July 15, 2024

Square Feet: Squeezing Costs, Builders Take New Look at Prefab

The technique used to build the Modules, modular construction or prefab, in which major components are assembled off-site, has a long history in the single-family housing market, but its place in the commercial field has been limited. Currently just 1 percent of the commercial building market is prefab, mostly limited to schools, hospitals, dormitories or retail stores, although the largest modular building in the country is a 21-story Hilton hotel in San Antonio that was erected in 1968.

Now, with an emphasis on materials conservation and reuse, and developers looking to squeeze costs any way they can, modular construction is getting a closer look.

Often the word prefab conjures images of inexpensive and poorly built structures like trailer homes. But proponents of prefab, many of whom shudder at the moniker, say that modular design done well is anything but cheaply built. A modularly constructed building uses the same materials as a traditional one. But because it is made in a factory, workers are not battling the elements and can construct it more soundly and with less waste, proponents say.

“The quality of what you can assemble is infinitely higher on a factory floor,” said the hotelier André Balazs, who considered building a luxury modular hotel atop the High Line in Manhattan, but abandoned the idea when he found it too costly in New York.

Mr. Balazs said he was in discussions with manufacturers in Europe to build individual hotel units abroad and ship them to this country to assemble a boutique hotel in Los Angeles, a process that could be replicated in other cities.

Nearly all contemporary buildings rely on some element of prefabrication, with facades largely constructed off-site and windows and doors standardized. Even “bathroom pods,” bathrooms built and assembled off-site, are becoming increasingly common. But the idea of building most of the building in a factory and setting it atop a foundation simply has not taken off.

“Is the technology there to do it? Yes. Is the desire? Yes,” said Christopher Sharples, a principal at SHoP Architects, which is designing a possible 34-story prefab tower for the developer Forest City Ratner at Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. “In the near future, I think people are going to become more educated about what the potential of this approach could be.”

The market share of commercial modular construction is poised to increase in the next five years, according to the Modular Building Institute, an industry trade group. In addition to the possibility of a tower at Atlantic Yards, an eight-story modular apartment building is scheduled to break ground this summer in the University City section of Philadelphia.

A developer can expect to shave up to 20 percent off construction costs with modular building largely because labor costs are lower. A unionized New York City carpenter makes about $85 an hour, including benefits, when he works at a construction site. At Capsys in Brooklyn, the only modular factory in the city, a comparable worker makes less than $30 an hour plus benefits. Many modular factories are not unionized and pay even less.

“It’s a disaster for construction workers,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in western Massachusetts.

Developers also benefit from time savings. Speed aside, builders have the ability to create a production schedule that minimizes downtime. In traditional construction, a contractor is overseeing work by various subcontractors who work for separate entities and on their own schedules. Weather can cause delays and so can any number of unforeseen factors like waits for zoning approvals. But in a factory, all the various tradesmen from the plumbers to the carpenters to the electricians work for the factory, and all the pieces come together simultaneously. 

“It never rains inside our building, it never snows,” said Tom O’Hara, the director of business development for Capsys, an 80,000-square-foot factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. “We can make very airtight buildings.” One of their projects, a luxury hotel on the North Fork of Long Island, was able to open in the spring of 2005, before the start of the lucrative summer season, largely because of the modular construction schedule, Mr. O’Hara said.

Still, prefab has its own set of limitations. It is uncharted territory for most architects, developers and contractors, who are hesitant to take any risks in a tenuous market. Every decision, from the color of the bathroom tile to the knobs on kitchen cabinets, must be made before construction begins. And the building must be designed so it can fit in boxes that meet Federal Highway Administration regulations.

“It looks simpler than it is,” said Jonathan Weiss, the president of Equinox Management and Construction, the developer of the Modules in Philadelphia. “There’s an awful lot of coordination.”

Mr. Weiss said the $9.5 million building would have cost 25 percent more and would have taken 15 months instead of eight had it been built traditionally.

The modernist building has boxy orange windows jutting out from a gray stucco facade that masks the boxes behind it. The facade was built on-site along with several other elements like the hallway stairwells and the mechanical elements.

“You really do need to embrace the modular constraints,” said the building’s architect, Brian Phillips of Interface Studio Architects. “That’s where you save time and money.”

An untrained eye could never tell the building was built anywhere but on-site. The units have modern kitchenettes; large, airy bedrooms; wood floors and chalkboard apartment doors.

“Everyone’s always fascinated when I tell them I live in the Modules,” said Timothy Archer, a Temple University junior who was sitting on the building’s roof deck garden one recent morning sipping a glass of red wine. Rents start at $1,300 a month for an unfurnished two-bedroom unit, according to the building’s Web site.

The challenge of making a prefabricated building architecturally innovative is part of what drives architects like James Garrison, the principal of Garrison Architects, who designed a Scandinavian-style modular apartment at an adolescent treatment center in Albion, Mich. With floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over a lake, the steel-framed Koby Cottage was built in a factory; even the furniture was installed off-site. The 1,100-square-foot structure was put together on-site in a single day.

This summer work is to start on a two-story modular child care center at Lehman College in the Bronx that Mr. Garrison also designed. At $6 million, the building will cost the City University of New York half of what it would have cost and take half the time to build had it been built on-site, said Iris Weinshall, the vice chancellor for facilities, planning and construction at CUNY.

The center will be constructed of 20 boxes brought to the campus on a truck from a factory in Ephrata, Pa., and Garrison Architects says it will take a week to assemble.

Mr. Garrison offset the two stories and added trellises for vines on the building’s facade that run alongside thin vertical glass louvers.

“We don’t want it to look like a set of boxes produced in a factory,” said Mr. Garrison.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=adcd221e7493d64116f377316f58c9b7

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