Construction halted on world's tallest prefab in Brooklyn

Atlantic Yards base
© Margaret Badore

Construction on what was to be the world's tallest prefabricated building has been stopped; the workers have been furloughed, the contractor has locked the doors and blames the architect, the developer is blaming the contractor, and the whole thing is a big mess. As a big fan of prefab construction, I am disappointed, but why am I not surprised?

Rendering of corner© SHoP

See a slideshow of the building under construction here


Like everything else in life, there is a learning curve in prefabricated construction. You don't have to do it Malcolm Gladwell's famous 10,000 times, but you do have to work out the kinks in the designs, make a few mistakes, eat some bucks and continue. Before I came to TreeHugger, I worked in the prefab business and learned this the hard way. It's why I was so skeptical when it was announced that the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn would be built as the world's tallest prefab. Great benefits were promised, like shorter construction time and lower costs. Meanwhile the developer is changing architects, suing manufacturers, arguing with unions and more. I wrote in World's Tallest Prefab To Be Built in Brooklyn? Fuggedaboutit.
The whole thing boggles the mind. Having worked in prefab for a number of years, I can tell you that it's complicated, more than just piling up boxes like Lego. To have changes in builders and architects, intellectual property battles, and fights with unions in a City like New York while trying to build the world's tallest prefab and save time and money? Fuggedaboutit.

corner gray and red© Margaret Badore

I eat my words

I was wrong about it actually happening. In 2012 I wrote World's Largest Modular Prefabricated Tower Will Be Built at Atlantic Yards In Brooklyn and I Eat My Words

Forest City Ratner, the developer, brought in Skanska as construction manager; there is no firm in the world more experienced in prefabrication. (They are IKEA's partner in BoKloc, their prefabricated house system). They dealt with the unions. Ratner said that SHoP architects had "cracked the code" of prefab. In a statement Ratner said:

With modular, we are also transforming how housing is built in New York City and, potentially, around the world And we are doing it, as we do with all of our construction, in partnership with union labor, the best labor, in the best City in the world.

How did it come to this?

It looks just like a classic construction dispute over cost overruns, the kind that generate jokes like this photo. There were signs of trouble in the spring, as construction slowed down. However now it is completely stopped.

In the Wall Street Journal, Skanska's Richard Kennedy says "there were “technological issues” that made it difficult to fabricate the modules, which he said were the fault of the design." Kennedy continued: "It finally got to the point where we said, ‘OK, this project is requiring from us an investment that is much more significant than anything we ever anticipated or agreed to." In the New York Times, he says that Forest City never "cracked the code."

It just doesn’t work the way it was sold to work,” he said. “We’ve had real challenges with it that’ve delayed the project and led to cost increases. We finally came to the decision to stop work on the project until our significant commercial issues are resolved.”

Forest City says that it was a fixed price contract, and that Skanska is responsible. A spokesman " attributed the overruns to Skanska’s “failures and missteps as the construction manager,” adding that “they are employing a typical strategy to try to weasel out of that obligation” to pay the costs of the project."

Forest City Letter To Skanska

The architects at SHoP are wisely saying nothing.

In his blog, Atlantic Yards Report, Norman Oder writes:

Forest City's charges sounds like bridge-burning, a prelude not to mediation but rather to a lawsuit. That would be a significant snag, since the tower, located at Flatbush Avenue and Dean Street, is only ten stories complete, less than one-third of the total.. “This is not a referendum on modular,” Forest City CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin told the Times, “it’s a monetary dispute. We’re confident we’ll get the building built. But we’re doing what we have to do to protect the company, the project and the business.”

It will be interesting to see how. Skanska is the best in the business; they are not going to find someone to bring in who can build it for less, taking over at this point. It's all a big mess.

And I don't take any comfort in the fact that I was right in the first place about the whole thing boggling the mind.

Construction halted on world's tallest prefab in Brooklyn
It's the usual fight between the contractor who wants to be paid for cost overruns and the developer who claims it's all a fixed price contract.

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