By Jack Stubbs
Project Frog is a technology and building systems company based in San Francisco, CA that delivers prefabricated component buildings at all levels of the construction industry. The company is heavily invested in the educational sector throughout the Bay Area and is currently in the process of expanding into the healthcare and retail industries.
We recently spoke to CEO Drew Buechley, who has more than 25 years of extensive strategic advisory, financing and operation experience in directing companies through high growth periods. Buechley has worked previously in a variety of industries, including technology, retail and manufacturing sectors. Speaking with Drew we learned about what Project Frog is currently up to, how the company seeks to differentiate itself from other component design companies, and how technology continues to shape the trajectory of the component design industry across various sectors.
Tell me a bit about Project Frog: its founding, how it began, guiding principles, the mission of the company, and its general strategy.
In our early days, we focused on streamlining construction and developed a strong name and brand by investing in institutional knowledge in how to design for manufacturing and delivery. We realized our customers liked fast construction schedules and look and feel of our buildings, but they wanted affordable projects, and, in terms of design, not feel like they had to compromise program by going with prefabricated buildings. We knew we needed greater flexibility in design, and we quickly discovered that greater flexibility requires technology to link architectural design to industrial manufacturing. We launched an effort about a year ago to create a robust technology stack to serve that need, which we feel is driving toward greater industry-wide adoption of industrialized construction methods.
How does Project Frog aim to differentiate itself from other component-design companies?
We are a technology and building systems company and that makes us unique. We’re unaware of anyone else doing what we’re doing, and we think our focus on the integration of software with hardware – cloud design applications to configure prefabricated building kits – provides a level of architectural freedom rivaling traditional, onsite approaches to construction. That’s a big differentiator – we say to architects and builders – here are tools for designing and delivering really fast, really great projects, and here’s how we support you from beginning to end.
Can you elaborate on the building process that Project Frog’s projects go through? (e.g. from manufacturing to delivery to assembly). What are the distinguishing features of this process (such as ‘the kit’)?
Our solutions are end to end starting with design. We work with architects to understand project requirements and then run design concepts through our automation engine, which evaluates site conditions (seismic, wind, etc.) against parameters of our building kit, quickly producing a building model to fabrication-level detail. Our network of regionally distributed manufacturers fabricate building components to spec, and we manage logistics to get the product to the job site. In the field, the big delivery impact is the fact that critical path components – wall panels, structural components, roof deck and glazing – arrive ready for install, coordinated to be on-hand when the contractor needs them. We’re cutting the time needed to frame and dry-in the building to about a 1/3 of the time traditional onsite build would take, and through pre-assembly, we’re reducing framing and glazing onsite labor by as much as 80 percent.
The big benefits are speed and risk reduction: by shortening time to dry-in upstream, the downstream trades and finish work stays on schedule and has less potential for disruption. This is critical to project budgets, as these trades are more expensive, harder to schedule, like mechanical, electric and plumbing.
Project Frog is heavily invested in the educational sector, and currently expanding into the retail and healthcare industries. Can you speak a bit to this expansion? How long has this strategic expansion been in the works, and how does it meet current demand in the area?
Due to high demand and an estimated $60 billion backlog of projects in the CA education sector – driven by aging facilities and population growth – we re-doubled our efforts in this market. We’re currently building education facilities in Fremont, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Oakland, South San Francisco, Tustin and Santa Ana. Our portfolio of Bay Area projects is diverse and includes work for the National Park Service, Audi and Kaiser Permanente. Outside of California, we’ve completed net-zero energy facilities as part of a program through the University of Hawaii and Hawaii Natural Energy Institute (HNEI), the results of which will be featured at the Greenbuild 2017 conference.
What are some of the projects your organization is currently undertaking? What are particularly noteworthy projects in the pipeline?
We have projects going that we’re very enthusiastic about. We’re looking at creative workspace developments in Texas and the Mid-West, some early learning center opportunities in the Southeast and opportunities in Hawaii, where labor costs are currently 1.5 times rates in the Bay Area. We are seeing interest from community colleges throughout the state, where our new two-story platform is a strong fit for the flexibility required in that market. In general, we are seeing interest from organizations looking to reduce time, complexity and operational disruption around multi-site, multi-year build programs, and our clients choose Frog as an alternative to a traditional stick-build.
In a region that is increasingly mediated by technology, how does Project Frog integrate tech into the building process? In April of this year, you unveiled myprojectfrog.com—what’s the current status of this tool, and how do you think it will help to streamline future projects?
MyProjectFrog.com is our web tool, currently in beta, and we’re rolling out new features and functionality soon. The automation engine drives the link between design and manufacturing, allowing users to produce site-specific design and construction deliverables – like manufacture-ready building models, permitting and construction documents – through an intuitive interface. It links the work of the architect adapting the design of a building to a specific site, to the work of the fabricator producing the building parts to specification, without disrupting the way architects and fabricators currently work.
Is integration of technology—streamlining the building process—a sign of further things to come? Do you think there are there any limitations to the way that technology influences the construction process?
Most AEC software solutions attempt to digitize manual, siloed processes, often resulting in disjointed, iterative and low-fidelity data exchange from design to manufacturing to project delivery. Recently, there’s increased focus on developing software for integrating workflows, and better aligning architects, engineers, contractors around a common set of data. Collaboration is key to successful build projects, and we’re working with leaders in the industry, like Autodesk, to develop an ecosystem approach leveraging a new generation of BIM (Building Information Modeling) tools for better collaboration.
In terms of limitations, this is an enormous industry that is slow to change. We believe the era of throwing inexpensive labor at a construction project is ending. Our goal is to give architects and builders a robust set of tools so a prefab approach to a project is an obvious choice, where you don’t make sacrifices for a project to be profitable and still meet customers’ needs.
To what degree has pre-fab construction emerged as a preferred alternative to conventional (‘stick-built’) construction methods (in terms of practicality, timing, available resources, etc.)?
Pre-fab has made an impressive foray into the market, but without technology it cannot scale. The labor issue will continue to be hot topic and a big reason projects hit delays and cost overruns, and it’s where prefabrication adds really significant value in reducing risk to the schedule.
Is there anything else you can tell me about Project Frog and how the company’s values and products fit into larger trends in the component-building industry?
Our big story is our focus on flexibility and technology – making us a leader in the component building industry. We believe Industrialized Construction will continue to gain prominence as the technology – the “plumbing,” so to speak – improves.
Can you expand upon Project Frog’s emphasis on environmental sustainability?
Our buildings must be good for people – with high quality air, light, sound and energy efficiency. Our approach radically reduces job site waste and our buildings achieve the highest marks for green building and operations including Net Zero Energy, LEED Platinum, Energy Star certified and CHPS verified.
Looking ahead, what does Project Frog aim to accomplish in the short and long term?
We’re continuing to develop and build out our technology platform. We’re seeing continued expansion outside California, gaining foothold in emerging markets like pop-up retail sites. Our expanding portfolio of work, including some marquee buildings, provides a strong base for our expansion plans.
Are there any other questions we are not asking that we should be?
There is so much happening in this space, being nimble is critical. Firms should not assume that past practice is adequate and that it is business as usual. The era of cheap labor is over, and we’re just beginning to see the implications, in longer project cycles and higher costs for owners, especially here in the Bay Area. The construction industry is undergoing big change and not just at the micro level – professions are changing as well, and the smart firms and practitioners in design and construction will be looking at advances in cloud technology, factory automation, robotics and will be asking – what advantages can my practice gain? At the same time, owners expect more from project delivery. They refuse to sacrifice design to get a fast schedule, or vice versa, and they expect greater efficiency and transparency throughout the entire process.