Katerra is On a Roll With Catalyst Building

The Spokane office building is the first made with wood from their CLT factory.

Catalyst Building Lobby

Benjamin Benschneider

The Catalyst building was recently completed in Spokane, Washington. The 159,000 square foot building, designed by Michael Green Architecture was built out of cross-laminated timber (CLT) by Katerra, the five-year-old construction company that we have been watching since it started.

Exterior of Catalyst building

Benjamin Benschneider

The Catalyst building is the poster child for Katerra, the first building using wood from their giant new CLT factory, which we covered here. Katerra's Design Director, Craig Curtis, says there is enough carbon stored in the 4,000 cubic meters of wood to offset everything else in the building, making it 100% carbon neutral.

Marks and factory
Michael Marks showing new CLT plant at Woodrise 2019.

Lloyd Alter

Having lived through a couple of construction cycles, I have expressed some reservations about Katerra, noting that we've seen this movie about boom and bust cycles before. And thanks to the pandemic, this year has been a serious bust. Co-founder Michael Marks (who we met at Woodrise in 2019) stepped down as CEO, a few hundred employees were laid off, and Softbank had to pump another $200 million into it. But wow, they opened a lot of buildings so far in 2020, including multifamily housing projects and offices. Can they keep going at this rate?

Lloyd Alter with Craig Curtis
Lloyd Alter with Craig Curtis.

I interviewed Craig Curtis at Greenbuild in Atlanta in 2019, and he was certainly optimistic at that time about the expansion of wood construction and the use of CLT. He told Treehugger (before the pandemic hit, for a post I never got around to writing...)

There's a tidal wave of work coming.... Codes are changing, plants are being built, there's enough interest. Contractors are now getting used to it. They're not so afraid. This is a very risk-averse industry we're in. Especially general construction. Nobody wants to be the first at anything. No one wants to be out there without having massive contingencies like, Oh, I've never built that way, so I'm going to throw a big contingency at it. Well, that's all going away because people are now building with it and saying, "Oh s**t, this is real." You know, it is faster and it does take fewer people and, it's a quieter job site and a safer job site and all of those things that actually do make a difference.
Interior of Catalyst building

Benjamin Benschneider

As the Catalyst building demonstrates, this is certainly real now. He noted at the opening:

"We believe mass timber is much more than a structural building material, it is an opportunity to guide building design and construction towards a future of sustainable building on an entirely new scale."

Curtis also noted that he drove to the opening through the smoke from the fires raging across the west, and that the harvesting of the small trees used for CLT, averaging 11 inches in diameter, could go a long way toward better forest management. Architect Michael Green concurred about the benefits of wood:

It is the beginning of what we think will be the transformation of the construction industry, moving away from the more carbon-intensive materials like concrete and steel, and towards mass timber as the best choice when making a carbon-neutral building.
Catalyst exterior

Benjamin Benschneider

The Catalyst building is chasing Zero Energy and Zero Carbon certification from the International Living Future Institute (known for its Living Building Challenge) and is "near Passive House" levels of energy efficiency. The Catalyst building is a great poster child for Katerra, showing how wood construction can reduce the embodied carbon of construction by using wood, and the operating carbon emissions with renewable energy.

Catalyst building interior

Benjamin Benschneider

Craig Curtis noted at the opening that "Our hope is that Catalyst will spark a new generation of similar high-performance, low-carbon buildings." It, like all the other Katerra projects opened this year, was started long before the pandemic hit. It is hard to know what the future will be and how Katerra will come out of this year's upheavals, but our hope is that Craig Curtis is right.