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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.

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