Forgotten high-rises or multi-unit homes in flood zones might come to mind when we hear the phrase “affordable housing” in Charleston. When the recession took small homebuilders out at the knees it became nearly impossible for an average working American to buy a home within their means. Now what is defined as affordable is still outside the grasp of most Americans. But what if technology could solve this problem?
Fine and Small Homes is a new Charleston technology startup helping families become home owners in a realistically affordable way. Unlike other Charleston tech companies, they aren’t building software, but small homes – and then selling them at the affordable price of $100,000 including land. Only five months into their process of constructing their first digitally fabricated model home—measuring in at just under 1,200 square feet with two bedrooms, an open-concept living room and kitchen, and one bathroom—they are about to start erecting their first homes in Asheville, NC, Florida, and following soon with North Charleston.
Founders Nicholas Godfrey and Joe Kimmel decided it was time to plant and water a seed they had been experimenting with. Godfrey, whose background is in digital fabrication, paired up with his old friend and mentor, Kimmel. With a thirty-year career in construction, contracting, and development, Kimmel is the visionary and heart behind this quickly growing startup.
Fine and Big Heart
Automated, smart home systems will make the homes efficient, and serve an equally important goal for the company–making the homes completely accessible for disabled people. Years ago Kimmel suffered a stroke that hindered many of his bodily functions. “The basic principal this has been built on since day one is that life is not about us, it’s about others… I’m dysfunctional unless I have wonderful people around me who grasp in their hearts the principle that no one seems to know,” Kimmel said.
Any one of this startup’s 65 employees will tell you that Joe Kimmel is the heart behind this operation. Having to rely so often on the graceful service of people, he’s come to live his own life for others. A man of colorful talents, Kimmel is a trained nuclear engineer, and in a conversation with him you might also learn about his jewelry making years, and especially his lifelong habit of reading charts.
This particular hobby has led to his deep understanding of the housing market, and his big picture grasp on the issue of affordable housing. Kimmel explained that over the last twelve years no one has addressed the issue that “average working people–and that’s a big spectrum now – can’t buy their own home [to] raise their family,” he said. Nobody knows how to address this problem, be they politicians, municipalities, homebuilders or the banks. Buying a home in the $150,000 range has become impossible for the average working American. Either they couldn’t get a loan to buy it, or got outbid by someone paying cash, leaving them with grim options.
Kimmel has been waiting many years to bring “high technology into the building and construction industry so that we can solve that terrible problem that’s occurred,” he said. In an aim to create intentional communities that give homeowners a sense of pride in their property, Fine and Small Homes will reserve 20 percent of their business for their own developments.
Fine and Small Technology
Like most people involved in digital fabrication, Godfrey taught himself the basic principles to streamline a furniture company he started, and realized the possibility of building homes. When Fine and Small Homes started coming together, Godfrey couldn’t stop at having the most efficient way to build a home, but yearned to make the entire process from ordering to building as technologically advanced and efficient as possible, cutting costs at every stop. Learning from the subcontracting mess of the pre-fabricated homes, Godfrey and Kimmel developed an all-encompassing assembly line model starting with home ordering and ending with plugging the home into water and electricity on-site.
When a homebuyer expresses interest they are directed to the website–one of the most sophisticated e-commerce sites in the world. Choices will consist of everything from the number of bedrooms, to solar energy packages, and appliance types, making a one-stop-shopping experience in home buying. It’s like ordering your custom MacBook online, only you’ll understand more of the language.
The homes on the website have already been designed using CAD, and once the order is processed it gets sent to CNC machines where the pieces can be cut out of OSB boards. Every inch of each OSB–the strongest material they could find–is accounted for in order to reduce waste. These machines can then work through the night cutting the thousands of pieces that will go into the assembly of your home.
Once the pieces are cut, a team of automated material handling robots move pieces from the cutting stations to the assembly stations–swarms of forklift-looking vehicles driving memorized lines, completely aware of their counterparts. The OSB pieces are then transferred to the assembly lines where large room-like robotic systems will stand them up, assemble them with high-pressure presses, glue and staples, and then package them and put them on pallets, ready to be shipped to the building site.
By the next day, your home is in pieces on a truck, sorted by RFID (radio-frequency identification) tracking systems to ensure that nothing is missing. The entire thing is delivered to your land where a Fine and Small Homes’ building team meets it and, within a week, has it built and ready to live in. Depending on where you are located, you could have a brand new home within a month, without ever having done anything but place the order.
High Tech Homes
The homes themselves will be alive with technological innovations as well. The team has been working on developing their own energy systems, appliances, and even the assembly itself. Efficiency has been considered in every step of their development—a mission that has drawn so many experts into this startup.
One of Godfrey’s oldest middle school friends was among the first people to join the team when things got started in September of last year. John Gaddy explains why he left a long career in media film production, saying, “It’s a product that I believe in and a company that I like working for… they care about their workforce.”
While the green building fad has been rampant, the goal of Fine and Small Homes is to integrate these technologies so they become completely taken for granted. “From the foundation to the roof, it’s going to be state-of-the-art green technology,” Gaddy said. Instead of the standard cement foundation, the homes will be built on helical pile foundations, using fewer materials, and cutting costs. The staples and glue assembly, along with old-fashioned joinery techniques are not only more efficient than nails but the combination makes the home stronger than conventional stick built homes.
Aside from the solar-ready roof, Godfrey said, “We’ve created a really tight envelope so you have less heat loss, less outside temperature transfer to the inside,” making the homes energy efficient. Ground water will be pre-heated to save on heating costs, and all the appliances are designed by one of the many Fine and Small Homes spinoff companies, and are quickly becoming the most efficient on the market. “What we want to do is really tightly integrate all the green technology into the homes so it’s already there. So they don’t even know they’re being green,” Godfrey said.
The market for affordable homes is staggering, and international. With very few hurdles in selling their concept or passion, the struggle is to focus their first phase of development as a company. Their first priority has always been “the building of homes for working people in the United States,” Kimmel said.
With two developments planned in the Southeast, Fine and Small Homes is also building a partnership with the City of North Charleston to work on redeveloping some of its forgotten plots. “I don’t think we’ll ever meet the demand,” Godfrey said. They are working on having their homes certified throughout the United States and, Godfrey said, “We’ve started to see a huge amount of interest from other countries.”
It’s fitting that a company founded on service would have such a large market to serve. Though their business can’t be entirely based on developing intentional communities, the advent of Fine and Small Homes will undoubtedly change the market. “We want people’s quality of living to go up, and the cost of living to go down,” Godfrey said. They’re not alone in that dream, and they’re delivering on it. By allowing average working Americans back into the real estate game they have the potential to change communities. It’s the affordable American dream, delivered to you in thirty days.
Fine and Small Homes was recently featured on American Builder TV: