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

Atlantic Yards base
© Margaret Badore

I asked TreeHugger's Margaret Badore to visit the Atlantic Yards project and photograph it; you can see greater detail in a slideshow here.

Reinventing the way things are built is hard and usually expensive. At the Atlantic Yards, the world's tallest prefabricated modular tower appears to be running into some problems. According to the New York Times, the modular technology is being dumped for the next three towers.

Forest City executives said for the first time that they had trouble working out all the kinks at the factory in the nearby Navy Yard, where 145 workers transform tubular steel chassis into fully equipped apartments. The chassis are transported to the construction site, where they are lifted and stacked into place onto the building, known as B2.

“With our newly formed Greenland partnership we want to go vertical and build expeditiously,” said MaryAnne Gilmartin, the chief executive of Forest City Ratner. “So while we work to prove out modular on B2, we will launch three new buildings using conventional construction.”

Two years ago, Forest City Ratner said it had "Cracked the code" of highrise prefab. But even then they admitted that they probably wouldn't save much money on the first building; there is a learning curve on this kind of thing. Going conventional with the next there buildings wastes that curve. It's a shame, because there are many in the prefab world who want to see this work. James Garrison, who originally was going to work on the project, is quoted in the Times:

Garrison, an architect who has designed smaller modular projects, said Forest City was engaged in a “noble experiment” with prefabricated high-rises. “With any innovation comes risk,” he said. “Evolution is always necessary. If it’s going to be successful they have to continue.”

MaryAnne Gilmartin, the chief executive of Forest City Ratner, concludes the Times Article:

“It’s been terribly frustrating. But I don’t think this is a referendum on modular. The best way to prove that this works is to build B2.” “And,” she added, “I hope that the fifth building will be modular.”

Atlantic yards rendering© SHoP

On eating my words

In 2011, when this building was first announced, I was really skeptical that it would actually go ahead. I wrote:

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.

But more experienced architects than me told me that Shop was a really talented firm, that they were doing this right. Skanska, perhaps the world's best construction firm for this kind of thing was on board. I publicly ate my words.

corner detail© Margaret Badore

Why has constructions slowed down?

But it is tough, trying to do something like this at this scale, and something has gone wrong to have slowed this project down to a crawl. 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."

See a slideshow of construction photos here.

Meanwhile, in Forbes Magazine there is a long gushy article on the project with an interesting video of the work in progress.

“If they can show that here, I think it has potential to have a transformative effect,” says Casius Pealer, a professor of architecture at Tulane and member of the American Institute of Architects housing committee. “It’s of interest both to architecture and to developers who are interested in building affordably and fast.”

World's tallest modular building may be the last of its kind for a while
The developer of the Atlantic Yards project now says the next three buildings will be conventionally built.

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