Project Frog Rethinks Construction With Smart Component Buildings

12/17/13Follow @xconomy

For CEO Ann Hand, the hardest part about building up Project Frog, a company that creates ready-to assemble “smart buildings,” was convincing venture capitalists and customers that it was indeed possible to disrupt the long-stagnant construction industry.

“You would look at construction and say, because nothing has changed in 1,000 years, it should have all the makings of the right [industry] to disrupt,” Hand says. “But in the early days, it made it more challenging to get customers and VCs to jump.”

While sectors like the auto and aerospace industries, a mere century or so old, have evolved quickly—working to improve speed, cost, efficiency and other metrics throughout their comparatively short histories—the basic processes of construction have remained relatively the same since Roman times, Hand says. Seven years ago, Project Frog was ready to bring the same evolution to construction, creating energy-efficient, economical, and attractive building components that contractors and construction crews could assemble quickly. It’s seemed like a no-brainer. But initially, funding was a hard sell.

“It’s a fear factor for VCs, because it’s always been done a certain way, it’s too hard of a hill to climb. How are you going to get these construction dinosaurs to think your way?” There were also concerns that architecture firms and construction companies might see Project Frog as a threat to their businesses.

Project Frog CEO Ann Hand

Project Frog CEO Ann Hand

Customers were no easier to convince. The company was founded in 2006 in response to the proliferation of portable buildings in California’s K-12 education system. Project Frog wanted to create bigger buildings that weren’t limited to the size of the truck they would roll in on, provided more light for a better learning environment, required less energy to operate, and would outlast the 20-year expiration date on most portables. To do it, the company uses innovations such as higher-performance materials; bigger clerestory windows, to provide more natural night in their structures; and Lantana Luminaire fixtures for more energy-efficient lighting. Selling the building in its component pieces and flat-pack shipping (just like furniture from Ikea) means bigger buildings can be shipped on the same flat bed trucks.

But even though the earlier generation of portables weren’t an ideal solution for schools, switching to something unknown was a hard sell. No one really enjoys the process of construction, Hand says, and if you’re a school district looking to build a high-cost item like a brand-new school, it’s “too big of a buying decision to take on too much change.”

Project Frog's Bridge Pavilion at the Golden Gate Bridge visitor center in San Francisco

Project Frog’s Bridge Pavilion at the Golden Gate Bridge visitor center in San Francisco

But Project Frog’s successes have assuaged some fears, as school districts like South San Francisco Unified and Redondo Beach Unified and entities from 7-11 to Dow and various parks have put up the buildings. The architects and contractors who actually assemble the buildings—the company simply makes the component parts—have come to see Project Frog as a partner and new source of business, Hand says. (Returning builders also like to time themselves to see how fast they can put up the structures.)

Now, with a pipeline of repeat customers and previous funding rounds from big names like GE Energy under its belt, it’s becoming far easier for Project Frog to convince potential investors to go along for the ride. Last month, the company raised a Series D round of $20 million from CCM and McNally Capital, for a total of $50 million.

Though the company was first started with school buildings in mind, Project Frog has also focused on the health care industry. As Obamacare rolls out, the newly insured will add new patients for health facilities outside of … Next Page »

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  • dave

    A portable classroom is still a portable classroom and Project Frog’s are not different. Interesting that this article states the longevity is 20 years when Project Frog website states 10 years. Who is to pay for the demolition and removal of this when it passes it’s date of use?

    Sometimes a deal is not a deal and this is one of them. At least when it comes to our classrooms and our students, we must invest in a future of equality – not sectioned off into a dilapidated portable for 10 years.

  • Charles

    Although it is a step in the right direction, it is actually a step backwards as well so you really are not going anywhere with this type of structure. The answer is long lasting, greener buildings that will stand 50-60, even 100 years and not be a mobile home and blown away when the wind picks up. I live in Scandinavia and this not any kind of new technology, it is years old, and a bad idea for schools and medical facilities that need to last much longer than 10 to 20 years. Schools are not flat packed buildings, they are buildings of higher learning, you are teaching those kids that the world is disposable when in fact, it is not.

  • Zuri Pommerenk

    Dave and Charles,

    The both of you have not done your research. Project Frog offers quality, highly efficient, permanent buildings that last much longer than 10 or 20 years. They are greener than most traditionally built structures (being that they are LEED Silver attainable out of the box)- in the way they are designed, built and function. The buildings are seismically sound and are built to exceed the California title 24 by more than six times. They also adhere to strict acoustic and wind standards (and are customizable to handle whichever natural environment they are deployed in). Most traditional construction of this quality would cost a fortune and take much longer to create. Project Frog buildings can be installed on site in as little as a month! Schools happily choose Project Frog not because they are looking for a quick fix to their portable problem, but because they see Project Frog buildings as the best possible, permanent solution.