Disaster Housing Gets A Surprising Makeover In New York City (PHOTOS)
The Huffington Post
When you think about your surroundings during a natural disaster, style isn’t ever likely to come to mind. Thankfully, New Yorkers, the Office of Emergency Management has done the thinking for you, unveiling a housing unit designed to ride out relief efforts when the next “superstorm” hits. And to our surprise, it’s quite stylish.
First, a little backstory: Last year, a report released by the Department of Homeland Security revealed ongoing criticism against the accommodations traditionally used to house residents displaced by natural disasters. In addition to their unappealing aesthetic, the 64-foot long, 14-feet wide FEMA-run trailers, have posed a number of concerns for those who often occupy them well beyond the amount of time they were originally intended to stay. Namely, the housing is expensive, costing taxpayers some $48,000 each, CNS News reported. In highly populated areas like New York City,space is another concern when you consider that a one-acre lot, which normally contains 200 households can only house 10 single-family FEMA trailers.
But a new pre-fab prototype by Garrison Architects aims to address some of those concerns. And did we mention, it’s pretty, too?
The model units confirm what some housing industry insiders (and many of the tiny-home dwellers we’ve come across here at HuffPost Home) have known to be true for some time: bigger isn’t always better. Not only have they proven successful in places like Europe, smaller modular units can be built inside, away from weather and dirt, with much less wasted material as Tom O’Hara, director of business development at Capsys, explained to Marketplace.org, possibly solving for the issue of getting larger trailers to the scene of a disaster — a concern highlighted in the Homeland Security report.
Check out the photos below and read more about Garrison’s project over at Architizer.
The first floors of a modular apartment building are already in place behind the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
The skeleton of a new apartment module comes together at Capsys’s factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
A bathroom in an apartment at The Stack. All fixtures were installed in the factory, not at the site.
A kitchen in an apartment at The Stack. Even the appliances were installed in the factory.
A model living room at The Stack in the Inwood section of Manhattan.
The staggered block design of The Stack was designed to highlight its modular construction.
A new apartment building called The Stack is about to open in the Inwood section of Manhattan. By design, it looks like a collection of staggered Lego blocks. On the inside, it’s like any other modern rental building in New York. It has a sleek, simple design.
What’s different is that these apartments were not built here in Manhattan, but almost entirely somewhere else.
“The paint, the lighting, the kitchen cabinets, the appliances, the bathroom tile, fixtures, mirror, all of that is done in the factory,” says The Stack’s architect, Tom Gluck, with the firm GLUCK+.
Gluck has been an architect for years, but this is the first time his firm has built what’s called a modular building.
Each apartment comes out of a factory from a company, like Capsys in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It looks like an auto plant, complete with assembly line run on a track in the ground.
“Where we’re building pieces of building like you’d build a car in a factory. You get that repetition, that precision,” says Tom O’Hara, director of business development at Capsys.
On one end of the plant, a team is joining steel beams to make the skeleton of a new apartment. On the other end, a crew is putting the finishing touches on a unit. One guy is tiling the bathroom. You could cook in this kitchen. There’s even a thermostat on the wall already. The apartments are so close to finished that they look like you could move in immediately, if they weren’t sitting on a factory floor.
An apartment module nearing completion at Capsys. It will soon be trucked to the building site and hoisted into place. (Photo: Dan Bobkoff)
But soon, this entire apartment will be put on a flatbed, trucked to the Bronx, then hoisted on top of all the other modular apartments. When the building’s done, you won’t even know it was built this way.
There are many reasons proponents like O’Hara think modular construction is better: it’s built inside, away from weather and dirt. It’s faster because you can build the foundation and the building at the same time. There’s much less wasted material. And yet, while it’s popular in Europe, modular construction in the U.S. remains a rounding error, accounting for just a tiny percentage of new home and multifamily construction.
“I think a lot of people really have misconceptions about the modular business,” O’Hara says. “I think they feel somehow that there’s substandard construction in the factory.”
He says most people think modular means mobile homes or boring, blocky buildings. To him, it just means it’s built better.
“Why would I want my toaster built by a guy sitting on a bench with a ten snip banging things together. I want it out of a factory! Why shouldn’t the building come out of a factory?” O’Hara says.
Modular has been seen as the future before, and yet never caught on beyond certain sectors like college dorms and hotels.
