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OM in the News: Modular Construction in New York City

April 4, 2013
Factory workers installing walls in Pennsylvania

Factory workers installing walls in Pennsylvania

A vacant lot in Manhattan is littered with rubble and concrete pilings. But this month, writes The New York Times (March 10, 2013), this 50-foot-wide sand pit will be transformed into a 7-story apartment building, with finished bathrooms, maple cabinetry and 10 terraces. This example of fixed position layout (see Chapter 9) is the result of modular, or prefabricated, construction. The technique means a building is manufactured piecemeal on a factory assembly line, trucked to the construction site and erected much the way Legos are. The trend toward modular does pose issues, particularly for NYC’s powerful construction unions as it means exporting some construction jobs to factories outside NY.

The modules, which have steel and concrete frames, are being trucked four to five at a time to the building site from their Pennsylvania factory. On each of the following mornings for about four weeks, an enormous crane will stack the modules. Workers will then “zip” them up, connecting one to the next, and to the building’s plumbing and electrical systems.

Completed 7-story apartment house

Completed 7-story apartment house

The project is expected to take 9 months from start to finish, compared with 16 to 18 months if construction had been done on-site. “Because it takes half the time,” says the builder, “we can rent out the units and generate income much quicker, and the carrying costs are lower.” Because modular units are built on an assembly line — which is a quarter-mile in length at the factory — there are constraints, including having to choose the paint colors, finishes, appliances and every other detail upfront. But with indoor construction, there are no delays or damages to the material from inclement weather. Modular construction provides sustainability benefits, too. “We can recycle everything, all of the packaging materials, the gypsum, every piece of steel,”  says a modular builder, “because none of our products are affected by the elements.”

Discussion questions:

1. What are the advantages of fixed position layout in building construction?

2. What are the disadvantages?

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