Architectural Record BE - Building Enclosure

Paradigm Shift

In an era of tight budgets and sophiticated digital tools, architects take modular construction beyond the single-family house.
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From Architectural Record
Joann Gonchar, AIA
Continuing Education

Learning Objectives - After this course, you should be able to:

  1. Discuss the advantages of modular construction for multiunit, multistory buildings.
  2. Discuss some of the obstacles to constructing multiunit, multistory buildings modularly.
  3. Describe the construction process for the Star Apartments and the proposed B2 Tower, outlining which work will be performed on site and in the factory.
  4. Describe the role of building information modeling (BIM) in the construction of complex modular projects.



American Architects have long been infatuated with the notion of prefabricated housing–not only as a solution for the single-family dwelling but also as a way to provide affordable and dense housing in mid-rise or high-rise buildings. But, with the exception of mostly architecturally nondescript projects, such as barracks, jails, and no-tell motels, the modular multistory approach hasn't yet gained a sturdy foothold in the U.S. That situation could be on the verge of changing, hastened by increasingly constrained client budgets and advances in technology, like the growing sophistication of building-information-modeling (BIM) tools.

Two projects on opposite coasts illustrate this emerging popularity among architects. One is a 102-unit studio-apartment building in Los Angeles. It will stack off-site-fabricated wood-framed units up to four stories above a stepped base that incorporates an existing one-story retail and parking structure into its volume. According to its designer, Michael Maltzan Architecture (MMA), the building will be the city's first multiunit residential project employing such a strategy. The other project–part of Forest City Ratner Companies' $4.9 billion redevelopment of Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, New York–is a 350-unit, 322-foot-tall tower designed by SHoP Architects, made of steel-framed modules. According to the developers, the 32-story building will be the world's tallest modular structure.

Maltzan's project is the firm's third for the Skid Row Housing Trust, a nonprofit organization that owns and manages housing for formerly homeless individuals. The building, called the Star Apartments, is already under construction. A terraced slab that will support living-unit modules is now nearly complete.

The fate of the Brooklyn modular project is less certain. It hinges in large part on the outcome of negotiations with the unions representing the local construction trades. “We expect the unions to cooperate, although we don't have an agreement yet,” says Robert Sanna, Forest City Ratner's director of construction and design development. If all goes well, ground will be broken for the tower, referred to as B2, by the end of 2012 on a site that sits directly adjacent to Barclays Center. That just-completed arena, which has a facade by SHoP, will serve as home court for the National Basketball Association's Nets.

The developers of Atlantic Yards hope to build the B2 tower (top) from preassembled units. It is the first of three residential towers expected to rise directly adjacent to the new arena, Barclays Center (above), and one of 14 planned for the 22-acre development.

Images courtesy SHoP Architects


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Originally published in Architectural Record