But nearly everyone I talked to thinks this is the moment that changes.
“A lot of it truthfully has to do with this building that we’re standing in front of,” says Jim Garrison, an architect and professor at the Pratt Institute. We’re behind the new Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn, looking at what’ll soon be the tallest modular building: 32 stories of apartments.
It’s funded by a big name developer. Garrison says it’s the biggest example that modular is possible, practical, and not necessarily cookie cutter.
“We now have opportunities to build very interesting buildings using these systems. And, people are listening to the benefits that come with it,” Garrison says.
That’s not to say modular doesn’t have downsides. Because it’s made of boxes, you end up with walls against walls, taking up valuable square footage in the building. Designers have to decide everything on the front end. But more developers are attracted to modular’s faster, and sometimes cheaper construction. And, with new projects in the works, maybe this time is different.
It was a tight deal for an even tighter development. M&T Bank recently closed a $10.3 million construction loan for the creation of Manhattan’s first micro-unit rental property to be built in Kips Bay. The loan went to Brooklyn-based Monadnock Construction, which is leading the project’s development team, Mortgage Observer has first learned.
The nine-story “My Micro NY” project, located on the northeast corner of East 27th Street and Mt. Carmel Place, will consist of 55 prefabricated apartments averaging about 300 square feet with 40 percent of the units being offered at below market rates. The mini apartments will contain nearly 10-foot ceilings and seven-foot-wide balconies in addition to 16-foot-long overhead loft spaces and full closets.
My Micro NY Rendering
“Modular construction is cost efficient and we believe these micro-units will fill a need in the Manhattan market,” said M&T Regional President Peter D’Arcy. “As one of New York City’s more experienced commercial real estate lenders, we’ve thoroughly reviewed the business case for this project and are very comfortable providing the financial support.” M&T declined to discuss the term and rate of the construction loan, which closed in March.
Monadnock and its partners, the Actors Fund Housing Development Corporation and New York-based architecture firm nARCHITECTS, won a competition to build the city’s first micro-units in early 2013. Installation of the 55 units, prefabricated by Capsys Corporation at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, began earlier this year. The micro-units, being installed on the site of an old surface parking lot near Bellevue Park South, are expected to be available for rent in 2015. The ground floor of the completed property will contain 678 square feet of retail space.
Additional financing for the $16.6 million project will come through equity provided by the project’s developers and a secondary loan from the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
“It’s exciting to pioneer this new housing type in association with the City and our partners, including M&T,” said Nicholas Lembo, Monadnock’s president. “It’s an ideal application for modular construction, and we’re proud to use this innovative approach to offer another affordable option to New Yorkers looking for housing that fits their lifestyles.”
The buzz around Modular construction in New York just keep growing. We were happy to discuss our 18 years of NY modular construction history with the Epoch Times recently and we thought you might like to read the resulting article.
Modular Construction Takes Off in New York Atlantic Yards prefabs aiming for a luxury look, My Micro NY set to begin this year in Kips Bay
By Catherine Yang, Epoch Times | February 1, 2014 Last Updated: January 31, 2014 10:19 am
NEW YORK—Modular building and prefabrication have been gaining attention in recent years, largely because of high-profile projects and micro-unit housing rolling out in major cities like New York and San Francisco.
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg supported the modular concept with his adAPT NYC micro-housing competition last year, allowing for smaller than ever units to be built in the city. Construction of nARCHITECTS’ winning design for My Micro NY, at 335 East 27th St., in Kips Bay, will begin this year. Also, after 10 years in the works, the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn has finally started stacking modules.
Brooks McDaniel with SHoP Architects is project architect for the first modular residential tower at Atlantic Yards. “Since modular is so new to New York, we had to kind of reinvent the wheel,” said Brooks. “Once we got over the engineering hurdles it was like designing any other [project].”
Modular is hardly new, but the Atlantic Yards project is trying to create a luxury look using prefabricated modules.
The challenge was to not have “modular look like modular,” with this particular project, McDaniel said.
My Micro NY, with units a mere 325-square feet–previously a prohibited size for the city, will build units that are completely self-supporting. Capsys, the company prefabricating the modules, has been in the Brooklyn Navy Yard for 18 years.
There are obvious economic and sustainability benefits when it comes to building modular, but the reason modular hasn’t been more popular is a catch-22, said Tom O’Hara, a director at Capsys, who has been working with modular building for 30 years.
