Modular construction technology comes fast and far during pandemic – Business Watch

Six years ago, 461 Dean Street — then and now the tallest 32-story modular apartment building in the nation — opened on Flatbush Avenue in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. The 363-unit tower has been through four years of delays, lawsuits and leaks, and a dispute with the project’s contractor has almost completely derailed construction.

Despite 461 Dean’s troubled history, low-rise modular buildings have expanded rapidly in the western United States and Canada over the past few years, serving areas where single-family homes and three-story apartment buildings are the norm. Some cities and states are even hiring modular builders to provide temporary relief housing in the aftermath of hurricanes, floods and tornadoes instead of the much-maligned FEMA trailers. Last year, modularization accounted for about 5.5 percent of the North American construction industry, or about $200 billion worth of construction starts, according to the Modular Construction Institute, a trade group.

Developers are now using modular construction for a variety of buildings, including supportive housing, hotels, resorts, apartments, detached homes, senior living facilities, office buildings and factories.

Rising labor costs and tighter supply chains appear to be driving demand for modular projects even higher during the pandemic. Modular contractors typically source most building components and fixtures — from sinks, tiles and toilets to walls and appliances — and assemble them at the factory before shipping them to the building site.

Some projects involve putting together entire rooms or apartments, called modules, and transporting them on flatbed trucks. Many modular contractors also build walls—installed with wires and pipes—that can lie flat on smaller trucks and then connect to other components on site.

The use of pre-assembled modules and panels can significantly speed up the construction of buildings, allowing developers to save time and labor costs compared to traditional buildings. Modularity also centralizes the burden of ordering finishes, fixtures and building materials under one roof, rather than pushing it to the general contractor and its subcontractors.

Steve Glenn, CEO of modular construction company Plant Prefab, explained that his firm uses a hybrid system of panels and modules, especially for multifamily buildings.

“Modules are great because you save time, you can take advantage of lower labor costs, and you can avoid weather delays [from traditional construction]”The disadvantage of modules is that they are very expensive to transport.” There are many redundant structures. As a result, it is difficult for multifamily homes to maximize the number of units and floor plans. They value panels more than prefab solutions. Panels have more structure so you can solve design problems more elegantly. The challenge with panels is that you save on framing and irrigation, but you still need cladding, drywall and paint on site. ”

Plant Prefab often builds modules for more complex rooms, such as kitchens and bathrooms, and uses panels for those with fewer trim and utility lines, such as garages, hallways, bedrooms and living rooms, he said.

According to Glenn, Plant Prefab has two modular factories in Southern California and is building a third, which will be 100 percent solar powered. Currently, each factory can produce 25 to 35 units per year, but the new, larger factory will be able to produce 800 units per year. Plant Prefab closed a Series B round in summer 2021, securing $30 million in funding from Brazilian steel producer Gerdau, Amazon Alexa Fund, Obvious Ventures, and Paris Ventures.

The company’s tallest project has about four floors. Its recent developments include a 16-unit student housing project in Berkeley, California, a six-unit townhouse project in the Atwater Village district of Los Angeles, 38 single-family homes near Lake Tahoe and 31 A in Winter Park Frame Lodge Colorado Resort. Plant Prefab is also working on its largest project to date in Moab, Utah: a 100-unit residential development, including townhouses for rent and for sale.

While most modular builders choose to avoid building high-rise buildings, Assembly OSM’s Andrew Staniforth wants to tackle the engineering problem head-on. The Forest City Ratner alumna works at 461 Dean Street​​ and brings part of the architecture and design team to the relatively new modular construction startup Assembly. Founded in 2019 by SHoP Architects principals (and twin brothers) Chris and Bill Sharples, Assembly closed a $38 million Series A in July led by the Fifth Wall Climate Technology Fund.

The company’s focus will be on 10- to 30-story buildings in expensive cities like New York. Outside of the five boroughs, Staniforth is considering projects in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and St. Petersburg. louis.

Assembly plans to differentiate itself not only by constructing taller buildings, but also by designing buildings using the tools of aerospace and automotive engineering.

