Affordable Homes Through Software and Design: The Rising Barn Story

San Antonio—The founders of Rising Barn didn’t even know each other when they started working on what would become their San Antonio, TX-based company, which uses software to build affordable housing with designs developed by an architect.

Pegy Brimhall is the architect. She wanted to take her expertise in designing manageable, easily constructible skyscrapers for large corporations and use it to build low-cost housing.

Brett Elmendorf made a name for himself developing software that boosted the business of cloud computing company Rackspace (NYSE: RAX). After he left the company, he taught himself how to write code that could control a machine used for building small, easy-to-construct homes.

How did they meet? Through the company’s third co-founder, Peter French, a San Antonio real estate developer who’s heavily involved in the local startup world. (If you get a chance to meet French, know that he’ll almost certainly introduce you to someone, too.)

By the time French connected Brimhall and Elmendorf in late 2015, the two entrepreneurs had been simultaneously trying to solve the same problem, from separate starting points: how to build small homes that cost less than $200,000—an increasingly rare find in a growing city like San Antonio—while still making them attractive, easily buildable, and livable.

Now together, the entrepreneurs have been gaining recognition from the local startup community and home buyers. Last month, Rising Barn won a $15,000 second-place prize in Tech Fuel, a competition sponsored by the Bexar County Economic Development Department.

This year, Rising Barn is also expecting some $6 million in sales of its homes, which range from 200 square feet to 1,000, and are intended as a primary or secondary residence. They cost between $35,000 and $150,000, depending on the type of wood used, among other factors. The prices don’t include land or utility connections.

“We’ll be able to provide affordable housing at a profit,” Brimhall says. “That is unheard of right now.”

Key to being able to actually build the housing is Elmendorf’s software. After spending a decade at Rackspace (a company co-founded by his brother, Dirk) developing software for customer service and other projects, Elmendorf left in 2009 and set out to apply his experience as a developer to building things in the physical world.

After a couple of years of exploration, he discovered two fundamental advances: The first was a type of computer-controlled machine used in construction. Called CNC machines (standing for computer numeric control), the connected machines can give directions written in the Ruby programming language to a tool such as a saw. That code can direct the saw to make specific, precise cuts on lumber or other materials.

That approach was particularly appealing to Elmendorf, who began using a machine purchased from a company called ShopBot together with a type of saw called a router. Using the CNC router, Elmendorf began cutting lumber, specifically a low-cost, sturdy type called oriented strand board.

But he had trouble deciding what to cut the lumber into. That’s when he made the second discovery: online, open-sourced home designs. He used the CNC router to cut the oriented strand board based on the designs, and then constructed the mock homes on his own.

Elmendorf made some initial products, but they were laborious, requiring him to frequently adjust the machine to make appropriate cuts. He realized that he could improve the construction process if he improved the software. He began using a 3D modeling program called SketchUp, software developed by a Boulder, CO-based company that was sold to Google in 2006. With it, Elmendorf was able to write code in Ruby that could be sent to the CNC machine through an application program interface (API), in essence telling the router exactly where and how to cut.

Any quick adjustments Elmendorf wanted to make to the design could easily be done in the algorithmic code he wrote, and would be reflected in the freshly cut wood, he says.

“That’s basically the kernel of the software. We have Ruby code that generates physical objects. Our Ruby objects can make objects!” Elmendorf says. “Nobody gets that joke.”

Elmendorf ran into more trouble—but this time, it was because … Next Page »

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David Holley is Xconomy's national correspondent based in Austin, TX. You can reach him at dholley@xconomy.com Follow @xconholley

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