Structural Digest

Looking At The Structures That Define Us

Modular Structures: A Lesson from LEGO

With the recent advent of modular construction, a number of new and interesting projects are popping up all around the world.

Gluck+, an architectural firm based out of New York City, has designed a medium-income, seven storey, 28 unit apartment building in Upper Manhattan. The buildings lot size posed a serious concern for builders, as it does not provide the area required for traditional construction projects. Therefore, the architects at Gluck+ chose to assemble the residence using 56 pre-fabricated modules, all of which are built in a factory in Berwick, Pennsylvania (Architectural Record).

Proposed Modular Building in Upper Manhattan. Photo Credit: Gluck+

Building the modules in a factory allowed for high levels of quality control, and provided a much more comfortable building environment for workers. In addition, the project could proceed notwithstanding weather conditions. This has lead to an estimated 15% savings in total project cost. The construction time has also been drastically reduced, and the project will take just under one year to complete (four modular units are installed per day, after the initial foundation has been constructed). The residence, which is expected to be completed in October, is also quite aesthetically pleasing. By pulling some stacks forward and pushing others back, several terraces and overhangs are created, giving the structure a distinct look. The assembly process for the modules is presented in the following video:

A number of other modular residential buildings have been popping up in New York. A 32 storey residential housing unit in the Atlantic Yards development site is under construction. When completed, the building will be a whopping 322 ft tall and will hold the title of tallest modular building in New York. Skanska, the company building this project, has estimated that the total cost of the modular building will be 20% less than a traditional building (Skanska News Report). Similar to Gluck+’s design, 60% of the construction will occur off site. The modules will be built in a controlled environment in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, and will be transported to site. As a result, the building is expected to attain LEED Silver certification, and produce 70 to 90% less construction waste (than traditional construction).

Final Render of the Tallest Modular Residential Building in New York. Photo Credit: Skanska

However, there are often risks when implementing new technologies. The Plumbing Foundation of New York City is suing the Department of Buildings for ignoring a number of major building safety rules. Stewart O’Brien, the executive director of the Plumbing Foundation stated, “It’s a dangerous path we walk down when the city appears to be willing to circumvent the clear words of the law so that wealthy and influential developers can make a few extra dollars by using lower paid and untrained assembly line workers” (The Real Deal).

Despite the issues that builders face with this new technology, it is apparent that modular buildings are becoming very popular with engineers and designers. Projects like this, as well as Sky City in China, are indicators of the shift in construction practices within the industry.

It seems quite ironic that the construction industry, which has a history of using immensely creative and complex building techniques, is now reverting quite successfully to the intuitive building style of LEGO.

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2 comments on “Modular Structures: A Lesson from LEGO

  1. Robbie
    August 15, 2013

    For a good cause. It’s not clear from the article if this was a more environmentally-friendly build, and it certainly was not a cheap build.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2013/08/01/bc-shipping-container-homes.html

    • Rami Mansour
      August 17, 2013

      The whole notion of using recycled containers to build affordable housing is great. I am glad to see that Vancouver has started developing these houses, and I am sure the rest of the country will follow suit.

      From what I have read, there is not much to suggest that these houses are “greener” to build. It is important for researchers to look at the life-cycle costs of the entire process to determine if it is better for the environment.

      However, it seems that these types of housing units provide a cheaper alternative to traditional construction. Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang noted, “If we were to build housing for disadvantaged people now it’s about $225,000 per unit for custom units from scratch but these units, which are virtually indistinguishable from any of those units, are about $85,000”. See the Huffington Post article for more details:

      http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/08/01/shipping-container-homes_n_3692408.html

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