High-rise housing going modular
This rendering shows a proposed modular housing development that would stand behind the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
February 1st, 2012
09:26 PM ET

High-rise housing going modular

It's an idea that has the potential to revolutionize the construction industry: Use prefabricated modules to build more than 6,000 housing units. If the real estate development firm Forest City Ratner is able to turn the idea into a reality, the firm will build the tallest modular construction building in the world, a 32-story residential tower in Brooklyn, New York.

(Click the audio player to hear more on this story from CNN Radio's Steve Kastenbaum)

Forest City Ratner's director of construction, Bob Sanna, stands next to Brooklyn's Barclays Center arena, on the site where the company plans to build the tallest modular construction building in the world.

Prefabricated houses are not new. They've been around for decades. But modular construction today is principally used for low-rise buildings. Strong winds exert a tremendous amount of force on taller buildings, and lower floors have to support the weight of many floors above. With modular construction, the challenge comes in designing components that can withstand those forces and do it within a certain price range.

"I think we figured out a way to do this," said structural engineer David Farnsworth. He and his colleagues at the design and engineering firm ARUP spent two years researching and developing ways to build a high-rise modular building.

"The first challenge that we had to overcome was how can we make a modular system that can be built at height and withstand the wind loads," Farnsworth said. "You don't want the building to be moving too much in the wind that people feel it and then they get sick."

The other principal goal was to cut costs. "We think that modular saves something on the order of 20%,” Farnsworth said. In New York, the most costly U.S. city to build in, the potential savings are quite large.

Proponents of the idea believe the cost savings have the potential to spur construction in a market that has been stalled for years.

“At the moment, the market rates have come down and construction costs haven’t come down at the same rate for conventional construction,” said Farnsworth, who believes modular construction solves a financial equation. "This brings that ratio to a feasible range where it now can start to make sense to build more residential construction."

It could have huge implications when it comes to building affordable housing in high-cost cities like New York. A third of the apartments at Forest City Ratner’s project in Brooklyn are supposed to be affordable units.

The project, known as Atlantic Yards, was first slowed by several lawsuits, some filed by community groups opposed to the project. Then the bottom fell out in the housing market, the construction industry ground to a halt and financing for Atlantic Yards dried up.

While the centerpiece, an 18,000 seat NBA arena that will be the new home for the Nets, is nearing completion, the rest of the 22-acre site is largely quiet. Forest City Ratner’s director of construction, Bob Sanna, believes modular construction will change that.

"We were determined to find a way ... that we can develop a building type that had a little bit more predictability, a little bit more cost certainty in the delivery mechanism," Sanna said.

In an industry where construction methods have gone largely unchanged over several generations, Sanna sees modular high-rise construction transforming the construction industry.

"It's an evolution that our business needs to approach," Sanna said. "By having all the work going on in the factory, you can really control the amount of material you bring in and have it fabricated to the specifications you need without unnecessary amounts of waste."

When modules are put together in the controlled environment of a factory floor, work is not affected by unforeseen circumstances at the construction site.

"Labor wages are cheaper in a factory then they are on-site," Farnsworth said. "The weather comes into play on-site, whereas when you're doing the work in a factory, it can be storming on-site and you can still just be churning out the module work."

Farnsworth expects about 60% of the work to be done in a factory, everything from creating the frames for the modules to putting up drywall, laying floors and installing fixtures. Then, the finished modules will be trucked to the construction site, where cranes will stack them in place and attach them to a steel supportive structure.

People in the construction industry are watching Forest City Ratner's project with great interest.

"Anything that we can do to reduce the cost of construction is going to help in a very, very challenging situation for housing," said Richard Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress, an industry trade group. "They've agreed to quite a bit of affordable [housing] in their project. They've agreed to building union ... and now they're trying to make it work. Modular potentially is one way to help them make it work financially."

Forest City Ratner executives say modular construction has the potential to create more construction jobs in a slow housing market. But construction unions haven't exactly warmed to the idea yet.

"Insiders will tell you that they are afraid that the unions will not make as much money working in a factory as they would working outside in open construction," said reporter Theresa Agovino, who covers real estate for the publication Crain's New York Business.

Although Forest City Ratner is intent on building its factory in New York, labor unions are concerned that other developers could set up modular construction factories in places where labor costs are much lower and then ship the prefabricated units to more costly cities for assembly. High-paying construction jobs might be lost in that scenario.

"People are incredibly interested in what they are going to be doing," Agovino said about the project. "I know there is a tremendous amount of curiosity among other developers, architects, engineers about will they really in the end be able to do this."

