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Developers, start drooling: Union deal paves way for modular construction

Modular construction is to building what the Model-T Ford was to cars, according to supporters: faster, cheaper and more efficient.

Modular building rendering courtesy of SHoP Architects

Last week, developer Forest City Ratner, the Brooklyn-based modular construction company Skanska USA and New York’s construction union announced they have reached an agreement to use pre-fabricated construction techniques to build a 32-story residential tower at Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn.

Scheduled to open in 2014, the building could be the first of many for New York.

“I think that the construction industry needs to be revolutionized, and there are particular circumstances surrounding this time and that project that has the potential to be revolutionary,” said Patricia Lancaster, clinical professor at the NYU Schack Institute.

Workers will assemble the apartments — from drywall and plumbing to windows and complete kitchens — in a 100,000 s/f factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, according to John Dolan, project executive at Skanska USA.

The modules will then travel by truck to the Atlantic Yards site, where they will be lifted up by crane and attached to a metal frame.
“This is conventional technology and conventional materials, assembled and erected in an innovative way,” Dolan said.

About 70 percent of the value of the total direct work on the project will evolve out of the factory, which will employ about 100 members of a newly formed Modular Division of the Building and Construction Trades Council and 25-30 managers and engineers, he said.

Factory workers will be able to build year-round and in all weather, and working in an enclosed environment will mean more materials will be reclaimed and used, rather than discarded as scrap.

But savings in time and materials are not the only potentially revolutionary aspects of the plan, said Lancaster, who adds the deal between the developer and the union to the potentially game-changing elements of the announcement.


“As we bring training, skill, quality and safety to modular construction through a strong labor-management partnership on this project, we see the potential to have this approach improve our competitiveness elsewhere in the local market and expand into an export industry to create even more sustainable union jobs that pay good wages and benefits,” Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said in a statement.

The building, dubbed B2, was designed by SHoP Architects, who also designed the Barclays Center Arena, already open on the site. It is expected to achieve LEED Silver certification.

Dolan praised the designers for integrating the modular building approach without abandoning aesthetics.

“You will not be able to tell when it’s done that it was built in a factory, shipped to a site and bolted together,” Dolan said.

While time will tell if pre-fabrication is the future of building in the city. Lancaster is a cheerleader for the project, but she acknowledges there are naysayers.


“Ratner is showing a cost savings and schedule savings, but he’s not in the ground yet,” she said.

Atlantic Yards is not the only project to watch in the modular world, and near-term enthusiasm for modular building may be driven by events on the other side of the world, where a Chinese developer has announced plans for a 220-story modular building dubbed Sky City, which it says it will complete in a matter of months.

“If that building in China can be finished in six months, every real estate developer in the world is going to start drooling,” Lancaster said.

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