Katerra’s holistic vision of transforming the world of construction, using billions of dollars in investments to build an entirely new manufacturing system from the ground up, embodies the stereotypical arrogance of Silicon Valley. It also has a small influence of European models that seek to retrofit using a simple, straightforward and standard set of parts.
According to Gerard McCaughey, a serial entrepreneur and founder of Century Homes, an Irish pioneer in off-site construction, the company shares a common blind spot with many American technologists: it is not interested in the innovation pioneered abroad. While the U.S. construction industry favors on-site timber-frame construction with readily available raw materials — imagine a Ford pickup truck piled up on two legs — builders have limited resources. More space and materials in Asia and Europe have perfected prefab and modular engineering. Katerra ignored these examples, slowly building up expertise by focusing on specific areas at a time. Instead, it tries to reinvent the wheel, bringing every aspect of the complex construction process in-house and making too many different models at once and incurring massive cost overruns.
“It’s not what you know or what you don’t know captures you,” said McCaughey, who has spoken with Katerra leaders. “There are things they are dead that you absolutely must do, but [they were wrong]. Off-site is not a one-trick pony. You have to crawl before you can walk. The least experienced person in my company knows more about off-site construction than their senior leadership.”
The Energiespong model, which has retrofitted thousands of homes in the Netherlands and across Europe, relies on Stroomversnelling (the name means “rapid acceleration”), a network in which contractors, housing associations, Parts suppliers and even financiers work closely together—a level of coordination that not even Katerra’s sprawling network can match. Currently, the Energiespong system can redo a building in about 10 days. Other startups and builders offer free upgrades: Dutch company Factory Zero, for example, produces pre-built modules for rooftops with electric boilers, heat pumps and solar connectors. Greening an old building is almost plug-and-play.
It’s part of a larger European model, starting with an ambitious emissions policy and supporting it with incentives and funding for retrofits and new buildings through programs like Horizon Europe, implemented subsidies for new construction methods and created markets for innovative windows, doors and HVAC systems. A key component of its success has been the willingness of governments to finance such upgrades to public and subsidized housing, typically the much-needed post-war towers and townhouses. improved. But there are other significant advantages in Europe as well: building codes are more standardized across countries and continents as a whole, including some progressive regulations promoting passivhaus standards, an extremely efficient level of insulation and ventilation greatly reduces the energy required for heating and cooling. The entire housing ecosystem is also smaller and more standardized, making it easier to support more experiments. Energiespong uses a single building model, a small number of contractors, and a relatively small group of players over a small area.
Coordination would be exponentially harder in a single US city, much less nationally. “Europe adopts a shotgun and funding approach,” says Michael Eliason, a Seattle-based sustainability expert and founder of Larch Lab, a design studio and consulting organization. for many programs across the country. It’s an approach to spreading risk among different ideas, as opposed to concentrating venture capital on a handful of rapidly growing startups. “America is finally becoming a sniper rifle,” he said. “Katerra failed and it affected the entire prefab construction industry.”
An emerging model in Canada is seeking to replicate the European model. CityHousing Hamilton, Ontario’s housing regulator, recently used the national housing fund to retrofit the entire Ken Soble Tower, a waterfront high-rise for seniors under construction. in 1967 and fell into disrepair. The project, with a combination of plank exterior cladding, new high-performance windows, and the electrification of heating and gas stoves, brought the building to life. passivhaus Standard; With a 94% reduction in energy use thanks to its extreme efficiency, the total energy required to cool and heat one device is equivalent to three incandescent light bulbs. The luxurious new bay window offers seating, sweeping views and daylight that show no aesthetic price to be paid.
Graeme Stewart of ERA Architects, who led the project and has studied hundreds of similar mid-century national high-rises, says the project has brought business to Canadian companies that make windows and panels high-tech cladding, suggesting that such work could help seed the domestic industry with more green building projects. He even spearheaded the founding of the Tower Renewal Partnership, an organization dedicated to pursuing similar innovations across Canada. But CityHousing Hamilton’s director of development, Sean Botham, says that even with all of the benefits they’re seeing for tower residents — better air quality, infection control, mental health and functionality perception, and “perspectives you don’t get in housing society”—the agency can’t afford to pay the 8% premium to upgrade other buildings in its portfolio without it. additional financial support.