Forest City Ratner would like to break ground on a 32-story modular construction high-rise apartment building in the spring.

"At some point, it’s inevitable that someone is going to bring pre-fabricated components from outside the city," Sanna said. "If we can create that kind of economic engine here, which I think we can, then why not do it?"

Confidence in the idea was recently bolstered by a project in Wolverhampton, England. A 25-story college dormitory was built out of 805 modules in just 27 weeks. It's the tallest modular building in the world. So far, it has been standing up in the wind just fine.

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soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. hamsta

    @banasy the cheaper they make the more i have to fix it.theres still jobs if you are smart enough.

    February 2, 2012 at 8:13 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy ©

      If they were made HERE, there would be a whole lot more jobs, now, wouldn’t there?
      See, if we hadn’t let big business sell the people out, there would be all of these lovely jobs…but I’m so happy that outsourcing has worked for you.

      February 2, 2012 at 8:16 am | Report abuse |
  2. Ancient Texan

    "I think we have figured out a way to do this"....really makes me want to live there.

    February 2, 2012 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy ©

      I saw that too!
      Makes ya want to move right in, doesn’t it?

      February 2, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Icetooler

    I hear a lot of union people thinking that they are the ones that are supportingnthe US, different and industries, its sad. I worked union in two different fields construction,,,it turned out to be a big game with your co workers,, stab in the back kind of stuff... A lot of the co workers were on drugs. METH drug of choice for themto keep them on the cutting edge. 2nd was union HVAC/R it was great if you worked more than 9 months a year. So now im self employed ,thank god,and never to return to the puppet masters of society. And the nepatism involved, what i do you can have your cake and eat it to! I build extremly high end bicycles for the rich and famous in southern california. I support trek and a few other manufactures in the US. I come across italian frames that cost about $ 8,000 than i charge more money on the imported bikes thats a full professionally assembley per bike is between 400-600 dollars per bike so people complain aboutnot having jobs theres plenty of work out there!!! Try following your passions it will work

    February 2, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy ©

      No.The majority of people are complaining about outsourcing, for valid reasons.
      Glad things are working out for you, but people without jobs are unable to use/purchase your goods/services if they do not have the money to do so.

      February 2, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Tyrant

    Than buy an older house whats the problem you all know that if you buy imported garbage its mostly american made! There QC over seas is lower than ours , just buy an older house thats all

    February 2, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Icetooler

    I started my bussiness with about 50 bucks and borrowed a bike stand its easier than people think . For the people that have no family or friends should not burn bridges . And always keep your friends close and you to can make a living just keep with good people.

    February 2, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
  6. leeintulsa

    i'm sure everything won't be built like this, but when projects are hard to find anyway, throwing half of the potentials to india or china is stupid.

    but i'm sure it is cheaper to have chinese slaves and children plugging receptacles one after another on some assembly line than to pay a tradesman to do it onsite.

    tragicly, it won't be realized until a stack of ready to live cubicles goes up in flames, killing sixteen people..

    February 2, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
  7. coacoa69

    The future projects! Even the current projects in cities across the country looked nice once!

    February 2, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
  8. hamsta

    @icetooler congrads on reaping some rewards on your ingenuity and hard work.we need more people such as you and myself to tell these occupy people to get a job.its possible unless you are lazy stupid or just looking for an excuse.

    February 2, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  9. hamsta

    @icetooler you also hit the nail on the head with the unions.the union reps dont care about the workers.they just take the workers money.there is alot of backstabbing going on.the druggies will tell any lie just to get another fix.

    February 2, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Kathryn (Kathy) (Bogala) Calgary Alberta

    Looks like an incredible project – hopefully all of the labour will come from New York city workers not be out sourced

    February 2, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |

    how do you lay the steel down and how can something interlocked at sections be WIND PROOF? Sounds cheap and unsafe!

    February 3, 2012 at 12:54 am | Report abuse |
  12. Gerard McCaughey

    The lack of understanding of offsite construction, of which modular is one form on this site amazes me. The rarity is that the modules will most likely be built in the US relatively close to the actual construction site using union and no union labor but under factory controlled conditions which will increase both productivity and quality. After all would you choose to have the parts for your new car shipped to your front yard and have the local mechanics put it together or would you prefer to get it completed direct form the factory. – Its a no brainer

    March 11, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
  13. steve005

    Wow wind proof? they are doing this in china and they are earthquake proof, up to 9 mag. and they can do a 30 story building in 15 days, this is a joke

    December 20, 2013 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
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