Housing crisis

Solving a housing crisis | TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy

Of America’s more than 6 million commercial buildings, hundreds of thousands of them languish, and many are located near job centers, public transportation, and are even zoned for mixed-use development. Kit Switch develops components to transform unused spaces into housing.

Affordable housing is out of reach for many Americans. Nationally, there is only one rental unit within the financial reach of more than three families who qualify as very low income. In California, that’s one rental for five families.

Meanwhile, half-empty buildings can be found across the United States: 1970s motels with perpetual vacancy signs; shopping centers in Mallrats 1990s days; offices from the 2000s, neglected by teleworkers.

Armelle Coutant

These could all be someone’s house.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to our housing crisis, however, repurposing underutilized buildings has great potential,” says Armelle Coutant, ’19, MS ’21, co-founder and CEO of Kit Switch, a startup that designs a kit of prefabricated components to form apartments inside vacant buildings.

Candice Demarre

The pandemic has shown how quickly architecture may have to deviate from its original use. A living room can become an office. A garage could be a studio. A football stadium could turn into a mass vaccination clinic.

“We are increasingly being forced to consider the effects of climate change and global crises, she says, pointing out how real estate constraints have remained static, even as buildings need to become more dynamic in the globalized world. ‘today.

“Our goal at Kit Switch is to pre-design and pre-specify standard apartment building blocks so that housing can be more easily deployed, reconfigured and swapped, whether inside existing vacant buildings or in new constructions.

She explains that the goal is not to convert every empty commercial building into living space, but rather to make the urban landscape more resilient and responsive to changing needs.

“Building interiors are typically the most expensive, but they’re also the building layer most subject to change, and we need to think about producing them in a more adaptable and circular way,” says Coutant.

More than 6% of American adults were behind on their rent or mortgage payments in December 2021, according to the US Census, with no prospect of improvement in their housing insecurity. United States Housing Insecurity Chart, USA FACTS.ORG

Building Resilience

Kit Switch offers a turnkey approach to renovating buildings, starting with the heart of many homes: the kitchen.

“We started this initiative by talking to experts in the field and getting a wide range of views. Before starting any design work, we really sought to understand the ecosystem,” says Coutant, of the more than 200 conversations she and Candice Delamarre, MS ’21, co-founder and COO, and former members of the project have shared with workers, architects, developers, and contractors.

What they learned is that kitchens are a bottleneck in most multifamily construction projects, the biggest contributor to layout errors and delays. This inspired Kit Switch’s first line of products, what Coutant calls a “plug and play” kitchen, given its ease of installation.

The plumbing and electrical systems are integrated into a pre-fabricated rear panel, so once the “kitchen kit” arrives at the job site, the main step is to connect it to the wiring, water lines and drainage of the building via a central access panel. This panel also facilitates any maintenance or energy monitoring that may be required after residents move into the unit.

The co-founders demonstrated prototypes of the “Kitchen Kit” at the 2022 Small Business Construction Expo in Richmond, CA.

Coutant notes that she and Delamarre were able to install the 5-foot linear kitchenette as a team of just two people in less than three hours. “Those with experience in kitchen renovations will tell you that it usually takes a little longer!”

Kit Switch is able to provide upfront pricing and a defined installation schedule, allowing developers to lease their units sooner, a distinct advantage given the supply chain delays that have emerged in recent years. While Kit Switch products can be used on individual accessory dwelling units (ADUs), the greatest price advantages are for developers of multi-family projects of 10 or more units.

“One of the challenges in our industry is having to redesign and bid for each new construction project, usually handled by an entirely different team. By standardizing our designs, we can eliminate some guesswork and provide the benefits of using the same product for all projects,” she says.

The environmental cost is also less. In 2020, the manufacture of new building materials, such as steel, glass and cement, accounted for 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. Simply reusing older buildings will benefit the climate, with foundations already poured and windows framed.

Modular components designed for disassembly and refurbishment also allow for easier repair in apartment buildings, “rather than opting for demolition and the resulting waste,” says Coutant. Homeowners or proprietors could even move the components to another home.

Kit Switch is a member of the Innovation Incubator, a technology resource for cleantech startups committed to sustainability, as the startup continues to refine designs and expand product lines.

New angles on construction

The company began as a collaboration between five graduate students who met through the Sustainable Design and Construction program at Stanford, all women in a male-dominated industry. Coutant says their new perspective has continued to attract students hoping to get involved. With support from the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy, they have mentored six Stanford interns over the past year.

“Every resource and source of funding is important when you’re starting out, but the TomKat Center award has really been an incredible catalyst in terms of unlocking our ability to develop our product,” she says.

She remembers how the 2020 Innovation Transfer Fellowship gave them the freedom to tinker, explore, and iterate. Even something as simple as buying several pieces from Home Depot and trying different techniques to see which worked best. “Having the ability to be curious and learn new things was a key part of our early success.”

“We prototyped. We’ve tested. We tested the installation. We now have a chance to make a permanent installation,” she says.

In the fall of 2022, Kit Switch is partnering with Habitat for Humanity, the world’s largest nonprofit builder, to complete the first long-term pilot of their kitchen line in Los Angeles. Kit Switch is also looking to grow their team and launch a pop-up showroom in San Francisco near Pier 9 where they reside in the Autodesk Technology Centers Outsight network.

“We are a small team of engineers and designers. We hope to do our part by creating tools that can be part of adding quality, sustainable homes for everyone.