Monday, September 10, 2012

Legoland comes to Brooklyn

Decision looms on plans for world's tallest prebuilt towers in downtown Brooklyn.

SOARING EXPECTATIONS: Forest City Ratner exec MaryAnne Gilmartin is hoping to strike a breakthrough deal with unions.

By Theresa Agovino

Architect Christopher Sharples knows what most people think of when they hear the term "modular construction."

"A bunch of shoeboxes sitting on top of one another," said the SHoP Architects principal.

Soon he hopes to shatter that negative stereotype in record-setting fashion. Mr. Sharples is part of a core group of 18 people brought together by Forest City Ratner to design a 32-story residential tower made up of 930 prebuilt modules containing portions of finished apartments—everything from bathrooms to kitchens—bolted to a steel frame.

It will not only be the world's tallest modular structure but likely the least uniform one as well, boasting four different fa├žades. It will also take a prominent position next to the Barclays Center, in the developer's Atlantic Yards project in downtown Brooklyn. There it may ultimately be joined by 15 other modular apartment buildings, at least one soaring as high as 50 stories.

"We can show we can build modularly and be creative," said Mr. Sharples. "This type of project is why we are in business."

What remains to be seen, however, is whether it actually gets built. Forest City will construct a prototype module this month and then decide by Christmas on whether to build modular towers or conventional ones. The choice hinges largely on whether Forest City can ink a deal with unions that would require them to take significant pay cuts to help the developer achieve its goal of lowering construction costs by up to 25%. Saving that money is especially important because 50% of the 4,500 rental apartments planned for Atlantic Yards are designated to be affordable or low-income housing. Forest City hopes that its system eventually will become a model for other large-scale developers.

"This could revolutionize how we do construction in the city," said MaryAnne Gilmartin, the Forest City executive vice president who is spearheading the project.

For starters, 60% of the construction would be done indoors in a factory where carpenters, plumbers, painters and electricians would build the modules. Meanwhile at Atlantic Yards, crews would erect the tower's steel frame. The dual tracking of construction alone could shave as much as six months off the process, saving millions of dollars.


Setting up a factory will be essential for Forest City, not just for this project, but also for any hopes it might have of churning out modules for other developers in the future. Nearly two years ago, Forest City launched its modular journey by tapping SHoP, engineering firm Arup and consultant XSite Modular to devise a plan. The group said that the big difference between a modular design and a standard one is not in the tools and technology needed, but in the process itself—one that requires early and near-constant collaboration of all those involved.

"Building modularly is like creating a Swiss watch," said David Farnsworth, a principal at Arup. "There are all the pieces that just need to fit together absolutely perfectly."

Typically, when architects design a building, they consult with engineers and hand over the plans to contractors, who figure out how to construct it.

By contrast, every detail in modular construction needs to be documented early and precisely to ensure that the pods fit together seamlessly when they reach the site. Each component must line up perfectly so that plumbing, heating and electrical lines can be smoothly connected when the pods are hoisted into position.

Forest City gave the team 16 weeks to see whether anything on such a scale was feasible. Only a 25-story university dorm in Wolverhampton, England, had come close to the height planned by Forest City. Adding to the challenge, the developer insisted that its tower transcend the dull uniformity for which modular buildings are known. Instead, its plan calls for a tower with setbacks outside and 24 different apartment layouts inside. That variety, however, led to a need for 225 different modules, which in turn require a more complicated frame.

"We wanted architecture with a capital A," said Ms. Gilmartin.

To deliver it, the entire team met every Wednesday at Forest City Ratner's downtown Brooklyn headquarters from 9 a.m. to noon. Team members also attended another four or five subgroup meetings throughout the week.


Among the first issues tackled were those posed by the building's height. Shorter buildings can be made by simply stacking modules. Towers like those at Atlantic Yards need to be able to withstand high winds and earthquakes. In Forest City's design, that stability comes from the steel frame that anchors the pods.

If Forest City opts for modular construction, it plans to locate its factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and it will likely resemble one that Capsys, a 16-year-old modular company, operates there. A visit to Capsys' cavernous facility, with its 50-foot-high ceilings, shows just how easily work traditionally done on site can be done in a factory.

On a warm, sunny day in July, some 50 workers wearing matching orange T-shirts and hard hats were working on modules of a 60-unit, six-story residential building that will rise nearby in Brooklyn. Thanks to the roof and a series of large fans, none of the workers were sweating or squinting. At one station, a worker welded steel beams to form a module's frame. At another, two men connected the drywall to a frame, while nearby an electrician installed wall outlets. Just outside the factory were eight finished units with studio apartments that looked like those in any other brand-new building.



  2. Ironically, this concept is exactly how true Arcitects & their Engineering teams collaborated many decades ago; back when they knew how to communicate & the Architect of Record was responsible for all dimensions and coordinating his engineering team (MEP, HVAC, Elevators, Steel, Concrete etc.) through every division & specification section of work commissioned.

    The least of all concerns is that of coordinating trades as they will seamlessly do that with little effort or training.

    The real challenge lies in the licensed professionals putting aside their huge ego's & actually talking with one another, running daily coordination meetings through all stages of design to ensure they do not do what they typically do - churn out a set of half assed plan's & specifications rife with error & awaiting the GC to play design build via rfi, addendum & the submittal process without being adequately compensated via the change order process for having the A/E of Record's work thrust upon them by default.

    Here's a novel idea, leave the Trades & their wage & benefit packages alone.

    Competent & complete design from day one, communication & coordination & the indoor work environment will speed the process & thus eleiminate the need for any wage consessions.

    The relaity of the matter is that the concessions, if any need come from the A/E & their design team; and it should be complemented by completely eliminating the so called Construction Managers from the process altogether.

    The CM's role if any should be limited to Code Inspections & Quality control. Safety is the responsibility of the GC & Subcontractors & thiers alone to manage & control.

    Current methodoligies for all CM's is to pretned to be in control of everything while having responsibility for nothing. Slapping their cover letters over a GC or Sub's work product does not qualify them for the huge fees they now command and bill to Project Owners & Developers.

    This is where the true savings can & will be found.

    The NYCDCC Officers better get a handle on this thought process so they do not sell the rank & file down the East River, particularly given their relative lack of business acumen & experience and their unbridled willingness to bend over out of their own ignorance vs. knowing what the hell they are talking about.

    Rather than do their homework or be put to shame & embarassed by monied developers, GC's or admitting they are in over their head, the fall back position to save face has always been...."where do we sign", as in 135+ PLA's.

    That is not leadership, rather, it is sheer & utter incompetence and the rank & file of the District Council cannot tolerate it any longer.

  3. very well said. why is it that the developers always want US to give back? lessen your profit margins and we will talk.


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