Conventional construction is a “design-bid-build” product whereas modular is a “design-build” product, so the developer really needs to be planning for modular from the very beginning. The catch is that there aren’t many modular designer-builders to begin with.
“If you put out a plan to build modularly, there aren’t a lot of people who can respond,” O’Hara said. “And so developers worry about whether they’re getting a competitive price.”
Still, much of Capsys’s work includes educating architects and developers on the capabilities of modular construction, which O’Hara said they are very receptive to.
Height poses another perceived challenge. Atlantic Yards’ B2, its first residential tower of a planned 15, is set to be the world’s tallest modular structure at 32 stories, but is not free standing. The misconception is that above a certain height, the developer no longer saves money by using prefabrication.
“It’s not a cost issue, it’s an engineering issue,” O’Hara said.
Modular factories are built to produce a very specific product. Capsys, for instance, designed its factory to be cost competitive in delivering buildings up to 13 feet.
“And we could very easily have done a different system for a different type of modular,” O’Hara said. “We’ve built everything from two story townhouses to ten story buildings. But there are still some parameters there that we’ve designed into our system.”
For some projects, there are very compelling reasons to go modular—for some, there just aren’t.
Construction quality and LEED certification are the basics, O’Hara said, but one example of an added bonus is timeline.
Prefabrication saves time and, more importantly, is able to deliver exactly on a specific opening date, which could be crucial to buildings like student dormitories or event housing.
With My Micro NY, for instance, fabrication will start about the same time the general contractor breaks ground. The first module will take about two weeks to go through the assembly line, O’Hara said, and after that one or two modules will come off the line every day.
“The project is around 60 modules so it really only takes a few weeks to build them all,” O’Hara said. “We’ll probably be able to build the modules faster than they can build the foundation.”
Two weeks ago we hosted a production team and film crew from FranceTV 2 for a tour of our manufacturing facility. They were visiting NYC to report upon the growing global interest in smaller apartments for dense urban areas. Our upcoming project “MyMicro NY” is a local response to this growing trend.
We thought we’d share the film with you – and we hope you are fluent in French!
This is a nice survey article about all of the modular activity taking place in our city. Thank you to Crain’s for publishing it. We have just one small question: If this is NYC’s modular moment, what have we been doing here for the last 17 years building 3,000,000 SF of modular buildings for NYC? Just asking… But hey, enjoy the article anyway.
New York’s modular moment arrives
Boomlet in projects using prebuilt units comes after many years of false starts.
At the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Dean Street at Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards, dozens of workers are laying the foundation for a 32-story apartment tower. They are excavating earth, bending rebar and pouring concrete, just as countless others are doing at construction sites around town.
Meanwhile, two miles away, in a factory the size of two football fields at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, dozens more are working on the same building, stacking drywall, uncrating toilets, and gathering pipes and spools of wire, all of which will be used to complete a total of 930 -trailer-size modules beginning next month. Those will then be trucked over to the Flatbush Avenue site, where they will be stacked to form 363 apartments ranging in size from 400-square-foot studios to 1,200-square-foot two-bedrooms.
“There’s no reason people couldn’t see this out their window very soon, whether they’re in Brooklyn, downtown or even the Upper East Side,” said Melissa Román Burch, executive vice president at Forest City Ratner and head of its Atlantic Yards project, where the first of more than a dozen modular towers is set to rise during the next decade or so.
Work is finally getting underway nearly three years after Forest City Ratner Chairman Bruce Ratner was transfixed by a YouTube video of a 15-story hotel being assembled in China in just 46 hours. Now all eyes are on Atlantic Yards.
“Mod” installation there is set to begin this fall. It will be followed by similar, though smaller, projects ranging from a superstorm-proof townhouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn, to the Bloomberg administration’s much-touted micro-apartment building in Manhattan’s Kips Bay. All told, there are now more than 17 modular projects on file with the Department of Buildings, with more likely to come. The apparent advantages are clear: significant cost savings through faster construction, with less material waste—which also boosts the green factor.
“I think a lot of people are waiting to see how things turn out for Bruce,” said David Kramer, a principal at Hudson Cos., a developer with numerous affordable and high-end projects in the city.
