by Bill Millard
The opening panel in the “Dialogues from the Edge of Practice” series, launched by 2015 AIANY President Tomas Rossant, AIA, considered an approach that’s been on the verge of disrupting architecture and construction for decades – since 1833, in fact. If one accepts a contention raised in the Museum of Modern Art’s 2008 exhibition “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling,” balloon-frame residences represented “arguably the first prefabricated construction system.” Modular or off-site construction, a theoretical improvement on inefficient conventional building methods, has captivated a long list of innovators: Gropius, Le Corbusier, Wright, Fuller, Safdie, Kurokawa, and beyond. Though practice has yet to catch up with theory, modular has advanced to the point that some view it as a pivotal technology in New York’s effort to expand its affordable housing stock. The Nehemiah Spring Creek houses in East New York, the Stack in Inwood, the Pod Hotel in Williamsburg, the Parks Department’s post-Sandy beach pavilions, and the B2 residential tower at Pacific Park (caught in a stop/start cycle of disputes between Forest City Ratner and Skanska but reportedly back on track to become the world’s tallest modular building) all provide tangible local proof that mod, at last, may be the future.
On the eve of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s State of the City address emphasizing affordable-housing expansion as his administration’s top priority, Edge Construction: The Future of Modular panel of four architects and a developer/builder (plus Rossant as moderator), all experienced in modular construction, discussed real-world cases, the chances that mod can substantively contribute to the mayor’s goal of 200,000 affordable units, and the all-too-real reasons why it’s been the Next Big Thing for so long. Serving on request as a de facto think tank for the city, AIANY has a timely opportunity to advance this field and serve the public interest simultaneously; a private roundtable consequently generated some of the ideas that emerged publicly at the panel.
While degrees of optimism varied, panelists saw more glasses half-full than half-empty, agreeing that component standardization, workers’ increasing familiarity with modular methods, and economies of scale can combine to realize mod’s long-anticipated advantages in speed, quality control, and potentially – depending on how they are assessed – costs. “There’s a cost to the way we build now,” noted James Garrison, AIA, referring to assorted inefficiencies, delays, and disruptions ensuing from conventional construction, “and we don’t measure it…. To generalize about the cost of modular vs. the cost of conventional is, I think, generally not to really understand the circumstances that push it one way or another.” On scales above about 30,000 square feet, he finds, under certain conditions (particularly involving labor costs), modular can already be more cost-efficient.
In their book Refabricating Architecture (McGraw-Hill, 2003), Stephen Kieran, FAIA, and his partner James Timberlake, FAIA, laid out the case for incorporating techniques common in the shipbuilding, automotive, and aircraft industries into building methods. Their firm proceeded to “build the book” through projects like Loblolly House in Maryland and Cellophane House, the hit of the 2008 MoMA exhibition’s demonstration models, assembled in three weeks next door to the museum. Kieran’s presentation devoted considerable attention to the “preform” stage in which an architect must ask “how to design yourself” as an inquisitive scientist/artist, rethinking assembly and disassembly processes, supply chains, and embodied-energy metrics. The early explorations have led to replicable, scalable programs like the Ideal Choice Homes system for Ahmedabad, India. This is bringing high-quality housing quickly to India’s emerging middle class (a 50-million-person market) using precast concrete components light enough to be manhandlable, yet able to meet popular demand for solid construction. At times, he noted, a project can also spin off a useful product, such as KieranTimberlake’s software tool Tally, a Revit application for life-cycle assessment of environmental impacts. What the field really needs, he emphasized, is the kind of square-one thinking that Elon Musk’s Tesla brings to automotive design: after a century in which designers added mechanical systems to cars every time a new problem needed solving, Tesla electrics are remarkably leaner, with thousands of fewer parts than, say, BMWs. That type of revolutionary minimalism would push mod past the critical tipping point of cost-competitiveness, Kieran believes, adding that New York’s aquatic-transport capability, since ships outperform trucks in transporting large modules, implies that a waterfront-based local mod industry deserves tax incentivization.
