There's More Than History at Stake for NYC's First Pre-Fab High-Rise

B2 Bklyn breaks ground this morning at Atlantic Yards. A lot is riding on whether it works.

The Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn has gone through the usual tortured process of redevelopment in New York City, and the most recent excitement has been the opening of the $1 billion Barclays Center, home of the now Brooklyn (formerly New Jersey) Nets. But there’s another component of the massive project that is most worthy of attention for what it says about state-of-the-art housing construction: the world’s tallest modular building.

The groundbreaking for B2 Bklyn, a 32-story residential tower, is set for this morning, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz on hand alongside the development team, led by Forest City Enterprises and Skanska. What makes it interesting is that the building is almost entirely pre-fabricated. The apartments will be manufactured about a mile away, driven to the site on flatbed trucks, and stacked on top of each other, not unlike how my son builds Legos.

Some 930 of the essential building blocks for the tower, called modular chassis, are pre-fabricated rectangles about 14 feet wide, 35 feet long and 10 feet tall. They include floors, walls, plumbing and electricity, kitchens and bathrooms, and will be the basis for 363 apartments. Forest City plans to have a model modular chassis on display at the groundbreaking.

Modular, pre-fabricated, or manufactured construction has been around a long time in the housing construction business. But the process has been used primarily for single-family homes. Now developers are applying these methods toward vertical density, in entire multifamily buildings, motivated in no small part by the promise of huge cost savings.

Forest City faced the challenge of pricing in a city well known for its exorbitant housing costs, and also put together community agreements to make a large portion of the nearly $5 billion project affordable. Fully half of this first round of homes will be available for below-market rates.

There is one other major modular building, a 25-story dormitory in the U.K. But one might ask why the idea hasn’t been implemented more widely. Part of the answer lies in the immense engineering challenges; the apartments must of course be safe and solid, and withstand wind and structural stress. The Atlantic Yards project passed a real-life test with Hurricane Sandy, which flooded the manufacturing site and battered it with high winds.

In addition to bringing in Skanska as operating partner and construction manager, Forest City replaced Frank Gehry with SHoP Architects and ARUP to “crack the code” of assembling the modular high-rise, as CEO Bruce Ratner has put it.

Another challenge is political. Forest City promised to use union labor, and the construction trades were big supporters of Atlantic Yards in the face of some withering community opposition over scale, gentrification, and a number of other issues. (Blogger Norman Oder has for many years chronicled the tensions with his thorough Atlantic Yards Report).

But the thing about modular construction is, there’s a little bit less work to go around. It’s simply cheaper to prefabricate the apartments than to build them one by one many stories off the ground. An agreement has been hammered out, however, for union wages to be paid for those doing the factory work on the modules. (An added bonus: they get to work indoors). Gary La Barbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, is set to be alongside Bloomberg and Ratner at the groundbreaking.

The need for density, efficiency, and scale in housing has never been greater. New York has been driving no little innovation on this front, with the mayor’s micro-housing initiative, for example. The Danish architect Bjarke Ingels has been repackaging density in some equally interesting ways. If modular high-rise works out – if the cost savings are real, the engineering is proven and the construction labor issues are reconciled – it will be a potentially historic moment in adding to this mix.

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