Most housing is built like a project—a one-off development with a job-specific team for a single location. BJ Siegel and Chester Chipperfield think housing should be built like a product, with all the R&D, optimization, and factory precision of a new phone or car. Using their product experience from working at companies like Apple, Tesla and Burberry, their new company, Juno, is aiming to make a product out of apartment buildings.
Founded 18 months ago, Juno has been stealthily developing a new approach to designing and building housing that could significantly reduce the time and the cost. Their intended product is a midrise rental apartment building, five to 12 stories tall, with 100 to 200 units. Designed to be fabricated mostly as components in partnering factories and assembled on site, the buildings will use environmentally sustainable mass timber for their structure and feature high ceilings and large windows for natural air and light. The company’s first project will be announced in the next few months, and they have “an active pipeline of thousands of units,” according to Jonathan Scherr, Juno CEO.
They’ve already optimized the design through a full-scale mockup in a San Francisco warehouse, which shows the building blocks of an elegant and simple building that is easily scalable to different heights and sizes, and easily built from a highly tuned set of components.
It’s a process that came straight out of the Apple Store.
In the late 1990s, Siegel was working as an architect for an interdisciplinary design studio in San Francisco, and one of the firm’s big projects was designing Apple’s trade show displays for the MacWorld expo. During one meeting, Apple founder Steve Jobs asked what the firm would do if they got the challenge of designing a place for Apple to deliver their products directly to customers. That led to concepts for what would become the first Apple Store, and later led Siegel to spend eight years as concept design architect for Apple’s retail store program.
It was half architectural project, half product development. “We were going to design the same product and iterate on it year after year, project to project. We were always trying to improve it, always trying to gather feedback, always trying to one-up what we did before,” Siegel says. “You start to learn about how to create a system for making buildings and making projects.”
In 2019, Siegel partnered with Chipperfield, Scherr, and Marshall Everett to bring that same approach to the design and development of apartment buildings. Not just another factory-based homebuilder, the company’s business model is to be owner-operator, partnering with local developers to build apartments, rent them to tenants, and manage them for the long run. “We’re not trying to flip this building. We’re not designing it to sell,” says Chipperfield, the former global creative director at Tesla and head of special projects at Apple. “That means that the product is very different. We’re very much trying to understand what a tenant actually needs as opposed to what a developer needs just to lease up.” He says too many developers have gotten caught up in an “amenities arms race,” building expensive conference rooms and bowling alleys into projects when renters would rather have more residential space or lower rents.
This has all led Juno to a design that features natural materials, built-in cabinets, floor-to-ceiling windows, and efficient, minimalist layouts that can work as studios or multi-bedroom apartments. Siegel compares it to the craftsmanship of a well-designed piece of furniture. “We didn’t want it to feel like a vanilla box that got thrown up and flipped,” he says.
Chipperfield says the product they’ve designed will look very similar from apartment to apartment and project to project. That may seem cookie-cutter, but the repetition is a way to refine the process and pass value on to the customer, says Chipperfield, who previously worked for Burberry, and is also son of the architect David Chipperfield. “The first prototype Tesla we built cost over a million dollars,” he says. But like that car, he says, the more Juno builds, the better and more affordable the product can be.
Key to the business model is bringing almost the entire process into one ecosystem. Juno will partner with experienced local developers where they’re building, but aside from that, all other parts of the design, manufacture, and assembly will be done with a select team of factories and contractors in major markets around the U.S., enabling them to continually refine the process. “That feedback loop doesn’t really exist [for other companies] in this space,” Chipperfield says. “When there are issues, that team is never actually getting together again, so they’re not learning anything and you get these systemic issues that go from building to building.”
Juno’s founders know they’re not alone in trying to bring a more systematic approach to construction. But while the history of the prefab and modular housing industry is riddled with failures, they believe that Juno is bringing a more flexible, adaptable approach. “We looked at all these examples, and what we realized very quickly was that being dogmatic was actually a problem. One of the things that’s really got a lot of folks in trouble was that they made a big bet and they weren’t agile enough to be nimble and change their strategy based on the conditions they were coming up against,” Siegel says. By simplifying the process and optimizing it like they’re creating a product, he says, the result will be something that can be more easily adapted as needed.
In the end, it’s all about making a space people will love, something Siegel got to know well during his days designing Apple Stores. “I learned first and foremost how to design an environment people can actually feel emotionally connected to,” he says. With Juno, “we’re really trying to play up all of the things that make everybody’s daily life feel better.”