With a promise of cheap dwellings off the
assembly line, industry tackles the house marketand, incidentally,
the housing problem. The progress to date foreshadows changes
as far-reaching as those produced by the automobile.
BESIDES FAN DANCERS, CHICAGO'S CENTURY OF PROGRESS introduced
"prefabricated" houses to millions of Americans. In the exposition
corner where the factory-built houses stood on display, a world
of new materials was glimpsed, and some prophets foresaw an industry
that would soon make obsolete the piecemeal ways of building.
Instead of a confusion of trades and crafts, there would be a
few large corporations from whom people would buy homes by selecting
a favorite design in a catalog and ordering the entire structure
delivered next day.
Historically, the idea of industrially produced
dwellings is not new. Leonardo's notebook mentions the possibility
of fabricating a house in the shop and then transporting it
to the site. Edison concocted a scheme of pouring a concrete
house in one operation; it was not feasible for large scale
production, however. In 1907 Grosvenor Atterbury, architect,
tried to solve the problem with large precast panels hoisted
into place by crane. Fifteen years later another pioneer, Robert
C. Lafferty, in association with submarine-inventor Simon Lake,
began producing large transportable room-cubes with thin concrete
walls, which could be juxtaposed to form dwellings two or three
stories high. Several such houses built in New York City are
still in use today. In 1928 Buckminster Fuller began getting
press notices on his model of a Dymaxion House, an ingenious
design consisting of a hexagonal structure suspended by cables
from a central utility mast. The full sized product was calculated
to be light enough to permit its being transported complete
from factory to site by dirigible, but the initial plant investment
was also calculated to run into many millions of dollars, and
the house still remains an idea.
With the depression years have come a swarm
of new designs bearing the label of prefabrication. The term
itself is misleading. Technically speaking, any structural part,
even a nail or brick, is prefabricated if it is made in the
factory. Popularly, however, "prefabrication" has come to mean
buildings either completely factory built or quickly assembled
with large factory made units. This controversy over definition
is a very real onewhich itself suffices to show that a
revolution is going on in the building field: radical changes
are affecting traditional production. To date the building industry
hardly deserves to be called an industry. For the most part
it is a loosely woven system of local activities, with control
vested in various feudalistic trade and craft monopolies. Some
22,000 architects, over 4,000 materials dealers, and about 167,000
builders and contractors top off a miscellaneous array of real
estate, mortgage money, manufacturing and handicraft interests.
All are operating as individuals. Collectively, they produced
last year approximately 150,000 new family dwelling units in
the form of houses and apartments. In contrast, three companiesGeneral
Motors, Ford, Chryslerturned out 90 percent of the 3,676,063
passenger cars produced in the same period.
So long as profits could be made at each
step in building a home, no one worried much about the desirability
of centralized production control. But in recent years a new
perspective has been gained. The mechanized industries have
begun to regard housing as a new field for conquest, a sort
of undeveloped Ethiopia that will take care of surplus productive
capacities. The steel industry in particular sees the small
house as a potential outlet for the new continuous rolling mills.
As Tom M. Girdler, Republic Steel chairman, states, "The future
demand for strip steel, not only in the house structure itself
but in cabinets, cupboards and other accessories, will open
a market tomorrow that will rival the automobile market today."
THE MASS PRODUCTION MARKET, ALMOST EVERYONE
AGREES, is for modest homes costing between $2000 and $5000.
To sell in quantity these new houses must offer higher standards
of comfort and use than do traditional dwellings. If the problem
were merely one of more space, it could be solved quickly enough
with conventional techniques. The need is better housing, not
merely more houses.
In scanning the field it becomes clear at
the outset that business is taking two approaches toward this
goal of "more for less" in housing. First there are the commercial
innovations, attempts to make selling easier by making buying
easier. Then there are the technical innovations, attempts to
produce a more economical architecture by making houses more
eflicient. Together, these two trends represent industrial "integration";
they are simply an extension of the "packaging" idea so popular
in other lines.
In a way integration describes what the
speculative builderswho are selling "packaged" houseshave
been doing for a long time in the suburbs. Substantial economies
are gained by standardization in design and by quantity purchases
of materials. Rarely is there any technical advance in their
houses; the primary aim is conventionality at the lowest cost.
The prefabricated house companies go beyond
this objective. Their field of operation is stepped up geographically,
becoming regional and in some instances even national. In general
they are more noteworthy for their commercial innovations than
for their technical innovations, although many prefabricators
have been willing to sacrifice conventionality in design for
the sake of production economies. Historically they are the
first evidence of new industrial distribution systems in the
7 A.M. Setting up a low cost prefabricated house
7:35 A.M. Rapid assembly with wall and floor units
10:50 A.M. Small rooms, few amenities; but cheap
12:45 P.M. Purdue University's experiment complete
For example, General Houses operating out of Chicago offers
a series of standard dwellings which are sold in various localities
by authorized dealers who assume full responsibility for delivering
a complete product to the purchaser; this company uses a system
of factory-built panels assembled by local labor. National Houses,
another company, has heen demonstrating its product in department
stores as part of a marketing program that calls for a hundred
dealer agencies throughout the country.
In most instances the "prefabs" are backed
financially by manufacturers seeking an outlet for their own
products. American Rolling Mill Company has two subsidiariesthe
Steelox House and the Insulated Steel Houseboth statistically
important for their volume of business. Some experiments in
prefabricationlike the "glass house," the "copper house,"
the "aluminum house," the "cotton house," the "plastics house,"
ard others that might be mentionedare frankly advertising
stunts; a single material is used so exclusively that the house
becomes a tour de force. Idle factory space is also responsible
for companies going into housing; this is the case with Harnischfeger
Corporation, manufacturers of electric cranes and hoists, who
announced last year a program for the production of "pre engineered"
houses in a market limited initially to Wisconsin.
Recently at the Peoria, III., plant of R.
G. LeTourneau, Inc., grading machinery manufacturers, a five-room-and-garage
electrically welded all-steel house, measuring 32 by 44 feet
and weigh ing 41 tons has been built. Completely furnished and
ready for occupancy, it was towed down the highway to a demonstration
site where water, sewer and electric connections were made in
a few hours. Five similar cottages and thirty smaller models
are IIOW under construction. When finished these houses together
with the first one are to be launched on the nearby Illinois
River and floated all their own bottoms to a colony site for
LeTourneau employes. The company contemplates entering the field