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World's Tallest Prefab Building Leads Modular Boom

By Amy Zimmer | December 11, 2013 6:53am
 Prefab construction is all the rage as several high-profile high-design projects get underway.
Prefab construction in NYC
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BROOKLYN — Trucks are expected to arrive at the Atlantic Yards Thursday carrying the first modules of what will become the tallest prefabricated building in the world.

Coming from a factory at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the roughly 930 steel-framed boxes are the basic building blocks for Forest City Ratner’s B2, an eco-friendly, 32-story tower with 363 rental units, half of which will be reserved for low, moderate and middle-income families.

B2, which is expected to open in December 2014, is just one of many high-profile prefab projects rolling into the city.

Many local developers are seizing on modular housing as a way to get projects completed more quickly and efficiently. A shorter construction window means tenants can move in faster, which helps cut financing costs and reduces the impact on neighbors because there’s less noise, dust and debris.

“We're getting phone calls like crazy from developers who see [prefab] as a panacea for the plumber who doesn't show up or the electrician who screws up everything,” said Peter Gluck of Gluck+, the firm that designed the Stack, a sleek seven-story, 28-unit residence in Inwood. It's the city’s first prefab steel and concrete multi-story building and is expected to open its doors to renters in January.

A four-story modular housing prototype — designed for the city’s Office of Emergency Management to provide homes after disasters like Sandy — will rise in Downtown Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza for public tours starting in January.

And a developer is expected to close next month on the land on East 27th  Street for the city’s much talked about micro-unit contest. There, a nine-story modular building with 55 units, from 250 to 370 square feet, is expected to rise for low and middle-income New Yorkers — without any direct city subsidies — in a year’s time. That's a significantly shorter window than conventional construction.

“You increase the speed of construction and decrease the amount of anguish,” Gluck said. “The allure of prefabrication is you eliminate that mess of 20 different trades interfacing at different times. So, the thought of having 80 percent of the building arrive in finished condition is attractive.”

The Stack’s modular units were built in three months at a Pennsylvania factory — in a controlled environment protected from any inclement weather — while the foundation was being laid at 4857 Broadway. It took just a few weeks to deliver and stack the modules and then three months to seal the building and connect the plumbing and electricity, Gluck said.

Prefab projects tend to be five to eight months quicker than similar, non-prefabricated constructions, he said.

Though the Stack's rents haven’t been finalized, studios are expected to start at around $1,800 a month, one-bedrooms at $2,400, two-bedrooms at $3,200 and three-bedrooms at $3,900, said Cliff Finn of Douglas Elliman Development Marketing.

Though modular housing has potential drawbacks for developers due to being less flexible with layouts, the units are much quieter for residents since each one has its own floor and ceiling rather than just an 8-inch slab between apartments, he noted.

“Anyone that's lived in a new construction rental will tell you they can hear through the walls,” Finn said.

While developers can save on financing because of accelerated schedules, modular construction isn’t necessarily cheaper to build. As with any construction, it depends on the materials used.

“Modular building is associated with cheap, substandard mobile homes,” said James Garrison, who teaches at Pratt Institute's architecture program.

“The reality of it is, it's no more or less cheap or insubstantial than any other form of construction. The way we see it, it's not a product; it's an approach.”

Garrison's firm won the city's post-disaster prototype competition. It is also working on a prefab hotel for an undisclosed Williamsburg location that will have “multiple courtyards.”

There are some challenges that prefab construction poses — the size of modules is dictated by what the city's aging bridges and narrow streets will allow trucks to carry to the site — usually loads up to 14-feet wide.

There's also the complicating factor of the construction being done out of state. The city is still figuring out how to inspect buildings when they are being manufactured out of New York. Third-party inspectors are being used for now, architects said.

There are also issues with zoning rules that butt up against prefab specifications.

Ammr Vandal, of nArchitects, which created the winning design for the My Micro NY competition in 2013, said, for instance, that zoning allows for an 80-foot-tall building, but because each module has a thicker space between units, the building needs to be 85 feet tall.

Also, the city requires setbacks, or tiers, at 10 feet and 15 feet, which don't fit neatly with the building's prefabricated construction, she explained.

As the buzz around modular construction grows, Capsys, the Brooklyn Navy Yard factory where the micro-unit project is being built, has seen an influx in business, especially from younger architects.

“Modular just makes sense to folks growing up with the looming energy crisis and global warming,” said Tom O’Hara of Capsys.

“Our construction system builds tighter building envelopes, better quality control, safer working conditions. It just makes sense.”