Ask any New Yorker about their biggest grievances, and living in a shoebox will likely be near the top of the list. Young Manhattanites tend to talk about their space-starved living situations much like one’s grandparents talk about the war – all despair and deprivation.
But here’s a thought: what if smaller apartments actually make for better living?
At a panel hosted by the American Institute of Architects’ New York chapter Monday night, three young architects tried to make the case that micro-apartments are not just a possible solution to New York’s affordability crisis, but also fun to live in.
“For people coming fresh to the city, the first thing has always been to find a roommate and move to Bushwick,” said Michael Kim, an architect at ARExA. “But here you’re looking at market-rate units that are located in the city and offer very comfortable living and basic common spaces.”
The trick, according to the panelists, is to design micro-apartments in a way that makes them “as humane as possible.” Eric Bunge’s firm nARCHITECTS designed Monadnock Development’s 55-unit micro-apartment building My Micro NY, which is under construction at 335 East 27th Street in Kips Bay. The units average 286 square feet, but come with 10-foot ceilings and large windows in an attempt to make them feel less stuffy. “These units can actually feel very spacious,” Bunge said.
Perhaps more important to the livability of micro units is common space, according to the panelists. Michael Kim took Brooklyn’s brownstone stoops as an inspiration for the corridors in a micro-unit building he is designing. They will offer space to sit and hang out with neighbors. And while some may consider common kitchens a nuisance, Kim believes they are actually a fun place to meet people.
The panelists insisted this kind of shared living holds appeal in the age of Zipcar and Citibike. “The micro-unit definitely lends itself to a specific population where sharing is actually a social and communal benefit,” said Miriam Peterson, a partner at Peterson Rich Office.
Still, they acknowledged that more communal space could also create its own problems. One is safety. “Something we’ve encountered time and again with our NYCHA work is how potentially dangerous shared space is,” said Peterson. “Who has ownership over them and what are the views within a population to actually share things?”
A member of the audience took the point further, asking if shared living might imperil diversity within buildings, as people tend to prefer sharing spaces with people that are like them. No one seemed to have an answer, although ARExA’s Kim suggested that “maybe ultimately there needs to be someone who oversees the schedule” for common spaces.
In the end, the panel left listeners with a sense that micro living may be the future, but that a cultural shift is needed for it to really take off. Comparing New York to denser cities like Tokyo, Eric Bunge said, “we have a different kind of DNA in terms of how much space we need. But this is something that eventually has to change.”
Just in time for Earth Day, New York’s first micro-unit apartment building, dubbed My Micro NY, is entering its final construction phase. When finished later this year, urbanites will have a chance to live within the center of the city in a brand new building flush with amenities, all for under $3,000. Developed byMonadnock Development and the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the soon-to-be-nine-story structure wrapped up foundation work this past winter, and a one-story steel platform is ready to receive 55 modular units.
The units are currently being built off-site at the Brooklyn Navy Yard by a team of 50 workers. In late May, the units will be shipped to the Gramercy Park lot at 335 East 27th Street where they will be stacked and bolted together along with stairs, an elevator, and other shared spaces.
Responding to smaller household sizes and the city’s enormous demand for housing units, the My Micro NY pilot program was spearheaded by former mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2012 as a pilot towards adjusting the city’s building codes to allow smaller units. The city’s minimum legal apartment size is 400 square feet, while studios at My Micro NY will range from 260 to 360 square feet. It’s also seen as a way to reduce one’s carbon footprint.
Micro-apartment supporters say that the success of small living quarters relies on intelligent design and proximity to social venues. My Micro NY’s designers, Brooklyn-based nARCHITECTS, simulate spaciousness with 9-foot-8-inch floor-to-ceiling heights and Juliet balconies with laminated glass guardrails to optimize natural lighting. There will be ample storage lofts and full-depth closets. Kitchens will include a fold-down table/counter, full-height pull-out pantry, full-size fridge, a range, and room for a convection microwave. Building amenities will include a gym, small lounge, community room, shared roof terrace, bicycle and tenant storage, and an outdoor garden.
Not only innovative for its cozy layouts, the $17 million, 35,000-square-foot project will only be the city’s second prefabricated apartment building, after the Stack in Inwood; and it will be the city’s largest until Pacific Park’s (Atlantic Yards) 461 Dean Street debuts next year. The project developer, Tobias Oriwol, toldAMNewYork that units will be priced at approximately $3,000 a month and twenty-two of the 55 homes will be designated affordable for low- and middle-income households.
