A Houston pilot program created a way to design stylish homes at a fraction of the cost — and in less than half the time. Photo courtesy of BoxPrefab

For families who want to live near downtown, Houston's affordable housing deficit in and around the Inner Loop is no secret.

For thirty years and counting, Houston-based nonprofit Avenue has confronted this reality by creating affordable housing opportunities and comprehensive community development programs for families in Houston neighborhoods.

"One of our chief objectives is to help stabilize neighborhoods and give opportunities for people to stay in the neighborhoods by providing moderately-priced homes," says Robert Fiederlein, Avenue's senior director of real estate development.

After an audit of Houston's Northline neighborhood revealed the community's affordable housing shortage, the Avenue team began to explore various methods to deliver new construction to the community, through sustainable housing at affordable prices. Research of diverse construction methods led Avenue to the innovative solution of prefabricated family dwellings.

In their effort to find a smart, sustainable alternative to traditional construction, Avenue came across BoxPrefab, an innovative off-site construction company that produces precision-built prefabricated homes from design to completion.

BoxPrefab's sustainable-oriented attributes and efficient processes checked all of Avenue's 'must-have' boxes and the two entities kicked off their partnership with their premier pilot program for modular home development.

"We care a lot about bringing affordability to housing and bringing good designs to affordable housing. We were really excited to work with Avenue because we are really in tune with their mission," says Rame Hruska, BoxPrefab's co-founder. "This is a great solution for homeowners."

This housing solution is not your run-of-the-mill "affordable housing." Besides its sleek finishes and modern look, BoxPrefab's modular home design and construction process is practical and ultra-simplified. Using prefabricated components, the company specializes in building homes in a factory, a controlled environment, instead of building on-site, where the construction process is subject to external variables, like rain, inclement weather, or any labor diversions.

The BoxPrefab houses are created offsite and then set up on the property. Photo courtesy of BoxPrefab

"Reliability is a big factor for our clients. There's so many unknowns and variables, from weather to other various delays, so we can really give people a much more definitive price, time and set quality," says Hruska.

After producing the factory-built components, BoxPrefab then assembles the prefabricated modules on the home's lot. With this streamlined process, BoxPrefab is able to build homes faster and in a more systematic manner, all while reducing waste output and overall cost.

"We have confidence that if we placed higher orders, costs would go down," Fiederlein says. "This could be a way to build less costly affordable housing. Construction costs came out $130 per square foot, which is comparable to the other site-built homes that we're working on right now.

"Another thing we've learned was that we can do it in half the time as a site build," Fiederlein continues. "It takes six to seven months to build a site-built home and we completed this home in just over three months. Russell, with tighter scheduling, said he could've built quicker. We can half the time it would normally take. As you know, time is money."

BoxPrefab's construction process, fiscal efficiency and waste output reduction is exactly what Avenue was looking for in a partner. Together, the two entities successfully completed their pilot program by placing a three-bedroom-two-bathroom prefabricated home on the market in Houston's Northline neighborhood.

"We're really excited about this potential and see it as becoming a much more standard way to build," Hruska says.

Prefabricated building options are considered the future of construction, due to its increased reliability and quality in the construction process, Hruska says. Based on the success of their pilot program, Avenue anticipates investing in more modular housing in the future. BoxPrefab, while Houston-based and focused, has their sights set on expanding regionally, to service more clients with prefabricated solutions, says Russell Hruska, BoxPrefab co-founder.

"Modular is a viable path going forward," Fiederlein says. "It's going to take additional work to get there, but the pilot shows that it's certainly a method that helps to reduce costs…We're confident that it can be the way of delivering affordable housing at lower prices."

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston's fund of funds announces 2 new investments

money moves

The HX Venture Fund, which invests in out-of-town venture capital funds that have their eyes on Houston startups, has grown its portfolio.

The fund of funds now has a portfolio of 10 VCs from across the country, across industries, and across startup stages. According to a recent announcement, the HX Venture Fund has invested in New York-based Greycroft Venture Partners and Washington D.C.-based Revolution Ventures. The announcement also included Boston-based Material Impact and San Francisco-based venBio Global Strategic Fund, however those had been previously reported by InnovationMap.

"We are delighted to partner with the general partners of Greycroft Venture Partners, Material Impact, Revolution Ventures, and venBio Global Strategic Fund," says Sandy Guitar, managing director of HX Venture Fund, in the release. "With their proven expertise and exceptional track records, we are excited to integrate them into Houston networks and not only give them access to the Fund's innovative corporate limited partners, but also harness their knowledge to empower Houston entrepreneurs."

These four VC funds join six others that HXVF has invested in: Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners and Next Coast Ventures, Washington D.C.-based Updata Partners, Chicago-based Baird Capital, and Boston-based .406 Ventures and OpenView Venture Partners.

"The receptivity of the HX Venture Fund model has exceeded all our expectations. Since early 2019, over 217 venture capital funds across the U.S. have expressed definitive interest in participating in our model," says Guillermo Borda, managing director of HX Venture Fund, in the release.

