New York moves into a modular construction phase

Garrison Architects' hurricane-proof modular structures on Rockaway Beach. ()
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Unsurprising news: a Pod Hotel with more than 200 rooms is coming to Williamsburg. At Driggs and N. 4th Street, well within what Lonely Planet describes as “the hipster capital of the world.”

Somewhat surprising news: Architect Jim Garrison is considering designing the hotel using “modular” construction, just like he did for the Lehman College childcare center that was erected in three days, and the lifeguard buildings he designed for the city’s post-Hurricane Sandy beachfront in the Rockaways, which, from design to erection, took just five and a half months.

That would have been “virtually impossible” using old-fashioned construction methods, Garrison told me. “I think it would have taken 10 months instead of five.”

Modular construction is getting popular in New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tiny-apartment initiative is getting built using the lego-like method. And, in a cost-saving move, Forest City Ratner is building B2, the first of his Atlantic Yards skyscrapers, using modular. It will top out at 32 stories and displace Victoria Hall at Wolverhampton as the tallest modular building in the world. According to Crain's New York Business, New York City now has more than 17 modular construction projects in the works.

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“This seems to be the moment of modular,” said Rosalie Genevro, executive director of the Architectural League of New York, at a forum she recently moderated on the topic.

“Modular” is basically just a subset of “pre-fabrication," in which repetitive room-size modules are built, one by one, in a factory and then assembled, rapid-fire, on site.

Low-rise modular construction has been around for decades, including in New York City. A lot of the affordable housing built in the bombed-out New York City of 1980s used modular. It was easier to finance.

And it reduced theft.

“You start staging a construction project in a very bad neighborhood, and as soon as you put copper in the basement, the next day you go back and the copper’s gone,” said Tom O’Hara, the director of business development at Capsys Corporation, a modular construction company that’s been headquartered at the Brooklyn Navy Yard since 1996. “With modular construction, literally you build foundations, and you set six or seven houses in a day, and at the end of the day, all the doors and windows are locked.”

Now, as building technology evolves and high-profile projects stoke curiosity, interest in building modular, including high-rise modular, is growing.

“I don’t know why people think it was invented yesterday or that Forest City invented it,” said O'Hara. “It’s really nothing new. But the general public now knows about us. And that’s just been a huge difference for us.”

Since Forest City Ratner announced that it would build the first of its Altantic Yards residential building, B2, using modular, O'Hara has seen "a surge of interest."

“I think the Forest City move into modular construction has been one of the best things that’s ever happened to us, quite honestly," he said.

John Erb, the vice president of sales and marketing of the Pennsylvania-based Deluxe Building Systems, another major supplier of modular to New York City, said he, too, has been watching a similar phenomenon take shape.

Right now, he’s in pre-construction for two different high-rise apartment buildings in New York City, one affordable housing, the other upscale. And he says he’s got interest from a dozen other developers.

There’s a reason for that.

“It is always faster,” said Garrison. And in real estate, speed equals money.

It's also sometimes simply cheaper.

“What we’re finding is that right about 25,000 square feet there’s a kind of breakline, at least for housing,” said Garrison. “When we get above that,” modular starts to become more affordable than conventional construction.

A lot of that has to do with the fact that modular construction is, like car manufacturing, inherently repetitive. That means that construction methods get systematized and labor costs drop: construction workers, in essence, join the less-well-paid manufacturing industry. 

Chris Sharples, a principal at SHoP architects, which is designing B2, said that 60 percent of it will be built off-site, thereby saving developer Forest City Ratner at least 15 percent in construction costs and as many as four months of construction time.

He also argues that the technology makes for happier workers: "the fabricators have a roof over their head,” he said.

It’s an argument echoed by both O’Hara and Erb, but not necessarily by the unions.

“The difference between New York and a lot of other jurisdictions historically and through today is that the unions have been so powerful and they’ve been so opposed to this kind of technology, that they’ve really been able to shut down the introduction of the technology to almost anything that’s got government sponsorship,” said Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association.

The head of the New York Building Trades, a coalition of construction unions, did not respond to several requests for comment.

But the renewed interest in modular prompted Genevro, at that recent form, to ask whether this modular moment might constitute “the silver bullet moment we’ve all been waiting for, when New York’s perennial housing shortage and affordability problems can be solved with inventive applications of new technology.”

If tall buildings can be put up faster and cheaper, might the technology not, at long last, make a dent in New York City’s affordable housing crunch and, related, its stratospheric building costs?

Most people I spoke with sounded a strong note of caution, and argued that B2 will act as a bellwether.

“Until the Forest City project is complete, it’s going to be difficult to know whether in fact it can be delivered at the projected cost savings and will achieve market acceptance,” said Kahtryn Wylde, who now heads the Partnership for New York City.

There are several obstacles to modular’s winning the New York market.

For one thing, there aren’t that many modular construction companies that know how to build for the city’s more exacting fire code standards.

Also, building modular means making sacrifices.

Mods stacked on top of each other come with double ceilings and double walls. Unecessary replication usurps precious space.

“Right now, we’re losing one floor,” said Sharples, referring to B2.

And then, of course, “the question of what the unions will do is crucial,” said Vitullo-Martin.

The unions are concerned with more than just wages. There’s also the prospect that as construction jobs move to factories, those factories will leave the city.

“This changes the dynamics of residential building in New York City,” said Richard Anderson, the president of the New York Building Congress. “And how much it changes it is the question. How much it lowers costs, how much it improves quality or even changes quality, how much it provides for a better product. And that all is to be determined. ... This is definitely a change, and you can’t just say, 'Oh it’s great.' It raises a host of issues.”

This article is brought to you by AT&T, the sponsor of this Capital New York series on building New York City. The articles are reported and written at the sole discretion of Capital. AT&T did not have, or ask for, any say in the creation of this content.