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FastCo dials back the gush: from "amazing Brooklyn factory" to "Prefab's Moment of Reckoning" (but more skepticism still needed)

OK, remember how FastCo.Exist--the innovation-focused brand of the magazine Fast Company on 10/28/13 published this gushing preview of Forest City Ratner's experimental modular tower 461 Dean, aka B2?

This week, from the sibling design-focused FastCo.Design we get Prefab's Moment of Reckoning, which, while considerably less gushing, still relies on the developer and architect SHoP to put the best possible spin on what was clearly a failure. (Remember, this tower was omitted from the Greenland Forest City Partners joint venture.)

The article conveys a couple of lessons that had previously surfaced: the irregular site made for a more complicated, less standardized set of modules, and the 32-story building was too ambitious, with buildings perhaps one-third to one-half the height

I already critiqued the article on Twitter, but will go through it once more.

Leading off

Writer Diana Budds may seem to pull no punches:
Though it made headlines for aspiring to be the tallest prefab tower in the world, the building became a boondoggle, plagued by lawsuits, allegations of a flawed design, and stop-work orders that put the building years behind schedule. The project finally wrapped up construction in November, a staggering two years behind schedule.
But she left out the documented leaks and mold, as well as the lingering questions over the mold.

Various rhetoric echoes some pre-construction talk we remember, as architect Christopher Sharples of SHoP cites how other industries have innovated manufacturing processes and Forest City says that no one has invested in the research and development, the costs of which would not have been recouped with the first building but rather later in a project involving a pipeline of at least 14 more towers.

Getting to the details

The article is kind of sloppy. Consider:
The 22-acre project was initially called Atlantic Yards—so named for the railyard it's constructed over
(Emphases added)

No, that was a project, not a place--and a common error.

Or this:
The same year, FCRC and SHoP revealed the first renderings of 461 Dean Street, which was then known as the B2 tower, and announced that Skanska, a prefab builder, would be contracted to manufacture the modules. The developer and builder set a projected completion year of 2012. Only the floors for each apartment were installed on-site; everything else arrived complete.
That "same year" referred to 2009, but the renderings didn't emerge until 2010. Skanska was not a "prefab builder" but rather a conventional large construction company that formed a partnership with Forest City to build the factory.

And if the floors of the apartments were installed on-site, that represents a change in plans. As I wrote, the wood flooring supplier, Armstrong Flooring, told Roger Krulak—a Forest City employee placed at the factory—that factory installation would void the warranty, according to Skanska. Forest City and Skanska clashed about responsibility, but the ultimate installation plan wasn't specified.

The article states:
Because of zoning, the facade has a number of setbacks, which resulted in 23 different apartment configurations.
Actually, the zoning was overridden. The constraints result from Design Guidelines that the developer's original architect wrote, and which were later approved by the state authority overseeing/shepherding the project. Perhaps if they'd known that modular would emerge as a solution the guidelines would've been different.

The article states:
In October 2016, FCRC announced it had sold off the prefab factory to a new company called Full Stack Modular, founded by Roger Krulak—formerly senior vice president of modular construction at FCRC—effectively ending its involvement with the grand prefab experiment. Now, a decade after New York City approved Pacific Park, all that's resulted is 363 units, half of which are market rate and half are designated to be affordable. It's not much to show, considering myriad obstacles.
Unmentioned is the non-public sale price, which surely was a loss to Forest City, which had previously been trying to lure new business to the factory.

And New York City didn't approve Pacific Park, since no local elected official had a voice. Rather, New York State, via the Empire State Development Corporation (now Empire State Development) approved Atlantic Yards.

The lessons

Writes Budds:
What went wrong? Examining the relationship between architect, developer, and builder holds some insight. It seems that prefab is not just about designing a new system and developing new technology: The whole industry needs to change its process. Additionally, choosing which projects and sites are best suited for prefab is crucial.
While SHoP and ARUP worked closely on the digital model for the building, it was up to the contractor to turn that into a set of building instructions. There was likely information lost in translation. SHoP had previously used modular construction for Barclays Center—the arena adjacent to 461 Dean—and was responsible for both the design and creating the factory tickets. That went relatively smoothly. Since the architect, developer, and contractor were not involved during the entirety of the build at 461 Dean, that may have added to the challenge. "If Forest City and SHoP did the project, it probably would’ve been a different story," Sharples says. "I’m very happy with the quality and the look of the building. And at the end of the day, it’s not about product innovation, it’s about process innovation."
This is revisionism. SHoP used modular construction to build the metal facade of the Barclays Center--that's nothing like building a tower of apartments.

If Forest City had wanted to do the project with SHoP, well, it could have tried. But it specifically sought a "partner to establish and grow a viable, cost competitive modular factory business."

Writes Budds:
At the project's outset, it took the factory (managed by Skanska at the time) two to three weeks to build a module. By the end, under FCRC's management, the builders cut that down to six days. "The project took a little longer than expected and cost a little bit more than expected because we started the project with the wrong contractor," [Forest City's] Greene says. "That’s what it comes down to: A dispute with them about how the project should have been built and how they were performing. Since they left the factory and we took over, we've achieved incredible cycle times ourselves."
OK, that's Forest City's take. But Skanska was more than a contractor, it was a partner. The article should have quoted Skanska, which has made many allegations that put the blame on its partner, including a flawed design, an inadequate factory, and a poorly paid pool of workers. Skanska called out Forest City for being "so profit- and schedule-driven."

The article states:
FCRC is still reeling from its grand experiment in prefab. On a November 2016 earnings call, FCRC CEO David LaRue announced a $430.9 million quarterly loss, largely as a result of Pacific Park.
Actually, there was separate write-down regarding this building alone.

The lesson

From the article:
Yet though 461 Dean turned out to be a failure from the standpoint of building faster and more cost-effectively, there may be a future in modular "semi-tall" buildings. ARUP and SHoP's model showed that their structural system could support a modular tower up to 60 stories, but Sharples thinks shorter structures might actually go further in the context of New York City. After 15 stories, extra brace framing is needed to support the building. Stay under that height, and the building's complexity is significantly less. "So if you keep the building under 15 stories, there’s a good case for that," Sharples says. "When you’re talking about the five boroughs, that’s not a bad height to be chasing."
Now they tell us.

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