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Architects puzzle over modular ‘headscratcher’

By Konrad Puzier

When Forest City Ratner announced in 2012 that it would build a modular tower at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NYU professor Patricia Lancaster claimed the project “has the potential to be revolutionary”.

More than two years later, much of the initial euphoria has evaporated amid cost overruns, delays and technical problems at the site.

Nonetheless, several of New York’s leading architects still believe that modular building is the future. But they also argue the industry has to transform itself first in order to unlock its nearly limitless potential.

“We need someone from outside the industry to come in, look at the problem and really apply some serious capital,” said Stephen Kieran, a partner at architecture firm KieranTimberlake.

Kieran spoke on Monday at a discussion hosted by the Institute of Architect’s New York chapter (AIANY), where he shared the stage with architects and a developer who have pioneered modular construction.

While all speakers agreed that the practice should ultimately make construction safer, cheaper and more efficient, they cautioned that the modular industry in its current form isn’t up to the task.

Jeffrey Brown, CEO, Jeffrey M. Brown Associates; James Garrison, AIA, RA, NCARB, Principal, Garrison Architects; David Wallance, AIA, Senior Associate, FXFOWLE Architects; Stephen Kieran, FAIA, Partner, KieranTimberlake; Chris Sharples, AIA, Principal, SHoP, debating the future of modular construction.
Jeffrey Brown, CEO, Jeffrey M. Brown Associates; James Garrison, AIA, RA, NCARB, Principal, Garrison Architects; David Wallance, AIA, Senior Associate, FXFOWLE Architects; Stephen Kieran, FAIA, Partner, KieranTimberlake; Chris Sharples, AIA, Principal, SHoP, debating the future of modular construction.

“The cost side of this observation is the most troubling,” said Kieran, explaining that modular construction has come close to the cost of the cheapest conventional methods, but has so far failed to undercut it.

Some of those costs may be due to the inexperience of relatively new manufacturers that will improve over time, but the panelists placed most of the blame on structural flaws.

“The reason (modular construction) doesn’t grow is because (manufacturers) are wedded to the idea of moving the largest possible modules down highways,” said David Wallance, a senior associate at FXFOWLE Architects.

He claimed that the high cost of transporting large modules has trapped manufacturers in local markets and prevented them from unlocking economies of scale. As a result, he argued, the handful of modular manufacturers in the north east are all relatively small and expensive mom-and-pop shops.

The solution, according to Wallance, is to build all modules in the shape and size of shipping containers. This would allow manufacturers to use widely developed global infrastructure for the shipping of goods and dramatically lower costs. In the future, modules could be built overseas and then shipped to New York City, where they could be stacked in a number of days.

A modular hotel under development in Williamsburg offers a first glimpse at such a future. James Garrison, principal of Garrison Architects and the hotel’s architect, revealed that the modules are being shipped over from Poland.

The 254-room Pod Hotel at 626 Driggs Avenue, developed by CB Developers, Waterbridge Capital and Ironstate Development, is slated for completion in 2016.

A second obstacle to the growth of modular construction, according to the panelists, is a lack of concerted support for the practice.

Tomas Rossant, AIANY’s current president and a partner at Ennead Architects, urged architects and developers to “band together”, share information, lobby politicians and perhaps even form a think tank to promote modular construction.

Stephan Kieran agreed, arguing that the practice would be an ideal candidate for tax incentives.

Thirdly, the panelists complained that modular construction is in danger of being hampered by recalcitrant designers.

“There has to be a behavioral change,” argued Chris Sharples, a principal at SHoP Architects.

Instead of insisting that modules for each building be different, architects should accept some degree of standardization to keep costs down.
David Wallance added that such standardization need not come at the cost of variety. He pointed to the iPhone, a standardized technology that has nonetheless led to an immense variety of apps and uses. Similarly, he argued, architects could use standardized modules very creatively.

The panelists appeared to agree that the obstacles to a modular boom — scattered, inefficient production, lack of concerted support and resistance from designers — are too large to be overcome by existing players.

Instead, they are placing their hopes on outsiders. Stephen Kiernan said he believes modular construction would be ideal for a major venture capital firm.

“We need someone like Elon Musk to come in and say: ‘This is the most ridiculous industry there is’. It occupies 15 percent of our economy and is counter-productive in every way, shape and form,” he said. “I walk around and scratch my head. At some point, someone is going to go ahead and say ‘I’m going to make a fortune’.”

Once modular construction truly takes off, it is bound to dramatically improve the industry, according to the panelists.

The Stack modular apartment building in Inwood.
The Stack modular apartment building in Inwood.

Jeffrey Brown, a developer who built a modular rental building in Inwood, explained it took a mere 19 days to stack the modules on top of each other, although it took significantly longer for the building to be completed.

He admitted to growing pains and inefficiencies, but claimed he doesn’t regret his decision to go modular. He called the 28-unit property at 4857 Broadway a “beautiful, high-quality building”, adding that it is almost fully occupied.

Apart from potentially offering a cheaper, faster and more reliable way to build, modular construction could also do away with a lot of the externalities involved in conventional building – such as noise, congestion and pollution in dense urban areas.

“There’s a cost to society inherent in the way we build, and we don’t measure it,” said James Garrison.

With these advantages in mind, Monday’s panelists were willing to throw their lot behind a modular future.

SHoP’s Chris Sharples claimed that 30 or 40-story modular buildings could already comfortably be built — with potential to go higher. “It is the time for us to be looking at high rise,” he said.

James Garrison agreed. “We haven’t even touched the potential of this yet,” he said. “We are just at the beginning.”

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