Featured Author

Alicia Koledin, Assoc. AIA

In a standing-room-only crowd, the topic was all about efficiency. Not energy efficiency, but construction efficiency. SMPS New York’s program on modular construction, sponsored by FullStack Modular, featured a panel of experts with varying perspectives and one overall message best summarized by John Buongiorno, Director of Modular Division at Axis Construction: “Schedule is by far the greatest savings for our clients. When you can start generating income sooner, that’s where the ‘savings’ are generated.”

Savings was indeed the main concern of the audience. Modular buildings have long been touted as the wave of the future, because proponents of the construction method have promised both cost and time savings. But as those of us in the industry know, building in the New York City metro area is different that building anywhere else in the country—and the world.

In an area with many variable construction cost factors such as union-based labor, heightened safety and security measures, and higher premiums for shipping materials to site—modular construction, superficially, seems like a dream-come-true alternative to traditional methods. But according to the panel, the method still has a long way to go before reaching its full potential. It’s a little like a chicken and egg scenario, as David Edelson, Project Manager for Turner Construction explained. “It’s the age-old supply and demand. Once more modular buildings are done, manufacturers will lower building costs.”

Laurie Robert, the Vice President of Sales and Marketing with NRB, an off-site construction company with plant manufacturing facilities, has been involved in the modular construction industry for over 30 years. She said it’s really not just about cost savings, but rather, a value proposition. “What’s it worth to get a hotel up and running sooner?” and adding that “Volume and repetition will certainly help lower costs.”

So, as moderator Jason Stone, Associate Partner of LERA, asked, “What can start to change that? What innovations can help 5-10 years down the road?”

“Standardization will be key,” according to Robert. She directed her next comment toward fellow panelist Martin Kapell, Founding Principal of Think! Architecture + Design, when she added, “Architects don’t necessarily want to hear that.” Which elicited some polite laughter from the audience.

Kapell responded by offering, “Two types of construction are not really popular in NYC at the moment: modular and design-build. Perhaps a confluence between them, economies through means of delivery, could create efficiencies in the process?” Earlier, Kapell noted that “participation of the modular builder in the design process is critical,” he said. Therefore, it seems that, according to this panel, the solution to innovation lies in team collaboration between designer, manufacturer, and contractor.

And developer? Dwan Stark, a Project Manager with the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), is also a leader of Modular NYC, an initiative to develop innovative modular design solutions for the affordable housing crisis. She said HPD’s first RFP that requires a modular manufacturer as part of the team, is out now, and for 100 units. “The city is looking to bring more modular-only sites in the near future—for affordable housing and senior housing.” Which raised the audience member comment, “If you do the math, modular construction could only produce 20% [of the HPD affordable housing demand] at current manufacturing capacity.”

And the reality is that’s true. Growth in the industry will likely require multiple and simultaneous solutions: the support and development of more modular manufacturers based in the city, elevators that are modular, and creating mods that go together. And perhaps “a minor relaxing of the zoning,” as proposed by Kapell.

But the number one answer? The possibilities. “Don’t think in terms of limitations,” said Buongiorno. “There are ways to fit HVAC systems into modular units—even in healthcare, and it doesn’t get more challenging than that.”

See photos from this event here

Save the date for our next cocktail reception and panel on September 27th, 2018, where we’ll learn from innovative leaders who are accelerating NYC’s transition to a circular construction economy.