing methods that could improve the design and construction process. The key is bringing an understanding of manufacturing to design so that its productivity can be realized in construction. We made a framework to organize our ideas and methods: we call it Design Manufacture Construct (DMC).

The design portion happens at our architectural firm, GA Studio. We design thoughtful buildings and know how to knit the manufacturing methods into traditional construction that enhance a building’s quality while speeding its delivery to market.

Our BLOX division handles the manufacturing. It was created out of necessity. We needed a manufacturer interested in making our building parts. It is lean from stem to stern and routinely works with other architects, engineers, and trade contractors.

5. Why now? Why Birmingham?

Over the last 50 years, AEC productivity has declined 25 percent. During the same period, manufacturing productivity improved 125 perecent. Nowhere is this lack of AEC industry productivity more acute than in the U.S. healthcare market.

A perfect storm made the timing right for us—national attention on healthcare improvements, the economic crash of 2009 revealing inefficiencies of AEC industry, and our background as solvers of hard problems together paved the path for our DMC approach, and by extension, BLOX.

We developed the process in our downtown Birmingham architecture firm and wanted to keep our plant equally local.

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6. What are your competitive advantages?

A comprehensive understanding of the Design Manufacture Construct, a half-million-square-foot factory, and some really smart people.

7. Where do you want the company to be in five years?

We’re building the team, the infrastructure, and the processes that, by 2020, will be able to make buildings that are twice as good for half the cost.

8. Who would you most like to connect with right now? 

We’re growing at more than 200 percent per year. Finding the right people who fit our culture is critical. We need architects, engineers, logisticians, material managers, programmers, robotic engineers, supervisors, craftspeople, and line workers. If you have skills and are interested in being part of changing an industry on a national level, we’d like
to talk.

Jen Barnett is an entrepreneur and marketing consultant at Redhawk Consulting, redhawkresults.com.