Building BLOX: Alabama architecture firm makes mark on health care

Giattina Aycock Architecture Studio Inc. has played a key role in shaping communities across Alabama. From parks and schools to hospitals and corporate campuses, GA Studio is the author of many of the region’s well-known landmarks.

In particular, the 50-year-old firm’s work has helped spur the resurgence of downtown Birmingham, with notable projects including Jemison Flats, a pioneering loft development; Railroad Park; the expansion of Children’s of Alabama, and the new Regional Intermodal Facility on Morris Avenue, currently under construction.

But about a decade ago the company, led by brothers Chris and Brian Giattina, began studying ways to improve the design and construction process, and determined that the integration of manufacturing was crucial.

BLOX builds medical “modules” that plug into health care facilities under construction. (BLOX)

BLOX builds medical “modules” that plug into health care facilities under construction. (BLOX)

The analysis led them to create a new company, BLOX, that makes medical modules, such as patient rooms, exam rooms and trauma rooms, and uses them to build hospitals and other health care facilities more quickly and efficiently.

The company has grown rapidly, with projects across the U.S. and skyrocketing sales. Its local manufacturing site, the former Pullman Standard railcar plant in Bessemer, now hums with the assembly of modern medical technology.

This month, GA Studio moved from its longtime office space in downtown Birmingham to join BLOX in Bessemer, in the latest evolution for both firms as they seek to make the building process better.

“We are delighted to have GA Studio and BLOX relocate to Bessemer,” Mayor Kenneth E. Gulley said during a tour of the facility Wednesday. “Not only do they represent the first architectural firm to move to our city, but they bring a revolutionary business model that is set to transform an entire industry.”

Genesis of BLOX

The Giattinas say they first noticed a breakdown in the architecture, engineering and construction industry around 2007, and the cracks of inefficiency, fragmentation and declining productivity became gaping holes as the Great Recession took hold.

Chris Giattina, president of GA Studio and chief executive of BLOX, led the design of training facilities for Honda in Alabama and Kia in Georgia in the mid-2000s, and he learned a lot about manufacturing methods during those projects. That work sparked ideas about how those methods could be applied to his own industry.

“The key is bringing an understanding of manufacturing to design so that its productivity can be realized in construction,” he said.

The result was a new method he created — Design, Manufacture, Construct — and BLOX was born to fulfill an important role that the existing industry did not address.

“GA is our architectural firm; it is the D in DMC,” Giattina said. “We design thoughtful buildings and know how to knit the manufacturing methods into traditional construction that enhance a building’s quality while speeding its delivery to market.

The BLOX manufacturing operation is based at the former Pullman Standard railcar plant in Bessemer. (BLOX)

The BLOX manufacturing operation is based at the former Pullman Standard railcar plant in Bessemer. (BLOX)

“BLOX is our manufacturer, the M in DMC,” he continued. “It was created out of necessity — we needed a manufacturer interested in making our building parts. It is lean from stem to stern and routinely works with other architects, engineers and trade contractors.

“General contractors across the country form the C in DMC; working together as an intelligent team, we are making better buildings.”

The recent focus on health care reform in the U.S. made it an obvious market for BLOX, which began building prototypes in 2010. Several years of research and development followed.

Rising sales

In the last three years, the company’s annual sales have grown to $30 million, and that total is expected to double in the coming year.

BLOX is involved in projects across the country, from new hospitals and freestanding clinics to expansions of both. Patient rooms — headwalls, footwalls and bathrooms — was the start. Today BLOX nests these smaller modules into complex “uber modules” — large structural steel frames housing patient rooms, surgery suites and diagnostics complete with integrated building systems of mechanical, electrical and plumbing distribution.

Sales of BLOX’s medical modules have reached $30 million a year. (BLOX)

Sales of BLOX’s medical modules have reached $30 million a year. (BLOX)

These modules snap into traditional construction, improving quality and increasing an owner’s speed to market. Now, with the addition of GA Studio’s capacity, larger portions of the building will be designed and manufactured in Bessemer.

Hospital Corporation of America, made up of more than 250 hospitals and freestanding surgery centers in 20 U.S. states and the United Kingdom, is BLOX’s biggest client.

HCA’s size commands the attention of the country’s top architects and contractors, so its embrace of BLOX has been a strong endorsement for the young firm.

A new home

Three years ago, BLOX set up shop in the former Pullman Standard plant in Bessemer’s Interstate Industrial Park.

As the operation grew, so did the need for better proximity between GA Studio and BLOX, said Brian Giattina, chief financial officer for GA Studio.

“The whole goal is that GA has to be ingrained into the workings of BLOX, so we know it and understand it,” he said. “The guys and gals at GA know a lot about BLOX, but it’s easier if you’re at the plant every day, and if architects at GA are sitting 10 feet away from architects at BLOX, there’s a lot of cross training.”

It’s tough to leave downtown for a lot of reasons, he continued. “But we said it had to be done so we can share the knowledge and expertise on both sides.”

In Bessemer, BLOX assembles its modules in a 250,000-square-foot manufacturing space, which accommodates its current workload and leaves room for expansion. Adjacent to the plant, there’s a new 10,000-square-foot architecture studio, where the professional staffs of the two firms work together.

The BLOX workforce numbers about 200, while GA Studio employs about 30.

Looking to the future

While GA Studio continues to deliver architecture projects by traditional methods, Chris Giattina said he’s inclined to look for as many opportunities as possible to use the DMC methods.

“It’s changed our DNA,” he said.

At the same time, BLOX has adopted the culture of GA Studio, principles passed down from the Giattinas’ father, Joe, president emeritus of the firm.

“GA has brought attention to detail, professionalism, rigor and an encyclopedic knowledge of building design,” Chris Giattina said.

BLOX's modular construction delivers a quality product in a much shorter construction time, its principals say. (BLOX)

BLOX’s modular construction delivers a quality product in a much shorter construction time, its principals say. (BLOX)

So what’s next for the companies?

They’re planning to expand, and this fall, a new robotics and digital fabrication lab will open at the site.

BLOX employs a wide range of skilled professionals and skilled laborers, including architects, engineers and programmers along with plumbers, electricians and specialty finishers. They’re also hiring, seeking workers for both the GA architecture and the BLOX manufacturing side. AIDT, the worker training arm of the Alabama Department of Commerce, is assisting in those efforts.

Ultimately, the firms want to hone the DMC methodology to the point where they can deliver higher-quality buildings twice as fast as conventional construction methods at half the cost.

In industry circles, the DMC method is considered the way of the future, Chris Giattina said.

“It makes sense to everybody, and that’s what’s fueling our crazy growth,” he said.