In a repurposed shipyard building south of Vancouver, the architect and entrepreneur Oliver Lang gestured at a prefabricated building façade, before pointing at one of the three robotic arms that had helped build it. “One of the things that’s beautiful about technology,” he said, is that “if we want to go from 500,000 square feet to a million square feet, we can.” All he would have to do is add more robots.
He was talking about the amount of living space his factory, which manufactures large wooden components for buildings, is capable of churning out annually. The minutiae of robotic assembly capacity are not often the province of architects. But Mr. Lang believes that factories like his could be key to a future of affordable, sustainable buildings and viably dense cities.
The housing technology startup he co-founded in 2008, Intelligent City Inc., may finally be on the cusp of delivering on that vision, by cheaply automating the manufacturing of whole chunks of mid-rise buildings out of wood, including façade panels and columns. The company even makes prefabricated flooring cassettes with preinstalled mechanical and electrical systems.
Not only can these pieces be put together on-site more quickly than conventional building components, but the carbon-absorbing properties of wood can make the resulting structures more sustainable.
This is the kind of thing technologically curious urbanists have been dreaming of for years. The concept of modular, prefabricated wooden building components was core to the sustainability plans that Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs pitched for its failed smart-city project in Toronto. Softbank-funded Katerra plotted a future filled with modular, prefabricated building pieces, but burned through billions and filed for bankruptcy protection last year.
Other, smaller companies are trying variations of the same approach, including North Carolina’s Prescient Co. Inc. and San Francisco’s Juno Residential Inc. But Mr. Lang and his co-founder, Cindy Wilson, believe Intelligent City’s blend of architectural experience, proprietary design software and robotic prefabrication will help the company sidestep previous failures and surge past current competitors.
“When you look at Katerra and all these other companies that have not succeeded, it’s a little bit because they haven’t understood this industry,” Ms. Wilson said. “You can’t just come and say, ‘Oh, we’re going to slap this on and it’s going to work. It has to work within a system.”
“We really believe in the vertical integration of our technologies,” Mr. Lang added. “This idea of building better, building more sustainably, does not mean more expensive – it actually means less expensive.”
Intelligent City still has a lot of work ahead of it. The startup has built three projects so far: a house, a four-storey apartment building and a student residence.
It’s currently in the rezoning stage for a much more ambitious project: a proposed 18-storey rental apartment tower in Vancouver. And the company has raised $30-million in venture financing from investors, including the Business Development Bank of Canada, as it builds out its capacity.
That capacity is small now – Intelligent City has two more robotic arms on the way to supplement the existing three – but the company has been working toward this moment since it launched in 2008. Mr. Lang and Ms. Wilson had already worked in Berlin, Barcelona and New York before moving to Vancouver, where they spun Intelligent City out of their architectural practice.
With so much experience in dense cities “on the cusp of huge change,” Ms. Wilson said, she and Mr. Lang were interested in building high-quality housing that would embrace density and sustainability. Though prefabricated building pieces are more commonly used in single-family homes, they saw an opportunity to apply them to mid-rise buildings.
They did not immediately invest in costly robotics at launch. And building codes were not in their favour: Intelligent City’s founders hoped to use a type of strong engineered wood commonly called “mass timber,” but safety-testing certificates were all but impossible to obtain.
They began exploring the feasibility of offsite prefabrication of building parts, which helps to accelerate on-site construction times. And they began developing software with which designs could be partly automated using those prefabricated parts. Many of those parts could then be built by robots on factory floors.
“We learned a lot of very, very important lessons about inspection, certifications, logistics, design, market perception – all these kinds of things,” Mr. Lang says. “And then stepped away from that and said, ‘Hey, that was great. But we really need to get into the automation issue.”
Years elapsed. By 2018, the co-founders had begun building a team and raising money. A durable, flame-resistant mass timber product called cross-laminated timber – in which layers of wood are glued together at angles to increase their strength – was by then more common. Soon after, British Columbia, and then the rest of Canada, adjusted building codes to allow 12-storey buildings made of wood, opening the door to mid-rise developments like the ones Intelligent City wanted to build.
The startup partnered with robotics companies ABB and Brave to begin developing the physical technology to prefabricate pieces. Then they began hunting for factory space. Eventually, they settled on a location in Delta, B.C., 30 minutes south of their office.
The floor space in the average urban residential building that Intelligent City works with, the company says, ranges from 30,000 to 100,000 square feet. Right now, Mr. Lang estimates the annual output of the company’s plant would be about 250,000 square feet of floor area, meaning Intelligent City will need to grow if it hopes to supply many tall buildings. “We had to just take this until we have a chance to move into a bigger facility,” Mr. Lang said.
It seems possible that demand could dictate expansion soon. Michael Green, the Vancouver-based architect whose 2011 book The Case for Tall Wood Buildings helped spark interest in the building approach a decade ago, said the long-standing steel-and-concrete method of building is “broken,” and that prefabricating wooden building pieces in climate-controlled factories can boost quality control and slash construction time.
“The Pentagon is, to this day, the largest office building in the world,” said Mr. Green, who had relationships with both Katerra and Sidewalk Labs before they wound down. “It’s 6 million square feet, and it was built from the beginning to end in one year. Today, a typical building takes six years. So what have we done in 70 years, other than make a process longer, more expensive, complicated, and not necessarily make buildings any better?”
Though he acknowledged that Intelligent City has many competitors, he said that’s a good thing. “It’s a great example of what can be done,” he added. “We need literally hundreds and hundreds of companies like that, coast to coast in Canada, to solve the scale of the problem.”
Long-time Toronto developer Leith Moore has in recent years been working on mass timber mid-rise townhomes, and laneway suites made with prefabricated parts. Despite recent advances in timber structures and building codes, “there’s still a lot of mystery around wood,” he said.
Fears about mass timber’s flammability are generally understood to be overblown, Mr. Moore added, and “there are some really interesting innovations happening.”
“It’s so usable in so many ways. We’re just really at the start of people figuring it out properly.”
Intelligent City is now planning to break into the Ontario market, seeking space for a new facility there that could double the company’s annual output – or boost it even further if the company adds more robots to its manufacturing lines.
“This could be a huge sector,” Mr. Lang said, pointing to the value of the construction industry, which the market research company Frost & Sullivan estimates will reach US$17.5-trillion by 2030.
He noted that the industry currently “doesn’t use robotics, essentially at all.” There will be room for competition. “If we, together, can change the paradigm and get to a sizable market share collectively, that’s still enormous,” he said.