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Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Home construction is a deeply inefficient business. But the implosion of Katerra, a startup into which investors plowed some $1.9 billion, proves that disrupting it won't be easy.

Why it matters: The high cost of housing is inextricably linked to the high cost of building new homes. If they could be designed and built using assembly-line technology, that would mean more, cheaper houses in a country that desperately needs them.

The big picture: Automated homebuilding is nothing new. Prefabricated construction dates back to at least 1624, and Sears kit homes remain desirable to this day — as do the mass-produced houses of Levittown.

  • Such businesses tend not to last, however. Pulte Homes, for instance, closed down its high-tech in-house prefabrication plant in early 2007, declaring it "economically unviable."

How it works: Houses are expensive because the incentive at every level, from developer to contractor to sub-contractor to sub-sub-contractor and so on, is to pad costs rather than cut them. Successful builders learn to expect unexpected costs — and to incorporate them into their quotes.

  • By vertically integrating everything from design and materials to building and construction into a single company, Katerra promised not only economies of scale but also an unprecedented degree of control over costs.

The catch: Large factories require substantial and predictable demand, while the construction industry is notoriously cyclical. And while some things can be automated, others, like navigating local permitting processes, cannot.

What they're saying: "Solo attempts by any organization to single-handedly disrupt residential real estate and construction will go the way of Katerra," writes John McManus of The Builder's Daily.

  • "The future of housing," if it's ever to arrive, necessarily requires close collaboration among multiple stakeholders.
  • The holy grail of affordable new housing will realistically always require government subsidy, too.

The bottom line: Obstacles to new construction are invariably deliberate, placed there by existing residents in an attempt to maximize their own property values. When all building codes are local, it's impossible to confront them in a formulaic and centralized manner.

Go deeper

Tampa Bay's hot real estate market isn't slowing down

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

It’s been a year of historically low inventory, historically high demand and historically high home prices.

Why it matters: Buyers are exhausted, and hardworking people are priced out of housing in Tampa Bay.

Updated 55 mins ago - Science

This powerful new accelerator looks for keys to the center of atoms

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Nuclear physicists trying to piece together how atoms are built are about to get a powerful new tool.

Why it matters: When the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams begins experiments later this spring, physicists from around the world will use the particle accelerator to better understand the inner workings of atoms that make up all the matter that can be seen in the universe.

Updated 57 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Teens and adults missed 37 million vaccinations during COVID — Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — Annual COVID vaccine preferable to boosters, says Pfizer CEO.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults — Beijing officials urge COVID-19 "emergency mode" before Winter Olympics.
  5. Variant tracker