New Jersey Cool
The prefab industry has been around for decades; it's not exactly what we think of as a force for revolutionary change. But developer Avi Telyas thinks prefab-or modular design-is key to transforming the way we think about our built environment. The Israeli-born Telyas (he came to this country when he was 10) is president of Kullman Buildings in Lebanon, New Jersey. If you've ever driven around New Jersey, you've seen the company's earlier work; it designed hundreds of those shiny chrome diners that look like railroad cars-time capsules from an earlier era of automobile travel. But starting in the 1960s, look-alike fast-food chains began putting diners out of business, and Kullman expanded its prefab line. By 2006, it was facing bankruptcy. So Telyas, whose background was in the manufacture of high-precision, automated robotic equipment, bought Kullman, driven by his love of architecture.
His passion is evident in the way he talks-in breathless, mazelike sentences that turn corners quickly, take off on detours, and eventually zip back to his central argument. Just consider construction waste, he says: here alone, prefab has a huge impact. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the U.S. construction industry generates 136 million tons of waste every year. With prefab, a building is made in a factory and erected on-site in a matter of weeks, minimizing waste and greatly reducing the emissions from trucks and machinery.
When Telyas first saw a construction crew at work, using chalk and string to lay out a foundation, he was appalled. Thinking there had to be a better way, he looked to the "lean construction" techniques pioneered by Japan's Toyota Housing Corporation, a subsidiary of the auto giant. These integrate computer systems and robotics to automate tasks, minimizing waste all along the production line, much as Detroit did for automobiles. "The assembly line revolutionized the production of goods for modern culture," says Jim Garrison, a Brooklyn, New York, architect who often collaborates with Kullman, "but it has never been used for building."
Telyas thinks big. He has no interest in private homes, preferring to reap the environmental benefits of prefab on a larger scale, building high-tech, multistory structures for corporations, colleges, hospitals, and government agencies.
Kullman's 180,000-square-foot factory uses virtual modeling software to map out all systems and components, from door frames to ductwork, predicting problems and precisely quantifying the materials required, which further reduces waste. The next step, Telyas says, will be to introduce robotic welding.
At the same time, he isn't shy about using time-honored engineering concepts. No other prefab builder has successfully used the Vierendeel truss, for example-invented in 1896 for bridge construction-which eliminates the need for interior structural columns. Buildings can end up 25 percent lighter, and architects appreciate the freedom this gives them with design.
Telyas often works closely with architects like Garrison, who uses his expertise in sustainable architecture-from the elimination of air-conditioning to the conservation of water and natural resources-to make Kullman's buildings more energy-efficient. Modular sections make things simple, Garrison explains; by separating them, "you can make passages for light and fresh air to move through the buildings."
On the factory floor, there is a constant background din of framing guns and other machinery. Hard hats cut, shear, and weld the ironwork or millwork sections, while others control colossal cranes. Future college dorms, emergency rooms, and corporate offices move down the line with a steady, predictable rhythm. Telyas observes the scene without false modesty. "Our goal," he says, "is no less than trying to reinvent the construction industry."