A 32-story residential tower will be among the 15 buildings at the Atlantic Yards complex in Brooklyn, N.Y., that will be mostly constructed in a prefab modular manufacturing plant.
SHoP Architects A 32-story residential tower will be among the 15 buildings at the Atlantic Yards complex in Brooklyn, N.Y., that will be mostly constructed in a prefab modular manufacturing plant.

On Dec. 18, Forest City Ratner is scheduled to break ground on a 32-story residential tower that will be phase one of a 15-building, $4.9 billion complex at the developer’s controversial Atlantic Yards mixed-use project in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Sixty percent of these buildings will be constructed offsite by the modular manufacturer Capsys Corp. in its plant at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the Fort Greene section of the borough.

While there’s some debate about whether the first tower will be the tallest prefab residential structure in the world—a 220-story 2,739-foot-high skyscraper called Sky City in China’s Changsha city is supposed to get started next month using modular technology—there’s little dispute that Atlantic Yards is the highest-profile test yet of the lengths to which modular construction and design can be applied, a test that even modular suppliers which specialize in wood-framed construction say they are watching with curiosity.

Demand for factory-produced steel- and concrete-framed modules among commercial developers and contractors “is definitely growing, even if there still is some skepticism,” says John Erb, vice president of sales and marketing for DeLuxe Building Systems in Berwick, Pa. He tells Builder that DeLuxe and Capsys are currently the only two domestic modular suppliers that could take on projects of the magnitude of Atlantic Yards. DeLuxe recently broke ground on a seven-story apartment building in the Inwood section of Manhattan, and has supplied projects such as hotels as high as 12 stories. “Could we go higher? Yes,” says Erb.

DeLuxe is doing heavy prospecting in urban areas to probe for more business. But Erb adds that the publicity about modular technology being generated by Atlantic Yards will only help his company’s marketing if that project comes off without any major glitches.

There are a couple of modular manufacturers supplying single-family homes, such as Blu Homes in California, that feature the kind of steel-framed construction that might lend itself to urban mid- and high-rise projects. Most modular suppliers, though, still focus on stick-framed construction that is permitted for buildings up to four stories in most parts of the U.S., and up to five stories in some municipalities in California.

But as modular suppliers that offer predominantly wood-framed products expand more aggressively into apartments and student housing, taller buildings could become a more enticing growth target, albeit one these suppliers are likely to shoot at cautiously.

“Single family is simply a steadier business,” explains Rob Ebbets, executive vice president of marketing for Innovative Building Systems in Liverpool, Pa., whose family of companies includes Excel Homes, and whose production includes student dormitories, condos, and offices. Ebbets characterizes mid- and high-rise construction, on the other hand, as a “feast or famine” business for modular suppliers, one that they gear up for big projects only to lay people off again until the next one rolls around.

Champion Enterprises, the parent of modular manufacturer Champion Home Builders, owns Caledonian Building Systems, a United Kingdom–based supplier of steel-framed modules that was among the companies Forest City Ratner consulted about Atlantic Yards, says Kevin Flaherty, Champion Home Builders’ vice president of marketing.

While his company has no plans to get into steel-framed construction for high-rise projects, Flaherty says Champion has seen “a significant upswing” in demand for modular on multifamily and commercial projects. “We have hotels under construction, apartment complexes, and remote man camps. A year ago, that demand didn’t exist,” he says.

Flaherty says that there isn’t enough demand for modular in mid- or high-rise construction to make Champion want to alter its production and chase that business in a serious way yet. He did note, though, that factory manufacturing for mid- and high-rise modules would be “remarkably similar” to wood-framed manufacturing. “It would simply be different components and materials fed into the assembly line.”

John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.