The traditional architecture and construction practice of one-off, fully customized projects places enormous stress on an industry already beset with crippling labor shortages, rising building material costs, and ballooning project timelines.

Consequently, some argue it’s time to embrace the speed and economy of prefabricated construction. Unfortunately, this thinking is often hindered by the notion that prefab modular construction generates lackluster structures that sacrifice what makes architecture vibrant and vital.

Fortunately, there’s growing recognition that balancing efficiency and design is possible.

No legions of pre-built pods strapped to flatbed trucks required. No need to sacrifice client, site, or region exterior or interior design flexibility. Just a proven way to deliver buildings without the usual headaches.

One of the many figures at the forefront of this change is Craig Curtis, FAIA, head of Architecture for Katerra. Curtis knows what owners and developers face in today’s build environment having led design teams for nearly 30 years at the Miller Hull Partnership. His projects include the acclaimed Bullitt Center and the $450 million replacement of the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry.

Today, Curtis’ architecture, product, and interior design teams at Katerra are transforming the way their customers think about project speed, economy, and especially quality. The initial design solutions they’ve developed include libraries for finish materials and interior space plans, and even standard building chassis that maintain the ability to configure each project for distinct site and community needs.

Explains the award-winning architect: “We have developed a standard chassis for a garden-style apartment building that has changed the game for clients in that market. Notice the variation in roof type, cladding, balcony façade, common spaces, and landscaping. Interior design also reflects many variations in fixture and finish specifications so the spaces can feel very differentiated. Yet 90 percent of the design and engineering documentation is already in place when we kick off a new project. Each is built to a standard spec that covers the highly repeatable architectural elements and also includes pre-engineered M/E/P, fire protection, and structural systems.”

Beyond Speed and Economy

Katerra follows an alternative project delivery strategy that strikes a balance between traditional bespoke construction methods and prefabrication. To do that, the firm has assembled an integrated team of architects, engineers, construction managers, skilled tradesmen, and building material category experts. Powering the team is a manufacturing and technology stack gleaned from a Silicon Valley management team that cut its teeth in global electronics. In many respects, Katerra is on the same design, sourcing, manufacturing, and delivery path as Apple, Tesla, Uber, Ikea, and other iconic industry disrupters. Just three years in, the streamlined design process has helped at least one client see their design phase timeline cut in half. Longer term, the method is projected to reduce overall project schedules by up to 40 percent.

In addition to time and cost savings, Curtis and team are looking at opportunities to introduce new products and materials into the mainstream of North American construction. Last year, they announced a mass timber factory, currently under construction and with CLT earmarked for projects like the Catalyst Building in Spokane, Wash. “We’re not doing this just to be faster and cheaper,” says Curtis. “We’re transforming the building process in order to produce a higher quality product at the same time. We’re critically looking at the entire building system.”

To learn more about thoughtful approaches to prefab, Curtis recommends a book authored by the principals of KieranTimberlake, titled Refabricating Architecture (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2003). “It’s a fantastic look at how architects can embrace a better way to design and build.”

For long-time industry veterans like Curtis, the timing of this new wave of innovations couldn’t be better. “If you look at the inefficiency in the industry, issues like the short supply and high costs of housing—it’s so clear that we’re long overdue for change. We need a new model for delivering buildings and we need it now. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re committed to collaborating and learning, working hard at it, and making things better. ”