Katerra’s overarching vision of reforming the construction world, using billions of dollars of investment to build an entirely new manufacturing system from the ground up, showed off stereotypical Silicon Valley arrogance. It also had little effect on European models, which tend to be upgraded with a simple, clear and standard set of parts.
According to Gerard McCaughey, serial entrepreneur and founder of Century Homes, an Irish pioneer of off-site construction, the company had a common blind spot with many American technologists: it ignored innovations that first appeared abroad. While American construction favored on-site wood-frame construction with readily available raw materials (think of a Ford pickup truck piled on two by four haulers), more builders in Asia and Europe, constrained by space and materials, have perfected prefabricated and prefabricated structures. modular technology. Caterra ignored these examples, which gradually built up experience, focusing on specific sectors one at a time. Instead, they tried to reinvent the wheel by taking every aspect of the complex building process into their own hands and building too many different models at once, resulting in huge cost overruns.
“It’s not what you know or what you don’t know that attracts you,” says McCaughey, who has negotiated with Katerra leaders. “There were things they were absolutely sure you needed to do, but [they were wrong]. Off the court, it’s not a one-trick pony. You must crawl before you can walk. The most inexperienced guy in my company knew more about off-site construction than their upper management.”
Energiesprong’s model, which has upgraded thousands of homes in the Netherlands and across Europe, relies on Stroomversnelling (the name means “rapid acceleration”), a network where contractors, housing associations, parts suppliers and even financiers work closely together. a level of coordination that even the sprawling Caterra system could not match. Right now, the Energiesprong system can transform a building in about 10 days. Other startups and construction companies are offering free upgrades: Dutch firm Factory Zero, for example, makes complete roof modules with electric boilers, heat pumps and solar panels. The landscaping of the old building takes place almost according to the plug-and-play principle.
It is part of a larger European model that starts with an ambitious emissions policy and supports it with incentives and funding for the modernization and construction of new buildings through programs like Horizon Europe, effectively subsidizing new building methods and creating a market for innovative windows, doors and HVAC. . systems. A key component of its success was the willingness of governments to fund such upgrades in subsidized and public housing, typically post-war towers and townhouses in desperate need of improvement. But there are other significant advantages in Europe: building codes are much more standardized across countries and across the continent as a whole, including some progressive regulations pushing passive house a standard, ultra-efficient level of insulation and ventilation that drastically reduces the energy required for heating and cooling. The entire housing ecosystem is smaller and more standardized, making it easier to support more experiments. Energiesprong uses a single building model, multiple contractors, and a relatively small pool of players in a small area.
Coordination will be exponentially more difficult in one US city, and even more so in the entire country. “Europe is taking a fractional approach and funding numerous programs across the board,” says 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 among different ideas, rather than concentrating venture capital on a handful of focused, fast-moving start-ups. “The US eventually becomes something like a sniper rifle,” he says. “Caterra is failing and it’s affecting the entire prefab industry.”
The new model in Canada aims to replicate the European one. CityHousing Hamilton, the Municipal Housing Authority of the City of Ontario, recently used National Housing Funds to completely refurbish Ken Soble Tower, a dilapidated high-rise waterfront home for the elderly built in 1967. The project, which included panel exterior cladding, new high-efficiency windows, electrified heating and gas stoves, took the building to a new level. passive house standard; with a 94% reduction in energy consumption thanks to its exceptional efficiency, the total energy required to cool and heat the device is equivalent to three incandescent bulbs. Sleek new bay windows with seating, stunning views and natural daylight mean that aesthetics don’t come at a price.
Graeme Stewart of ERA Architects, who led the project and studied hundreds of similar mid-century high-rise buildings in the country, says the project gave Canadian high-tech window and cladding firms business, suggesting such work could help create a domestic industry for more green building projects. . He even spearheaded the creation of the Tower Renewal Partnership, an organization that does similar upgrades across Canada. But CityHousing Hamilton development manager Sean Botham says that even with all the benefits they see for tower residents — improved air quality, infection control, mental health and cognitive function, and “the views you just don’t get on social media” . housing” — the agency is unlikely to pay an 8% surcharge for the modernization of other buildings in its portfolio without additional financial support.