New York’s modular dream is, albeit in fit and starts, coming true.
The increasingly popular process of modular construction involves fabricating structural components — a k a modules — in a factory, then transporting them to the construction site to later stack and assemble.
Long-time advocates point out that this building method can take half the time than traditional ones, while its controlled manufacturing assures higher quality and less material waste. But its acceptance has long been stymied by hesitant developers, unions, government officials and others who are resistant to change, and, in some cases, afraid of losing work.
Now more than a dozen modular projects have been either built or launched in the city over the last few years. Some of New York’s pioneering architects are leading the charge, devising stylish, inventive designs that have begun to dispel the old stereotypes of modular architecture as cheap, repetitive or unreliable.
“Everyone who builds and deals with conventional construction is aware of just how inefficient it is. There’s a level of frustration that you wouldn’t believe,” says James Garrison, founder of Dumbo-based Garrison Architects. “We need housing, we need infrastructure, we need everything. And we don’t have enough money to pay for it. This is an obvious solution.”
Garrison’s modular projects in New York include the Lehman Child Care Center in the Bronx and more than 30 factory-built Coney Island beach comfort stations created in the wake of Hurricane Sandy that are still there.
One of the firm’s latest debuts is the Pod Brooklyn, which opened in Williamsburg last year. The 249-room hotel at 247 Metropolitan Ave. (from $119/night) consists of steel-framed modules made up of two small guest rooms separated by a corridor. Each 100-square-foot room, which already contained all of its furniture when secured into place, is clearly expressed on the grid-like façade clad with panels by Netherlands firm Trespa.
“We designed each room like an automobile interior. There needs to be space for everything,” adds Garrison, who worked with interior design consultant Vanessa Guilford. Trying TO make the sleeping quarters feel bigger, they prioritized oversize windows in specific places and installed built-in desks and seating nooks. Several courtyards and floating walkways between blocks of modules provide airy alternatives to the small rooms.
The modules, constructed in a factory in Poland, were completed in three and a half months and, after being shipped to New York, assembled in six weeks. The exterior walkways, roofs and courtyards took another 16 months. The post-Sandy shelters, meanwhile, started a few days after Christmas 2012 and were largely in place by Memorial Day 2013.
“We’re getting better and better at this,” says Garrison. “The evolution of the systems, the approach the understanding, has been evolving at light speed.” Other hotels are getting into the act: Chains like Marriott and Hilton are building modular outposts nationwide, and Concrete Architects’ newly opened 300-room CitizenM at 189 Bowery, made of 210 components stacked 20 stories high, just became the world’s tallest modular hotel. Construction took just six months to complete.
Hotel chains, which often ramp up several similar projects at once, can take advantage of economies of scale more readily than residential developers, who usually work project to project.
Dumbo’s nArchitects is also dipping a toe in the modular waters. Carmel Place, a Kips Bay rental completed with Monadnock Development in 2016, is made of 55 studios set into stair-stepped towers. The steel-chassis-framed apartments, known more for their 260- to 360-square-foot size (they were the first city-sanctioned micro-apartments) than their modular design, were fabricated by then-Brooklyn-based Capsys, trucked to the site at 335 W. 27th St., and stacked together in only three and a half weeks.
Configurations vary dramatically, but each unit has sliding 8-foot-tall windows and Juliet balconies. With the walls already in place, the team just added paint, space-saving furniture, appliances and a brick façade in four shades of gray.
“The projects that have been most exciting to us and have translated to more work have been those that have taken the most risk,” says nArchitects principal Eric Bunge. “This is definitely one of those projects.” The firm had to obtain several mayoral overrides to allow the project to happen, including a relaxation of minimum unit size.
Forty percent of the units are designated affordable and were filled via lottery; the market-rate units start at $2,805 per month.
Also in 2016, SHoP Architects completed one of the country’s most-documented prefab projects: 461 Dean St. in Prospect Heights, which, at 32 stories, is still the tallest modular building in the world.
Developed by Forest City as part of its massive Atlantic Yards project, its prefab modules were constructed by Full Stack Modular at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, currently the city’s only modular fabricator. (Most prefab factories are located outside major cities, where space and labor are cheaper.) The company, created in-house specifically for the project, later spun off from the developer.
