For nine years now, Bruce Ratner has talked of transforming Brooklyn with his Atlantic Yards project. Bringing professional sports back to the borough, creating a new skyline, “a neighborhood practically from scratch,” as architect Frank Gehry once described it. There would be union jobs and affordable housing for all to enjoy.
As of now, only basketball and a handful of those jobs are guaranteed, all of which took three times as long as originally planned. Mr. Ratner and his partners like to blame the economy and the holdouts who sued to save their property, but the fact remains, they are running well behind schedule, possibly even in violation of previous commitments made to the state when the project was approved.
To catch up, Forest City Ratner has come up with a novel solution for myriad problems with his project: modular construction. More than transforming Brooklyn, Mr. Ratner may transform the way the entire city, even the world, builds. At least that is his hope.
“It’s taken us a while to get there on the architecture,” Mr. Ratner told The Observer last month on the day he unveiled his new plans for a modular approach at Atlantic Yards. “We did a lot of work to make sure it was something appropriate, in fitting in with the arena and a good reflection on Brooklyn, the city and our country.”
He is not alone in his optimism, either.
Mr. Ratner claims that with his new building process, not only will he be able to build by far the largest modular project ever, a 340,000-square-foot apartment tower rising 32 stories over Flatbush Avenue, but he will do it at a savings of 20 percent over conventional construction. He is working with an unproven technology that has been a dream of architects since Henry Ford began rolling cars off the assembly line a century ago.
Small advances have been made in the intervening, but nothing close to what Mr. Ratner is proposing has been achieved until very recently, and even then, there are questions about the viability of a project at the scale he is proposing. Mr. Ratner has admitted to falling under the spell of a YouTube video that demonstrates the current promise: a 15-story hotel erected in China in two days and finished several days after that. “That was the icing on the cake,” he said, “but we’d already been working on this for a while.”
There are those in the construction industry who view this in-sequence proposal with skepticism, but there is an equally strong tendency to simply build the next building just like the last one. Things have changed only so much since the pyramids. At the same time, Mr. Ratner is in the process of winning over once-wary construction unions. They had once feared losing good-paying jobs over a quicker, cheaper building process, much of the savings of which comes from off-site construction, but a number of union officials The Observer spoke with were sanguine about the prospects presented by prefab. Forest City is in the midst of negotiating the specifics of its plan with them.
“I think prefab is the wave of the future, and I think it will come to New York,” said Patricia Lancaster, a former Department of Buildings commissioner now teaching at NYU. “The only question is when and how much power the unions have to do something about it.” She points to the expiration of the New York Plan in January, the overarching arbitration agreement that governs the unions. “After that, anything could happen.”
Forest City is proposing building 40 percent of its project out of more than 930 modules, which will be made in a factory, trucked onto the site, hoisted into place and finished there. Because the prefab process reduces the materials, time, energy and exposure of the total project, as well as employing lower-cost union labor, it could greatly reduce the price of the project. Forest City predicts 20 percent savings from these measures, and hopes to drive the cost further down, as it continues to build the rest of its 15 apartment towers on the 22-acre site.
“Atlantic Yards is the only place this could ever happen,” Forest City Ratner executive vice president MaryAnne Gilmartin said. “Nowhere else could you find the scale to justify building a new factory on spec.”
Once the project is up and running, Forest City believes its presumed success will attract other developers to the modules, which are being built by a firm called XSite. Forest City’s requirements drove off a handful of modular firms considering working on the project, as revealed by the dogged blogger Norman Oder in October. One of these, Kullman Offsite Construction, sued XSite, as a number of the firm’s employees left and ultimately joined Mr. Ratner’s efforts. The suit was dismissed in July.
“In a way, it’s been an R&D project, not just a ‘D’ project,” Mr. Ratner said.
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.