Portrait of America: Survey Graphic in the ThirtiesHomeIntroductionEditor's NotesArticlesFurther Reading
Packaged Houses

by C. Theodore Larson

Technical News Editor, The Architectural Record

July 1937

1 2 3 4

MUCH WORK IN PREFABRICATION IS TECHNICALLY MERITORIOUS. An example of this is the experimental house constructed at Forest Products Laboratory maintained by the Department of Agriculture in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It is built with a system of "stressed coverings" adapted from aircraft design; prefabricated plywood panels are glued together instead of being nailed in such a way that the strength and rigidity of construction are increased enormously. Wall and floor panels of this sort were used in another experimental house assembled in an Indianapolis slum last October in one day's time by the Purdue housing research department, collaborating with the Works Progress Administration and the Indiana State Planning Board, in an effort to show that slum properties can he replaced with new construction if the cost is low enough to permit its rental at a profit.

(This two-family house cost $669 per family, thus meeting the $7 maximum monthly rental set for relief cases. However while this "prefab" does provide reasonahlv good construction and a fair amount of space, it hardly solves the housing problem. The amenities are lacking, rooms are tiny, there is no hot running water, no washbowl, and a stall shower takes the place of a bathtub. The kitchen does double duty as living room, and the cookstove also has to heat the dwelling. Surely housing standards in the United States should be much higher than this!)

Many architectural innovations have been taken over by the prefabricators, particularly flat roof decks, continuous windows, plain wall surfaces and other forms easily adapted to standardized wall and floor panels. However, to a public trained to think of home sweet home in terms of wisteria and antiques, such designs are little short of radical in appearance notwithstanding fact that their interiors look like ordinary dwellings. reased livahility has been made a chiet selling point, emphasls being placed on mechanical services such as air ditioning and electrification.

Steel-Frame House "Packaged" House

Though the framework of the Arcy Corp. house is all steel, it can be "packaged" for conservative taste in familiar styles

EVEN SO, THE EXISTENCE OF CONSUMER RESISTANCE IS EVIDENT in attempts of recent arrivals in the field to conceal structural innovations with surface veneers to give the appearance of a traditional architecture. Gunnison's Magic Homes in Louisville consist of quickly assembled plywood panels, have pitched roofs and adornments which make them indistinguishable from other small cottages. Arcy Corporation, which has just completed five $15,000 houses a Rockefeller holding in Cleveland Heights using U.S.Steel products wherever possible, intends to market itssystem for houses costing under $5000; but the welded steel framework can be concealed with Williamsburg Colonial or any other "style" the buyer may desire. American Houses, one of the first prefabricators to offer flat-roofed product, has recanted and announced its intention of going conventional in its housing package.

At a rough estimate, some fifty companies are prefabricating houses; together they produced probably less than a thousand units last year. A single large operative builder can turn out as many suburban homes in the sme time. Taken by and large, the prefabricators have made slower progress than was indicated by the Chicago World's Fair enthusiasm. Obsolete building codes have been a restriction; trades and crafts threatened with displacement have formed opposition; real estate and mortgage interests, fearful of obsolescence, have exercised a boycott. Moreover the "prefabs" have cost too much; the economies of mass production are not attainable in the pioneering stage of development. The significance of the prefabricators, however, has to be judged in the light of ootentialities rather than accomplishments. Much work is as yet frankly experimental. Some like that of the Pierce Foundation, an American Radiator offspring which has been building "mystery" houses for several years, is being carried out in secrecy. Behind the scenes there is increasing activity, a tooling up for the anticipated industrialization of housing.

In the meantime a new phenomenon, the trailer—which can be carefully studied by the building industry to advantage—has appeared on the American scene. Last year as many trailers as ordinary dwellings were produced. This year forecasts call for 375,000 new trailers and for 210,000 new houses and apartments. As Trailer Travel editorializes: "While the building trades have been arguing the pros and cons of prefabricated homes, the trailer manufacturers, using automobile production methods, have slipped up on them during 1936 with a real prefabricated home on wheels—one that has the added advantage of mobility—at one fourth or less the cost of the ones the others have been merely talking about, and the solution of the housing problem is being taken right out of their hands."

The trailer is significant as an entering wedge for the auto industry into the housing field. As the average citizen begins to realize that his own domicile will be mobile, that shelter no longer has to be permanently fixed to the land, the auto manufacturers begin to see that the production of transport units can easily be extended to include shelter units. Eight automobile companies have begun producing trailers. Previously others have invaded the building field in search of a market for their byproductsăGeneral Motors for refrigerators, Chrysler for air conditioners, Burgess for acoustical materials, Briggs for kitchen and bathroom equipment, among others. With these industrial producers come new techniques in fabrication—automatic die-casters, giant stamping presses, elaborate research and testing facilities—as well as new techniques in merchandising. New possibilities in design are opened up by the integration of shelter and transportation.

With the introduction of the assembly line principle prefabrication takes on a new importance. The trailer industry abounds in technical innovationsănew gadgets, new tricks in multiple use of space, new materials and methods that come largely out of advances made in auto and airplane design. For instance, two-story "mobile houses," proposed by Corwin Willson, will offer the equivalent of five rooms, bath, laundry and porch. Trailers look even less like traditional dwellings than do prefabricated houses, but there is no great sales resistance from a buying public accustomed to rapid style changes in automobiles.

However trailers are not a complete answer to the housing problem. Although they do give increased freedom in a geographical sense, they are cramped in space. Attempts are being made to provide more capacious accommodations. William B. Stout, designer of such famous products as Ford metal airplanes and streamlined Scarab cars, has been experimenting with a "mobile house" essentially a trailer, its sides unbolt and unfold into additional cubage, comprising a living room, twin bedrooms, a dressing room and a kitchen. Yet even with such increased flexibility in design trailers are limited as to maximum size. Highways are the determining factor, for the mobile shelters must be able to cope with narrow road widths and sharp turns.

Unfolds into House
Rooms in House
Prefabrication and mass production—a trailer, the Stout mobile house. When stationary it unfolds into three rooms (center) which look (right) livable, modern and fairly spacious



Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003