Most homebuilders in the United States are small-scale operators. Companies building custom homes for individual clients may only do four or five a year. And even larger companies that build on spec or for bigger developments may only do a couple hundred a year.
When it comes to design, the homes these companies tend to build look more like a template than a piece of unique architecture. See the tract housing in any American suburb. With walls and fixtures that can be mass-produced, and cookie-cutter homes that are less prone to problems on the job site, tract housing is a cost-effective way to build a lot of buildings. But it also means that customers only get a few choices for what will likely be the most expensive purchase of their lives.
A new startup called Higharc is hoping to change that. Through a web-based design tool that helps homebuilders more easily adjust their existing home designs to meet buyer demand, the company is attempting to help create better designed homes and streamlining the process of getting them built.
“Most builders are very small businesses. They don’t have people to manage these things,” says Marc Minor, Higharc’s CEO. “Generally they’ve got preexisting homes that they build a lot. We help them get those homes in our system, and we automatically create the blueprints, the construction documents that the industry uses.”
Higharc’s tool is geared toward homebuilders, but also has a design tool focused on the homebuyer, who can use it to tweak template designs to get exactly the kind of home they envision. They can resize rooms, push back walls, add porches or take out floors. “A single home in our system can have literally millions upon millions of possible versions,” says Minor. The company’s clients operate in every market in the U.S., and are using the system to build hundreds of homes this year. Minor expects that number to grow into the thousands by 2022, thanks to the $21 million it just raised in Series A funding.
The tool works by pulling in the basic rules that govern how a home gets built – building codes, materials, standard construction details – and automating the construction documents that get used on site. So if a builder or a homebuyer wants a different alignment of windows or a kitchen with a different floor plan, they system can adjust the documents and create new construction-ready blueprints automatically.
Minor co-founded Higharc in 2018. He’d previously helped launch the 3D printing companies Carbon and Desktop Metal, and got the idea for Higharc when he was working on getting his own home custom-built. “I was amazed at how behind the industry is in terms of adoption of technology, how awful the experience is as a buyer, and how many similarities there are with the process of bringing a product to market as bringing a home to market,” he says. But unlike the precision of manufacturing a product, Minor found that building a home was riddled with complications and room for error.
Much of that error emerges from the translation of the design a buyer wants into the construction documents that will be used on-site to build it. “Even though you’ve got these fairly straightforward rules of thumb in the industry, there’s no way to carry them through in a systematic way to the actual design and construction of the building,” Minor says. “We do that automatically for them. And doing that, we eliminate a whole lot of waste. Somewhere between a half a percent and a full percent of a home’s cost is just lost to errors with the construction plans.”
It’s a problem Brandon Elliott knows well. He’s the owner of Elliott Homes, a Mississippi-based homebuilder that builds about 300 homes per year. “We had about $100,000 of human error last year. They missed anchor bolts in the plan or they missed something else. And when you get out to the field, a $100 line item costs you $3,000 because you’ve got to undo and redo,” he says. “They sound simplistic. But if they’re done wrong up front, they lead to major problems down the road within construction, and they’re super costly.”
The company started using Higharc to optimize the process and reduce those mistakes. It also ended up cutting down the time workers spent on computer-aided design, letting the computers take over the mundane drafting of homes that, despite some small design differences in how the house fits onto the topography of its site or which corner has the largest bedroom, are essentially the same.
That’s resulted in homes getting built faster. Before, it would take up to 60 days after a sale to get the construction documents approved and permitted by the city. With Higharc, Elliott Homes can now do it in 14 days. And Elliott says that if the company didn’t budget a little buffer time in, it could be as little as one day. So far, they’ve used Higharc’s tool on about 90 homes, based on 18 preexisting designs.
In addition to the speed, Elliott says the Higharc system also gives buyers more control over what they’re buying. The online design tool allows them to define up to 200 options on the home designs the company uses, tweaking room configurations and material choices. It also gives them a 3D tour of the design they’ve chosen, allowing them to virtually step inside the home they’ve customized and make changes as desired. At the end, the system automatically generates the construction documents. “It’s not kicking out any plan, it’s kicking out the site-specific plan that the buyer designed on their own on the website,” Elliott says.
This automated approach is becoming common in large-scale architecture, with companies like Autocad and architecture firms like Kohn Pedersen Fox offering tools that can largely automate the basic structures of complicated skyscrapers and urban developments. Higharc brings that high-level design down to the individual homebuyer, and also to the small-scale homebuilder, who pays a volume-based fee to use the system.
Now, instead of drafting and redrafting similar construction documents, the company’s workers can focus on researching new materials, design approaches and customer preferences to add new products to their range of offerings. “We can find a need in the market, develop our houses within Higharc’s product and it goes straight to our consumers the next day,” Elliott says.
According to Minor, that’s the benefit software can provide to a relatively low-tech industry. It’s a way to add more efficiency to the process, to help the mostly small businesses that build homes in the United States, and to reduce the kinds of problems in construction plans that add cost and delay. But it’s not just about fixing a clunky industry, Minor says. Another major goal is to inject more design choices into the home building process, both to meet buyer demand and to expand what builders can provide.
“Builders struggle with offering choice to buyers,” Minor says. “Our system helps them offer more choice.”