In order to avoid factory-style uniformity, SHoP utilized a variety of materials, colors, patterns, unit types and fabrication techniques for each of the building’s three volumes, creating an intricate play of light, pattern, and texture outside, and an array of spaces inside. The Manhattan-based architecture firm, already exploring 3-D printing and other digital fabrication methods at its new lab in East Williamsburg, is now collaborating on modular construction technologies with a car company that it can’t reveal yet. “We have to move from a construction mentality to a manufacturing mentality,” says SHoP principal Chris Sharples.
461 Dean first made headlines for delays: From start to finish, the project ended up taking about four years — more than twice the normal time for a high-rise. But both Sharples and Full Stack CEO Roger Krulak blame the slowness not on the modular systems, but on disagreements between Forest City and the project’s original contractor, Skanska (replaced by Turner). The project, now owned by Principal Global Investors, has since proven its worth by renting virtually all of its 363 units. Of those, 181 are set aside as affordable, while market-rate pads currently start at $2,710.
Either way, such hiccups are not uncommon. Since modular is still a relatively niche technique, particularly in the US, there’s a steep learning curve. According to the Modular Building Institute, a Virginia-based trade organization, modular projects can theoretically be completed 30 to 50 percent faster than traditional ones. But that’s not been the case for many of the city’s trailblazing examples.
For nArchitects at Carmel Place, the process took more than twice as long as hoped — almost 18 months, which is comparable to a traditional construction timeline. Bunge attributes the delay to issues with city approvals, glitches at the factory and other unforeseen problems.
“There’s a real cultural shift that has to happen within the construction industry for this to work as well as it can,” he adds.
Similar challenges have arisen for Downtown Brooklyn firm Think! as it works on three modular condo buildings for developer Daniel Wise: 193 Henry St., 201 East Broadway and 330 Grand St. on the Lower East Side. As modules get trucked in from a plant in Pennsylvania, Think! has run into issues with fabricators’ production capacity and timing, and with the efficiency of on-site contractors unused to the modular process.
“If we can get it so the modules arrive the day after the foundation is done, then there will be an advantage,” says Marty Kapell, a founding principal at Think! “The logistics still have to be worked out. [The developer] Daniel is learning, we’re learning.”
Regardless, the firm’s hybrid of steel modules and custom façades is resulting in what looks to be stunning architecture that intentionally doesn’t look modular. 193 Henry, also known as Idylls, will first have its six stories of steel boxes stacked and welded together. Contractors will then apply a brick façade with an unusual rhythm of metal framed windows and Juliet balconies. Five full-floor, two-bedroom condos range from $2.1 million to $2.55 million.
New York is one of the biggest growth areas for an already-growing modular industry, says the Modular Building Institute. Major cities like the Big Apple are especially fertile territory because demand for new buildings has spiked, construction costs are skyrocketing, labor supply is plummeting, modular technology is improving, and developers, workers and investors are beginning to tire of traditional timelines and open their minds to new techniques.
Some who track the industry insist that the modular approach will not just get up to speed but will become the norm within the not-so-distant future. Consulting firm McKinsey estimated in its 2017 report, Reinventing Construction, that “the utilization of prefabrication in the industrial sector can generate an increase of 20 to 30 percent in value.”
“Construction is one of the least productive industries, and we see significant advantages with modular’s cost savings, speed and certainty,” says McKinsey senior partner Steffen Fuchs.
Recognizing its urgent housing needs, the city of New York is also making modular construction a priority. The administration called for its use in its recently released Housing New York 2.0 Plan, which aims for 300,000 new or preserved units of housing by 2026. The report says modular can “significantly reduce development time and cost, increasing the efficiency of the city’s affordable housing investments and bringing new affordable homes to the market faster.”
After Hurricane Sandy, the city constructed almost 100 single-family modular homes as part of its Build It Back program. (Garrison’s beach shelters were for the same project.) And in May it issued an RFP for its first mandated modular project: a 100-percent-affordable residential building on Grant Avenue in East New York. Proposals were due by Sept. 10.
“You’re seeing the government lean in, and we think this is important,” says Krulak. “It makes people stand up and pay attention.”
This push makes it easier for businesses to justify their risk. It’s a swing that is already starting to — at long last — help a notoriously outdated industry get up to speed.
Modular construction experts in California: USModular, Inc.