Two weeks ago, the OHNY staff and Tessa Hartley, OHNY’s new intern, took a field trip to Capsys Corp. in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. You may have heard of New York City’s micro-apartment project, which will be constructed by Capsys next year. They are receiving a lot of attention for this project, but they have been constructing modular units since 1996. Tessa tells us what she learned about Capsys and their design and production process in this week’s Field Trip Friday.

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Capsys fabricates modular units in one of the historic buildings of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Many of their projects include creating townhouses, hotels and apartments which leave the factory as fully built modular sections. Once completed in the warehouse, the pieces are then transported and put together on location, cutting on-site construction time down to a matter of weeks and sometimes even days.

There were a couple of projects currently under construction in the factory during our visit, one was an 18-unit apartment complex to be installed in Brooklyn, the other a hotel in Westchester. The apartment complex includes 2-bedroom units, the largest units they have ever built, which are also the maximum size legally allowed to be transported New York. In fact, they exceed the maximum cargo width allowed in other states by four feet.

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The system works in an assembly line fashion, with the process beginning at one end of the factory, with the floors and ceilings, and completing at the other end, from which the units leave the building (through a massive garage door) and are loaded onto trucks.

During our visit, we were really able to experience and see the nuts and bolts of construction and understand how the units function on a detailed level.

While it seemed bizarre at first to see a home being built in a factory setting, through the tour it became clear how functional and sustainable this type of construction is. For one, the process produces almost no waste. Because the same basic materials are used for every unit, they can be recycled from project to project, and because the shapes of the modular units such as frames and floors are the same, molds are constantly being reused.

The first step (at the back end of the factory) is the pouring of the concrete floor and welding of steel for the frame.

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We saw a floor that had just been poured that morning: one level slab with a small lower section at one end, which will fit with the adjacent unit like a puzzle piece. One of the only aspects of construction that takes place during the installation is the covering up of seams with a thin, self-leveling layer of concrete. The steel rods around its perimeter have tabs at the top, another puzzle-piece feature that will fit into the base of the rods in the floor of the unit above it.

We moved down the line, seeing the units in various stages of construction. At the end, we were able to go inside a nearly finished unit, complete with a kitchen, lighting, and tiled bathroom.

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In addition to Capsys, there are also other companies constructing modular housing in New York–in December, ground was broken for what will be the largest prefabricated building in the world in Atlantic Yards, Brooklyn. The 32-story building will consist of 930 modules that will be built by another modular company next spring.

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I think that it’s interesting to consider why modular housing is only now gaining ground in New York, when it has been present in other cities since the mid-late 20th century. For example, the famous Habitat 67 that was built in Montreal in 1967 and the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo in 1972.

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The early examples of urban prefabricated modular housing – concrete, brutalist structures – seem to have stalled urban modular development in the last decades of the 20th century. As late modern and post-modern glass-heavy architecture came into fashion, modular housing was relegated to the sidelines of urban architecture, as it was too cumbersome and seemingly ungraceful.

In recent years, modular construction has become a trend in the New York landscape, perhaps paving the way for the current large-scale modular housing projects. There have been various temporary modular structures in New York over the years. For example, quite a few projects that used re-purposed shipping containers such as the Nomadic Museum at Pier 54 in Brooklyn in 2005, pop-up swimming pools on Park Avenue in 2010, and the Dekalb Market in 2011.

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It seems to me that the necessity of sustainability, combined with the gradual development of new ideas in modular construction design has set the stage for the current boom in modular development in New York, which is set to become increasingly present in the city’s landscape.

 

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