Getting personal with Steve Glenn, CEO of modular construction startup Plant Prefab
One of the most exciting developments in the contemporary AEC space is modular construction: we’ve watched over the past few years as modular construction has become ever more complex, efficient and architecturally interesting. Plant Prefab is one of the companies driving this change, and Steve Glenn is the startup’s CEO. StrXur spoke with him about the industry, his background and what gets him going in the morning.
StrXur: Tell me a little bit about your background and how it’s led you here.
Glenn: As a kid, I loved architecture. I got to college and got involved in technology, which is where I spent my career before Plant. But, I still thought I might go into design. I learned about developers, and one in particular, a guy named Jim Rouse, who turned me onto a few things. First of all, he was the first social entrepreneur I had ever been exposed to. He was the first guy to help me to understand that you can wed profit and purpose with your companies. He also, much more importantly, helped me to appreciate that if you actually care about the quality of the built environment, developers are just as important as architects, because they actually set the agenda. They control land. They control budget. They control what ultimately gets built. So, I concluded I should become a developer someday.
StrXur: What role does technology play in the company?
Glenn: Technology is pretty important to what Plant Prefab is doing. We’re building a lot of technology into the homes themselves. We announced a few weeks ago an investment that included Amazon. You can expect to see a lot of cool, integrated, smart home technologies in the future. That’s in terms of our product.
Here at Plant Prefab, we’re building a component-based building system that will make it easier for us to do what we do. Unlike most prefab companies, we’re not trying to build the same thing again and again. We’re focused on the urban market, which requires more of a custom solution. This building system, we hope and believe, will make that easier. We’re using building information modeling (BIM) based design.
Online, we’ve got some cool technology where a home buyer can go configure a home like a car, in our market place. You’ll see some really neat new stuff coming out in addition to that online, too.
StrXur: How does Plant Prefab stand out from its competitors in the prefab market?
Glenn: The world is becoming more urbanized. And for those of us who believe that there is increasing, and increasingly bad, climate change, most smart planning strategy holds that the only way we’ll be able to deal with that, plus increasing population, is to make sure that people are closer to jobs, services and transportation. Buildings, as a category, are responsible for more carbon emissions and more energy use, then all transportation as a category and all manufacturing as a category.
And when you’re building in cities, it’s always a custom solution. Lot sizes vary, zoning varies, design requirements vary, access to the buildings varies, views vary. So, you’re always hiring an architect and creating a custom solution. This applies whether you’re doing a 40-story building in Downtown LA, or a single-family home in Rancho Cucamonga or Venice. You’re going to be doing a custom solution.
Most of the existing prefab companies are really designed to do the same thing again and again. We’re not. We’re designed to do custom projects, that are the kinds of projects that you find in urban markets.
StrXur: How is prefab more efficient than traditional construction?
Glenn: There are different types of prefab: panels, modular and pre-cut. We do modules currently, where we’re taking big Lego-sized pieces of the home and constructing them off-site, and then installing them typically in a day. Under traditional site-based construction process, you have to first do all the site-work, the grading, the utilities, the foundation, before you can start framing, electrical, plumbing and infrastructure. That makes you subject to dealing with a lot of subcontractors, who can get over-scheduled, and at the same time you can have weather delays. It’s a serial process. With modular construction, as the site-work is happening, we’re working here, in a controlled, all-weather environment. You get serious advantages of time—half the time.
StrXur: As a CEO, what gets you up every morning?
Glenn: I get really excited about a few things. First of all, I love architecture. I love the built environment. We’ve created some great spaces. And great from a perspective of design. Great from a perspective of building efficiency. And great from a perspective of health and sustainability. We talk about better homes, built better. Better homes are by virtue of how we build, what we put in to them. Their impact on people’s health, on environmental health. And then built better by virtue of the processes we use. Design matters.
I feel like we’re helping to create some great jobs for people, who are either owners, or have the opportunity to be owners in this business. Every employee at this company is eligible for stock. That’s super exciting, that we’re helping to create some potentially great value for the people that are making this happen.
StrXur: What has guided you throughout your career, and what are some of the habits you picked up along the way?
Glenn: Quite honestly, I’ve been “Mr. Too Early Entrepreneur Guy.” That was basically the 90s for me. In the early 90s, I worked in virtual reality for a startup, then I went to Walt Disney Imagineering, and co-ran the virtual reality group there. That was VR 1.0. Then I got more interested in the internet and had an idea for a company that was Facebook-like, but seven or eight years before Facebook. I was part of the founding team of Idealab, which did extraordinarily well and is still around. It incubated a bunch of companies, several of which went public.
Timing is so important. Bill Gross, one of the founders of Idealab, has a great TED Talk on timing where he says the biggest single correlate to success was timing. Not a great, charismatic CEO, or a fast-growing industry. It was: Are you at the right time and the right place? I hope timing is right now for this. It feels right.