"It is especially noteworthy that collectively, the ten funds selected for HX Venture Fund's portfolio have $3.7 billion in committed capital in their funds to be invested with Houston on their investment radar," Borda adds. "This is at a time that provides compelling investment opportunities in the economic cycle. This is an exciting time for Houston entrepreneurs and our innovation ecosystem."

Guitar previously told InnovationMap that she's looking to curate a portfolio of VCs that is diverse in industries and stage. Additionally, before investing in a VC, the HX Venture Fund looks for an interest in investing into Houston startups. The hope is that, while not required, the HXVF portfolio funds invest in a Houston startup down the road. Earlier this year, Houston-based Liongard became the fund of funds' first example of that.

"The innovation and talent in Houston are best-in-class; we want to be investing there," says Tige Savage, managing partner at Revolution Ventures, in the release.

Rice University rises to top of Texas schools in prestigious U.S. News & World Report ranking

Head of class

Rice University continues to rise in national surveys. The latest: U.S. News & World Report's 2021 Best Colleges, released September 14, anoints Rice as the best university in Texas. The prestigious Houston school — dubbed the "Ivy League of the South" — ranks No. 16 among national universities, up one spot from last year.

This is in step with last year's U.S. News & World Report's Best Colleges list, which also named Rice the best university in Texas.

The trusted report compared more than 1,400 undergraduate institutions across 17 measures of "academic quality" this year. Acknowledging the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic on students and schools, the publication made several updates to its methodology, notes a release.

For 2021, U.S. News added two new metrics to measure student debt. It also increased the weight of the outcome category, which measures graduation rates, retention rates, and social mobility, and reduced the weights for standardized test scores, high school class standing, and alumni giving. And, for the very first time, the report ranks test-blind schools (those that don't require an SAT or ACT score for admission).

"The pandemic has affected students across the country, canceling commencement ceremonies and switching classes from in person to remote," said Kim Castro, editor and chief content officer, in a release. "Whether students have slightly altered their college plans or changed them entirely, it remains our mission to continue providing students and their families with the tools they need to help find the right school for them."

Now, on to the rankings. Here's how Rice scores in the prestigious report:

  • No. 6 in Best Undergraduate Teaching
  • No. 8 in Best Value Schools
  • No. 18 in Most Innovative Schools (tie)
  • No. 224 in Top Performers on Social Mobility (tie)
  • No. 19 in Best Undergraduate Engineering Programs (tie)

For 2021, the University of Texas at Austin ranks No. 42 nationally, up a significant six spots from 2020. It's also the school's highest ranking on the report since 1985, touts a news release from the university. Among the country's public universities, UT Austin climbed four spots from the previous year, landing at No. 13.

As for Texas' other top schools, Southern Methodist University and Texas A&M University are tied at No. 66 nationwide, while Baylor University and Texas Christian University rank No. 76 and No. 80, respectively.

The lofty U.S. News & World Report ranking is just the latest in accolades for the Owls. Rice was recently named the seventh best college in the U.S. and the best college in Texas by Niche.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Trusted Houston bank identifies 4 coronavirus-related scams you need to know

On Your Side

As the COVID-19 pandemic has grown, so has the confidence of fraudsters who are hoping to scam people out of money. A large portion of our everyday lives have moved online and onto our phones, so it's more important than ever that you know what common tricks to watch out for.

Texas Citizens Bank continually looks out for its customers, creating tip sheets that help everyone become more educated about different types of fraud, from email scammers to debit and credit card crooks.

Here, they outline four common COVID-19 schemes that are making the rounds:

1. Fake offers of info, supplies, or payments
If it sounds official and mentions COVID-19 or the CARES Act, it must be legit, right? Wrong. These websites, mobile apps, and emails with links or attachments are entirely fake. Do not open, click, or download anything sent to you — instead, go directly to the official website on your own to find the info.

2. Someone posing as a doctor or ill family member
If you get a call claiming that someone you love is ill with coronavirus — and too ill to come to the phone, at that — and needs money for treatment, don't believe it. Hang up immediately and call that family member yourself.

3. Claims that your Social Security benefits are suspended
If you receive a letter or email, no matter how official-looking, that says your SSA benefits have been suspended due to COVID-19, know that it's not true. The SSA has not suspended or reduced any benefits, pandemic or not. Be sure to report this scam to the government here.

4. Offers of COVID-19 tests and vaccines
If someone is claiming they can send coronavirus tests directly to your house, they're lying. If they claim they can do the same with a vaccine, they're really lying. You can only obtain tests at hospitals, urgent care facilities, and your doctor's office, and we're still waiting on a reliable vaccine to be approved. Until then, be extra careful about who you believe.

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Texas Citizens Bank is an independently owned, FDIC-insured bank that specializes in Houston's small and medium-sized business owners. If you have questions about financial options during coronavirus or how to keep your money safe, contact a TCB banker today at 713-948-5700.