CANOA's Take: Covid-19 And Prefab Design's Time To Shine

Regardless of the longer term effect on the industry, we are comfortable calling the short term game for adaptability and speed

 min. read
November 13, 2021

Originally posted as a newsletter update on May 12th, 2020. Sign up for our newsletter here.


Advisors and friends,

Hope you and your families are well and have managed to stay safe through all of this.

For us, It's been a hugely productive few weeks. We are happy to report that we are starting to hit our stride and so wanted to send a quick update.

As you can imagine, the impact of the pandemic on our business has been dramatic. Among the fear and disruption of the pandemic, the power of our physical environment to endanger and make sick but also to heal, to protect, to distance and to calm has been made clear to all. This global crisis has only increased our resolve and the importance of our mission:

"To raise quality of life by lowering the bar for people to access good and healthy environments, without preventing future generations from doing the same."

Impact of Covid-19The world pre-Covid was quick to conflate WeWork's downfall with the rest of the serviced space sector. People called for an end to coworking and coliving. Traditional landlords in both workplace and hospitality were quick to dismiss the prior 15 years as a fad and proclaim victory. Adam Neumann made a stellar fall guy. It almost seemed traditional landlords had won.

Then, the world changed.

Today, many are questioning having an office at all. The remote-work movement has been accelerated by years potentially ushering in a period that will put into question one of the most american of american inventions, the car-based 1 hour commute.

In just a few weeks, the often boring world of commercial real estate got swept up into an even larger story that makes the WeWork feel like a dated reference, or maybe an early warning sign of a much larger shift in commercial real estate now upon us.

Maybe, technology has finally progressed enough to give Ebeneezer Howard's garden cities model a real shot. Maybe suburbs will make a comeback. Or, maybe cities will emerge as clear winners as they prove themselves more effective engines of growth. Either way, the knowledge worker's need to physically show up at an office to 'punch in' is starting to feel like a vestige of another time. The 20th century may finally be wrapping up.

Adaptability and Speed Have Won

Regardless of the longer term effect on the industry, transportation and cities, we are comfortable calling the short term game for adaptability and speed. With much being discussed in terms of shorter and more flexible terms, tenant experience and operational pressures on office buildings have actually INCREASED. Hard coding space just doesn't make economic sense anymore if the new normal requires drastic layout changes every 2 to 3 years.

What this signals is that high quality, low cost and quickly deployable prefabricated solutions are best positioned to quickly meet the demand of a changing market.

For us, this meant adapting our first small business product which we were internally calling the 'Office in a Box' to larger spaces--something we planned on building up to over time. We completely rebuilt our website and quickly adapted our short term strategy.

Enter The Construction-Free Workplace

Over the month of April then we quickly adapted our first product to scale and adapt to larger space types of as much as 50,000 square feet (with ways to go even larger). We are code naming this scaling product 'The Construction-Free Workplace'.

For those of you familiar with the history of furniture, this is nothing new. Robert Probst and George Nelson of Herman Miller changed the world office design in 1964 with the introduction of the Action Office and later Action Office II.

For the first time, significant parts of the interior Architecture of a space would be completely pre-fabricated into quickly deployable components at scale. Over the next 40 years, this would be incorrectly over-optimized to become the much hated cubicle, culminating in the large scale adoption of the open office model leading up to the 2001 tech bubble and pervasive ever since.

Ironically, many today don't realize that the Action Office was designed as a reaction to the then common open offices of the first half of the 20th century as seen in Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo from 1906.

Or, his gorgeous Johnson Wax Factory Headquarters in Wisconsin from 1936.

'Construction-free' is of course an idealized ambition. Not every building is equipped to be able to receive  a construction-free solution. Column spacing, egress, elevator cores, window mullion spacing, power access, HVAC, fire alarm, sprinklers and many more systems must be considered.

We are doing exactly that. Fully specifying all of the requirements to make prefab and furniture deployability a reality.

Pushing Ahead

The pandemic has accelerated several trends we've seen in design and construction over the last two decades. The 'one size fits all' approach of our industry in the past is being challenged by niche tools, business models and companies that package critical services and products into easily deployable 'bits' of good design, at a good cost and fast--and we couldn't be happier to welcome the change.

We are continuing to push forward on our core technology to help us rapidly deploy prefabricated architectural systems and furniture for interior retrofits at scale.

  • Workplace design toolkit - a text based (no geometry) procedural workplace design tool for interior prefab systems
  • Residential design toolkit - a text based (no geometry) procedural workplace design tool for interior prefab systems
  • Furniture recognition & inventory engine
  • Enterprise FF&E liquidation marketplace

We are still committed to be vendor-neutral as we know that a company that is customer-first must always be looking out for the best interest of the customer. This does not mean that we do not have deep partnerships with suppliers, of course we do. It means that suppliers must be in alignment with our mission and not seek exclusivity.

Thanks again.

The Canoa team.

Our Thanks As Always

Each month that goes by we are more and more grateful for all of the help and interest that we continue to receive. From leaders of major brands, to our first few customers, advisors, partners, collaborators and friends, you all help make this not just possible, but also incredibly fun. An honest thank you to all of you.