We have seen many ups and downs in the prefab world, but they may be getting it right this time.
This TreeHugger has watched many bold initiatives in prefabricated housing come and go. When Katerra launched I wondered if it was going to be any different. I concluded that "I really, really want Katerra to succeed. But I have seen this movie before. In fact, it gets remade every generation."
But as every real estate developer says after every downturn, "This time it's different." Reading Katerra's case study about their K90 Building Project, it actually might be. Katerra notes that "some 70 percent of construction projects come in overtime and over budget" and that the traditional General Contractor of Construction Manager process is "cumbersome, inefficient, and no longer viable in the face of growing demand for housing... Katerra is working to change this, applying methods and tools such as digital technology, offsite manufacturing, and fully-integrated teams in an effort to improve construction productivity."
K90 looks like your garden variety garden apartment complex. But instead of taking about 140 days to build, they did it in 90, at lower cost, and with higher quality, by using a "manufacturing mindset."
James Timberlake has been talking about this for years – how the cheapest car can drive into a rainstorm at 70 MPH and not leak, but most buildings can barely be left out in the rain. He called for thinking about making buildings more like the way we make cars. Katerra writes:
When a manufacturing facility wants to build a complex machine - take an automobile - engineers representing different disciplines study each piece individually and iterate on their design to create a more perfect answer that is designed with actual fabrication in mind. This is how each deliverable was taken apart and pieced back together in the most optimized way possible. Then, using an integrated schedule, deliverables are viewed as a whole; instead of each piece being managed in an independent silo, components are planned with very granular details and managed like pieces of a bigger puzzle.
Every component in the building gets an RFID tracking number so, "much like UPS or FedEx ship and track their packages, teams could identify in real time – from factory to job site – the status of each building component. Instead of just knowing floor panels were coming, the team could predict their arrival down to the hour, with team members at every point to receive the delivery."
They also treat "projects as products" to make buildings as simple and repetitive as possible, “productizing” buildings as much as possible: "By designing for manufacturing, the focus is on standardizing the highly repeatable elements of projects so every aspect of a building doesn’t need to be redesigned, every time." So this building is in fact a "Katerra Garden Market Rate Building Platform, a three-story walk-up multi-family building with components designed to be replicated."
This was my biggest complaint about Katerra, because I did not believe you could build a building like a car. I thought it was more like a made-to-measure suit, writing:
When it comes down to it, a building is much closer to a bespoke suit than it is to a car. If buying a building was like “ordering a new car with custom features,” they would all be roughly the same size, every city would have the same zoning bylaws and parking requirements, you could park them anywhere in a moment, and you wouldn’t have NIMBYs. Instead, it is indeed like a bespoke suit; you have to spend hours with the customer to make it fit each and every body. Even though it might be the same basic materials and patterns, every one is different. And every client wants their own special thing, their own little details that make it different. That’s why they cost so much. That’s one reason buildings cost so much.
But a garden apartment in the Nevada desert is really off-the-rack. It doesn't have a lot of individuality and doesn't have to be the latest style or even fit absolutely perfectly, and it is what the market needs: lots of affordable housing in a hurry. So Katerra has a unit library of types and sizes to "address regional size requirements" – a "chassis library to accommodate project-specific mix needs"; "an array of interior finish packages to serve a range of market tiers"; and "two roof types and a multitude of exterior cladding and color options." Off the rack, but with choices.
They prefabricate 2D wall panels in the factory and ship them to the site for finishing, but prefab the bathrooms into a little 3D package.
Within the tub/shower are packed all other materials needed to finish the bathroom - the toilet, vanity, flooring, and all other fixtures and finishes. At K90, the bath kits were installed and finished in less than one working day, by just two people. This result represented a radically condensed schedule that removed the need for multiple sequenced trades, as well as a reduction in lost and damaged materials.
The resulting building is not going to win any architectural awards, but that's not the point. The goal was to see if the process of building housing could be faster and better. And on their first project, they have succeeded. With mass production, it gets faster and better every time, and they are just getting started.
Specific project phases that showed significant gains included framing, during which the framing time took less than half the time as status quo for typically stick built construction. Installation of the Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing and Fire Protection engineering systems took less than half the time of traditional construction - and much of the labor was in factory production, instead of the field. The drywall team was able to complete installation in three days per floor, when traditionally it takes more than five days per floor.
As noted earlier, I had some doubts about Katerra. But they are not a Lustron, reinventing what a house is; in this project they are using proven European prefab technologies. They are not chasing architectural magazines with high end single family houses; they are going after the mass market multifamily repetitive product. They may be from Silicon Valley, but they are building where you actually can without a fight, building a product indistinguishable from what people are used to. Years ago I wrote:
Housing is an archaic industry; it is still little more than a collection of guys with pickup trucks with magnetic signs on the side and skilsaws and nailguns in the back. It has never been properly organized, Deminged, Taylorized, or Druckered.
This may finally be changing with Katerra. This time it might be different.