Simplex Open House

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Modular Highrise Grows in Brooklyn

In a bid to revolutionize the residential construction industry, developer Forest City Ratner announced Wednesday it would build the first phase of the $4.9 billion 15-building Atlantic Yards residential and commercial project with modular construction technology.

More than 60 percent of the construction for the entire project would be completed off-site, in Building 293 at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where the modules are assembled.

Modular construction allows builders to make structures in controlled indoor environments similar to automobile assembly lines. Modular construction is expected to decrease costs while delivering the same reliability as traditional means — and Forest City wants to be an international industry leader.

The modules are being fabricated at a super-secret plant inside the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They will be trucked over to the Atlantic Yards site and stacked.


Mr. Ratner began exploring modular construction during the recession in 2010 as a way to make good on his promise to use union labor, deliver good architecture and earmark at least 30 percent of the proposed 6,430 units for low- and moderate-income tenants. (Half of the 363 apartments in the first building will be for poor and working-class families.)

He replaced the architect Frank Gehry with SHoP Architects and worked with engineers from ARUP to devise a modular high-rise building. Forest City also worked with a modular builder in New Jersey, Kullman Offsite Construction, although they had a bitter breakup over terms and Mr. Ratner’s decision to hire a group of Kullman’s senior executives.

The developer obtained a financing commitment from Bank of New York and forged a partnership with Skanska, the giant construction company based in Sweden, and with union labor, the project’s biggest supporter during years of opposition from some community groups.

Forest City and Skanska formed a company to operate the Navy Yard factory, with Skanska as the operating partner as well as the construction manager. The companies declined to reveal the start-up costs.

If it works, Mr. Ratner and his partners say, they will be at the forefront of a new industry.

The 22-acre site will first house the world's tallest modular building, a 32-story residential structure named B2, located at the corner of Dean St. and Flatbush Ave. Ratner will break ground on B2 on Dec. 18. The company said it would finish the building by summer 2014.


After that, the Forest City could move ahead on even taller pre-fab buildings.

The interiors of the modular units are similar to traditionally built housing.
Designed by SHoP Architects, the same lower Manhattan-based firm that completed Barclays Center, B2 will comprise 363 residential units with 50% earmarked for low- to middle-income residents. All apartments will have oak wood floors and eco-quartz countertops.

Exteriors consist of setbacks giving the impression of three structures stemming from one. Fa├žade materials include perforated metal frames, beveled channels, and metal panels projecting out. Rather than concrete, the buildings will be held together by a structural steel system. There will be 23 different unit types with 64 variations.



Union workers made significantly less money building modular units than they would at a traditional construction site.

"The goal here is that modular will be invisible to the consumer," says MaryAnne Gilmartin, FCR executive vice president in charge of Atlantic Yards. "There is going to be a learning curve, but we believe modular housing is beautiful and produces a better quality end product. We want to demystify it."

Forest City moved ahead with pre-fabricated housing after breaking with the project’s initial architect Frank Gehry, whose design proved too costly to build.

SHoP principal Jonathan Mallie, who manages the firm’s construction sister company, said there’d be no loss in style just because the buildings are a jigsaw puzzle.

"The pre-conceived notion is that modularity does not mean good design,” he said. “That’s false. In the long run this is more sustainable and will reduce noise and disruption on the construction site. This is the future of construction."

Forest City has a broader vision for modular technology. Partnering with Skanksa, a global construction conglomerate building the 7 train extension on Manhattan's west side, they formed a new company that will execute Atlantic Yards and other local and national projects.

"The idea is to make the development more cost effective," said William Flemming, president and CEO of Skanska USA Building. "How they pass along the savings to the end user is up to them. This is not a new type of building. We're working to perfect it with each new project type."

What is new is the relationship between construction unions and modular, pre-fabricated building. In an agreement between Forest City and the local trade labor unions, construction at the Navy Yard facility will employ union workers earning $55,000 per year, or 25 percent below the average construction wage.

Forest City committed early on to using union workers, but ran into financial troubles during the recession. Company officials negotiated a new deal with the unions that backed the project.

"The industry is evolving and we have to evolve with it," said Gary La Barbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. "This is an area that we are not actively involved in. It opens up new markets for us and allows us to make inroads with residential and affordable building, two areas we need to do better."
And the pay cut?

"It's not a pay cut," said La Barbera. "We're trying to create jobs for our members. I mean this as a 125-person modular jobs and we have 100,000 members. Also, the first six months of this job are no different than a regular job with site excavation and building the steel structure. This whole thing is a win-win for everyone."

One question future renters may ask is about how pre-built boxes connected by metal will hold in a hurricane.

“There will be no difference than a regular built structure,” said SHoP’s Mallie. “We comply with all New York City building codes. I think it will be better than other buildings. Being able to test the quality with such detail in a controlled setting will make these buildings stronger.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

China is building the tallest skyscraper in the world using a prefab system and now a 32 story modular highrise in the US. Does this mean that modular might finally be getting the recognition it deserves?