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From Urban Omnibus, "the rhetoric... is remarkably slippery": insight on the ill-fated effort to build 461 Dean and the challenges of modular construction

On 12/4/19, Urban Omnibus published Unruly Bits, an intriguing essay on the challenges and complexity behind modular construction, notably the ill-fated 461 Dean (aka B2) at Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, by Daniel Cardoso Llach, Associate Professor of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, where he chairs the Master of Science in Computational Design and co-directs CodeLab.

The author notes the promise of the tower:
Combining the latest digital design and building technologies, the tower would not only help the developer fulfill his multiple obligations towards the city — including public space, affordable housing, and construction jobs — but also herald a new era of efficiency in American construction.... The remarkably contentious and costly process of building the tower — which finally opened in 2016 (most of the renewal project remains under construction) — offers a lesson on the intertwining of design and urban politics with technology. The rhetoric of efficiency that helped animate the building’s design and public perception, metaphorically linking its construction to the making of a software, continues to accompany industry and government efforts to revolutionize building construction through digitally enabled manufacturing, modular construction, and artificial intelligence (AI).
(Emphasis added)

His point is that efforts to smooth out construction can't eliminate the "obstinate specificity of designing and building."

Optimism, and struggle

The author offers a decent sketch of the project's contentious history, though he misses a key quote from developer Bruce Ratner, who--after the project he proposed was approved--told the Wall Street Journal that the affordability plan didn't "work for a high-rise building that's union built."

Going modular, purportedly for the entire project, would not only take the work out of the variable outdoor environment, but control costs with factory construction, indoors, as site work continued. Writes Llach:
The developer hired SHoP Architects and the renowned engineering firm Arup to design the tower and the details of its modular system, ensuring that the most advanced digital methods for modeling, analysis, simulation, and manufacturing would assist the resolution of one of architecture’s longtime obsessions. Press coverage of the modular tower touted that the novel method would cut costs in half. Meanwhile, prominent architectural voices joined in with excitement, reflecting the discipline’s longstanding modular romance.
Indeed, there was way too much enthusiasm, but also some skepticism. Note that, beyond SHoP and Arup, there was the little matter of Kullman and XSite, as I wrote.

Also, he notes that "unions ultimately supported the project," which is true regarding the umbrella Building and Construction Trades Council, but inaccurate regarding a few specialty unions, such as those representing plumbers.

Construction issues

The article cites structural problems and damage, as I've reported, and adds this important factor:
Some of the architects on the team were also aware of the important drawbacks of modularity. For example, they understood that making a building by aggregating discrete, structurally independent units significantly increases a building’s overall weight and, consequentially, the use of expensive structural materials such as steel. The taller the building, the more acute this problem becomes. As SHoP Architects’ John Cerone stated simply in a 2015 interview: “you are doubling up on everything.”
I listened to that podcast, with John Cerone, Director of Virtual Design & Construction at SHoP Architects. At about 10:09, he discussed B2 and modular construction, which he said will "never have less material than conventional. It's really all about the time. It has to be about time... you're doubling up on everything."

At about 13:52, he described the system as "an impressive solution... the unit is made, completely outfit internally. basically, when the unit's dropped... it's threaded through... a threaded rod goes through the column." (And at 16:20, he mentioned that the Barclays Center's green roof has a 10-foot offset.)

Targeting the rhetoric

Writes Llach:
In the construction of the modular tower at Atlantic Yards, computation operated ambivalently at different registers. Computational idioms were used to represent the building as a piece of software — its design as a “code to be cracked,” its construction is to be “parallel processed,” its logistical hurdles to be “debugged.” These idioms help cast the cumbersome process of building in the more sanitized language of software development, endowing construction with an aura of weightlessness, and hiding the messier aspects of its production from public view.
He notes that "computation was not merely a metaphor, but also a series of specific methods for building simulation and fabrication" and notes that, "In architecture, as in software, modules are repeatable and exchangeable."

That's true, though his account of the missteps could've mentioned that B2 suffered from being placed in a highly irregular site and having a great variety of modules, rather than, say, a standard hotel on a rectangular footprint.

His conclusion:
Ever since the emergence of digital computers, architecture and software have been entangled in a game of reversible metaphors. The rhetoric resulting from this exchange, while at times generative and almost always useful as a proselytizing tool, is remarkably slippery, and has a history of helping obscure what is indeed particular about each domain. Claims of building efficiency, economy, or democratization aside, these transfers are never innocent. 
Instead, as he writes, we have... friction.

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