The Mod Squad: Will Bruce Ratner Transform the Way New York Builds, or Is Prefab Another Project Too Far?

We've been dreaming prefab dreams for decades. (Getty)

Richard Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress, believes Forest City has no choice but to go prefab to make the project viable. “Just start putting it together: a tough construction market, a commitment to build union, a commitment to build affordable housing, to build infrastructure, this is a bear of a development challenge,” he said. “They’re between a rock and a hard place, and this may be their only option.”

The fact that prefab, after decades of dreaming, could finally take off is what has so many unions interested. The current assumption is that the bulk of residential construction will still be built through conventional means, but the market for affordable housing, where modular has already enjoyed some minor success, could be huge. After all, half of the first tower at Atlantic Yards, and 30 percent of its total apartments, will be set aside for low- and middle-income families.

“Unions have never really had any kind of hold in the world of affordable housing,” one labor source said. “We are taking it slow, but there is huge potential upside here.” If the labor agreement between unions, contractors, Forest City Ratner and XSite is properly written, it could ensure union jobs on many future prefab projects, and not just in the factory, but in the field, as well.

And for an industry with the highest unemployment in the city, hovering around 30 percent, construction workers cannot exactly say no to new work. If prefab means more jobs, as some of the more than 600 stalled construction projects across the five boroughs are revived, it could even mean more work. And Forest City has talked of exporting prefab modules across the country and even the globe, which could mean yet more jobs.

Given the complexity of building a 32-story prefab tower—with taller ones to come—a number of building professionals were suspicious the firm could achieve the 20 percent cost savings Forest City has been boasting about. Among them is Jerilyn Perine, the executive director of the Citizens Planning & Housing Council and a former housing commissioner in both the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations, where she worked on a number of low-income modular projects. “I’m not against modular. I think it has its place,” she said. “I don’t think it’s like discovering fire.”

Even boosters of the process are ambivalent about modular’s prospects. “You go down this path, you promise a lot of things,” one engineer who has done modular work said. “Whether or not you realize those things, it remains to be seen. It’ll be cool if it works, but it’s a pretty heavy lift.”

Among the challenges facing Forest City is that to build the tallest modular structure in the world would require a structural system the likes of which has never been achieved. “Technology moves very fast, people move very slow,” Ms. Lancaster countered. Indeed, SHoP, the architects behind the arena and apartment towers, had two separate design teams working on the project at once, walled off from each other. They used different engineers and everything, had a mini architecture competition, and the prefab team came out on top.

Despite the promise at Atlantic Yards, there is skepticism of the applicability of prefab elsewhere. Simply getting modules over the bridges and into Manhattan would seem to pose a challenge, not to mention the tight streets. Such a building in the Financial District seems remote. Regardless, almost everyone in the industry seems to be rooting for Forest City.

“It’s interesting how New Yorkers have a hard time thinking outside the box sometimes,” said Jennifer Murphy, a vice-president at Plaza Construction. “For such a forward-thinking city, we can really lag behind. Maybe this will be the turning point.”

If modular happens, it would be a miracle. But then again, so is the fact Atlantic Yards is being built in the first place.

The Mod Squad: Will Bruce Ratner Transform the Way New York Builds, or Is Prefab Another Project Too Far?