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From Products to Projects: Transforming Construction Through Prefabrication and Cross-Laminated Timber

Originally published on March 22, 2018 by Craig Curtis.

I am very excited to help represent Katerra’s design and engineering team this week at the Mass Timber Conference in Portland, OR.

There is a reason I and many of my colleagues attend each year and why the conference, now in its third year, continues to double in size each year. The reason is that we are on the precipice of a movement to modernize construction — and mass timber products are poised to drive that movement forward.

It’s no secret that investment in research and applied technology for the design and construction of buildings lags behind all other industries. One widely cited statistic states that the vast majority of construction firms invest less than 1% of their revenue in new technologies. This technology deficit spans IT, field mobility, and advanced materials, and it is a primary reason that, while other industries have shown a ~1,000% increase in productivity, design and construction productivity has remained flat over the past few decades.

Fortunately, shifts towards greater productivity are expanding from the outer edges of the AEC industry and into the mainstream. Chief amongst those signs is the resurgence in prefabrication and off-site manufacturing. The move towards prefabrication has led to a plethora of new companies offering modular buildings of various scales: backyard studios, high-rise residential towers, hospitality structures constructed of stacked boxes, and more.

As a material designed for manufacturing, cross-laminated timber (CLT) fits squarely within this model. The increasing introduction of cross-laminated timber (CLT) to the North American market has provided architects with new tools in prefabricated building. CLT perfectly addresses the need for building solutions that are faster and cheaper to build, while providing higher quality products for clients. As a structural alternative to concrete or steel, CLT allows architects to pursue wood building at larger scales, as well as the potential for projects that utilize significantly higher volume of renewable materials.

At Katerra, all of these efficiencies are music to our ears. We are rolling out several building component manufacturing facilities, including our forthcoming CLT factory in Spokane Valley, WA. The benefits of off-site manufacturing are many — less waste, greater precision, safer work, fewer delays. But the greatest result stems from the decision-making shifted towards the front end of a project. By locking in the details necessary for manufacturing, we can significantly reduce risk to project schedules and budgets.

This approach represents a wholesale shift of mindset from one-off projects to repeatable products, or mass production of componentized buildings. A holy grail in this space is the ability to balance standardization and customization: standardization of repeatable systems and components with the flexibility for design customization. Imagine the ability to start a project with 90% of design and engineering documentation already in place, while also retaining the freedom to meet the design requirements of client, site, and region. In other words, fully optimized, productized building projects.

This isn’t a pipe dream. In fact, it’s already happening. At Katerra, we have developed a standard chassis product for a 3-story walk-up apartment building. The product demonstrates that we can successfully work from a library of units built around a standard core, pre-engineered MEP, fire protection, and structural systems, while maintaining a wide variety of custom configurations. Significant design variants remain available, including roof type, cladding, balcony type, and more.

Development of similar standardized systems utilizing CLT will come next. The recently announced Catalyst building in Spokane, WA will be a case study for this. Working with our partners at Michael Green Architecture, Katerra will work to include several CLT structural products in the design. Specified products will include standard CLT floor panels, exterior wall assemblies, and shear wall assemblies.

As the first project including Katerra CLT, this project will be an important step forward in our efforts to help bring CLT to the mainstream of the U.S. construction industry. At scale, our one factory alone has the annual manufacturing capacity to provide thousands of apartments, student housing units, and more than 1 million sq. ft. of commercial or industrial space. It’s easy to get excited about the potential benefits to the environment, rural economies, and the industry bottom line. As awareness of CLT continues to grow and more organizations enter the space, the positive impacts will only expand further.

We all deserve a future of buildings that are smarter, delivered faster, more sustainably, and for less cost.

I believe CLT will help make this future a reality.

Learn more about Katerra and the future of construction here.

If you enjoyed this article, please give it some claps and share it around on the socials! Feel free to leave a comment below!

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