Problems Stacking Up

Courtesy SHoP

Just when it appeared that work was picking up at B2—the long-delayed, modular tower at Pacific Park Brooklyn (formerly Atlantic Yards)—the project screeched to a complete stop. In late August, Skanska USA, the contractor of the SHoP-designed high-rise, announced it was halting production of the building’s 930 modules at its factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Skanska blamed Forest City Ratner, the project’s developer, for design errors that it said delayed the project and put it tens of millions of dollars over budget. Forest City disagrees. According to the developer, it is actually Skanska’s construction process that is to blame for B2’s slow and expensive climb. At the time, Forest City said Skanska was trying to “weasel out of” its contractual obligations by issuing a stop-work notice at its factory.

It did not take long for this back-and-forth to find its way to New York State Supreme Court. On September 2, Skanska sued Forest City. About 15 minutes later, Forest City sued Skanska. Nearly two months later, work on the project remains stalled.

 

This high-profile legal battle is just the latest setback for the tower that was supposed to rise faster and cost less than its conventionally built peers. It was supposed to be a shining example of the possibilities of modular construction. In New York City, and at Pacific Park specifically, building modular was seen as a way to more quickly deliver affordable units. But since breaking ground in December 2012, only 10 of B2’s 32 stories (half of which are designated for low- and middle-income households) have been completed. When B2 is topped off, it will be the tallest modular tower in the world.

James Garrison—the founder of Garrison Architects, which has done multiple modular projects—said it did not have to be this way. “What [Forest City] is trying to do is amazing, but it required more resources, care, and deliberation than it knew,” said Garrison who drew up initial plans for a modular tower for Forest City in the project’s early stages. He said he left the project after the two parties could not agree on a contract.

Garrison explained that modular construction, which has been compared to clicking LEGO pieces into place, is significantly more complicated than many people realize. “It is not a fly-by-night, pick it up on the run body of knowledge,” he said. “It is not easy, it takes expertise. It is like putting together an automobile.”

The challenge of building modular, he explained, is compounded when constructing tall towers. “When you stack these things up 30 stories, you have collective error,” he said. At B2, explained Garrison, the many modules had to be placed within a steel frame to create a stable, self-reinforcing structure that also has the proper internal connections. To accomplish that, every piece of the puzzle has to be perfect.

While Forest City said it hopes to build another modular tower at Pacific Park, there are currently no plans to do so. Despite the setbacks with B2, the development is continuing to grow. Two COOKFOX-designed, non-modular towers—one affordable and the other luxury condos—are scheduled to break ground before the end of the year. And another SHoP tower is scheduled to get underway next year. In the meantime, cranes have arrived next to the Barclays Center to install its long-awaited green roof.

Garrison said that the very public failings of B2 could make developers hesitant about building modular, but that the practice is not entirely doomed. “In the end,” he said, “this business of designing and prefabricating buildings is happening, and it is not going to stop.”

Related Stories