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”.
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!
We thought we’d share with you the following article from “Constructor” magazine, the magazine of The Associated General Contractors of America, the Construction Industry’s premier association for the nation’s largest and finest General Contractors. It seems like everyone is coming around to the notion that we have held for years; that factory precision production of building modules in combination with the services of a quality professional site contractor is the speediest, safest and best way to build buildings. Call us to discuss your next project.