Building one room at a Time

Building one room at a Time



Building one room at a Time

At the 461 Dean construction site in downtown Brooklyn, there is no barking foreman. There's no screeching chop saw or pounding jack hammer. The loudest thing you hear is a hand-driven pulley, rattling like an anchor chain through a hawsehole as a lone worker in a hard hat uses it to tension the lift cables attached to what looks like a particularly sleek trailer home. 

Except it's not a trailer home. It's a finished apartment. Sitting on a flatbed.

This is America's first high-rise modular tower and only the second worldwide. Unlike every other construction project, it's not built piece by piece on site. Instead, it's assembled unit by unit in a factory just over a mile away. The apartment modules arrive at the tower site virtually finished: bathrooms plumbed, paint dried, refrigerators installed. Each is hooked to a crane, lifted up eight stories—out of an eventual 32 overhead—and guided onto four precisely placed setting pins. With a click, someone's new home is all but ready for move-in. The whole process takes less than 12 minutes. 

A project of 461 Dean's scale involves many people, but it was primarily the brainchild of two: Roger Krulak, a senior vice president at Forest City Ratner, a leading property developer in New York; and David Farnsworth, a principal with Arup, the famed architectural engineers. They met in 2008, when the Great Recession had put a premium on streamlined construction methods. Despite finding that modular high-rise construction was both plausible and cheaper than conventional methods, with big money for projects tight, the two had to put their idea on the shelf—until Forest City Ratner CEO Bruce Ratner saw a viral video of a Chinese company building a hotel in 15 days. He sent Krulak an email: "How do we build this here?" 

The answer was to design a factory, and then design a building that could be put together on a factory assembly line. FCS Modular, a joint venture between Forest City and the Swedish firm Skanska, leased a former covered dry dock in Brooklyn's Navy Yard, and Krulak and Farnsworth worked to perfect the process. Unfortunately they couldn't perfect the partnership, as FCS and Skanska are currently at a legal impasse, but the two men did create a system that will revolutionize construction. 

A long, tall, hangar-like building, the factory is meticulously organized. Construction materials that were delivered in bulk are separated into build kits for each apartment module, then assigned to subassembly areas—wall- framing, bathrooms, electrical—spread along one long wall. Along the other, the steel module frames—welded in Virginia and trucked to Brooklyn—are dry-fitted. (Laser-aligned jigs get the tolerances to within as little as an eighth of an inch.) Drywall, cabinetry, and appliances go in, and the external facades are attached. Finally, the apartments are painted, weather-wrapped, and trucked to an outdoor staging area to await their lift. 

The key, Krulak explains, is the welding of detailed design to standardized production. On a conventional site, workers build from a fairly crude set of construction drawings. Getting everything to fit involves a surprising amount of improvisation. By contrast, 461 Dean is built from blueprints of the sort used in the aerospace industry. The placement of every component is predetermined and referenced to a single, fixed point—no on-the-fly measuring required. "Two guys working off a plan like this can build 20 walls a day," Krulak says. "In a period of three days you're building all the walls for a whole floor." And in two years you've got yourself a high-rise.

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