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Feature> Going Mod?
Atlantic Yards could bring the tallest modular construction building in the world to Brooklyn.
The arena is the center of a planned 16-building complex. The towers may be built using modular construction.
Courtesy SHoP Architects

A three-part series on the opening of Barclays Center at Atlantic Yards:

 · SHoP Redeems Ratner
 · Going Mod
 · Brownsteel

On September 21, the glass doors to the Barclays Center opened wide as developer Bruce Ratner, Chairman and CEO, Forest City Ratner Companies (FCRC), emceed a ribbon-cutting lovefest of praise and thanks for all those who made the arena happen, from Borough President Marty Markowitz to Nets NBA team majority owner and Barclays Center co-owner Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov.

Located at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues, above 11 subway lines and LIRR trains, Barclays is the centerpiece of a 16-building complex that will include six million square feet of residential space (6,430 units of affordable and market rate housing), 247,000 square feet of retail, and 336,000 square feet of office space. The estimate for office space could jump to 1.6 million square feet if the need for office space in the city changes.

The 22-acre, $4.9-billion Atlantic Yard parcel has had numerous proposals over the years: a college campus, affordable housing and open space, and it was even considered for the new home of the Brooklyn Dodgers when they were outgrowing Ebbets Field. Roger Kahn, the biographer of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, recalled that O’Malley had his eyes on Atlantics Yards back in 1955, but Robert Moses put the kibosh on his scheme. “I just don’t want to see a baseball field in downtown Brooklyn at all,” the car-loving Moses told O’Malley, according to Kahn. ‘’The streets will never handle all the cars. Your domed stadium would create a China Wall of traffic.’’

Opponents of the stadium have been vocal on numerous issues: transportation and traffic concerns, misuse of eminent domain, too few and low-paying jobs, the developer’s dubious interpretation of affordable housing mandates, not to mention quality-of-life concerns.

There have been no less than 35 legal decisions, all but two in favor of FCRC. The courts did order Empire State Development Corporation to conduct a new Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for phase two, taking into account a build-out over a longer time frame as the 2008 recession has made the initial 10-year timeline unrealistic.

An earlier rendering of the first tower to be built at Atlantic Yards (left) and a detail of street level at the first tower (right).

Accordingly, the recession was a game changer architecturally. While Frank Gehry’s master plan has been retained, in an attempt to save money—or perhaps simply the appearance of doing so—FCRC opted to go with SHoP Architects in conjunction with Ellerbe Becket, who since have been purchased by AECOM. FCRC’s new functionalism was evidenced by the fact that Ellerbe Becket, with their track record of designing sports facilities, was chosen before SHoP.

While the ribbon cutting was pro forma, “Cousin Brucy”—Markowitz’s pet name for Ratner—did invite everyone back for a groundbreaking ceremony on December 18. SHoP and FCRC are considering moving forward with modular construction for the first residential building, B2, the 32-story residential building that will be the first of 14 planned residential buildings.

SHoP was commissioned to design B2 regardless of the construction method. And the original design was not dissimilar aesthetically, explained Chris Sharples, principal of SHoP Architects and its fabrication arm, SHoP Construction. But SHoP proved to FCRC that they are capable of more than decorating a shed. Their digital prowess and ability to create a system that directly links design to fabrication on the Barclays Center made them the logical architect for B2, which, at 32 stories, would be the tallest modular construction building in the world.

SHoP has master planned two more residential buildings, B3 and B4, for a collective 1,500 units of housing in the first phase. While the architects have not been named, construction for B3 and B4 is to begin six to nine months after B2 starts. Two more buildings, an office building and possibly a hotel will round out phase one. Phase two, as per the current EIS, will include 11 more residential buildings, 8 acres of open space, and neighborhood retail. However, with the exception of B2, these plans are subject to securing financing, according to FCRC.

Earlier renderings of the first three towers to be built around Barclays Center.

For the past year FCRC had been evaluating whether to build B2 according to conventional construction methods or fabricate modular units off-site. The decision is complex. In weighing which methodology to adopt, not just for B2, but the balance of the Atlantic Yards parcel, the team has to consider the roles of different trade unions, delivery time frames, and the benefits of embodied energy—a potential perfect storm for risk. Ratner was, of course, motivated by the potential cost savings but his intentions were not merely mercenary, according to Sharples. “Ratner is not just in it for the money,” he said. “He is looking to design something of quality in an innovative way. FCRC is very interested in the design/build process.” Sharples added that Bob Sanna, FCRC’s head of construction was looking for radical construction solutions.

FCRC’s decision to potentially go mod has significant ramifications for the field of high-rise construction. While there are few examples of high-rise modular construction, most notably a 25-story dormitory in Wolverhampton, England, SHoP is confident that B2 would work. “We have never done a modular high rise, but we have done modular assembly,” said Sharples. Barclays itself had over 1,114 facade components fabricated off-site. He points to the work of architect KieranTimberlake and engineer Arup at Yale University as informative to their work, emphasizing the added importance of a cohesive team in modular construction. “Your partners are critical in a process like this,” Sharples said, referring to his B2 colleagues, the fabricator XSite Modular and Arup.

“The way we work with digital design and BIM at SHoP Construction allows for better fabrication,” said Sharples, who not only uses building information modelling, but together with fellow partner Jonathan Mallie has created integrated design and construction platforms that use a cloud application that allows for better communication between all parties on the A/E team. On B2, SHoP Construction is serving as the Project Integrator, managing exterior wall consulting and procurement, including construction sequencing, and overseeing supply chain management of production models and drawings to the factory floor.

A foundation and podium will be created on site, while modular units would be constructed in a single factory at the Brooklyn Navy Yard where they would have access to a gantry. In turn, the 900 units—60 different types—could be transported on site and installed as, simultaneously, a steel frame is bolted in place floor-by-floor to brace the building, giving it lateral stability just as you would in conventional building.

[Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that FCRC has decided to use modular construction on B2. A spokesperson for SHoP said that that decision is still pending.]

Bay Brown

Bay Brown is a Brooklyn-based design journalist.