The future of urban housing lies in energy-efficient refrigerators

Katerra’s overarching vision to reform the construction world, using billions of dollars of investment to build an entirely new production system from the ground up, showcased stereotypical Silicon Valley arrogance. It also had a fraction of the impact of European models looking to retrofit using a simple, straight forward and standard set of parts.

According to Gerard McCaughey, serial entrepreneur and founder of Century Homes, an Irish pioneer in offsite construction, the company shared a common blind spot with many American technologists: it ignored innovation launched overseas. . While American construction favored on-site wood-frame construction with readily available raw materials – imagine a stacked Ford pickup with two-by-fours pulling up to a lot – more space and materials-limited builders in Asia and in Europe have perfected the prefabricated and modular techniques. Katerra ignored these examples, which slowly built expertise by focusing on specific industries one at a time. Instead, it tried to reinvent the wheel, bringing all facets of the complex construction process in-house and building too many different models at once and causing massive cost overruns.

“It’s not what you know or what you don’t know that gets you,” says McCaughey, who has held talks with Katerra executives. “There were things they were sure you had to do, but [they were wrong]. Offsite is not a one trick pony. You have to crawl before you can walk. The least experienced person in my company knew more about offsite construction than his senior management. »

0. R38 efficient envelope 1. Low solar heat gain glazing 2. Low emissivity interior blinds 3. Ceiling fans to circulate air in the units 4. Mildly tempered air supplied by a centralized ventilation system 5. Decentralized cooling “boost” by variable air volume unit activated by in-suite controls

Many efforts are underway to decarbonize buildings. One example is the Holistic Energy and Architectural Retrofit Toolkit (HEART), a cloud-based computing platform that includes decision-making and energy management features.


The Energiesprong model, which has modernized thousands of homes in the Netherlands and across Europe, is based on Stroomversnelling (the name means “rapid acceleration”), a network in which contractors, housing associations, parts suppliers and even financiers work in close contact—a level of coordination that even Katerra’s sprawling system couldn’t match. Currently, the Energiesprong system can redo a building in about 10 days. Other startups and construction companies offer free upgrades: Dutch company Factory Zero, for example, makes prefabricated modules for rooftops with electric boilers, heat pumps and solar hook-ups. Greening an old building is almost plug-and-play.

It’s part of a wider European model that starts with an ambitious emissions policy and backs it up with incentives and funding for renovations and new buildings through programs like Horizon Europe, actually subsidizing new methods and creating a market for innovative windows, doors and HVAC. systems. A key element of its success was the willingness of governments to fund such improvements for subsidized and public housing, typically post-war towers and townhouses in desperate need of improvement. But there are also other significant advantages in Europe: building codes are much more standardized across countries and the continent as a whole, including some progressive regulations pushing for passive house standard, an ultra-efficient level of insulation and ventilation that drastically reduces the energy needed for heating and cooling. The entire housing ecosystem is also smaller and more standardized, making it easier to support more experiences. Energiesprong uses a single building model, a handful of contractors, and a relatively small group of players in a small area.

Coordination would be exponentially more difficult in a single American city, let alone the entire nation. “Europe is taking a shotgun approach and funding many programs at all levels,” 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, instead of concentrating venture capital on a handful of determined hypergrowth startups. “The United States ends up being a kind of sniper rifle,” he says. “Katerra is failing and it’s impacting the entire prefab industry.”

An emerging model in Canada seeks to replicate that of Europe. CityHousing Hamilton, the municipal housing authority for the City of Ontario, recently used national housing funds for a complete renovation of the Ken Soble Tower, a waterfront skyscraper for seniors that was built in 1967 and had fallen into disrepair. The project, which included paneled exterior cladding, new high-efficiency windows and the electrification of heating and gas stoves, brought the building to the passive house Standard; With a 94% reduction in energy consumption through extreme efficiency, the total energy needed to cool and heat one unit is equivalent to three incandescent bulbs. Graceful new floor-to-ceiling windows offering seating, panoramic views and daylight suggested 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 skyscrapers across the country, says the project has given business to Canadian companies making high-tech windows and cladding. , suggesting that such work could help create a national industry for more green building projects. He even spearheaded the creation of the Tower Renewal Partnership, an organization dedicated to pursuing similar renovations across Canada. But CityHousing Hamilton development director Sean Botham says that even with all the benefits they see for tower residents – better air quality, infection control, mental health and cognitive function, and ” views you just don’t get on social media housing” – the agency is unlikely to pay the 8% cost premium to upgrade other buildings in its portfolio without more financial support.

Karl M. Bailey