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Packaged Houses

by C. Theodore Larson

Technical News Editor, The Architectural Record

July 1937

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With a promise of cheap dwellings off the assembly line, industry tackles the house market—and, 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 one—which 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 companies—General Motors, Ford, Chrysler—turned 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 builders—who are selling "packaged" houses—have 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 building field.

7:00 A.M. Setting Up
7 A.M. Setting up a low cost prefabricated house
7:35 A.M. Assembling Walls
7:35 A.M. Rapid assembly with wall and floor units
10:50 A.M. Rooms Done
10:50 A.M. Small rooms, few amenities; but cheap
12:45 P.M. Complete
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 subsidiaries—the Steelox House and the Insulated Steel House—both statistically important for their volume of business. Some experiments in prefabrication—like the "glass house," the "copper house," the "aluminum house," the "cotton house," the "plastics house," ard others that might be mentioned—are 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 commercially.



Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003