SHoP's 32 storey modular prefab Brooklyn tower finally topped off.

last module
© Max Touhey/ Curbed

These are happy days at Pacific Park in Brooklyn, the complex formerly known as Atlantic Yards, as the building formerly being built by Skanska is finally topped off. It's happy days for those who love the idea of modular construction too, that we finally have this behind us, all except for the lawsuits.

The building was supposed to be faster, cheaper and better; The factory was going to turn out buildings for the entire site and who knows, the rest of New York. Instead it took longer, cost a fortune, was the last of its kind and it's the end of the line.

It's a shame, because SHoP are such talented architects, and it could have been the start of an era instead of the end of one. TreeHugger has been following this story from the beginning, where I wrote in my first post about my concerns:

World's Tallest Prefab To Be Built in Brooklyn? Fuggedaboutit.

Atlantic yards© SHoP

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.

World's Largest Modular Prefabricated Tower Will Be Built at Atlantic Yards In Brooklyn and I Eat My Words

tower© SHoP

I was wrong, in thinking that it would never happen, and the next year wrote that things were looking up, and that "For breakfast this morning, I am eating my words."

A number of things have changed; the construction manager is now Skanska, the giant Swedish construction company with a lot of experience in prefabrication. (They are IKEA's partner in BoKloc). ARUP is doing the engineering. The developer, Bruce Ratner, made a deal with the unions, who have taken a cut in pay in exchange for the steady work indoors under better working conditions, a feature of prefabrication.

World's tallest modular building may be the last of its kind for a while

supported corner of module© Margaret Badore

Construction started late in 2013 and Margaret Badore took some closeups of the early construction; this photo shows how they modules are delivered to the site with their exterior cladding already installed, and plugged into a structural steel frame. In April, 2014, it was decided that this would be the only building done in modular, which kind of killed the learning curve. But they were running into problems. I wrote at the time when construction was halted:

I have tried to get information and gossip from people in the know but there is " such radio silence it's difficult to know what's really happening." One guess is that there are issues of tolerances between the frame that is being built on site as the building goes up and the modules that come from the factory. Another concern I have had since the beginning is the fact that they have the exterior cladding on the module instead of doing it on site; Even on a vinyl clad two story modular, it gets wrapped on site to cover any gaps. The really sad part of this, as my friend it the business said, if they don't figure this out "it will potentially delay the progress of modular high-rise development by a decade."

This was a lot more than the usual change order padding; this was war, as Skanska got fired and the whole project got stopped.

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."

The perils of prefab, as Atlantic Yards modular tower is stopped and lawsuits start flying

It was hard to find out exactly what was going wrong here, but did some research and wrote:

Fundamentally, the problem appears to come down to the basic concept of sticking factory-built boxes into a structural frame, like drawers into a cabinet. The tolerances have to be extremely tight, or errors can accumulate as the building goes up. Steel actually compresses under load and columns get shorter, and beams bend under load; this all has to be taken into account in the design. That's why in many cases, the cladding is added after instead of coming from the factory; getting everything to line up is really hard.

What went wrong: The story behind the Atlantic Yards prefab tower

Norman Oder, the journalist who has been covering the entire project on his website, Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report
did a lengthy look last year at what went wrong. Oder writes: "It's not clear that the troubles encountered by B2 reflect on the potential for high-rise modular in general, the specific technology used in the project, or the execution by the companies involved." I wrote: "I am really saddened by this and have no sense of schadenfreude....The whole thing is one big mess of hubris and arrogance more than anything else." More in TreeHugger...

And now it has been topped off, with occupancy planned for this fall. It is such a shame it happened this way, because modular and prefab doesn't have to be so difficult. Other buildings, perhaps not quite so tall, have gone up on time and on budget. Other prefab systems have gone much taller and faster. No doubt the next modular tower will learn from the mistakes of this one, which is how we learn and how our buildings get better.

SHoP's 32 storey modular prefab Brooklyn tower finally topped off.
This was always a tough biz, and it is not getting any easier.

Related Content on