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Out of the Box.


Feature 4

Feature 4

December 7, 2022

Out of the Box

Modular design threatens to disrupt the construction industry — in a good way.

Ian Volner

Photography Courtesy Danny Forster & Architecture

“The way we usually build buildings is brutally inefficient,” says Danny Forster. The architect — 45, mid-stature, bespectacled — may seem an unlikely figure to level such stern criticism against an entire industry. But he’s certainly seen enough of it: Before establishing his New York City–based firm Danny Forster & Architecture in 2010, Forster came aboard as the host of Discovery Channel’s Build It Bigger, a position he would hold for five seasons and that would see him visit (and occasionally, terrifyingly, ascend) some of the world’s largest structures. Now, he’s a spokesman for something else: prefabricated modular buildings, an architectural dream that’s long haunted the professional psyche but that, as Forster notes, “has never quite come to fruition.”

To understand why — and why this time may be different — it helps to have a little terminology. “Prefabricated building” refers to any structure whose major components are produced at a remote facility, then assembled at the job site. “Modular” is a variety of prefab where the components come preassembled as discrete, all-in-one units, ready-made rooms that can be stacked together to make a bigger whole. There are, of course, shades of gray: Many buildings are at least partially prefab; some prefabs are only sort of modular; there are prototypes and one-offs galore, some dating back even before the glory days of factory-built housing following World War II. The whole field is, admittedly, a slightly wonky corner of the construction industry, one with its own culture and its own technical argot.

It’s now a critical corner. The United States is in the grip of an intense housing crunch. Especially in the nation’s cities, prices continue to spike, thanks chiefly to a supply deficit that now stands at roughly 3.8 million homes, a shortfall not seen since the end of World War II. As if on cue, prefab is enjoying a renewed vogue.

Modular startups, some backed by major corporate investors like Google and Meta, are now flooding the market, and the White House has announced a new initiative that would give the sector its largest boost since the 1940s. This time, however, the need for low-cost, quickly built structures is paired with something else: the rapid advance of climate change and the imperative to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. The U.N. Environment Program estimates attribute 38% of the world’s total energy-related carbon footprint to buildings and construction.

As luck would have it, modular might just be able to hit that bird with the same box-shaped stone — and a daring group of entrepreneurs and designers are betting big that it can. Forster is one of them. Since leaving his TV gig, the architect has cranked out projects ranging from office interiors to hotels via his namesake practice, and has now turned his attention to launching MiTek Modular, a joint venture between Forster’s firm and MiTek, the construction services company backed by Berkshire Hathaway. While that enterprise develops, Forster’s office is forging ahead with modular projects, including one in San Francisco and one in Manhattan, using existing production facilities and industry-standard Autodesk software. “It’s a great opportunity to take some of the intelligence and digital assets we have and push them into construction,” says Forster.

Marriott’s AC Hotel New York NoMad in Manhattan

Danny Forster & Architecture’s design for Marriott’s AC Hotel New York NoMad in Manhattan, which will be the tallest modular hotel in the U.S.

Of the modular buildings now in development, Forster’s Manhattan project is the closest to completion, with all 184 units, which were fabricated in Eastern Europe, presently sitting in a Brooklyn dockyard waiting for their big moment. Set to rise on Sixth Avenue, Marriott's AC Hotel New York NoMad will be a 26-story hospitality tower featuring 168 luxury guest rooms as well as a full range of amenities.

If the popular conception of prefabs is bare-bones buildings for bare-bones people, the Marriott AC is anything but. Crisply modern, with minimalist wood-accented interiors, Forster’s first fully prefabricated project will fit right into its swanky surroundings in the NoMad neighborhood. But its greatest appeal is its ecological bona fides, which bear out the promise that modular advocates have always claimed. As Forster puts it: “Imagine you’re a drone, looking down on the site.” Conventionally, countless tractor-trailers would be streaming toward the construction zone, clogging traffic while burning gallon after gallon of diesel. For the modules, the supply chain is a smooth and almost truck-free glide from the source materials, through the factory floor in Poland, to the seaport in Gdańsk, and then onto the ship that brings them to the States. All that remains now is a quick trip to midtown, where crews will fuse the units together without having to tinker with their fully equipped interiors and mechanical systems. The result will be “a lot less time spent on the building on-site,” Forster notes, with fewer worker commutes making for a still-smaller carbon budget.

Reduced transportation is the most obvious advantage of modular, but eliminating waste is another key selling point. “You’re putting a building together like a car, so you’re in total control,” says Nile Berry, director of strategy for Assembly OSM, another ambitious newcomer to the modular scene, founded in 2018. The kind of control Berry is talking about is precisely the opposite of the conventional construction environment, where design flaws, procurement problems and simple human error mean that as much as 30% of materials brought to the site can routinely end up in the garbage. Assembly is determined to change that, producing modules whose prefabricated components can be inventoried, tracked and altered down to the smallest bolt or the last doorknob, all courtesy of a sophisticated 3D digital design program called CATIA. Borrowed from the aerospace industry, the software combines design, engineering and manufacturing inputs to imagine (and ultimately produce) astonishingly sophisticated systems with absolute precision.

