San Antonio—There’s an industrial factory about two miles southeast of downtown San Antonio that was built for a coffee company but, sometime after the 1970s, it became home to an HVAC business.
That was lucky, the factory’s current owner says, because there’s at least one room in the 26,000-square-foot complex with air conditioning. That’s the room where the owner, Brett Elmendorf, designs software, tinkers with computer-based lighting projects, and keeps a full bar. The rest of the expansive building is for every other project he works on—and there are a quite a few.
Woodworking, a hand-made shower, computer-based LED art, R2-D2 replicas—even a dumpster pool. Elmendorf’s warehouse feels a bit like a museum, filled with relics of the building’s past life as a coffee roasting plant and its current use as a technologist’s maker space. If it is a museum, Elmendorf is the curator, artist, and guide.
Elmendorf has plenty of other unique modern and historical elements throughout his warehouse, some of which Xconomy photographed on a recent visit. Elmendorf shared some of his photos, too. (View the slideshow above to see and find out more.)
It’s the kind of place you’d dream to own if you were a child who liked to tinker and experiment—a vacant two-story factory where a weekend scientist can try to make even the wildest experiments happen. Elmendorf’s warehouse is much like San Antonio itself, a city best known for its history, such as the Alamo, but one that is also an emerging tech market. New media, cloud computing, and cybersecurity businesses are popping up monthly in downtown San Antonio, surrounding the historic Alamo.
Elmendorf and his brother, Dirk, work out of the coffee factory on a daily basis on various projects, ranging from helping local companies fix bugs in their software to minimalist construction projects, like building desks, walls, and even homes.
Their names are well-recognized in the tech world, particularly in San Antonio. Dirk co-founded Rackspace in the late 1990s with some classmates from Trinity University, and Brett later joined the cloud computing giant’s software development team. It became a multibillion-dollar business before offering shares to the public in 2008, and then being taken private earlier this year for $4.3 billion.
The brothers are also involved in other areas of San Antonio tech. They run TruckingOffice, which provides business management software to small trucking companies. And they take on freelance software projects for other local startups. Brett handles the interface and design aspects of the work, calling himself a technical designer, while Dirk does the heavy coding and programming.
Brett is also a co-founder of a startup, Rising Barn, which uses precise architectural designs to build low-cost, high-quality housing. The company’s prototypes were built using a CNC router (in lay terms, it’s basically a really big table saw) that Brett keeps in the warehouse. The CNC machine is connected to a computer that Brett can feed designs to using a software program.
Brett became involved with Rising Barn because he and Dirk bought the CNC router to build things they needed for the warehouse. It’s a big building after all, and to make it work for their needs, the brothers decided to create their own furnishings and, sometimes, build their own walls instead of spending loads of money on hiring crews.
“We’re recycling a factory,” Brett says.
But they also wanted to experiment with the process of construction in a way that allowed the designer to be the most important person in the project, rather than the builder. That would mean applying a software development mentality to construction, which can be costly and inefficient because builders are often only able to solve problems only after they happen, the Elmendorfs say.
Brett began creating designs of products they wanted to build, tweaked them in a computer program to make sure they were correct, and sent the designs to the CNC machine to cut cheap wood into prototypes. If the prototype worked out, they could use high-quality material for the final product.
“In software, what we learned is managing risk and shortening the cycle time are key to getting stuff to churn out. Agile is all about pulling risk forward and doing short spurts rather than trying to do a big thing,” Dirk says. “We’re trying to figure out the way to make the designer, the person, be able to make changes and have them flow.”
That’s the same thing Rising Barn’s other co-founder, a trained architect, was trying to do, which spurred a partnership with Brett that you can read more about here. But the design-focused process has drawn a few other referrals to the Elmendorfs, particularly from people who had unique or expensive construction projects. The brothers handle those referrals through a research and development business they call r26D, with 26 representing the hex code for an ampersand, Brett says.
One referral was from Alamo Beer, which wanted a display case shaped like beer bottles. Another was for a prototype countertop display for SnackDot, a local snack-selling startup. The Elmendorfs have also designed and built signs for coding school Codeup and the bustling downtown co-working space, Geekdom.
Brett and Dirk Elmendorf say their intent with their design-focused approach is not just to get customers. They started doing this so they could make low-cost products that are appealing, useful, and not incredibly expensive for their building. Though, it’s not like they’d be against selling things.
“I just wish one of us had more sales experience. I know we’re a salesman’s goldmine. I don’t even know where to start,” Brett says. “There are a bunch of things here. I don’t know where they’re going. But at the moment, I’m not going to worry about it.”
Rather than trying to transform the construction industry, Dirk says, they’re doing something more similar to what craft brewers did to the beer industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“Part of what made the craft brewing model so powerful is that you brought in outsiders that didn’t know how it was supposed to be done, and they decentralized everything,” Dirk says. “This is an opportunity to decentralize lots of stuff that right now you need big equipment and infrastructure to do.”