Katerra’s all-encompassing vision of reshaping the construction world, using billions of dollars in investment to build an entirely new manufacturing system from scratch, showcased Silicon Valley’s stereotypical arrogance. It has also had a fraction of the impact of European models that want to be retrofitted with a simple, uncomplicated and standard set of parts.
The company shared a common blind spot with many American technologists, according to Gerard McCaughey, a serial entrepreneur and founder of Century Homes, an Irish pioneer of off-site construction: It ignored innovation pioneered abroad. While American construction favored on-site timber-frame construction with readily available raw materials — imagine a Ford pickup piled up with two-by-four pulling to one piece — more builders with limited space and material in Asia have and Europe prefab and modular techniques. Katerra ignored these examples, which slowly built expertise by focusing on specific sectors one by one. Instead, it tried to reinvent the wheel by taking every facet of the complex build process in-house and building too many different models at once, causing huge cost overruns.
“It’s not what you know or what you don’t know that catches you,” said McCaughey, who has held talks with Katerra leaders. “There were things they knew you should do, but… [they were wrong]† Off site is not a one trick pony. You have to crawl before you can walk. The least experienced man in my company knew more about off-site construction than their senior leadership.”
0. R38 effective envelope 1. Glazing with a low solar heat gain coefficient 2. Low emissivity indoor shading 3. Ceiling fans to circulate the air in the units 4. Lightly tempered air supplied through a centralized ventilation system 5. Decentralized cooling “boost” by a variable air volume unit activated by in-suite controls
Many efforts are being made to decarbonise buildings. One example is the Holistic Energy and Architectural Retrofit Toolkit (HEART), a cloud-based computing platform with decision-making and energy management capabilities.
The Energiesprong model, which has renovated thousands of homes in the Netherlands and across Europe, is based on Stroommetaal (the name means ‘fast acceleration’), a network in which contractors, housing associations, parts suppliers and even financiers work closely together. a level of coordination that even Katerra’s sprawling system couldn’t match. At this point, the Energy Leap System can redo a building in about 10 days. Other startups and construction companies offer free upgrades: for example, the Dutch company Factory Zero makes ready-to-use modules for roofs with electric boilers, heat pumps and solar connections. The greening of an older building is almost plug-and-play.
It is part of a larger European model that starts with an ambitious emissions policy and supports it with incentives and financing for renovations and new buildings through programs such as Horizon Europe, essentially subsidizing new building methods and creating a market for innovative windows, doors and HVAC systems. A key part of its success has been the willingness of governments to fund such upgrades to subsidized and public housing, typically post-war towers and terraced houses in dire need of improvement. But there are other important benefits in Europe as well: building codes are much more standardized across countries and the continent as a whole, including some progressive regulations pushing for the passivhaus standard, an ultra-efficient level of insulation and ventilation that drastically reduces the energy needed. reduces for heating and cooling. The entire housing ecosystem is smaller and more standardized, making it easier to support more experiments. Energy Leap uses one building model, a handful of contractors, and a relatively small pool of players over a small area.
Coordination would be exponentially more difficult in a single US city, let alone across the country. “Europe is taking a shotgun approach and funding numerous programs across the board,” said Michael Eliason, a Seattle-based sustainable building expert and founder of Larch Lab, a design studio and think tank. It’s an approach that spreads risk across different ideas, rather than concentrating venture capital on a handful of targeted hypergrowth startups. “The US will eventually become a kind of sniper rifle,” he says. “Katerra is failing and it has consequences for the entire prefab construction industry.”
An emerging model in Canada is trying to emulate that of Europe. CityHousing Hamilton, the municipal housing authority for the City of Ontario, recently used National Housing Funds for a complete renovation of Ken Soble Tower, a waterfront high-rise for seniors built in 1967 that had fallen into disrepair. The project, with exterior panels, new high-efficiency windows and electrification of heating and gas stoves, brought the building up to passive house standard; with a 94% reduction in energy consumption due to extreme efficiency, the total energy required to cool and heat a unit is equal to three light bulbs. The graceful new bay windows with seating, expansive views and natural light suggest that there was no aesthetic price to pay.
Graeme Stewart of ERA Architects, who led the project and has studied the hundreds of similar mid-century high-rises, says the project has brought business to Canadian companies that manufacture high-tech windows and cladding, suggesting that such work could contribute to a domestic industry for more green construction projects. He even spearheaded the founding of the Tower Renewal Partnership, an organization dedicated to pursuing similar retrofits across Canada. But CityHousing Hamilton development manager Sean Botham says that even with all the benefits they see for the tower residents — better air quality, infection control, mental health and cognitive function, and “opinions you just don’t get in social housing” — the agency will unlikely to pay the 8% cost premium to upgrade other buildings in its portfolio without more financial support.