Yet even as a growing number of builders line up to try their hand at modular, many others remain skeptical—and with good reason. The technique has been a dream of architects and developers for nearly a century—both Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright were high on it—yet little progress has been made since the idea of houses rolling off the assembly line like so many Model Ts was first dreamed up. After all, what is going up now is little different from Montreal’s famous Habitat 67, built for that city’s world’s fair 46 years ago.
Curiously, it is also a method of building that has been far more successful outside the city. In South Carolina, New Mexico and West Virginia, one in six homes is manufactured—a group that includes mobile homes—according to the Census Bureau. In New York state, it is one in 50, with most of those outside the city.
Up until recently, what modular construction there has been in New York City has been on a small scale, mostly row houses for low-income families and seniors in the outer boroughs. The biggest such project to date is the Nehemiah Spring Creek Houses, in East New York, Brooklyn. There, blocks upon blocks of multicolored homes have been built and are now occupied. When the project is complete, 1,525 such homes, made of three modules each, will have been built by Capsys, a modular firm created three decades ago by Nicholas Lembo expressly for the project.
Like Mr. Ratner, Mr. Lembo embraced modular more out of necessity than design. “Cost was important, but it was also a matter of security,” he said. “Building conventionally, you’d come by at night and find people on-site stealing your materials.”
He estimates he has built more than 3 million square feet of modular buildings during the past two decades, including a convent for elderly nuns in the Bronx. All of it has rolled off the line of his facility in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The latest project will be the city’s so-called adAPT micro-units in Kips Bay, with 55 apartments as small as 250 square feet. Mr. Lembo won the project in a competition last year. Work is set to begin this fall.
The biggest factor driving modular’s newfound popularity is the city’s stratospheric construction costs. Modular offers a handful of ways to cut them by 20% to 30%.
Sheer speed accounts for much of those savings. By building in a factory, crews are protected from the elements, which allows them to work more efficiently, and without weather delays. It also keeps the materials protected and provides for easier quality control.
“You don’t have one subcontractor come in, lay the concrete, and then the plumber comes in the next day, says everything’s in the wrong place, and you have to do it again,” said Bill Flemming, president of Skanska USA, the national general contractor that has partnered with Forest City Ratner to create its modular factory.
Changes in labor contracts also promise to unlock big savings. Rather than employing individual tradesmen specializing in plumbing or electrical or drywall, workers in modular factories are trained to tackle multiple tasks. Forest City Ratner actually had an easier time working out the technical specifications of its towers than it did persuading the unions to agree to the special contract, though ultimately they did.
“Housing affordability is always a challenge, and the cost of construction is so incredibly high,” said Ingrid Gould Ellen, director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. “Any technology that can help reduce those costs is exciting and should be explored.”
What makes New York City’s gathering wave of modular housing so special is that all of the advantages—including cost savings—of the technique are being harnessed to produce taller and more sophisticated properties. The first residential tower in Atlantic Yards will top out at 32 stories, more than 50% higher than any modular tower ever built. At the same time, big-league architecture and engineering firms and their developer clients have been converted to the modular cause and are now stretching the technique in unprecedented ways both in terms of size and sheer aesthetics.
In Red Hook, for example, SHoP Architects, the designer of Mr. Ratner’s towers, has created a flood-resistant townhouse that can be fabricated and installed in less than three months. That is an unheard-of pace for any project in the city.
Yet for all the promises of modular, the drawbacks stubbornly persist. Trucking thousands of building modules weighing up to 25 tons and as wide as two Hummers is a challenge in a densely packed city like New York, one complicated by narrow side streets and aging bridges.
A case in point is 4857 Broadway, in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan. There, a partnership of Gluck+ architects and Jeffrey M. Brown Associates is building 28 apartments from 56 modules that are being fabricated in Pennsylvania.
The logistics are daunting, to say the least. Mr. Brown notes that if the complex were being built outside the city, as many as 12 modules could be installed in a day. Even with the benefit of an empty lot next door to store units before use, the team can still cart only four modules over the George Washington Bridge each day for installation.
Even financing a modular project can be more difficult. “What bank wants to take a flier on a project when, if it goes under, they’re left with a bunch of boxes stacked up in a warehouse somewhere, and they have no idea what to do with them?” Mr. Brown said. A more conventional site could be turned over to another builder, but a modular one, where the parts and plans are proprietary, is much harder.
