Steve Glenn, Founder and CEO of Plant Prefab chats with Betsy about innovation and the Future of Housing, covering topics such as #mods, #LEED, #HealthierHomes and more.
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Speaker 1 (00:05):
You're listening to the housing innovation Alliance podcast in partnership with the university of Denver's Franklin L burns school of real estate and construction management. The housing innovation Alliance is a nationwide community of game changers driving the future of home delivery through crowd accelerated innovation. We represent thought-leaders from dirt to dwellers with a focus on the production builders business environment.
Speaker 2 (00:32):
Hi, I'm Betsy Scott with the housing innovation Alliance, and I'm here today with Steve Glenn. He's the founder and CEO of plant prefab for modular builder. You have a unique origin story. Um, having started as a design studio, can you tell us how you got into the building business and how the precursor to plant prefab living homes came to be?
Speaker 3 (00:53):
My first love growing up was architecture. I had Legos and books and Franklin, right? And he said he architects and I wanted to be an architect. I got to college and I got involved in technology, which was kind of career 1.0 for, for me, co-founding a company sold to Apple were trappable was at Walt Disney imaginary and was part of the founding team of idea. Lab started one of our companies. Um, so had a career in tech after all that, I finally decided that the time was right to get into real estate. So going back to college, I had done a design program one summer, and I, I discovered there that I really had an, either the talent or temperament to be an architect, but I learned about Jim Rouse and he really became my first role model. By example, I never met him. Um, Rouse was a really important visionary developer who did a lot of important stuff, but he helped me to appreciate is, um, if you actually care about the quality of the built environment, developers are more important than architects because they, they hire architects or not, and they let them do interesting things.
Speaker 3 (02:05):
The other thing is, um, he was the first social entrepreneur I was ever exposed to and I went to college in the mid to late eighties, social entrepreneurs. It wasn't yet a term I like Rouse was, um, uh, wanted to try to help create a better society through my work. I recognized that, uh, people who worked in nonprofits and teachers and healthcare workers, those folks did that every day by virtue of the work they did, but I was drawn to commerce and, and Ralph was the first guy that helped me to appreciate that there are businesses that went profit and purpose. I was like, I want to do that someday. So after career 1.0, in tech, as I mentioned, I started thinking about real estate. There was a large and growing number of people who like me really value design health and sustainability are strategy.
Speaker 3 (03:00):
We'll get great world-class architects. We will integrate an extremely comprehensive environmental program, lead platinum. And our first home is the first home ever certified lead plat for stone. We designed we've done more than almost any other design firm. We'll use outsourced prefabrication to more efficiently build what we built five years ago when it was really trying to figure out, um, solving the supply chain issue. But it realized or concluded was if there was a company factory company set up not to do standard low quality non-sustainable onsets, existing guys, but rather custom high quality, very sustainable homes. If that factory existed. And it was set up the right way, not only would it solve our needs, but much more important from a business model standpoint, we organized it, right. We could solve the needs of hundreds, of thousands of individuals and small developers and, and affordable housing nonprofits who are building in cities and who need a more efficient way to build. Now it's custom stuff. So you've got to figure out how to do custom more efficiently with sounds like an oxymoron, but you can talk about that later, but so that's so, so what we realized is, wow, this opportunity is way bigger than looking homes. So we grew the company into plant prefab, um, uh, five years ago. And, um, and, and it's, and what was living home since downward design studio, um, uh, and we have standardized homes. We call them living homes, but frankly, most of the homes we're building are for other architects.
Speaker 2 (04:50):
So in essence, you kind of became the big kid version of your little self, um, in mass customization, it's like taking out that big box of Lego blocks and there's, you know, different sizes. You're just, there are unlimited possibilities of how you can configure them if you're looking at things that are designed to be connected. So, um, so that's kind of a, that's kind of a fun way to get back to your childhood roots
Speaker 3 (05:18):
Now to, to both continue the metaphor. Um, uh, and also kind of explain a little bit about what's unique to us. We started as an all mod designer and, and, um, but we, we came to appreciate that and, and, and the industry is, you know, the pre-fab industry, there are two major building systems, modules, and panels, and people do one or the other. Um, uh, but both offers, certain advantages of modules are great because you can build offsite in parallel to your site work. So it could be quicker, can be lower cost depending upon what you're doing, where, um, certainly no weather delays can, can be leveraging full-time staff instead of sub. So it can be a little bit more dependable. Those are all great advantages. The downside, particularly for the multifamily guys is that there is a lot of redundant structure and so convene solving for height and, and with it can make it more difficult.
Speaker 3 (06:18):
Um, uh, it's just hard to solve certain design problems with those big Lego pieces. And then the second issue is it's expensive to ship air and hospitals have a lot of air, um, you know, 15 to $20 per month per mile. It does not scale elegantly. Um, in, in, in contrast panels, you know, they, they, they ship flat. Um, so great for transportation because there's smaller components. You can solve design challenges, uh, more elegantly many times, but the existing, um, uh, kind of panel technology, um, uh, sip, um, structural insulated panel, you, you basically getting your you're framing your, your, uh, insulation, but you still have to do electrical and plumbing in your, your, your cladding and your, your drywall. And if it's a kitchen or bathroom millwork and your tiles and your appliances. So now I've lost a lot of my parallel construction advantages.