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!
USA Today recently posted this article about how popular small, single occupant apartment rentals (Micro Apartments) have become in urban centers across the US. We will be building our “My Micro NY” Micro Apartment building in Manhattan in 2014 and thought you might enjoy hearing how those outside New York have embraced the case for small footprint living.
Mini-apartments are the next big thing in U.S. cities
Could you live in a single-car garage? That’s about the size of tiny apartments popping up in major U.S. cities where many residents live alone. Inhabitants say the key is keeping only stuff you use.
NEW YORK — When Gil Blattner hired a housekeeper for his elegant apartment with 12-foot ceilings, tall windows and marble fireplace mantle, the woman looked at the living room and asked, “Where’s the rest of it?”
There was no more. She’d seen all 250 square feet of his cocoon, located on a tony, tree-lined street in Chelsea near restaurants, art galleries and bookstores. His monthly rent: $2,500.
“It’s all that I need,” says Blattner, 29, who moved in last year. “I feel very happy when I’m in this space,” he says.”The name of the game is being selective about what you hold onto. It’s helped me stay away from being a hoarder.”
Though tiny has long been typical in Manhattan, mini-apartments are popping up in more U.S. cities where land is finite, downtowns have regained cachet and rents have risen. In a digital age when library-sized book collections can be kept on a hand-held device, more Americans see downsizing as not only feasible but also economical and eco-friendly.
How small? Many anti-McMansions — also known as “aPodments,” “micro-lofts,” “metro suites” or “sleeping rooms” — are about 300 square feet, which is slightly larger than a single-car garage and one-eighth the size of the average new U.S. single-family home (also shrinking in recent years).
City officials often welcome this mini-sizing, which is common in Tokyo and many European capitals, as a smart-growth, lower-priced solution to a housing phenom: people living alone. Nationwide, the share of households occupied by a single person reached 27% in 2010, up from 8% in 1940 and 18% in 1970. The number exceeds 40% in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Denver, Pittsburgh, Seattle, St. Louis and Washington, according to Census data.
In Seattle, which has led the nation with hundreds of dorm-like “sleeping rooms” as minuscule as 150 square feet, a backlash has taken hold. Boardinghouse-style buildings have replaced single-family homes in residential neighborhoods, prompting complaints by neighbors about parking problems, transiency and fire-safety hazards. Officials have responded by drafting building rules they’ll publish this summer.
“It’s an accelerating trend in the industry, especially where space is at a premium,” says Ryan Severino, senior economist at New York-based research firm Reis. “You’re seeing an urban renaissance,” he says, adding Millennials (typically younger than 30) are drawn to cities where they can both work and socialize.
They’ll sacrifice space for ‘”quality” location, says Doug Bibby, chief executive of the National Multi-Housing Council, a trade group, noting apartments overall are getting smaller. He says young city dwellers manage with less room by renting rather than buying stuff. “They rent everything,” he says — Zipcars, even wedding dresses.
Mini-sizing “is not a fad,” says John Infranca, assistant law professor at Suffolk University in Boston who’s studied projects in New York, Washington, Denver, Austin and Seattle. He expects demand for tiny apartments will continue as more people, young and old, live alone. Yet he says building codes — often requiring larger units — were set decades ago when households were bigger and haven’t kept pace with “radical” demographic shifts.
Boston, Chicago and other U.S. cities are experimenting with change:
•In the Big Apple, billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg — who once lived in a studio for nearly a decade — launched a micro-housing pilot project of 55 units that range from 250 to 370 square feet. The city usually requires apartments be at least 400 square feet.
•San Francisco, where new studio apartments rent for at least $2,400 monthly, recently approved a trial run of 375 micro-units as small as 220 square feet. In September, Berkeley-based developer Patrick Kennedy plans to begin building 120 units, each about 270 square feet, with rents starting at $1,800.
•In Austin, where rents are soaring as the population booms, the city’s first affordable downtown housing project in more than 45 years breaks ground this week. It will be a complex of 135 studios, each 400 square feet. “We have Texas-sized micro-housing,” says Walter Moreau of Foundation Committees, a non-profit group shepherding the project.
Developers say they can’t build micro-housing fast enough.