“It’s not right for every site, that’s for sure,” said Capsys’ Mr. Lembo. “And you’ve got a lot of people out there who think it’s a silver bullet.”
Jerilyn Perine, director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, said the modular process must be fully vetted before it can be adopted citywide. “It’s like green buildings,” she said. “People can make claims about cost savings, but unless you study them, how can you be sure it’s real?”
Then again, green buildings were also once derided as a fad.
For Skanska’s Mr. Flemming, if the construction industry is to thrive in future decades, it must embrace modular. “Look at all the innovation of the past 40 years, in technology, health care, science and so on,” he said. “There’s been almost no innovation in the construction industry. We’re still building buildings much the same way we did decades ago.”
A version of this article appears in the July 22, 2013, print issue of Crain’s New York Business as “NY’s modular moment arrives”.
Our friends over at France Publications, Inc. publish a weekly newsletter as well as their outstanding monthly periodical “Student Housing Business”. We recommend both highly to all interested in the world of Student Accommodations and the business of both On-Campus and Privatized Student Housing.
The following article was just published in the July 24th edition of the newsletter and we thought it laid out well all of the many good reasons for using modular construction for Campus Housing projects.
Permanent modular construction can be faster to assemble and easier on the environment than some site-built facilities.
Jim Snyder Today, increasing student populations and subsequent demands for housing often collide with the reality of limited funds at colleges and universities. As a result, higher education administrators have exacting expectations for new facilities on campus. That means that while it is critical that new dormitories are completed on time and within budget, it is equally important that facilities perform well for many years into the future. It doesn’t hurt if the project can be built in a sustainable manner and the building can be operated with the highest level of efficiency. Permanent modular construction, or PMC, is a construction solution that meets these demands and more.PMC takes most of the construction process off the building site and puts it into a controlled factory environment. The modular building components are fabricated in the factory and then shipped to the construction site where they are assembled to deliver a high-quality, sustainable building on an accelerated construction schedule. A typical building module includes multiple rooms, and most of the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP), fixtures and interior finishes (including carpet, millwork, cabinetry, tile, trim and paint) are completed at the manufacturing site. PMC uses the same building materials as site-build construction, including light gauge steel framing, structural steel framing and wood framing as well as the same interior finish materials. The result is a final product that rivals site-built construction in durability, appearance and life span and is indistinguishable from a traditionally built structure. PMC produces buildings, including multi-story structures, with a level of quality, constructability and predictability that far exceeds typical conventional site-build capabilities.An important benefit of PMC is that it shortens the construction schedule, making it possible for students to occupy PMC dorms in less time and for colleges to earn a return on their investment sooner. PMC is faster than site-built construction because the modular portions of the facility are built in the factory concurrently with the site and foundation work, reducing the construction time by at least a third. Factory-based construction also provides for enhanced quality control over the construction process and more efficient management of labor and materials. PMC increases predictability as well, removing many risks – such as weather delays, material theft or damage, and accidents – from the construction schedule.There are many sustainable and green benefits to PMC because it relies on factory-based, lean manufacturing and construction methods. PMC allows the manufacturer to engineer a precise construction process so that nearly 100 percent of the construction waste is eliminated or recycled. Moving the majority of the construction into a manufacturing plant minimizes the amount of materials, workers and vehicles required at the job-site. As a result, PMC projects generate less air pollution at the construction site and require a far smaller lay-down area so there is less disruption to the natural environment. With less material storage and movement on-site, and very little construction waste, PMC job-sites are much cleaner than traditional job-sites. The reduced congestion also ensures the construction site and adjacent areas are safer for students and university staff.
There are long-term sustainable advantages to PMC as well. Testing has shown that PMC-built facilities out-perform traditionally constructed buildings on air barrier tests, which means that a PMC dormitory is more energy efficient. PMC creates tighter buildings because workers have access to all sides of each building module during construction, allowing them to surround the module with insulation and to seal around receptacles in walls, a common place for air leaks. In addition, all the pieces of the modules fit snuggly together by design, eliminating leaks between floor and wall joints. The result is a tight, energy efficient structure, resulting in lower utility costs over the lifetime of the structure.
