December 18th will mark the groundbreaking of the first building in the Atlantic Yards Project. Bruce C. Ratner, chief executive for Forest City Ratner, has big plans for this building. It is set to be the tallest modular building in existence, rising to 32 stories and located at Flatbush Avenue and Dean Street. Currently, the tallest modular building is a 25-story dormitory in Britain. But If Mr. Ratner has “cracked the code”, this could be a huge step forward for affordable housing, unless it means nothing more than more money for developers.
Developers have built prefabricated single-family homes, classrooms, and even jails. But taller towers that can withstand wind shear and seismic forces have always eluded developers. In the U.S.A. modular buildings rarely go above 10 stories as the cost of steel bracings has been prohibitive. “The engineering has been the challenge,” Tom Hardiman, executive director of the Modular Building Institute, a trade association for the modular-construction industry, told The Times. “No developer has put the time, and frankly, the money into engineering that Ratner has.” If it works, Mr. Ratner and his partners say they will be at the forefront of a brand new industry.
Mr. Ratner began his interest in modular constructions during the 2010 recession, partly in order to make good on his promise to use union labor, deliver good architecture, and earmark at least 30 percent of the proposed 6,430 units for low and moderate-income tenants. Half of the 363 apartments in this first building will be for poor and working class families. Union workers have already begun building the 930 units in a Brooklyn Navy Yard factory. Each unit will be about 14 feet wide, 35 feet long, and 10 feet tall and be equipped with floors, walls, electric lines, plumbing, kitchens, toilets, and exterior facades. 60 percent of the work will be done in the factory, which should save as much as 20 percent on construction costs and cut delivery time to 18 months.
The developer obtained a financing commitment from Bank of New York and also forged a partnership with Skansa, the giant construction company based in Sweden. Forest City and Skansa formed a company to oversee the Navy Yard factory, with Saknsa acting as operating partner and construction manager. Gary La Barbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, said that under the new agreement with Mr. Ratner union workers would earn $55,000 a year, 25 percent less than the average union construction worker. The trade-off is that the factory workers will work steadily throughout the year, regardless of the weather. “We see this as an opportunity to get into markets we’re not in,” Mr. La Brea told The Times. We can’t ignore an emerging industry. We see it as creating more job opportunities in residential construction.”