Modular dream fading in New York City

setting module closeup
CC BY 2.0 Melissa Breyer

New York is a tough and expensive place to build anything, which is why modular construction looked so promising. It seemed a perfect match: build offsite where the workers can park their F150s and materials can be delivered, then bring the almost completed modules to the site. TreeHugger has been following two projects closely: Carmel Place, formerly known as adAPT NYC, and Pacific Place's B2 tower in Brooklyn.

work in progress signMelissa Breyer/CC BY 2.0

Carmel Place was a prototype for new technology and new designs, made of 55 micro-units. They were built by CAPSYS, an experienced prefab builder with a factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yards. But Brooklyn is trendy now, and they can no longer afford the rent. The company was paying $4 per square foot, but would have to pay $20 now. Quoted in the Real Deal, founder Nicholas Lembo complains:

“New York City is too expensive, the only spaces that I found were out far out in New Jersey and Pennsylvania,” Lembo said. “The rent there is very inexpensive, but the problem with that is if we move the plant there, we would not be able to retain any employees and would be starting a new business.”

inside capsys factoryLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Rob Kullman, manager of Capsys, defends modular construction even as he closes his plant and sells their intellectual property to a Pennsylvania company. According to Emily Nonko in Curbed New York,

"The demand is really high," he says. In the past four weeks, notes Kullman, 12 different companies approached him to inquire about modular construction. And it makes sense, considering that if done correctly, factory-built housing promises more environmental efficiency in construction, affordability, and shorter building times.

B2 from flatbush© Norman Oder

One of the virtues of prefab is that it can be built in cheaper real estate by less expensive workers, but that is a double-edged sword; transportation of large modules is expensive, especially when they need police escort, and New York trade unions are trying to keep their jobs in the city. That's why Forest City Ratner, when planning it's prefab tower in the Atlantic Yards (now Pacific Place) built their prefab factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yards as well- part of a commitment to maintain construction jobs in the City. It has been troubled from the start, (see endless related links below, or read Norman Oder's summary here) and is finally reaching a sort of completion, being shorter than planned, taking far longer and costing much more.

However the new Chinese owners of the massive Pacific Park project have no interest in doing any more of it with modular construction, and not surprisingly, the factory has no more orders. This was an unusual modular system, where modules were plugged into a structural frame. This makes it very hard to seal everything up properly; steel compresses and flexes under load but the plugged in modules don't, making it very hard to hit tight tolerances. It's not surprising that builders are not lining up to repeat this experience. The company has just issued the required 90 day notice of layoffs, but Norman Oder suspects that this isn't the last we have heard:

Note that the warning notice is just that, a 90-day notice. By the end of February, things could change. I wouldn't be surprised if Forest City, using its ties to Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, pushed for a government-assisted "demonstration" project to build modular units elsewhere in Brooklyn, or even to keep the plant open for a while.

pod hotel© Garrison Architects

It's not the end of prefab in New York, but could be the end of locally built prefab, which was always a bit of a contradiction anyway, constructing modules in the most expensive real estate in the country. It's not like upstate New York or a New Jersey couldn't use the work, places with lots of land and cheaper labor. Or you can go further than that; prefab pioneer architect Jim Garrison is working on a Pod Hotel that's manufactured in Poland by Polcom Modular and being shipped to New York. Jim tells Curbed that "it's not been easy."

It's a big benefit if architects can check in as modules are assembled; regular check-ins can't happen if the process takes place far away. In one instance, Garrison Architects found Polcom's structural frames on the modules to be inflexible and inefficient, and Garrison's design team needed to develop frames that were much stronger and lighter.

The big problem with modular is that it is expensive to ship air, which is essentially what those boxes are full of. Pod Hotel boxes are pretty small and dense (the rooms are tiny, two 100 square foot rooms on a 10' x 30" module) so the shipping and road transport is more affordable, two complete rooms on one truck that doesn't need an escort. But there is also a lot of duplication; double walls, separate structure for floor and ceiling, twice as much of everything. All that duplication also makes the building taller and eats up interior square footage, making the skin more expensive and pushing up against lot and height limits.

broad flatpack in factoryLloyd Alter/ Broad Sustainable Building flatpack module/CC BY 2.0

There is a place for modular construction, but perhaps it's not in tall buildings in New York City (It works in shorter buildings like the Stack) . I have always thought Broad Sustainable Building's flatpack system made a lot of sense; the smaller floor plates travel on standard size trucks and they are not shipping empty boxes. They have now built to 57 stories without any of these problems. There are also new proposals for container-module sized prefabs, that take advantage of the vast and inexpensive shipping container transport infrastructure. Modular may be fading in New York, but it's not the only innovative technology out there.

Tags: Green Building | New York City


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