PMC is an excellent choice for a college and university campus expansion. Because fewer materials and construction personnel are needed on site and the construction footprint is smaller, it is ideal for a tight building site adjacent to existing structures on a crowded university campus. The faster construction timeline also means that the unavoidable disruptions and inconveniences of major construction are over sooner, and the work can often be completed over the summer break when the campus population is smaller. Finally, PMC creates a very strong, durable structure that can withstand the hard use a college dormitory receives and provide decades of service to a college community.
According to no less an authority than the New York Times, Modular Construction is being used more and more in the NYC area for Multi-family construction. And who are we to argue with the NYT? We thought this was a good survey article about the state of our industry in the New York area. We at Capsys have been building Multi-family building for years. We hope you enjoy the article.
SHoP ArchitectsB2 by SHoP Architects is the first of three new residential towers planned for Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. At 32 stories, it will be the tallest modular building in the world.
It’s an exciting time for modular building, especially in New York, and as someone who has been deeply immersed in the world of prefabrication for over a decade, I am glad to see the much-maligned building technology finding its proper niche. It’s the killer app for the modular industry.
B2, a 32-story tower that is part of a 1,500-unit, mixed-use complex designed by SHoP Architects for Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards, will soon be the tallest modular building in the world. nARCHITECTS recently won adaptNYC’s competition to design a micro-unit apartment building, and will see its concept transformed into a 10-story building by 2015. It will be the first multiunit building in Manhattan to be built with modular construction. A variety of housing types, from single-family to midrise/mixed-use buildings, characterizes the over 300,000 square feet of modular housing that GRO Architects is designing in Jersey City and Baltimore. And THE STACK by GLUCK+, one of New York City’s first prefabricated steel and concrete residential buildings, will provide the city with 28 moderate-income apartments.
GLUCK+The Stack by GLUCK+ was one of New York City’s first prefabricated steel and concrete residential buildings and offers a new model for sustainable construction.
None of these architects are “prefab” architects, they’ve simply determined that for these projects, prefab makes the most sense. It’s the ideal application in terms of efficiency when building higher density and with that, the larger quantities of repetitive units.
GRO ArchitectsJackson Green in Jersey City, N.J., by GRO Architects features 22 attached single-family townhomes, which use modular construction to achieve sustainable and affordable housing.
As GRO’s Nicole Robertson says, “There is sheer economy of scale that emerges as we build a dense multifamily project, and it is the integration of digital technology on both the design and fabrication side that make the end product sustainable.”
Modular construction not only makes construction more precise, sustainable and economically efficient, it can help relieve New Yorkers (and of course, any other urban inhabitants) of the typical congestion and extended construction times associated with conventional building practices. “We believe a modular approach to high-rise housing will lead to a better quality of life for communities living near and around modular-based building sites,” says Gregg Pasquarelli, architect and principal of SHoP Architects. “Why shouldn’t we use assembly line techniques to build higher quality buildings? Modular construction offers the possibility of safer sites and better-manufactured buildings at standard construction costs. It’s a win-win proposition.”
nARCHITECTS’ Ammr Vandal concurs. Her firm’s micro-unit, she says, “makes a big impact with small moves. The smaller units are complemented by residential amenities provided in the building, promoting the concept of living beyond one’s four walls.”
nARCHITECTSMicrounits in New York City designed by nARCHITECTS.
In contrast to regular old housing construction, which happens pretty much the same way it has for decades, if not a century, prefab has long been promising better design and innovation and — the key to its intrigue — a more affordable path to good architecture.
Much of that effort has been directed toward the design of single-family homes, what The Wall Street Journal described in 2004 as a “push to turn houses that come on trucks into objets d’art.” But using prefab for single-family homes, given the reality of current trends in financing, construction and development, will never quite achieve the desired goals of efficiency, affordability and good design. One custom prefab home is expensive and complicated to produce; the second one, less so. But it’s not until one can get to say, 20 or more homes that we’re looking at a new way of building. So single-family prefab remains largely in the realm of the prototype. Almost without exception, the wheel is at least partially reinvented every time.
Just over a decade ago, when I published my book “Prefab,” the potential for factory fabrication to improve housing was tenable (and explains why so many architects have been obsessed with taking on the challenge). But after I evangelized for years after about prefab’s transformative potential — including, while I was editor in chief of Dwell magazine, the introduction of an international home-design competition to design a modern affordable prefab home, which in turn led to the development of a line of Dwell-licensed prefab homes — one thing became clear to me: Prefab is best utilized in the design and construction not of single-family homes but of multifamily housing.
