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Construction Corner: High-tech innovation reaches new heights

Korky Koroluk
Construction Corner: High-tech innovation reaches new heights

The idea of highrise modular construction in North America got a boost recently when the companies building a residential project at the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, N.Y., were named as one of this year’s winners of the Breakthrough Awards sponsored by Popular Mechanics magazine.

The award, which "recognizes the innovators, engineers and scientists responsible for changing our world," went to Roger Krulak, a VP with Forest City Ratner Companies (FCRC), and David Farnsworth, a principal in the New York office of ARUP, the multinational engineering giant based in England.

The Atlantic Yards building, known as B2, is billed as the first high-rise modular tower to be built in the United States. Each of its units is assembled in a factory a couple of kilometres away from the job site.

The apartment modules arrive on-site virtually finished. They have been plumbed, wired and painted.

Even the refrigerators have been installed in each unit.

When a module arrives on site it is immediately lifted into place, a process that takes just 12 to 15 minutes.

The Breakthrough Awards may not be widely known to the general public in North America but they are considered to be prestigious by business people.

While they honour the work already done by people and companies, the judges also try to factor in the work those people and companies will do to transform the world in years to come.

For example, Elon Musk was a winner a couple of years ago for conceiving and developing SpaceX, a spaceship designed to fly re-supply missions to the International Space Station.

It was Musk, who spelled out a vision of a high-speed transportation system that would whisk travellers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in just half an hour.

Bruce Ratner, executive chairman of Forest City Ratner Companies, said in a release that his firm became interested in modular construction when it recognized that "we must find new ways to build that create greater efficiencies and reduce the impact on the environment."

He applauded Farnsworth and Krulak for their "breakthrough work, which we strongly believe will set in motion more innovation in construction in the years to come."

It’s ironic that this "breakthrough" project is sitting idle at present because of a dispute between FCRC and Skanska, the firm which is building the modules.

At issue is who must foot the bill for recent cost overruns and design flaws that became evident after construction had begun.

There’s another modular building of note in London, England.

Dubbed the Cheesegrater because of its unusual shape, the shell has just recently been completed.

This one is an office building. It’s wedge-shaped and stands on the short side of the wedge.

It’s tall — 47 storeys — and about 85 per cent of the work was done at a factory in northern England and shipped to London for assembly.

Because of its profile, the building appears, from some angles, to lean.

The sloping profile was necessary to preserve the view of St. Paul’s Cathedral when seen from nearby Fleet Street.

The modules built for it were complex.

Some were fairly conventional offices. but because the building was designed without a central core, other modules had to incorporate the building’s service cores, basement and building services.

Some were nearly 26 metres in length and the sloping geometry of the building meant that tolerances were tight.

The modules had to fit within plus or minus 20 millimetres.

The companies that buy construction are constantly looking for better prices and shorter deadlines.

That puts the onus directly on innovative designers and builders to look to solutions like modular construction to meet those demands.

Korky Koroluk is a regular freelance contributor to the Journal of Commerce. Send comments or questions to

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