“As a result, 461 Dean Street was designed and modeled using architectural tools,” he explained. “We made drawings for that building at the time, and those drawings were sent to the factory. The drawings only captured 30 to 40 percent of the information.” Now, instead of using traditional architectural design software like Revit, we use developed a software platform called Catia. It’s what Boeing used to design airplanes, and it’s what Tesla used to design cars. So we can be more precise and have no range gap. “

Assembly has also hired engineers from Boeing, SpaceX and Tesla to help oversee the design and manufacture of the 461 Dean modular unit in an effort to bring more technical knowledge into the pre-build process. Additionally, the company utilizes multiple suppliers for individual luminaires and entire modules, which makes it easier to deal with the kinds of supply shortages or delays that have become commonplace since 2020.

“If something goes wrong – which happens quite often – we can continue the project with a different steel or bathroom supplier,” Staniforth said. He added that while Assembly has a small assembly facility in New Jersey, the facility receives complete modules or panels and simply assembles them together before shipping.

“Instead of plumbing, tubs and toilets, we received a full bathroom,” he said. “We have a factory, but it just cuts things into place.”

Staniforth believes that modular construction is cheaper in the long run and allows developers to reduce the amount of concrete and steel required for construction. By extension, that means their modular projects will have a smaller carbon footprint – at least in theory – than mid-rise buildings with traditional concrete slabs and traditional steel framing.

“In today’s interest rate environment, speed of delivery is very important,” Staniforth said. “The faster you finish construction, the faster you can close your high-interest construction loan. So if you can reduce the construction time of a project by 30 to 50 percent,” it can reduce overall construction costs.

SHoP Architects isn’t the only architecture firm with its own modular construction startup. DXA Studio founders Wayne Norbeck and Jordan Rogove recently launched their own modular company called Liv-Connected. Their strategy is similar to Plant Prefab’s in that they plan to use a hybrid approach called Component Connection Construction (CLiC). They built and shipped the kitchen and bathroom as complete modules, and flattened smaller components like porch, wall and headboard modules. The CLiC system can be expanded to three or four bedrooms, or can be stacked into a three- or four-unit townhouse.

Norbeck and Rogove are working on a range of projects, including disaster-relief housing in Texas and Maryland, a cabin for seniors in Pennsylvania, and an eco-resort in upstate New York. Their options include a customizable 500-square-foot home called the “Conexus Home,” which starts at $150,000 and can expand to multiple units. Then there’s Via, a tiny house on wheels with some customizable finishes and some exterior and roof options. Pricing for this model starts at around $90,000.

“You pick a set of colors for the interior and start ordering those colors,” Rogove said. “You take out all the recruiting and the architect. We like the idea that we have a design suite, compared to the architect. , we can share with a larger audience. We try to consolidate all this coordination in as much time as possible. So, in theory, you can do something in half a year, not two or three years.”

DXA manufactures components at a factory called Atomic in Lititz, Pennsylvania, which produces sets for live events.

“I used to design [the sets for] ‘MTV Unplugged’ and VMAs, we’re going to build them in Lititz,” Rogove said. “They had hundreds of employees sitting on their hands when live entertainment stopped during the pandemic. So he turned to them for the problem of building a tiny house.

The duo are also working on customizing their tiny homes and cabins for seniors and others with limited mobility.

“We love the idea of ​​aging in place and being able to adjust the height of the counter — the necessity of being able to adjust and not sell your place,” Rogoff said. Their partner, architect Joe Wheeler, who teaches at Virginia Tech, developed adjustable countertops and toilet seats designed to help seniors make their homes more comfortable.

Overall, they think their hybrid approach to modular homes will allow them to avoid the pitfalls of projects like 461 Dean Street.

“When you ship a module, it’s about the size you can get on a truck,” Norbeck said. “Because we ship them in pieces, we have more options. With volumetric ones, they might come out of the factory with precision, but once you put them on a truck or boat, they might be subject to torque or shear.”

As Staniforth points out, these types of alignment problems tend to increase once fully assembled modular units are stacked.

“If every [modular] The box has an eighth-inch tolerance, and you add that tolerance to the number of floors you go up,” Staniforth said. “If each module is off by an eighth of an inch, that can compound over 30 floors, so you The façades are not aligned and your pipes are not aligned. “

Rebecca Baird-Remba can be reached at

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