Bryan BurkhartIn 2004, over 500 people traveled to Pittsboro, N.C., to preview the Dwell Home by Resolution: 4 Architecture.
Absent economies of scale, the dreamed-of cost savings are basically impossible to achieve. Imagine building a custom car on a Ford assembly line and you can get a sense of how that might work. The repetition involved in creating a multi-unit building simply aligns with prefab’s capabilities in a way that single-family homebuilding does not.
Though prefabrication has a long history of capturing the public imagination dating at least as far back as Sears, Roebuck & Co., which sold nearly 100,000 houses by mail between 1908 and 1940, it has run up against numerous obstacles, from financing to factory standards to social stigma. And, despite a MoMA retrospective in 2008, that hasn’t changed much in recent years. The economic downturn of the mid-2000s decimated every part of the housing industry, and prefab was no exception. “When the credit market collapsed so, too, did the prefab market,” Leo Marmol of Marmol Radziner Architects (whose firm had been part of the Dwell prefab competition) told me recently. His firm, which had acquired and then shut down its factory facility) is today busy focusing on custom design work, using prefab only rarely.
Resolution: 4 ArchitectureResolution: 4 Architecture is doing a healthy business in prefab homes like the Dune Road Beach House, which survived Hurricane Sandy with nary a scratch. They have been getting more and more queries for multi-family projects of late.
It’s not that architects shouldn’t use factory fabrication to design and build homes. Many do with great results. Yet architect-designed homes account for a scant 5 to 7 percent of the nation’s housing stock, architect-designed prefab ones even less. Multifamily opens the door for those numbers to increase. According to Joseph Tanney, the architect and principal of Resolution: 4, which focuses now on single-family prefab but is getting numerous inquiries about multifamily these days for everything from dorms to micro-units, “The residential modular industry is salivating at the prospect of building more multifamily projects. It’s a natural extension to think in terms of aggregation of the modules into higher density patterns, both architecturally and economically.
“I don’t think that they are just now discovering prefab for multifamily,” he continues. “It’s just taking time for it to evolve into a higher level of design.”
It’s a natural evolution for architects to seriously (once again) contemplate the use of prefab in multifamily applications. Thus far, other building sectors — commercial, institutional — have been, frankly, more innovative, more willing to embrace new tools like parametric software, which is used to create 3-D models that help orient buildings for optimal energy efficiency. Residential is playing catch-up on this and it’s about time.
More innovation in factory-produced housing, says GRO’s Robertson, “prevents the cookie-cutter sameness often associated with the process and allows for novel architectural form, nuance and variation” as well as efficiency. This is critical to moving from highly individuated single-family home design to multifamily buildings where individuality can find architectural expression.
Now that the market for housing has rebounded and indeed is booming in some cities, multifamily prefab makes sense for many reasons. The demand for rental housing is rapidly increasing as the interest in home ownership has waned post-housing bust. For the first time ever, California cities are seeing the need for more multifamily housing over single-family homes. And a recent study by Smart Growth America that examined three distinct housing development types revealed that mixed-use infill (when buildings are constructed to occupy the space between existing ones) produced 1,150 times more net tax revenue per acre than suburban development. The sort of community a growing percentage of the population is seeking takes the form of a denser, walkable urban neighborhood. Prefab can make that happen more quickly, efficiently and economically than conventional construction — and increasingly, it’s doing exactly that.
On Thursday, May 2nd, we erected a nine-unit apartment building on Jerome St. in Brooklyn. We showed you still photos a few weeks ago of the first of the two buildings going up on Linwood St. Together, these two buildings make up the Cypress Gardens project we fabricated for the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation from a design by Magnusson Architecture and Planning.
For this building, we had such a pretty day that we had our good friend and professional photographer, James Shanks set up his time lapse camera so we thought we’d share James good work with you.
The nine modules were each 20’ x 47’ containing 940 sq. feet of area encompassing an complete 2-bedroom apartment. The erection of the entire building was accomplished in one, 9 hour day.
This is the beauty of modular construction. Not only do you get the precision of factory fabrication where the building construction takes place under roof in controlled conditions, but you save your neighborhood from months of disruption, dust, and noise by reducing the construction schedule to just one day!