Saturday, September 20, 2014

As Gilmartin defends Forest City's prefab plan, some skepticism emerges from modular industry, Daily News

In an article yesterday, the New York Daily News's Katherine Clarke took a distinctly skeptical tack on Forest City Ratner's plans to build the world’s tallest modular building, B2:
Forest City CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin came to a Massey Knakal real estate summit at the Brooklyn Museum on Tuesday to dispel the widely held notion that her company’s dispute with the developer Skanska is some sort of referendum on the future of prefabricated construction. Each side has blamed the other for cost overruns and alleged design flaws at the Barclays Center site.
“This is not a referendum on modular,” Gilmartin said. “We believe the system is compelling and works. The best validation of high-rise modular is a standing building on the corner of Dean and Flatbush — and that is still the mission.”
Actually, Gilmartin was on a panel at the subject to address numerous issues regarding development, and her statement about the modular building responded to one of several questions.

But it's interesting that those interviewed suggest there's a cloud around modular and that, according to Clarke, "few in the construction trade are convinced that Gilmartin and boss Bruce Ratner will win the referendum that she wants to believe isn’t happening." 

(Remember that the Daily News is usually pretty sunny about real estate and Forest City.)

“Any lender that reads about this dispute is going to have questions about financing any new modular developments from now on,” Andy Gerringer of the Marketing Directors told the paper.

Gilmartin's statement about validation echoes the one she gave Curbed on 8/4/14, which Skanska, in its lawsuit, says contradicts previous representations that Forest City had "cracked the code." 

(This may be a difference in stress: Forest City claimed emphatically it had "cracked the code"--invented a new system. Forest City now seems to be changing its emphasis, but it is reasonable to assume that "cracking the code" would have to be proven with a finished building.)

In the modular industry

While the Clarke did not seem to talk to many people in the heart of the modular industry, there's been an interesting, and skeptical, discussion about the dispute on the website of the Charlottesville, VA-based Modular Building Institute (MBI), an organization that encourages prefab construction.

MBI executive director Tom Hardiman suggests that, while the MBI cannot speak for Forest City nor Skanska--neither members of the organization--it's likely that the B2 plan was not properly executed:
What we do know about this project is that it was “unconventional” even for the modular industry. The developer chose to create a new modular company with the contractor, rather than working with established and experienced modular manufacturers (including one located in Brooklyn).

The team also decided to have the steel “shells” fabricated over 400 miles from the site, shipped to another facility in Brooklyn for finish-out, then transported to the final location for installation. This decision no doubt added to the costs, logistics, and time.

...As a side-note, as B2 sits right now, unfinished, this is STILL the tallest modular building constructed in North America in the last 40 years! Forrest City should still be considered an innovator and a leader for being bold enough to propose constructing the tallest modular building in the world in an industry and location not generally conducive or accommodating to new ways of thinking.
I'm not sure the decision to fabricate the steel in Virginia added to the cost, actually, since that's a nonunion shop.

A modular company executive, John Erb, responded to Hardiman that there are different types of assembly within off-site construction:
A sophisticated MODULAR manufacturer uses an assembly line process and perhaps several levels of automation to gain greater speed and consistencies as well as efficiencies. We continue to lump MODULAR and all other types of prefabrication in to one huge category.
...A final note, many of us had reservations about how this project would progress and finish out knowing that the inventing team was creating a system that had not been proven. But we all know that is how all successes start. 
Julian Bowron, an architectural fabrication executive, observed:
Perhaps the most interesting thing we discovered is that despite a near constant "re-invention of the wheel" by half a dozen firms, the same problems are recurring. These include tolerance accumulation, the lack of project-specific surveying technique, and overly-complex structural schemes. We came to the conclusion that a standard, off-the-shelf approach was required...
China-based architect Lawrence A. Samuelson expressed "great respect and admiration for Forest City Enterprises" but offered a caution:
However, it is my personal opinion, which I tried to express to Forest City management when this project was in its infancy, that the design and entire concept of stacking boxes for high-rise construction is not the best way to employ modular techniques. Devoting resources to manufacturing new components with firms who had no previous experience in doing such could only lead to the problems they are facing.
He asked for help from the industry "in establishing the standards that government agencies have been asking me to write."

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