Lloyd Alter is visiting China as a guest of Broad Sustainable Building.
The factory is vast, and spotlessly clean. I toured a prefab factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in May and was shocked at how crowded it was, how every step you took was a trip hazard of cables and materials. Not here, you could eat off the floors.
The speed of construction makes for a terrific video. Viewers can see how floor plates arrive, two to a truck, with the columns and interior partitions and fixtures all stacked on top, the plumbing and mechanical systems installed inside. A clever system of diagonal braces makes it all work, creating a frame that is light and strong.
Here is a fascinating feature I didn't know about: built into each floor section are four tubes with threaded sockets at the end. This lets them sit safely on legs for workers to get under them, stacks them for shipping while leaving room for putting in all the walls and fixtures that travel with that particular floor, and provides an engineered set of lifting points for the crane.
If speed of construction were the only thing notable about Broad's system, that would be enough. However there is a lot more going on here of interest to TreeHugger types.
Broad Chairman Zhang Yue's collection of cars, from Hummers to Ferraris, don't move much anymore, and he rarely flies his helicopter. He has become a committed environmentalist and doesn't like using those toys anymore. His preoccupation is solving our environmental problems, from more efficient air conditioning to efficient and effective air filters to better building systems. He has built two prototype hotels to test those systems; I stayed in both as a guest of Broad and wanted to see if there was more to them than just the speed of their construction. There certainly is.
The New Ark Hotel in Broad Town doesn't look like much from the outside; the striped metal panel exterior is a bit rough around the edges and doesn't create a great first impression, reminding me of a restaurant's walk-in cooler.
Things look up when you enter; there is an interior revolving door and a sign that notes that it is there to keep the polluted exterior air outside.
It has a generous and welcoming lobby with a bar at one end and a display of organic wines. The hotel currently serves mostly Broad's visitors; changes are being made to provide easier access to others, with a new lobby and wine bar at the lower level.
The plan of the building is a conventional centre hall design that is pretty universal; a nice touch is the natural light in the elevator lobby, giving up a possible unit to create a more generous space.
I am staying in a suite; it is all bamboo floors and walls, simple and comfortable furnishings, a generous bathroom and an odd extra toilet that take up space that could have been better utilized. There is what once was an opening hopper window, now sealed with a sticker saying that the air inside is 100X cleaner than the outside air.
Outside the triple-glazed window is an electrically operated exterior venetian blind; inside is a blackout blind. I tend to keep them closed so that I don't have to see what is probably the worst window cleaning job I have ever seen, a point that I note because it is relevant- in this 2009 building the windows are punched in and broken up by mullions which makes them harder to clean; the newer buildings have a flush skin. You need to clean the windows a lot here due to the air pollution and the smooth, flat facade is a lot easer to deal with.
There are some lovely touches; a bank of switches that signal "do not disturb" or "make up my room" instead of the usual hanging signs; motion detectors on all hallway lighting; everything is LED. The ventilation system is silent and the air is filtered and pure, although there is no individual temperature control in this hotel, it is all centrally supplied.
The bed is comfortable, the room is quiet, the maid service is impeccable, it is first class quality. There are a few lapses and annoyances; the lobby bar doesn't have a whole lot to offer and the background music includes an overwrought orchestral version of the Carpenters' "It's yesterday once more" that endlessly repeats and is the most annoying piece of music I have ever heard.
But there is nothing that screams "cheap prefab" here. It is a solid, first class operation, as comfortable as any I have stayed in. If you didn't look at the exterior panels closely you would never know that it was anything but a very well done conventional building.
The T30 is a different kind of hotel and a very different building; Broad has learned a lot in the two years separating the two. The cladding now is a slick glass, two separate double-glazed panes with the venetian blinds between.
This is a much larger, busier hotel that is a bit down-market from the New Ark. All of the interior finishes and furnishings were prefabricated as well and the entire finished product was built in 15 days. (The New Ark interior finishes were done more conventionally.) The video of its assembly is spectacular.
The lobby is a site-built pyramid that bangs clumsily into the exterior of the building, but provides a generous space inside.
In the cafeteria, most of the food comes from the company's organic farm.
Signs exhort you to eat every grain of rice, every drop of wine (if only you could find a drop of wine).
Here is something I do not understand, being used to North American building codes. There are two fire exit stairs with fire-rated doors at each floor, but they both open up at the lobby level in the same place, with no doors. The whole point of having two sets of stairs is that if one gets blocked or full of smoke, then the other is accessible. They are not very inviting stairs either.
There's no natural light in these corridors; the elevator lobby and corridors are tight by North American hotel standards with a whole lot of turns. The colors are unfortunate given the cool color temperature of the LED lighting, making everything look a bit drab.
The room itself is small but adequate for a business-grade hotel; it feels over-furnished for its size. The bed is comfortable, and the little desk setup is effective. There are niches in the walls everywhere, taking advantage of the space between the diagonal braces. The bathroom is small but workable, with a Chinese brand of toilet that has a disconcertingly shallow bowl; I won't go into details.
Then you start looking at the systems and you know this is no ordinary business hotel. There are eight recycling chutes.
The elevator has gauges that tell you how much electricity it is using on the way up and how much it is generating on the way down. There is a display in the room that tells you how clean the air is inside and how dirty outside, and lets you mix fresh and cooled air to adjust the temperature (although the english button didn't work). The LED lighting goes on and off as you move through the corridors, following you like a puppy.
The walls are insulated with eight inches of rock wool; this place is quiet and comfortable.
In the basement, a big Broad absorption chiller runs on the waste heat from a generator; waste heat also powers the laundry.
Compared to normally built hotel, the T30 is using a fifth of the energy, a quarter of the water, with air that is 20 times as clean as outdoor air. You can feel it; I have been in so-called green hotels in New York with noisy through-wall heat pumps that are inefficient and loud and ruin the whole experience. This is different.
The square plan of the T30 may be efficient to build, but it generally feels just a bit too tight. But again, it doesn't feel like a place that was built in 14 days, it is solid, it is quiet, and it works.
Broad Chairman Zhang Yue's preoccupations do not include architectural design; they are all about energy efficiency, standardization, mass production, air quality, health. But that shouldn't scare people away from the system. I think that perhaps the fast-motion videos do Broad Sustainable Buildings a disservice, focusing on the time of assembly instead of the product, which is what really matters- it is a better building: solid, efficient, affordable, comfortable and green. Just add architect and you will really have something.