Design build giant acquires Michael Green Architecture

In three short years, the design/build firm Katerra has grown from a Silicon Valley entrepreneur’s bright idea into what soon could be one of the largest commercial residential construction firms in the U.S. The strategy: vertically integrate every layer of construction, from design to the fixtures and subcontracting in order to lower costs, build faster, and raise quality.

The means: venture capital (over US$1 billion so far) plus acquisitions of existing companies in the building and products industry. Now Katerra is moving to buy architecture firms, and today is announcing the acquisition of the mass timber innovator Michael Green Architecture of Vancouver (who has visited this region a number of times to profile tall timber buildings), with a staff of 25. Other purchases are on the way.

“It was love at first sight,” said Michael Marks, chairman and co-founder of Katerra, by phone. “Michael Green and his team have built a reputation for engaging design and leadership in the use of mass timber. This goes a long way to support our mission to utilize cutting-edge technology and systems to revolutionize the construction industry.”

To date, Katerra has focused on market-rate multi-family housing, student and senior living, and master-planned developments for the apartment giant Wolff Company, supplying everything from integrated wall systems to cabinetry and fixtures. But the company is plotting a major mass timber push with a state-of-the-art 250,000-square-foot CLT factory in Spokane, Washington, opening in early 2019.

One of the earliest and most forceful North American proponents of mass timber, Green is best known for two of the continent’s largest CLT structures: the Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George, British Columbia, and T3, a 220,000-square-foot seven-story office building in Minneapolis.

“It’s an unusual deal: they effectively bought our brand,” Green said of the merger. “It couldn’t be a better scenario: we get all of Katerra’s cool innovation capacity and R&D. We’ve been developing product concepts for mass timber and now we’ll be able to get into the shop and create some major leaps forward.”

Marks, the former head of Flex and interim CEO of Tesla, started Katerra in 2015 with Fritz Wolff, chairman of Wolff Company, and Jim Davidson, one of the founders of the venture firm Silver Lake. Nineteen projects are under construction, and dozens more in design, with reported billings of US$1.3 billion, and over 1,500 employees.

Green said his firm is awash in new work since T3. The alliance with Katerra will give the office needed capacity without loosening his fingers from design. He will continue with non-Katerra “one-offs,” like two new mixed-use towers in Paris and a 200,000-square-foot culture/sports complex above the Arctic Circle in Gallivare, Sweden. He will also continue to operate his own non-profit design/build school.

“Architects have done a great disservice to the world by concentrating on those who can afford architecture rather than on making architecture affordable to more people,” Green said. “That fundamental belief is driving us toward the Katerra model. I want to be on the inside track. Michael Green Architecture will retain its name and location, but now as a subsidiary of Katerra with Green as CEO. Neither party disclosed the acquisition’s terms.


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