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Will this billion-dollar startup unlock the future of sustainable buildings?

Katerra’s new high-tech Washington factory utilizes AI in bid to build smarter and faster

Factory workers in orange vests work on the line in a lumber processing plant.
Katerra’s new $150 CLT (cross-laminated timber) factory in Spokane, Washington, will create wall and flooring panels.
Courtesy Katerra

The new factory that Katerra, a billion-dollar construction startup, officially opened last Friday in Spokane Valley, Washington, represents a tech company betting on a future of more automated, sustainable construction.

That’s evident from the way a simple board of lumber enters the factory.

At Katerra’s new $150 million CLT, or cross-laminated timber, plant, the largest such facility in North America, the raw material enters through a sorting machine that utilizes artificial intelligence to measure and evaluate every single piece of wood. An algorithm then matches up boards, based on where some may have knots or other irregularities, to turn them into walls or flooring panels, making sure that nothing is wasted and the resulting product is perfectly pressed. There’s even an on-site kiln to achieve the precise moisture needed for each finished product.

This new 270,000-square-foot facility, which processes sustainable timber from Washington and surrounding states, all grown in sustainable forests harvested every 40 to 60 years, is just part of Katerra’s plan to create a greener, vertically integrated construction firm.

A vast board-sorting machine inside an industrial warehouse.
The factory uses artificial intelligence to sort of place boards before they’re pressed into a finished product, eliminating waste.
Courtesy Katerra

Katerra, which launched in 2015, builds and assemble building sections offsite and in factories, to both lower cost and overhead and speed up the process. Two of the many factors repeatedly identified as responsible for rising housing and construction costs are labor and time, and Katerra’s process seeks to reduce both in a bid to create cheaper buildings. In addition to this CLT factory, an existing Phoenix plant, and an under-construction facility in Tracy, California, the company’s chief architect Craig Curtis says there are also plans to build additional U.S. facilities, including precast concrete factories to make structures like podiums or parking garages in-house, as well as potentially another CLT plant in the southeast.

Katerra will then take these pre-assembled parts and build their own structures. “We think commercial office, anywhere from 3 to 14 stories, and 4- to 12-story student housing and multifamily are probably the two markets that are most relevant for us,” says Curtis.

The press, which compressed the boards and lumber into a finished panel.
Courtesy Katerra
A large piece of wood about to be trimmed on a factory floor.
A large panel going into the CNC machine to be trimmed.
Courtesy Katerra

Cross-laminated timber has grown in popularity, seen as both a sound structural alternative to concrete and steel and as a more sustainable, emissions-reducing method to create new buildings. A number of high-profile demonstration projects, including a Minneapolis office building, have shown the potential of the material, and with calls for more sustainable construction, including ambitious climate plans such as the Green New Deal, many feel it’s poised to expand rapidly. Last May, Katerra acquired Michael Green Architecture, a Vancouver-based firm considered one of the pioneers of CLT construction.

Katerra is one of the most highly valued construction startups to come out of Silicon Valley. Last year, it received an $865 million investment from the Soft Bank Vision Fund, part of a record investment year for the high-tech construction sector.