A Silicon Valley Company Just Bought One of Vancouver’s Most Esteemed Architecture Firms

With hopes of creating affordable housing, Katerra acquires Michael Green Architecture, a local firm that uses wood to reduce building costs by at least 30 percent.

Katerra, a Silicon Valley technology, architecture and construction company has acquired Michael Green Architecture, a B.C. firm known for replacing concrete with wood to reduce building costs.

Katerra has purchased Michael Green’s firm for their experience designing with mass timber as a construction material. Mass timber uses treated and laminated large wood panels as a replacement for concrete and steel in building. Both companies believe that the acquisition will drive affordable, sustainable and high-tech construction.

“Two values convinced me to join with Katerra,” says Michael Green, “addressing our impact on the climate and making good architecture affordable. This acquisition gives us the opportunity to address both of those issues at scale.”

Katerra has developed a construction system based around prefabricated mass timber building components. These components can be built in a factory setting before being assembled at a build site. Katerra is in the process of building one of the world’s largest mass timber production facilities in Spokane, Washington. According to Green, this system can reduce building costs by at least 30 percent.

A Game Changer for Vancouver?

Green believes that mass timber’s reduced building costs could have a significant impact on Vancouver’s housing crisis.

Building prices, according to Green, are tied to labour. As housing prices become untenable for workers in Metro Vancouver, labour is becoming more scarce. The resulting increases in labour costs are driving up construction costs which, in turn, are driving housing prices higher. Green describes it as a vicious cycle.

For Lynn Embury-Williams—executive director of Woodworks B.C., a program of the Canadian Wood Council—mass timber might be a solution to that cycle. “One key to affordable housing is the five- to six-storey mid-rise unit,” she says, “those buildings can be constructed quickly with mass timber.”

Green admits that land values are a major factor driving housing prices here. He wants to build taller buildings out of wood to address housing shortages. However, he is limited by local and national building codes. Katerra has had success changing those codes in California and Washington, and Green expects they’ll be able to help him in B.C. “Having a three-billion-dollar company behind us gives us some momentum” Green says.

Balancing Scale and Design

Katerra’s model relies on prefabricated components, but they insist that their buildings will remain architecturally distinct: “We use pre-fabricated parts, not volumes. It’s a system called mass customization.” says Craig Curtis, president of Katerra Architecture.

Mass customization draws from a kit of prefabricated elements—from support beams to bathrooms—and lets the architect assemble them in different ways to provide architectural variety. Katerra has developed software that allows architects to design from this kit. Each element is tied to a price so an architect can calculate the production cost of their building as they design it. According to Green, this kind of cost prediction is notoriously hard for architects to do, but it’s often what clients want most.

Michael Green (Photo: Courtesy Michael Green Architects)

Sustainability, Safety and Mass Timber

Green sees mass timber as a way to reduce the climate impact of construction. According to his now-famous TED talk, buildings account for 47 percent of human greenhouse gas emissions. Mass timber can sequester as much as one tonne of carbon dioxide per square meter of wood.

Mass timber panels are made from young trees glued together to form structural elements. They don’t rely on massive, old-growth trees and can be built from softwood lumber. “Provided it’s coming from a well-managed forest, mass timber can be one of the most sustainable building materials out there,” says Curtis.

Fire is a risk that Michael Green believes is easily addressed. He describes trying to light a mass timber panel on fire as like trying to light a log with a match.

Green has also dealt with concerns over earthquakes. In mass timber buildings, the building elements designed to yield to a quake are relatively small and easy to replace. In concrete buildings, on the other hand, they are embedded into the concrete. A large earthquake can render those buildings wholly unusable, requiring demolition.

Architecture and the Future

Green also decided to merge with a tech company to get on the right side of Silicon Valley’s tendency to disrupt industries. He thinks AI could fundamentally change design and architecture. “Architects are asleep at the wheel if they don’t think this kind of disruption is coming for them,” he says.

Green thinks the acquisition by Katerra puts his firm on the inside track of this change. Curtis sees Green’s work with mass timber as a huge part of Katerra’s future. “There’s nobody better in North America than Michael Green to provide high-level experience working with mass timber.”