Jeffrey Brown’s building and construction management firm developed and built the seven-story, 28-unit Stack on a 50-by-150-foot site at 204th Streetand Broadway, using designs by Gluck+ Architects and structural modules from DeLuxe Building Systems of Berwick, PA. Hailed by fellow panelists for being one of the first to clamber up modular’s difficult learning curve, Brown offered a combination of caustic comments about conventional building methods (a “very, very primitive business… you have 35 subcontractors, each with their own agenda, and somehow they’re all supposed to show up and work in harmony, and I’ve never seen that happen”), and practical advice about measures that helped his project overcome long odds and various participants’ skepticism. Staging space is critical in manipulating modules, and two years of effort persuading an adjacent vacant plot’s landlady to let his crews “use her dirt” were well worth the trouble. The 59-module building, featuring 10 different apartment layouts, went up in 19 days with virtually no change orders (though the remaining fit-out took longer), and had minimal impact on the neighborhood. The nine-month permitting process, in contrast, was laborious (“There are prices you pay for being first,” he noted), and lenders’ confidence in an unfamiliar method was a tricky variable. Brown recommends keeping other parties, including fabrication workers and bankers, well informed, with regular module inspections by third-party engineers and reports to the lenders.
Modular construction involves inevitable tradeoffs, Brown acknowledged. Walls and floors are thick, and the team chose to delete one floor to expand the others: “we did not want to own an investment that would have 7’6” ceiling heights. We wanted nine feet, so we got about 8’10”, and we gave up a full floor of apartments.” The team could have put up eight modules a day, but kept a four-a-day pace because the NYC Department of Transportation prohibits moving them on city roads by day, limiting storage and transport of extra mods. This limitation arose in several contexts as panelists addressed various remediable obstacles to cost reduction. Labor costs are highest when workers are new to mod methods, Brown noted. Christopher Sharples, AIA, of SHoP Architects, observed that learning curves flatten out after the first 10 or 20 modules, with feedback carrying forward into future projects, so that retaining an experienced crew amplifies efficiency benefits.
Scale and transportation are intertwined problems, noted David Wallance, AIA, of FXFOWLE Architects. “In the Northeast,” he noted, “there are probably half a dozen steel-framed modular manufacturers who, at their greatest volume of production, can achieve maybe $50 million worth of production a year; that’s the largest one, and they range down to $500,000 or $1 million. They’re generally small, privately-owned, mom-and-pop operations. There’s one very simple reason why the industry – and it’s been around for about 35 or 40 years – doesn’t grow… they are wedded to the idea that the most economical approach is to move the largest possible modules down the highway.” The resulting 300-mile radius for economical distribution traps the industry in “regional markets with high labor costs,” unable to grow like the industries Kieran and Timberlake studied. Smaller modules, perhaps standardized like cargo containers, could move more easily in the city and on waterways. In his firm’s experience with the Pod Hotel, Garrison noted, a Polish mod manufacturer outperformed three American bidders, despite the overseas distance: “I’ve always taken issue with David’s claim that you could ship these things more inexpensively than you can move them down the road – and it turns out he’s right.”
Concerns that standardization might limit creativity evoked recurrent comparisons to brands such as Lego and Apple, whose uniformly-designed products are conducive to nearly infinite recombination. Wallance pointed to another historical example: the Sears Roebuck catalog houses between 1908 and World War II, a system that generated more than 100,000 residences from some 400 variations developed by its in-house design department from three standard frame kits. “It’s clear to me that standardization and variation are not in any way contradictory,” he summarized. The scaling-up challenge for modular awaits the entry of major-league venture capital, panelists agreed; meanwhile, design strategies that increase the compatibility between standardized kits of parts and diverse, site-specific, climate-appropriate applications, in a form of practice that Garrison called a “choreography of assemblages,” poses an intriguing challenge for the architects whose high turnout indicates how sharply this topic now attracts the profession’s attention.
Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Oculus, Icon, The Architect’s Newspaper, and other publications.
Event: Edge Construction: The Future of Modular
Location: Center for Architecture, 02.02.2014
Speakers: Stephen Kieran, FAIA, Partner, KieranTimberlake, and Jeffrey Brown, CEO, Jeffrey M. Brown Associates (speakers); David Wallance, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Senior Associate, FXFOWLE Architects (curator/panelist); Christopher Sharples, AIA, Principal, SHoP, and James Garrison, AIA, RA, NCARB, Principal, Garrison Architects (panelists); Tomas Rossant, AIA, 2015 AIANY President (moderator)
Sponsors: “Dialogues from the Edge of Practice” series: Buro Happold, Perkins Eastman, WSP (Patrons); Arup, FXFOWLE (Sponsors); Architecture Research Office, Capalino + Company, Cerami Associates, KPF, Langan, Murphy Burnham & Buttrick, and Spacesmith (Supporters)