In the 1920s, modular, prefabricated housing was at the forefront of modernism’s cause, the clarion call that galvanized avant-garde architects to action. They developed innovative construction techniques that promised to standardize the construction of the house (or more accurately, the apartment unit) and make it reproducible like a car or radiator. Needless to say, their efforts never went mainstream.
A century later, modular housing is only now getting on its legs—in New York, at least. A Bloomberg-sponsored competition earlier this year asked architects to design the "micro-units" that some say could cure the city’s housing shortage. The submissions made use of prefab construction methods, with modules being built then shipped to the site and hoisted into place. The winning design will be built as a case study next year, but if anyone is wondering what the future looks like, then take the A train to 4857 Broadway in Manhattan.
On a sizable, mid-block site in Inwood, near the northernmost point of the island, what might be New York’s first prefab steel-and-concrete apartment building is taking shape. The Stack, a seven-story moderate-income residential project by Gluck+ architects, champions an exciting modular building method, one with a rich heritage but that has too rarely been implemented.
The 50-foot-wide, 150-foot-deep lot is sprinkled with a few cranes and what look like trailers but are actually building modules. From across the street, pedestrians stop in their tracks as each of the 45-foot-long oblongs seemingly takes flight. They’re slotted into place with some grace, at a pace of four a day. All of the 56 boxes are expected to be installed by next week, followed by three months of "zip up" before the first occupants move in in October. Including off-site assembly, the building will take a mere 10 months to finish—six months less than would’ve been required using traditional construction methods.
The whole process is more assemblage than construction, as evidenced by the remarkably "dry" stacking procedure (see the time-lapse video above). The modules are built off-site, inside a hangar-like factory in rural Pennsylvania, whose controlled, lab-like conditions are repeatedly praised by the project’s chief architect, Peter Gluck. "Normal construction is a nightmare," he tells Co.Design. But by building indoors, away from the elements and with a concentrated group of crew members, "you can easily supervise what’s being done, whereas in normal construction, that’s really hard to maintain."
The modular construction forces the architects to make all design decisions ahead of time, meaning that the building blocks are shipped to the site with all their features and interior partitions preconfigured. This cuts down on on-site operations and the many mistakes that inevitably arise from them.
The video captures the last few months or so of construction, but mostly spotlights the stacking process, which make the modules look like giant Jenga pieces neatly filed into rows. For the time being, the units are shrouded with protective coverings, masking the pixelated facade underneath. When it’s unveiled, though, the neighborhood will welcome a dynamic new street front, while the city will have ushered in a new chapter of its building tradition. Maybe.