Friday, October 17, 2014

Poor timing for Popular Mechanics article saluting modular breakthrough with B2 tower

In what looks like unfortunate timing, likely based in part on a long lead time, Popular Mechanics on 10/7/14 published Building a High-Rise, One Room at a Time: The United States' first modular skyscraper is coming together in Brooklyn.

The article is written in the present tense, though construction as been stalled at Forest City Ratner's B2 site (aka 461 Dean) since August:
At the 461 Dean construction site in downtown Brooklyn, there is no barking foreman. There's no screeching chop saw or pounding jack hammer. The loudest thing you hear is a hand-driven pulley, rattling like an anchor chain through a hawsehole as a lone worker in a hard hat uses it to tension the lift cables attached to what looks like a particularly sleek trailer home.
Except it's not a trailer home. It's a finished apartment. Sitting on a flatbed.
There is an interesting anecdote in the piece:
A project of 461 Dean's scale involves many people, but it was primarily the brainchild of two: Roger Krulak, a senior vice president at Forest City Ratner, a leading property developer in New York; and David Farnsworth, a principal with Arup, the famed architectural engineers. They met in 2008, when the Great Recession had put a premium on streamlined construction methods. Despite finding that modular high-rise construction was both plausible and cheaper than conventional methods, with big money for projects tight, the two had to put their idea on the shelf—until Forest City Ratner CEO Bruce Ratner saw a viral video of a Chinese company building a hotel in 15 days. He sent Krulak an email: "How do we build this here?"
Skating lightly over impasse

But it skates very lightly over the current bitter battle:
Unfortunately they couldn't perfect the partnership, as FCS and Skanska are currently at a legal impasse, but the two men did create a system that will revolutionize construction.
Are we sure? As I wrote in September, the stalled tower may be not just delayed but also defective.

"It is impossible to predict that the building when completed will perform as designed; and in particular, it is impossible to predict that the curtain wall joints will be and, over time, will remain effective barriers to the passage of air and water,” warned Skanska USA Building in a 146-page letter August 8 to estranged partner Forest City Ratner.

“[I]n simple terms, no one knows if the building is going to leak,” Co-Chief Operating Officer Richard Kennedy wrote, arguing that the system did not work.

Is it a breakthrough?

According to the Popular Mechanics article, "461 Dean is built from blueprints of the sort used in the aerospace industry" and the "placement of every component is predetermined and referenced to a single, fixed point." But that's not working, according to Skanska.

Yes, Skanska is seeking advantage in a legal proceeding, so its claims--as well as Forest City Ratner's counter-charge that Skanska early on signed off on the building's constructability--deserve some measure of skepticism. 

At the same time, celebration seems premature. But Farnsworth and Krulak were honored by the magazine with a Breakthrough Award, as noted by Real Estate Weekly.


  1. You might double check Farnsworth and Krulack's claim that theirs is the first modular Highrise in USA. Cerna & Garza Architects designed one for H.B. Zachry in San Antonio in 1967. Ref. Hilton Palacio del Rio. All 500 rooms were prefabbed, shipped to site, and lifted with plumbing, furniture, artwork and even ash trays already in-place.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Here's more info on the Hilton:

      That said, the Pop Mechanics article did not directly attribute to Farnsworth and Krulak the claim that this was the first.