You can buy almost every element of a smart home from Amazon so, “would it make sense that Amazon take it to the next level and simply start a construction company to build smart homes?” asked customer experience futurist, keynote speaker and author, Blake Morgan during a speech back in April.
It is a topic we discussed at length in an article titled ‘Would you Live in a Smart Home Built by Amazon, Apple or Google?’ the same month. Just last week, an investment by the Amazon Alexa Fund suggests the firm is taking big steps towards that goal.
On September 25th, Amazon was announced as a major investor as part of the $6.7 million Series A funding round for Plant Prefab, a modular home design and prefabrication company based in Rialto, California. The firm claims to be the first “home factory” in the US focused on sustainable construction, materials, processes and operations, proved by the fact that many of its modular homes are LEED certified. Plant Prefab says its approach reduces construction time by as much as 50% and cost by 10-25%, especially in major cities. Their new homes are now expected to be preinstalled with Alexa voice control systems.
“Voice has emerged as a delightful technology in the home, and there are now more than 20,000 Alexa-compatible smart home devices from 3,500 different brands,” said Paul Bernard, director of the Alexa Fund. “Plant Prefab is a leader in home design and an emerging, innovative player in home manufacturing. We’re thrilled to support them as they make sustainable, connected homes more accessible to customers and developers.”
This is not the first time Amazon has made such an arrangement. In May, the retail giant completed a deal with Lennar, the biggest home builder in the US, to pre-install Alexa in all the new homes they build. It is, however, a first for the modular construction industry, which offer a host of benefits for the optimization of construction process, in what has become a highly inefficient multi-billion doller industry.
“We love working with companies that make a world positive impact on everyday lives. Plant Prefab is focused on dramatically improving efficiencies and environmental responsibility in the $330 billion market for new homes in the US. With increased costs, labor shortages, reduced affordability, and the enormous impact housing has on carbon emissions, there are few challenges more important than creating more accessible, healthy housing,” said Andrew Beebe, managing director of Obvious Ventures, another major investor in Plant Prefab’s Series A.
One area unique to Plant Prefab is its commitment to the fast-growing urban home market. Increased urbanization, along with growing population and climate change concerns, have been driving demand for single and multifamily housing. Irregular plots, varying zoning regulations and unique access have essentially required new projects to need custom design solutions. In addition, a growing number of cities are requiring, homes that use less energy, water, and other resources, while consumers are increasingly demanding smarter home built with a more environmentally responsible approach.
“Most existing prefabrication companies in the US focus on standard, low quality, non-sustainable mobile and modular homes - for suburban communities. Plant Prefab is unique in that we’re focused on custom, high quality, very sustainable homes and we have a special facility and a patented building system optimized for this. We build based on client’s architects or clients can select from a growing number of homes we offer from world-class architects, all of which can be customized for specific lots and client needs. By building in an all-weather facility with lower cost and staff labor, we offer clients a more reliable, time and cost-effective alternative to local, urban general contractors,” says Plant Prefab Founder and CEO Steve Glenn.
The demand for building quickly, cost and time efficiently, and sustainably is growing and traditional builders have difficulty meeting these needs. “In the housing-crunched major cities like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, along with areas like Silicon Valley, it takes too much time to build a home from groundbreaking to occupancy, and labor shortages, construction delays and increased construction costs are exacerbating this trend even further -- and making homes increasingly less affordable,” adds Glenn.
The company's collaboration with Amazon is its latest high-profile partnership, following work with architect’s Ray Kappe and Kieran Timberlake, and designer Yves Béhar. Plant Prefab also recently used its advanced construction skills to help to rehouse many of those affected by the Napa Area wildfires that occurred last year.
For Amazon and the Alexa Fund, who typically back start-ups in the voice technology space, this represents a new market and a step towards the construction of actual “Amazon homes.” For the smart home sector, this is another bold move by a potential giant that will put products and those that work with it in a commanding position, most likely increasing the number of products that will become compatible with Alexa.
And for society, this is a significant step closer to the futuristic, voice-controlled homes many have dreamed of, albeit homes built by a firm that has developed a skill for making people buy stuff.