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SHoP's Pasquarelli, 2011: making a good and cost-effective modular tower is "almost impossible"

At a January 2013 City Council oversight hearing on Forest City's modular construction plan, Forest City Ratner executive Ashley Cotton was asked to comment on a news report that deemed modular construction--which Forest City had just announced at the B2 site next to the Barclays Center--ambitious and risky.

"It's ambitious, we don't think it's risky," she responded.

Well, by early 2013--if not the time of the hearing--Forest City was furious with its partner Skanska for alleged mismanagement of the modular factory, according to the lawsuit filed this past week. And it was presumably risky to try something that had never been done before: building modular towers over 25 stories.

An architect's worry

As noted by NetsDaily, Gregg Pasquarelli, a principal in SHoP Architects, at a forum in September 2011 about New York Architecture after 9/11, pointed to the daunting challenge of building modular.

The roundtable discussion hosted by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, and the video was posted by the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.

"Right now, it's horrifying for me to say this, we're working on 2.7 million square feet of affordable housing, five towers," Pasquarelli said. (It's not clear whether he was referring only to the Atlantic Yards site, or any other site, but five towers would have meant three towers around the arena, plus two towers elsewhere.)

"The problem is--it's just a very simple formula, which is there's X amount of revenue that comes out of the building, and there's X amount that the banks are willing to provide," Pasquarelli said. "You take the land cost and the construction cost and basically the last thing that gets squeezed out is any good design."

"We are struggling," he said. " We've got two parallel teams working on this modular concept to see if there's a way to build a 40- or 50-story modular building, because by keeping it in the factory we can control costs in a lot better way that we can out in the field. And it's really hard. We've been working on it--I've got three separate teams, 25 people working on this day and night on this for a year, with developers who are like, I want a good building, supportive developers, Build me the best building you possibly can but here's the budget. It's almost impossible."

"I'm going to blame... first the bankers, and second, the construction industry," he said, going on to say that construction costs in New York City are much higher than elsewhere.

He wasn't talking about the production snags that have added perhaps $50 million in costs to the first tower. But his warning was that this was tricky, untested territory. Forest City now wants to take over the factory.