Skip to main content

In discussing future of modular construction, panel mostly avoids B2, though architect implies largest Atlantic Yards towers too tall for modular

The highest-profile effort at modular construction in New York has been Forest City Ratner's ill-fated B2 tower, stalled at ten stories but slated to resume construction this spring.

Despite the presence of an architect who worked on B2, the tower got virtually no mention on a 2/2/15 panel, Edge Construction: The Future of Modular, sponsored by the American Institute of Architects' New York Chapter.

But there were some interesting observations on the need for dramatic change in the industry--implicitly not accomplished by the now-sundered collaboration between Forest City Ratner and Skanska, now mired in lawsuits--to move modular construction from theory to practice.

And SHoP Architects principal Chris Sharples, whose firm worked on B2, offered an interesting aside suggesting that 30 to 40 stories might be the limit for now.

While that implies record-setting heights--the 322-foot B2 would be the world's tallest modular tower--it does not encompass four other towers in the planned project.

They include the 511-foot B3, at the northeast corner of the arena block or the similarly tall B1, at the Barclays Center plaza. (Presumably B1 would be a good candidate for modular, given the very limited radius for construction equipment near the operating arena.) Two additional towers would be 460 feet and 419 feet.)

The video, and other coverage


Edge Construction: The Future of Modular - 2.2.15 from Center for Architecture on Vimeo.

Here's coverage in Real Estate Weekly, Architects puzzle over modular ‘headscratcher’, and Crain's New York Business, Modular housing stuck in never-ever land.

The de Blasio strategy

The panel grew out of a meeting that Mayor de Blasio's administration called with the architects' group, which wanted to know if modular construction should be part of its affordable housing strategy. (It went unmentioned last May at the launch of de Blasio's housing program, as I noted.)

The AIA/NY group put together a think tank, involving architects, developers, structural engineers, housing advocates, and city officials, aiming to see if there were ways to add productivity.

"In a way, we have to do in our industry what Tesla's doing to the automobile industry," observed Stephen Kieran, a partner at architecture firm KieranTimberlake, suggesting a venture capitalist might re-start things.

Developer Jeffrey Brown, who constructed a modular apartment building in Inwood, The Stack, called the building business "very, very primitive," involving "35 subcontractors, each with their own agenda."

The modules for his seven-story building were made in Berwick, PA, three hours a way, and trucked overnight to New York.

(The city Department of Transportation doesn't allow significant daytime delivery of such wide loads, a rule that apparently scotched Forest City Ratner's initial plans to deliver to the B2 site.)

It took only 19 months to place the 59 modules (B2 has 930), but "a lot of other things at the site caused delays," Brown acknowledged, given that not all internal connections worked.

Still, "for the most part, we were able to produce an incredibly high quality building that came complete to the site," he said. (They had concluded it was too risky to apply the facade in the factory--part of the B2 plan, by the way--so wound up in a "tedious process" doing so on site.)

To convince the lenders, Brown said he had bankers visit the Deluxe Building Systems plant and employed third-party engineers to vet the process.

Cost and labor

Brown said the cost of construction was $200 per square foot. One panelist said developers could build affordable housing--presumably not high-rise or union--for $180 per square foot. But construction costs are still rising, Brown said, so he favors modular.

Sharples said there was a learning curve for labor--an implicit reference to the reported slow-but-faster process for B2--that would improve for each project. "The key is to hang on to that crew," he said. "If there's a lot of product to feed, there's a really great way to start to deal with those issues of cost."

That left the lingering question as to whether Forest City Ratner, with its partner/overseer Greenland, might use modular for any additional buildings, if and when B2 is finished.

David Wallance, a senior associate at FXFOWLE Architects (which is working on two new conventional towers for Forest City Greenland), suggested the existing modular manufactures in the northeast are too small, generating perhaps $50 million of production in a year.

He said they were "wedded to the idea that the most economical approach is to move the largest possible modules down the highway," with a distribution radius limited to 300 miles. He proposed that modules fit the size and shape of standard shipping containers, then be subject to mass customization and variation.

The would presumably move production to lower-cost countries, a politically dicey issue for certain projects, given the lack of local and union labor. It also would mean more thick walls and ceilings, given the additional panels--an issue that might be ameliorated by zoning changes that give a bonus to modular, panelists suggested.

Cost is cost is dependent on scale, said architect Jim Garrison, suggesting a project has to exceed 30,000 square feet.

What about union labor? Some 60% to 70% of the residential projects in the city are nonunion, open shop, noted Brown. He called B2 unusual "because it's very very visible, politically sensitive, very well publicized project. The unions would be doing themselves a disservice if they didn't try to make their own mark, but I don't think that's a model."

In other words, while the unions made a deal with Forest City to work in the factory at lower-than-onsite wages, but, he seemed to be suggesting, other projects need not follow that model. (Of course, other projects may not have ridden the momentum of union rallies and lobbying.)

How high to go, and where might be best


Sharples suggested that Arup engineer David Farnsworth--who wasn't on the panel but worked on B2--"would probably say higher," but comfortably 30-40 stories was a likely limit, since tall buildings require brace frames for stability

The challenges include the laydown area for the modules, Sharples said, but the process means less waste, less redundancy on the job site, and improved quality of life for neighbors.

(That was what Forest City was promising regarding Atlantic Yards, and about which it is now conspicuously silent. given the increased activity related to conventional construction.)

"There's a cost to society inherent in the way we build now," Garrison observed, "and we don't measure it... If we were to measure it as a city, it would change the formula dramatically."

