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The future of urban housing is energy-efficient refrigerators

Katerra’s all-encompassing vision of reforming the construction world, using billions of dollars in investment to build an entirely new production system from the ground up, has shown stereotypical Silicon Valley arrogance. It also had a fraction of the impact of European models trying to fit back with a simple, straight and standard set of parts.

The company shared a common blind spot with many American technologists, according to Gerard McCaughey, a series entrepreneur and founder of Century Homes, an Irish pioneer of off-site construction: it disregarded innovation pioneered overseas. While U.S. construction has preferred the construction of timber frames on site with readily available raw materials – suggesting a Ford pickup truck stacked with two-by-four that draws to many – has more space and material-constrained builders in Asia and Europe prefab and modular techniques. Katerra ignored these examples, which slowly built up expertise by focusing on specific sectors one at a time. Instead, it tried to rediscover the wheel, bringing every facet of the complex construction process into the home and building too many different models at once, causing huge cost overruns.

“It’s not what you know or what you do not know that catches you,” said McCaughey, who held talks with Katerra leaders. “There were things they were pretty sure you had to do, but [they were wrong]. Off-site is not a one-trick pony. You have to crawl before you can walk. The least experienced guy in my company knew more about off-site construction than their senior leadership. ”

explosion model of a retrofit
0. R38 effective envelope 1. Glazing with a low solar heat gain coefficient 2. Low-emission interior shades 3. Ceiling fans to circulate air within units 4. Light tempered air supplied by a centralized ventilation system 5. Decentralized cooling “boost “by a variable air volume unit activated by in-suite controls

Many efforts are underway to decarbonize buildings. An 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 repaired thousands of homes in the Netherlands and across Europe, relies on Acceleration (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 extensive system does not match. Currently, the Energy Leap system can overhaul a building in about 10 days. Other start-up and construction companies offer complimentary upgrades: Dutch firm Factory Zero, for example, makes prefabricated modules for roofs that boast electric boilers, heat pumps and solar power connections. The greening of an older building is almost plug-and-play.

It is part of a larger European model that starts with an ambitious emissions policy and supports it with incentives and funding for retrofits and new buildings through programs such as Horizon Europe, which in fact subsidizes new construction methods and a market for innovative windows, doors and Create HVAC. systems. A key component of its success was governments’ willingness to fund such upgrades for subsidized and public housing, typically post-war towers and townhouses that urgently need to be improved. But there are other significant advantages in Europe as well: building codes are much more standardized across countries and the continent as a whole, including some progressive regulations that insist on the passive house standard, an ultra-efficient level of insulation and ventilation that drastically reduces the energy required for heating and cooling. The entire housing ecosystem is also smaller and more standardized, making it easier to support more experiments. Energy Jump uses a single building model, a handful of contractors, and a relatively small pool of players over a small area.

Coordination would be exponentially more difficult in a single American city, much less the entire nation. “Europe is taking a shotgun approach and funding numerous programs across the board,” said Michael Eliason, a Seattle-based sustainable building scientist and founder of Larch Lab, a design studio and think tank. It’s an approach that spreads risk between different ideas, as opposed to concentrating venture capital on a handful of purposeful hyper-growth start-ups. “The US is ultimately kind of a sniper rifle,” he says. “Katerra fails and it affects the entire prefabricated construction industry.”

An emerging model in Canada is trying to replicate Europe’s. CityHousing Hamilton, the municipal housing authority for the city of Ontario, recently used national housing funds for a complete renovation of Ken Soble Tower, a high-rise waterfront building for seniors that was built in 1967 and has fallen into disrepair. The project, which included panel cladding, new high-efficiency windows and electrification of heating and gas stoves, extended the building to the passive house standard; with a 94% reduction in energy consumption due to extreme efficiency, the total energy required to cool and heat a unit is equivalent to three light bulbs. Beautiful new bay windows that offer seating, beautiful views and daylight indicate that there was no aesthetic price to pay.

Graeme Stewart of ERA Architects, who led the project and studied the country’s hundreds of similar medieval tall buildings, says the project has given business to Canadian firms that manufacture high-tech windows and upholstery, suggesting that such work could help a domestic industry for more green building projects. He even led to the creation of the Tower Renewal Partnership, an organization dedicated to pursuing similar conversions across Canada. But CityHousing Hamilton’s development manager, Sean Botham, says that even with all the benefits they see for tower dwellers — better air quality, infection control, mental health and cognitive function, and “views you just don’t get in the social realm. housing ”—the agency is unlikely to pay the 8% cost premium to upgrade other buildings in its portfolio without additional financial support.

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