In a nondescript warehouse in Tampa's Ybor City, a young company is in the process of creating a new kind of modular home that could change both luxury living and post-hurricane shelters.
AbleNook is the creation of Sean Verdecia and Jason Ross, alumni of the University of South Florida School of Architecture and Community Design graduate program. “University Beat” profiled their company in 2016, shortly after their second prototype was named a runner-up for the Cade Museum’s Innovation Prize.
At the time, the AbleNook was a modular disaster relief dwelling that could be built without tools in two hours. The impetus, according to Verdecia, was seeing how people had to live in 2009, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“You've got one demoralizing-type shelter being delivered to the site where someone just lost their home,” said Verdecia. “So now they're facing this kind of humiliation of having to live in a trailer. We wanted something that provided a sense of dignity.”
But while the disaster shelter concept worked in theory, Verdecia said the cost of building a business on this product alone was cost-prohibitive. So after Ross left the company a few years ago for a job at an Atlanta architecture firm, he took AbleNook in another direction: an expandable, modular dwelling.
“We discovered that we made something so Zen-like and so pure in its design that people wanted it for their own personal use, and viewed it as a high-end dwelling,” said Verdecia. “And really, I think that comes from just being architects and yacht designers, that we made something beautiful.”
The customized interior resembles that of a yacht: a kitchen stocked with Smeg appliances, a living area with a sofa and a large wall of windows to enjoy the view, an adjoining sleeping area and a large, separate bathroom component where the sink and toilet share space with a walk-in shower.
The high-end concept means AbleNook can work in multiple ways in a variety of settings.
“It's designed for living in long-term, but a lot of our customers are buying these for Airbnb use. Given the price point and the high luxury, they know they can set these up to get the best views on their land where maybe it was hard to build before, now they can erect these pretty quickly,” said Verdecia.
Another plus for AbleNook is its portability.
“We wanted to be able to deploy it without the use of heavy equipment, without the need of chopping down trees, without clearing a massive path to get it out (to a site),” said Verdecia, who points out that the structure’s biggest part is the 4 feet by 8 feet exterior panels.
“And so that made it so that the whole system could be flat-packed, and that when the pieces arrive at a site, that it's really just like a Jeep and a trailer could bring all the parts up a windy mountain road, if necessary, and that human beings could assemble this without tools.”
At least no power tools, Verdecia admits.
“At the most you'll need an Allen wrench right now. But we're getting to a point where we might not even need that,” he said.
The durability of the AbleNook is also a selling point. It’s made out of an aluminum composite material and is thermally insulated like a house. It’s also able to withstand winds up to 180 mph, making it perfect for Florida.
“The thought process is, if it passes building codes here in Tampa, we can pretty much build anywhere on the planet, you know, as long as we consider snow loads, and seismic foundations, those kinds of things,” said Verdecia.
And best of all, according to Verdecia, is that since it’s a modular structure, the AbleNook can change as the buyer’s life changes - hence the company's slogan: “like Lego and Tesla had a baby.”
“Say you have a child, you need more space, you can order more parts from us and just expand the Able to work in an afternoon. You don't have to call on contractors, and you don't have to go through all the different headaches of standard construction,” said Verdecia.
But he and his company aren’t turning away from the original disaster relief idea. Verdecia plans to put a portion of their revenue from the high-end products, which start at around $65,000 fully-stocked, into research and development of post-hurricane shelters.
And they’re finding customers are interested. Verdecia said the goal was to sell their first 15 units this year, but they’ve already sold 22 – without any advertising.
That’s thanks, in part, to the company being chosen as a stop for Steve Case’s “Rise of the Rest” tour in early May.
Members of the AOL co-founder’s venture capital firm Revolution are traveling the country by bus to hold competitions and pick entrepreneurs they can fund. While AbleNook didn’t win the local competition, Verdecia said the experience had its benefits.
“Our investors are very happy and we’ve gotten a lot of publicity from it, and then…morale is at an all-time high,” he said. “There's lots of struggle involved – whether or not you have funding, you're doing something that really hasn't been done before, in a city that is not Silicon Valley. So you do occasionally get some doubts about what you're doing. And it's good to be reinforced by amazing people.”
That kind of support is leading Verdecia to dream big for AbleNook.
“I’d like this to be a multi-billion dollar company. I mean, this is there's so many different things we can do with this – I think it is like Legos, it can scale as a system,” he said. “And we have several different markets that we're interested in getting into, especially the adaptive reuse…we're able to monetize the space very quickly by constructing it in less than a day, and we’ve been approached by a lot of interested parties.”