Discussion Forum

MBI Response on B2/Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Project
Original Comment:
By now, many of you have heard about the recent set-backs on the modular high-rise project in Brooklyn, known as B2, Atlantic Yards, or Pacific Park, after its summer rebranding. Slated to be the tallest modular building in the world when completed, the project has been plagued by lawsuits, delays, and now cost overruns. Before we all give up on modular construction and go back the “the way we’ve always done it” let’s consider a few things:

By virtually any source, the level of productivity within the construction industry has been flat (or according many, declining) for the past forty years. This is despite significant gains in other industries over the same period. There are several reason for this decline including a lack of innovation and investment in research. Many construction companies are small and don’t have the capital or time to invest in new technologies, ideas, or research. So when new ideas come along, the industry gets defensive and rallies to protect the status quo. The construction industry FEARS change!

Modular construction is not a radical new idea. It has been successfully used for decades by some of the best known companies and for some of the most iconic buildings ever constructed. Using modular construction in the 1960s, Zachry Construction built the 21-story Hilton Hotel in the San Antonio Riverwalk, still in use today. That structure remains the tallest modular building in North America. Disney used modular construction for its legendary Contemporary and Polynesian resorts in the early 1970s. Since then, countless other owners, developers, and franchisees have successfully incorporated modular construction into their projects.

So why the fuss now? Neither Forrest City nor Skanska are members of the Modular Building Institute so we cannot speak on their behalf; nor can we speak to the specifics of what is happening on this project. But we can ask, “Would these cost overruns still have happened if the project were built conventionally?” Are these problems attributable to modular construction? Or more likely due to some combination of poor communication, poor planning, a lack of experience with modular, and failed execution?” These problem would spell doom for any project!

As the spokespeople for the modular construction industry what we can say is: When executed properly, this process is more resource-efficient and reduces the overall construction schedule compared to a comparable site-built project, period!

What we do know about this project is that it was “unconventional” even for the modular industry. The developer chose to create a new modular company with the contractor, rather than working with established and experienced modular manufacturers (including one located in Brooklyn).

The team also decided to have the steel “shells” fabricated over 400 miles from the site, shipped to another facility in Brooklyn for finish-out, then transported to the final location for installation. This decision no doubt added to the costs, logistics, and time.

We also know that the established construction industry “greeted” this project with nothing but obstacles, lawsuits, and challenges at every step in an effort to protect the status quo.

As a side-note, as B2 sits right now, unfinished, this is STILL the tallest modular building constructed in North America in the last 40 years! Forrest City should still be considered an innovator and a leader for being bold enough to propose constructing the tallest modular building in the world in an industry and location not generally conducive or accommodating to new ways of thinking.

To quote Henry Ford, “One who fears the future, who fears failure, limits his activities.”
Started on August 29, 2014 by Tom Hardiman
   Log in to add a new comment   (All topics and comments will be reviewed by MBI before being displayed)
Additional Comments:
One thing that everyone needs to remember is the B2 building is a MODULAR project. It is being constructed of true modules (three dimensional or volumetric as some say). The actual manufacturing process may not be very sophisticated insofar that the modules are practically being built in a conventional manner within a factory setting.

A sophisticated MODULAR manufacturer uses an assembly line process and perhaps several levels of automation to gain greater speed and consistencies as well as efficiencies. We continue to lump MODULAR and all other types of prefabrication in to one huge category. As an industry I wished we could agree that Off Site Construction can be labeled as the “large group” and know that MODULAR is a major part of that grouping, as well as all other means of Prefabrication, such as precast, panelized, infinity, etc, and every other companies system that they want to preach as the end all. In a nice way I am asking that we stop calling something MODULAR if it is not. We use words or phrases like “systems building” or “hybrid construction” to replace modular because we are trying to act like it’s a whole new thing. Its like someone trying to sell you AMWAY products but giving it another name to hide the negative connotation. ITS “MODULAR” - NOT PREFAB

A final note, many of us had reservations about how this project would progress and finish out knowing that the inventing team was creating a system that had not been proven. But we all know that is how all successes start. Perhaps the only real flaw here was the lack of advice from others that have had some success with at least mid-rise buildings. There are a few companies out here that are still in business and have learned some real lessons by taking some hard hits. I commend FCR for the path they started and wish them success in continuing to blaze the trail.
Updated on September 12, 2014 by John Erb

Tom,

As you correctly point out, dissatisfaction with the low-productivity status quo has led to extensive interest in modular construction. Combined with the high profile of the Atlantic Yards / Pacific Park redevelopment, this has led to intense scrutiny of this very prominent project. So for better or worse, the result is that B2 now represents the challenges facing the modular industry as it seeks to go from niche to mainstream.