842 Sixth Avenue

Photography: 842 Sixth Avenue, courtesy Danny Forster & Architecture

As a spinoff operation of major New York City–based design firm SHoP Architects, Assembly has also taken care to ensure its digital interface is especially designer-friendly, adaptable to whatever aesthetic whims the company’s outside client-collaborators might dream up. “You can get down to the molecular level,” says Berry, a strategy the company believes will create better buildings without the carbon-boosting leftovers.

To prove it, Assembly is starting work on a modest residential low-rise on an empty site in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. “It’s a landmarked area,” says Berry — not an intuitive context for hypermodern modules, but one that Assembly’s architecturally minded program will navigate with ease, creating a brick-masonry façade to complement the historic urban fabric surrounding it. Designed by Assembly’s in-house team, the building will be prefabricated at the company’s expansive factory space in Harrison, New Jersey. Already the facility has turned out a successful prototype apartment module, and the company expects the Brooklyn project to start production in the next few months, with on-site work to wrap up next summer. The real test, as Berry notes, will come when the crews show up and start hooking the modules together. “With typical buildings, there’s so much interpretive work,” he says: Contractors are left to puzzle over blueprints, leading to unused, unrecyclable drywall and insulation foam. In Fort Greene, if everything goes according to plan, the modules will arrive as fully finished packages with everything from ACs to lighting built in, ready to assemble with no fuss, no muss, no environmental mess.

The closing argument for modular as a potential solution to the global carbon crunch isn’t so much about what goes into these prefab structures, but what comes out of them. Launched in 2016, Plant Prefab in Rialto, California, specializes not in high-rises or apartment buildings but in custom single-family homes, using what founder Steve Glenn refers to as a hybrid model, combining modular frames with prefabricated panels installed on-site. As Glenn points out, construction is only one part of the ecological equation for builders in the prefab space. “In terms of efficient energy use, efficient water use — you don’t automatically get those,” he says. Day-to-day operations account for nearly a third of the built environment’s carbon impact, making overall performance a key factor. “Lots of companies aren’t as focused on that,” says Glenn. “With us, it’s in our core DNA.”

For Plant Prefab, reducing the lifetime energy consumption of their modules doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel. “It’s just about making the right decisions,” says Glenn, “choosing the right fixtures, the right appliances.” In one recent project, a suite of small houses in the California ski resort town of Olympic Valley, Plant Prefab managed to oustrip the state’s stringent Title 24 efficiency requirements by deploying the same energy-saving features used in conventional construction for years now. High-insulation walls and windows, LED lighting, fully electrified heating appliances: All the tried-and-true techniques for reducing the carbon footprint of nonmodular buildings can yield equal effects in modular ones. While meeting the lofty in-house standards that Plant Prefab has applied to all 150 of its projects to date (“even the ones where our clients didn’t really care,” jokes Glenn), the Olympic Valley houses also include custom elements that make the best of the Lake Tahoe area’s unique climate, with broad eaves to reduce solar heat load in summer and huge windows to maximize sunlight in winter.

With so much going for it, you might well ask why modular prefabrication isn’t already the building world’s go-to method for achieving both its ecological and production-volume goals.

Danny Forster's Tower

The façade of Danny Forster’s high-rise modular tower in San Francisco is patterned with steel mesh to emphasize depth, shadow and texture.

On the one hand, as all the recent entrants into the prefab market are only too aware, the field is littered with the corpses of companies that dared greatly. Most recently, there was the spectacular collapse in 2021 of California module-maker Katerra, an ambitious, vertically integrated startup that was dubbed “WeWork 2.0” by some industry wags after it raised $3 billion in capital only to go bust after scarcely six years. As a cautionary tale of prefab pipe dreams gone wrong, Katerra highlights the errors of going too far, too fast.

But on the other hand, companies can thrive in the sector if they’re prepared to “find ways of working with all the other groups you have to work with,” says Glenn, pointing to longtime modular outfits abroad and their demonstrated ability to team up with designers, fabricators and others. For the same to happen in the U.S., modular companies will have to take a similarly collaborative tack — while also persuading their would-be collaborators, as well as the public at large, of the benefits their design technology is uniquely poised to deliver.

Climate-wise, this argument is hard to beat. “If you make things more efficient, you can get a better carbon footprint,” says Forster, and efficiency is where modularity truly shines. For his upcoming San Francisco project, Forster expects the total fabrication could take as little as nine months, with the 29-story tower rising in a fraction of the time of a comparable structure built the old-fashioned way. When Plant Prefab’s new factory in Arvin, California, comes online in 2023, it will be capable of churning out 800 homes a year. At the same time, Assembly’s factory model — able to be replicated on a regional basis, reducing the distance to prospective building sites — can produce six modules per day. Says Berry, “That’s why modular is the future of construction.”

It’s impressive. But it all depends on whether this time really is the charm, the moment when the housing-starved real estate market is so primed for mass construction that modular can at last achieve the economies of scale that it’s always promised on paper. If it does, the billions already invested in the modular sector will be nothing compared to the profits it could reap in the years to come.

Custom Town Homes

Custom town homes designed by Metro Design Group and prefabricated by Plant Prefab. Photography: Courtesy Plant Prefab

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