Sharples suggested that waterfront projects offered opportunity for modules to be brought in by boat.

Garrison said that, to build the planned 250-room Pod Hotel in Williamsburg, "we flirted with three manufacturers from the region [but] they all fell on their face." So they're working with a Polish company to ship the modules.

What will happen in ten years

Moderator Tomas Rossant asked for ten-year predictions. Sharples suggested iterative change, with more collaboration, ideally leveraged by venture capital and governmental subsidies.

Wallance suggested there must be a global solution involving transportation and scalability--an implication, perhaps politically dangerous, that jobs would move out of the city.

Garrison said tradecraft needed to be improved, or "other cultures [would] teach us how to do this. It's essential that we turn it around."

Brown said people do what's in their economic interest, "there needs to be new blood, new money, and a new spirit."

Rossant said "I think fundamentally we need to band together more... why aren't we together lobbying governments, lobbying trade organizations, why isn't there a more formalized think tank on this."

So stay tuned. But it's interesting, again, that nobody pointed to B2 as a touchstone.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Barclays Center/Levy Restaurants hit with suit charging discrimination on disability, race; supervisors said to use vicious slurs, pursue retaliation

The Daily News has an article today, Barclays Center hit with $5M suit claiming discrimination against disabled, while the New York Post headlined its article Barclays Center sued over taunting disabled employees.

While that's part of the lawsuit, more prominent are claims of racial discrimination and retaliation, with black employees claiming repeated abuse by white supervisors, preferential treatment toward Hispanic colleagues, and retaliation in response to complaints.

Two individual supervisors, for example, are charged with  referring to black employees as “black motherfucker,” “dumb black bitch,” “black monkey,” “piece of shit” and “nigger.”

Two have referred to an employee blind in one eye as “cyclops,” and “the one-eyed guy,” and an employee with a nose disorder as “the nose guy.”

There's been no official response yet though arena spokesman Barry Baum told the Daily News they, but take “allegations of this kind very seriously” and have "a zero tolerance policy for…

Behind the "empty railyards": 40 years of ATURA, Baruch's plan, and the city's diffidence

To supporters of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project, it's a long-awaited plan for long-overlooked land. "The Atlantic Yards area has been available for any developer in America for over 100 years,” declared Borough President Marty Markowitz at a 5/26/05 City Council hearing.

Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, mused on 11/15/05 to WNYC's Brian Lehrer, “Isn’t it interesting that these railyards have sat for decades and decades and decades, and no one has done a thing about them.” Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco, in a 12/19/04 New York Times article ("In a War of Words, One Has the Power to Wound") described the railyards as "an empty scar dividing the community."

But why exactly has the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard never been developed? Do public officials have some responsibility?

At a hearing yesterday of the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee, Kate Suisma…

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

Revising official figures, new report reveals Nets averaged just 11,622 home fans last season, Islanders drew 11,200 (and have option to leave in 2018)

The Brooklyn Nets drew an average of only 11,622 fans per home game in their most recent (and lousy) season, more than 23% below the announced official attendance figure, and little more than 65% of the Barclays Center's capacity.

The New York Islanders also drew some 19.4% below announced attendance, or 11,200 fans per home game.

The surprising numbers were disclosed in a consultant's report attached to the Preliminary Official Statement for the refinancing of some $462 million in tax-exempt bonds for the Barclays Center (plus another $20 million in taxable bonds). The refinancing should lower costs to Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the arena operating company, by and average of $3.4 million a year through 2044 in paying off arena construction.

According to official figures, the Brooklyn Nets attendance averaged 17,187 in the debut season, 2012-13, 17,251 in 2013-14, 17,037 in 2014-15, and 15,125 in the most recent season, 2015-16. For hoops, the arena holds 17,732.

But official…

So, Forest City has some property subject to the future Gowanus rezoning

Writing yesterday, MAP: Who Owns All the Property Along the Gowanus Canal, DNAinfo's Leslie Albrecht lays out the positioning of various real estate players along the Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site:
As the city considers whether to rezone Gowanus and, perhaps, morph the gritty low-rise industrial area into a hot new neighborhood of residential towers (albeit at a fraction of the height of Manhattan's supertall buildings), DNAinfo reviewed property records along the canal to find out who stands to benefit most from the changes.
Investors have poured at least $440 million into buying land on the polluted waterway and more than a third of the properties have changed hands in the past decade, according to an examination of records for the nearly 130 properties along the 1.8-mile canal. While the single largest landowner is developer Property Markets Group, other landowners include Kushner Companies, Alloy Development, Two Trees, and Forest City New York.

Forest City's plans unc…

At 550 Vanderbilt, big chunk of apartments pitched to Chinese buyers as "international units"

One key to sales at the 550 Vanderbilt condo is the connection to China, thanks to Shanghai-based developer Greenland Holdings.

It's the parent of Greenland USA, which as part of Greenland Forest City Partners owns 70% of Pacific Park (except 461 Dean and the arena).

And sales in China may help explain how the developer was able to claim early momentum.
"Since 550 Vanderbilt launched pre-sales in June [2015], more than 80 residences have gone into contract, representing over 30% of the building’s 278 total residences," the developer said in a 9/25/15 press release announcing the opening of a sales gallery in Brooklyn. "The strong response from the marketplace indicates the high level of demand for well-designed new luxury homes in Brooklyn..."

Maybe. Or maybe it just meant a decent initial pipeline to Chinese buyers.

As lawyer Jay Neveloff, who represents Forest City, told the Real Deal in 2015, a project involving a Chinese firm "creates a huge market for…