For decades now, the residents of Tokyo have been coming up with novel ways to save space – tiny apartments, skyscrapers stuffed with miniature living quarters and hotels where rooms contain little more than a pull-out shelf with a bed. Now, the rest of the world’s big cities may need to start doing something similar.
Growing populations, coupled with housing shortages, are changing the way urban planners, architects and builders are thinking about living spaces. And in the US, one solution lies in modular fabrication.
Modular structures use pre-manufactured units – homes, apartments or offices – that are built in a factory and transported, usually fully built, to the building site, where they are assembled using a crane. Proponents say these “mods” could offer big cities a sustainable path forward.
Building homes in a factory instead of on-site, the theory goes, can yield more standardization, offering potentially safer and more energy efficient – and environmentally friendly – construction. But the extent to which modular buildings offer long-term sustainability solutions to environmental and social housing issues remains unknown.
New developments such as the My Micro NY and Atlantic Yards projects in New York City are the first examples of modular communities: small apartment units made in factories that, once completed, are stacked readymade at the building site, much like Lego pieces.
“[Modular buildings] will be an important innovation that spreads to many urban markets with high real estate values,” said Elisabeth Hamin, department head for landscape architecture and regional planning at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
When My Micro NY was announced, the mayor at the time, Michael Bloomberg, highlighted the environmental benefits of the new building. “Modular construction is faster, less expensive, allows for high levels of quality control and significantly reduces waste and truck traffic,” he said. “It’s also safer for workers as construction is done inside in controlled environments.”
Modular construction isn’t a new concept. A version of it has been used in the US as far back as the 1800s; a century later, American families could order a house from a catalogue and assemble it themselves, Ikea-style. But what is new is putting completed units together to form towering high-rises in big cities.
According to the Modular Building Institute (MBI), a nonprofit trade organization, the modular construction of lodgings – including condominiums, apartments, hotels and housing for workers – grew by 31% between 2012 and 2013.
“Demand for multifamily is very high currently,” said Liz Burnett, communications manager at MBI. “Young people are moving out of their parents’ houses, and older adults are seeking smaller homes with less upkeep.”
Millennials are looking for smaller, more affordable and more sustainable living spaces, Hamin said. But in expensive cities like New York, few affordable options exist for those who live alone. And with the city’s increasing housing shortage, condensing more units on one site makes good business sense.
“[Modular construction] is a realistic option for both creating more units in the always-in-demand real-estate market of Manhattan, but also as less costly approaches to affordable housing in the outer boroughs,” said Jorge Mastropietro, a partner at Jorge Mastropietro Atelier in New York.
“Because of the nature of cities like London, Mexico City and Tokyo, for example, people are willing to live in smaller spaces so long as they are maximized for efficiency and have other desirable amenities.”
The My Micro NY Project is the city’s first micro-unit apartment building, consisting of 55 units measuring between 270 and 350 square feet. Currently, each prefabricated apartment is being constructed offsite at the Brooklyn Navy Yard by a company called Capsys Corp, and will be assembled in early June in the Kip’s Bay neighborhood.
Tom O’Hara, a director at Capsys, said he has seen an increased interest in modular construction in the last four to five years.
“We have been contacted to review and explore dozens of projects from many of the city’s most prolific developers,” he said.
The structures are built off-site in a carefully controlled setting, which can result in less construction waste and air pollution, as well as quicker – and less expensive – construction.
Prefabricators like Capsys are capable of producing one module per day, or 35,000-square-feet per month, from their assembly lines, according to Petr Vancura of structural engineering firm Gilsanz Murray Steficek. A building that would otherwise take 24 months to complete through typical construction might take only 15-18 months to deliver using prefabricated modules.
Modular high-rises could also go some way to alleviating New York’s housing shortage, and could help current mayor Bill de Blasio towards his goal of building 200,000 affordable units over the next decade.
“I believe such units may relieve pressure at the lower end of the market and improve communities by allowing lower income households to have a presence in the inner cities again,” said Oliver Grimshaw, UK sales manager at Hanse Haus GmbH, one of the largest builders of pre-manufactured homes in Europe.
“As a result, it would reduce emissions from commuting, increase quality of life and enrich city life.”
However, New York’s ambitious Atlantic Yards project calls the efficiency of modular housing into question. The development, recently renamed Pacific Park Brooklyn, is envisioned as 16 modular apartment blocks. But work was stalled in August on the first building after a bitter disagreement over costs between the complex’s developer Forest City Ratner and its partner, Swedish company Skanska.
Forest City announced last month that it would resume construction on the 32-story tower called B2, but the project may take four years to complete, and not two years as originally planned. The next towers will likely be built via conventional construction, instead of modular, Forest City said in announcement made last spring. Forest City CEO and President MaryAnne Gilmartin said in a recent interview that modular is “an ongoing experiment” that “needs to be validated with a standing building”.
While modular buildings may make green sense during the construction phase, their long-term sustainability is less clear, especially in urban areas. The main issue is adaptability, said Renee Chow, a professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley.
“They are difficult to fix over time, they don’t hold changes in lifestyle well nor do they accommodate changes in uses,” she said.
In a city like New York, famous for its continual reinvention, modular buildings might not allow people to remain part of a community as their lifestyle changes.
“Think of all the cities we like that have endured yet still hold modern ways of living and uses,” she said. “Will the modules do the same?”
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