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Robotic, pre-fab homebuilding manufacturer brings plant, jobs to Baltimore

New firm brings manufacturing plant, jobs — and a different kind of homebuilding— to Baltimore.

Blueprint Robotics is a new Baltimore company with small, temporary offices, just 13 employees and big ambitions to use technology to revolutionize the homebuilding industry. So far, so start-up.

But the firm, led by former executives at the Rouse Co. and Crate & Barrel, plans to employ more than 60 people by midsummer. It's about to relocate to a new 200,000-square-foot warehouse on Broening Highway in Southeast Baltimore, where it's creating a high-tech manufacturing plant.

Blueprint sees an opportunity to change the way homes and other buildings get constructed in the United States — using robotics to make the process faster, more precise and less wasteful. Such offsite construction practices are used widely in other parts of the world.

"People have called us a start-up with an asterisk," said CEO and co-founder Jerome D. "Jerry" Smalley, 66, who has been in real estate for decades, including as vice chairman at the Rouse Co. "The reason is the technology is not a start-up. The technology exists all over the world."

The idea for Blueprint started several years ago when co-founder Karim Sahyoun, a Massachusetts-based consultant, saw how some homes are constructed in Germany, with walls, roofs and other wood components created in a factory using high-tech machinery, then shipped in panels to a building site and rapidly assembled.

Blueprint Robotics, which formally launched in Baltimore in March, plans to appeal to small and mid-size builders of homes, apartments and dormitories — anything that uses wood — from Northern Virginia to Boston, Smalley said. Such firms stand to benefit most from savings on labor and raw materials offered by the process, he said.

"It's about the challenges in labor, the challenges in waste, the challenges in speed," he said. "Everybody else has brought technology to what they're doing. The residential homebuilding industry has brought some, but not a lot."

While rare in the United States, building this way has become more common elsewhere.

In Alberta, Canada, the Landmark Group of Companies started to incorporate a model like Blueprint's about 10 years ago, drawn to it in part because it allowed so much of a home to be constructed indoors, rather than exposing workers — and the buildings — to the elements, said Tanya Rumak, Landmark's sustainability and public relations manager.

The firm opened a roughly 150,000-square-foot plant in 2011 for its own projects and started doing projects for other builders last year. It employs about 150 people, Rumak said.

Smaller firms often don't have the capital to invest in a factory but still can benefit from the efficiencies of the process, especially as labor costs increase, she said. The precision of the machinery also reduces waste of raw materials by roughly 50 percent.

Typically, an industry only changes once it hits a breaking point, such as labor costs getting too high, Rumak said. "There has to be that motivation to build a better home," she added.

At Blueprint Robotics, interested builders can submit architectural drawings to the firm, which translates them into custom designs for its equipment.

Machines slice lumber and install insulation, wiring, plumbing, drywall, windows and doors — "everything not driven by taste and finishing," said Sascha Bopp, 46, co-founder and chief operating officer.

Then the materials, in panel form, are shipped to a construction site, where Blueprint crews can assemble them on top of a foundation within a day.

"It's revolutionary," said Bopp, who worked with Sahyoun as a consultant before becoming CEO of Crate & Barrel, a job he held until 2014. "The most important thing," he said, is "the fact that you can build whatever your customer wants."

Chris Rachuba of the Eldersburg-based Rachuba Group, who works on about 10 custom-built homes a year, said he wonders if Blueprint's process offers enough room for the special finishes and architecture he offers clients, despite its promises of custom design.

But he said he sees the appeal for dormitories or multi-family projects. And he said that because Blueprint will ships its components in panels, it may have an advantage over modular homebuilding, which is based on a similar premise but hasn't made large inroads in the industry.

"It just never really caught on for whatever reason," he said. "Will this change it? I'd have to see."

Smalley declined to say how much Blueprint has invested so far. (Duke Realty, which is building the plant and leasing it to Blueprint, has filed city permits reporting a project cost of more than $6 million.) He also wouldn't say how it financed the sizable upfront costs, except to say it is an independent company with multiple shareholders.

Blueprint considered other East Coast locations, but settled on Baltimore for its lower cost, and proximity to the port and major highways, Smalley said.

The new plant, built on a former brownfield at 1500 Broening Highway, is located in an area where the state and city offer major tax incentives.

Blueprint hasn't submitted paperwork to claim the credits, but the Baltimore Development Corp. expects the investment to represent "millions upon millions," said BDC president William H. Cole IV.

BDC and other city agencies are working to connect city residents with the jobs, which range from architects to manufacturing positions of the type that city and state officials want to encourage.

"That to me, is the part that's most exciting," Cole said. "These are low-barrier-to-entry jobs that provide great income."

Duke Realty, which also built the robot-equipped warehouse for Amazon nearby, started construction on the plant this fall. Shipments of machinery started arriving this month.

Smalley said Blueprint expects the factory to be ready for training sessions this summer, and hopes to start delivery in August. Fully staffed, the factory can employ about 130 people and produce enough panels for one 4,000-square-foot home a day, Smalley said.

Smalley, who lives in Butchers Hill and has sat on the boards of firms focused on affordable housing, said the firm expects to reach out to community groups and others as it ramps up hiring.

"We don't subscribe to the idea that manufacturing can't be accomplished in the United States, that's for sure," he said. "That's a lot of manufacturing jobs for Baltimore."

An earlier version misspelled Sascha Bopp's name. The Sun regrets the error.

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