“We don’t do any advertising, and we’re 100% occupied all the time,” says Jim Potter, manager of Seattle-based Footprint Investments. He’s finished six buildings, each with 40 to 60 units, in Seattle and is developing similar projects this year in Portland, Ore., Oakland and Jersey City.
“It’s really about price point,” he says, noting his Seattle units with a bed and bathroom but no private kitchen rent for $600 to $900 monthly (including utilities and Wi-Fi) while regular, larger studios start at $1,200.
“There’s a substantial waiting list,” says Evan Granoff, who has redeveloped the historic 1828 Arcade building in Providence to include 48 micro-lofts as small as 225 square feet. He says the units, which will open this summer, are modeled after efficient boat interiors and include built-ins such as a futon that converts into a table for four. “It doesn’t feel cramped at all,” he says.
HOW DO MINI-DWELLERS DO IT?
In Manhattan, where many itsy-bitsy apartments were either built before the current size requirements or illegally subdivided, residents speak with a bit of bravado about their space-saving savvy.
“We don’t necessarily look at them as mini-apartments, but as standard, live-in-New York apartments,” says real estate agent Jason Saft.
“I lived in about 250 square feet for five years. You really learn how to make it work,” he says, recalling how he once held a dinner party for 10 and even cooked all the food in his tiny kitchen.
Changing the ceiling height or flooring materials in different areas can make a studio feel larger, says Donald Albrecht,curator of the Museum of the City of New York. The museum’s “Making Room” exhibit features a full-size, 325-square-foot studio with tricked-out furniture such as an ottoman containing four nesting chairs, a fold-out dining table tucked under the kitchen counter and a TV that slides away to reveal a bar beneath.
“What’s important about New York is what’s outside your door,” says architect Eric Bunge, who shared a 350-square-foot unit with his wife for five years. He says they spent a lot of time in their East Village neighborhood and, when friends came over, moved seats around to accommodate them.
Bunge, co-partner at the Brooklyn-based nArchitects firm, won Mayor Bloomberg’s adAPT NYC design competition for the city’s micro-housing experiment, which is directed at low- and middle-income residents. His units have built-in storage, 10-foot ceilings and 8-foot windows that open onto a Juliet balcony.
“The whole building is your home,” says Mimi Hoang, Bunge’s co-partner, citing communal areas such as dens, rooftop terrace, fitness room and bike storage. She says the project, which will be built as prefabricated modules, aims to break ground before Bloomberg leaves office in January 2014.
Severino, who has a 3,300-square foot house in New Jersey, says he and his wife had a “good experience” living in a 450-square-foot Manhattan apartment for three years when they were younger. Yet he adds, “It was nice to move back to the suburbs. I have to admit, I like my space.”
‘NOT FOR EVERYONE’
So do a lot of people.
Though environmentalists say density can reduce pollution per person, some Seattle residents oppose micro-housing as “density on steroids.” They say the lilliputian units cause crowding in already congested neighborhoods and the month-to-month leases don’t encourage people to put down roots.
Also, opponents say developers circumvent a design review process that entails community input. No such review is needed for projects with a limited number of units, and Seattle allows each unit to house up to eight unrelated people if it has a communal kitchen and living quarters for each.
“It’s a severe bending of the rules,” says retired resident Bill Bradburd, adding one residential lot can house 64 residents without any parking spaces./REALLY? Seattle doesn’t require ANY parking for such a development? dk/wk: in certain areas, no He says he favors affordable units of about 400 square feet but says these units often charge more, per square foot, than regular apartments.
Seattle planning official Bryan Stevens says the city, which has permitted 28 such projects since 2008 and has 17 more under review, has responded by drafting rules that would require a public design review for each building.
Potter, the Seattle developer, says his micro-product provides an affordable option without government subsidy.
“It’s not for everyone,” he says. “This is intended for people who are busy and want a place to sleep and take a shower.” He says the units attract a mix of people, but the average age is mid-30s.
Joe Rose, 27, a college student, loves his 190-square-foot space that — in his words — is “smaller than a hotel room” and rents for $880 a month. He shares a balcony with a neighbor, cooks in the communal kitchen and, for the first time in his adult life, gave up his car for public transit.
“My father is a buy-everything-gadget guy. I’m the opposite,” he says. “I’m very minimalist.”
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”.