So I'm grateful that you chose to address this situation head on.

As many members of the MBI are aware, over the past several years Vector Praxis has been studying steel-based, multi-story modular construction. Building on my own experience, we have interviewed architects, engineers, site supervisors and tradespeople involved in multiple modular project types. Attending the World of Modular show in San Antonio (and becoming a member of the MBI!) was also instrumental in the learning process.

Perhaps the most interesting thing we discovered is that despite a near constant "re-invention of the wheel" by half a dozen firms, the same problems are recurring. These include tolerance accumulation, the lack of project-specific surveying technique, and overly-complex structural schemes. We came to the conclusion that a standard, off-the-shelf approach was required, analogous to the ISO corner on ocean freight containers, and the result is the Vectorbloc Construction System.

Since the soft launch of Vectorbloc at WoM earlier this year we have received a very positive response to our approach. We think we are on the right track, however I invite MBI members to visit our website ( www.vectorpraxis.com ), download the Vectorbloc presentation and give us your candid feedback.

Currently the system is available to any modular builder.
Updated on September 9, 2014 by Julian Bowron

I agree with most of what you say in your article. I have great respect and admiration for Forest City Enterprises for their brave commitments to not only the idea of modular high-rise construction but to other systems and methods to more efficiently construct large-scale residential projects that started in the days of HUD Operation Breakthrough that I also participated in.

However, it is my personal opinion, which I tried to express to Forest City management when this project was in its infancy, that the design and entire concept of stacking boxes for high-rise construction is not the best way to employ modular techniques. Devoting resources to manufacturing new components with firms who had no previous experience in doing such could only lead to the problems they are facing. Having myself jumped in and invested in a factory many years ago taught me the dangers of trying to control the whole construction and development process based upon a dedicated manufacturing facility with limited flexibility to respond to true market conditions. Having to worry about overhead and the well-being of deserving employees was a serious distraction that caused too much compromising of the product design and method of delivery. We were using wood frame in those days so the technique was a logical extension of conventional construction methods. But there was always that limitation that the factory environment imposed upon us and which in the end caused the enterprise to cease operations due to an inability to adapt to a changing market.

Here in China there have been many attempts to use modular techniques for both low-rise and high-rise solutions. Building a 30 story tower in 15 days was hailed as a real achievement. But none of these solutions to-date have really addressed the need to make a smooth transition from conventional to a more systems approach to construction that would result in efforts that could go beyond a single awe-inspiring example and affect the construction industry as a whole the way that "modular" or what I prefer to call "systems" building should do.

To sum up, modular construction will never succeed in a big way if it continues to glorify the box as Paul Rudolph stated when he got into it, as the new "brick." This is simply an architect's futuristic thinking (I am an Architect) with no idea of effects on the marketplace. We think we have a more flexible and practical approach that I call "hybrid" to take advantage of what local manufactures are already doing for an industrial and export market and modifying their fabrication and pre-finished components for a more conventional domestic market using steel instead of wood-frame this time. Making the transition from locally used poured in place concrete to a steel system that can be employed in a pure sense as well as combining with conventional concrete construction is the task we have been facing. Establishing proper standards and regulations which an organization like MBI knows how to do is what we need over here.

Unfortunately, I cannot send examples of my work as I have to worry about protection of certain proprietary information. Having a real project with enough quantity is the best way to do this and I am working on several projects at this time that have quantities of units in the thousands. It is, after all a numbers game and, it seems that China is the best opportunity because of the vast numbers of potential buyers who have not been offered what government is now emphasizing, affordable housing.

Hope this biased discussion will spark some interesting response and possibly inspire MBI to take a serious look at our market so I can get some help in establishing the standards that government agencies have been asking me to write.

Lawrence A. Samuelson, AIA NCARB NABAR
Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China
Email: lawsam@msn.com
Updated on August 29, 2014 by Lawrence Samuelson

Tom,
Key words, "executed properly" is all that needs to be said.
Updated on August 29, 2014 by Don Engle

  1   
   Log in to add a new comment   (All topics and comments will be reviewed by MBI before being displayed)