Alexandra Lange | Essays

Bad Faith Towers

From yesterday's Times:
In a bid to cut costs at his star-crossed Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, the developer Bruce C. Ratner is pursuing plans to erect the world’s tallest prefabricated steel structure, a 34-story tower that would fulfill his obligation to start building affordable housing at the site.

The prefabricated, or modular, method he would use, which is untested at that height, could cut construction costs in half by saving time and requiring substantially fewer and cheaper workers. And the large number of buildings planned for the $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards — 16 in all, not including the Nets arena now under construction — could also make it economical for the company to run its own modular factory, where walls, ceilings, floors, plumbing and even bathrooms and kitchens could be installed in prefabricated steel-frame boxes.
Never let it be said that Bruce Ratner is not an avid follower of architectural trends. With this latest iteration of building at Atlantic Yards he swaps titanium for brown paper, correctly sensing that, post-recession, prefab is more palatable than starchitecture. Where once the Faustian bargain he offered Brooklynites appealed to their old school pride (a real city has its own sports team) and new Brooklyn snobbery (we could have had a Gehry before Manhattan), the new one is more pragmatic. Do you want affordable housing now, built fast and cheap, or later, when I wring a reduction in the number of promised units from the state?

The Times (for once) offers some distance from Ratner, development partner for their own Eighth Avenue tower, by pointing out that this new plan sells out the construction unions that were among Ratner's biggest supporters. (Another sign of distancing: The paper also seems to be calling the project Atlantic Yards again, a site Ratner and his Russian partner rebranded Barclays Center.) The desirable industrial jobs that would come from the prefab plant required to build such a tower would pay much less than old-fashioned site work. Do we want green industry enough? Are we so desperate for affordable housing (again, the recession changes everything) that we will take a chance on untested building technology? Who gets to be the guinea pig on the 34th floor? Surely Forest City Ratner did not want this news out the week of the Japanese quake.

The image at top is just an illustration. Surely Ratner will tart up the prefab units with some cast concrete lintels and blown-up brownstone details, and call them contextual. But the truth is, the Times rendering is not so far from the boxy stacks Gehry proposed after the billowing Miss Brooklyn proved too costly. As with the disappointing 8 Spruce Street, there's a thin value engineered line between industrial production and genius.

Posted in: Architecture, Social Good

Comments [3]

The ominous overtone linking modular construction with the quake in japan is grossly specious; it will be no more or less "untested" than the site construction we take for granted, and the fact is that, made in the controlled conditions of the factory, modular's chances for quality workmanship are higher than the butchery that passes for most construction in NYC. If the big one hits here, this project will be the very least of our problems.

Of course, just as specious is any claim for actually providing "affordable" housing, the joke being on the middle class, who can neither afford the market rate units, or qualify for what is in effect public-subsidized units in the lower tier.

What we have here then is a cluster-F that guts the construction unions and provides for further polarization in NYC, rewarding the wealthy and the welfare recipients on the backs of moderate wage-earning tax payers.

This is a great ponzi scheme as long as it lasts, but as events in Wisconsin have demonstrated, the non-subsidized, private sector middle class is losing patience with these schemes.

Whether they bother to remain in NYC and retake control of their hard earned income, instead of foisting it to a slacker in a rent-controlled apartment, or someone who's sufficiently gamed the system to grab one of Ratner's "affordable" units, remains to be seen.
Mr. Downer

Agree with Mr. Downer that the linkage between modular construction and earthquakes is particularly specious, but it it does show the tabloid side of the Times.
Equally so the notion that offsite construction labor insignificantly cheaper than on site. The labor savings derive more from working in controlled environments. There is also no reason why the the work cannot still be undertaken the "traditional" on site construction worker.

Article makes no mention of who the pre-fab company is.
On the whole not a very enlightening article, and neither was the Times piece. Just seems to be drumming up fear about prefab.

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