Speaker 3 (07:21):
They get mods by lower cost labor, my construction delays, weather, all that stuff is gone. So we said, well, probably a better solution is a hybrid approach. Number one, number two, let's design, a better panel. And we did that. We call it a plant panel. We have an issue patent where we're, we're building with automation. So now we get great flexibility because again, we're in the custom business. So we care about flexibility. Um, but we also care about efficiency. So we can build with automation. It's a cost issue. You've got greater design flexibility. Um, we can do all, we have our first all panel solution and why just because of transportation, access other, uh, site issues. It just that's the better way of doing it. We still do all minds, but most of what we're doing are hybrid where, where we've got mods for kitchens, baths, utility cores, with the expensive parts of the house, it is a key enabling technology that allows us to do the custom architecture projects. We do more efficient than, than the site guys. And, and frankly, most other pre fabricators.
Speaker 2 (08:32):
You mentioned lead for homes and that you did the first lead for homes, platinum certified house. Why did you choose lead?
Speaker 3 (08:40):
Um, it, it is the only national green building certification program period. Um, there are some other regional programs, but nobody has the reach, the reputation, um, the infrastructure, uh, of lead, like no one even comes close. So that was easy, but maybe higher level, like why is this important? I think consumers have shown time and time again, that if you are a company making anything in any space where you make sustainability or health claims, they're going to trust more, an objective third party, um, organization, ideally, non-profit that, that examines what you're doing, particularly vis-a-vis others and certifies you or rates you. Um, so the organic food industry really didn't take off until there was the organic certification. So two with sustainable wood with, with forest stewardship council certification, um, lead has done that for four buildings, homelessness, many programs. So we, um, uh, w for us, this isn't, this is core DNA. It's not green washing, like building for ourselves. We care about this stuff. So we AE wanted an objective third-party measure of what we're doing. Vis-a-vis others, cause many people were making claims back in the day and still are. And so, alright, good. Have someone look, look, look at that. Um, cause we knew there were a bunch of consumers who care about that. That's part a, um, part B was, um, uh, we, um, we, we want to be held accountable,
Speaker 2 (10:31):
Right? So you just weren't relying on the point system. It was your way, your way of setting the bar and holding yourselves accountable to your own set of standards. So we're hearing from builders and developers and consumer research that health has become a more marketable value proposition than energy efficiency. And in many cases, sustainability from reading about your 60 zero missions seems to be the benchmark. And I think you just mentioned in terms of indoor air quality and things that you're looking at, um, to drive performance in that area. Can you tell us more about what you're focused on, um, and why from a healthy home perspective
Speaker 3 (11:12):
In indoor air quality is, is our big focus, um, uh, health issues for homes. First of all, it's it's frankly the only one that has like really good science and a lot of science, you know, some areas are, are more thoroughly researched and peer reviews than others. And not none by far better than indoor air quality. That's been our major focus.
Speaker 2 (11:37):
So I read something about a collaboration that you have with the LA architectural firm Brookson, Scarpa on a project for LA County housing innovation challenge. And there was a mention of that being attainable and some unique stackable, um, systems from an architectural perspective. That seemed really interesting. Um, both in its implications, you know, construction and structurally, and then also on the attainable housing side. So can you share a little bit more about that project?
Speaker 3 (12:08):
Sure. Yeah. So we raised, um, that raised me or granted a million dollars from LA County, um, as part of a competition that we, we, we were one of the winners, um, uh, for innovative affordable housing solutions and we developed, uh, a, um, affordable housing system with Brooks and Scarpa and the first project will be, um, here in Santa Monica. That's where the design studio is based with, uh, uh, community Corp, um, which is, uh, uh, a great affordable housing nonprofit, um, in Santa Monica.
Speaker 2 (12:43):
Most of our listeners know the quality, no, that quality, consistency, and speed related arguments for building homes in a factory. So you've, you've mentioned attainable or affordable housing. What are some of the sources from a benefits from a cost perspective?
Speaker 3 (13:01):
Um, right. I mean, we, we were doing a bunch of work in Northern California. It's the most expensive place to build in the country right now. It's just crazy expensive. So are we saving money? Yes, we are saving people money and we've had people bid out site versus us and, and, and the economics are, I mean, we pay people a great living wage in Rio Alto, California, you can buy a new home there in the 300,000 new home in Northern California, um, in a place like San Jose, the average home is a million dollars. Um, and so people get paid three times that, and even then they can't afford housing. So, um, so again, it always, this whole issue of cost is, well, what are you doing where
Speaker 2 (13:47):
Finally, um, you are a serial entrepreneur and innovator, you know, you've been, you've worn lots of hats and done lots of interesting things, always looking to create a new and better mouse trap. Um, so what are your current priorities for growth and innovation within plant prefab?
Speaker 3 (14:06):
Well, w w we're um, we've been very fortunate, um, considering an essential business we've been open the whole time. We were never shut down and, um, we, um, currently have more demand than we have for our services. Then we have current ability to build. So our big priority is our next facility and, um, we've got a bunch of RFPs out to different sites, um, uh, to, to, to, uh, uh, hopefully find, um, the right one so that we can get our factory 2.0 up and running.
Speaker 2 (14:45):
Well, good luck on that front. And, uh, and we'll, we'll stay in touch
Speaker 1 (14:57):
On behalf of the housing innovation Alliance and the university of Denver. This is Dr. Eric Holt. Thank you for being part of our journey. This is where innovation calls home.