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Packaged Houses

by C. Theodore Larson

Technical News Editor, The Architectural Record

July 1937

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ON THE OTHER HAND, WHEELS ARE NOT ABSOLUTELY necessary for architectural mobility. The different functional parts of a dwelling can be made as separate selfcontained units, easily transported by truck and assembled wherever and whenever desired. By splitting up the various household activities—as K. Lonberg-Holm, research consultant, has pointed out—it becomes possible to design the "best possible form" for each specific activity. In other words, there could be a specially designed "container" for sleeping, another for dining, another for playing and so on, each separately fabricated and each self-sufficient. Every family would then be able to "package" its own dwelling by assembling as many of these different units as needed. Additions and subtractions could be made according to the varying size and interests of the family; new and better room units could be substituted as they became available commercially. Thus household arrangements would be infinite in variety and continually changing.

Phelps-Dodge Bathroom Unit Extra Bathroom
The Phelps-Dodge bathroom unit, Buckminster Fuller designer An extra bathroom like this is easy to add and to move

Industry has already made strides in this direction. An "integrated bathroom" only five feet square in plan has been developed in the Phelps Dodge research laboratories by Buckminster Fuller, the Dymaxion inventor, as an outlet for copper. The product is to be marketed under the slogan, "a bathroom for every bedroom." Completely prefabricated and self-contained, it has its own ventilating and its own lighting systems. The copper fixtures are an integral part of the copper floor and walls of the lower third or "splash sector." Upper walls and ceiling are aluminum. The bathing chamber and lavatory-and-toilet compartment, ldentlcal ln shape, are so designed that the units can be carried through ordinary doorways, assembled and quickly connected to the plumbing system. They can be just as quickly removed elsewhere and fitted into any dwelling, old or new. In short, the bathroom becomes a piece of furniture that the family takes along on moving day.

An "integrated kitchen" which frames into the wall construction to become an integral part of the house has also been developed by Accessories Company, an American Radiator division. Both General Electric and Westinghouse have been selling planned kitchens made up of interchangeable standard units that can be "packaged" in any manner desired for any type of house. This year Westinghouse has announced a planned laundry along simllar lines.

Industrial integration of this sort is a process of growth that cannot easily be stopped, once started. Take General Electric's adventure in kitchen planning as an illustration. Begun five years ago as a design service to help dealers sell equipment, the task immediately became overwhelming. To simplify the work cabinets and equipment were first standardized. Then it was decided to produce a "unit kitchen," one complete product comprising all component parts of the kitchen; eighteen separate trades and manufacturers were "unified" in the process. To get most favorable results for this kitchen, control had to be exercised over the design of surrounding rooms in the house, so in 1935 about four hundred "New American" homes were erected throughout the country as examples of good residential planning. Meanwhile the kitchen planners have become the Home Bureau, equipped to lay out not only kitchens but also air conditioning, lighting, radial wiring and laundry facilities for the home working generally with local architects.

It is not surprising that the kitchen, laundry and bathroom should be the first parts of the home to be integrated industrially. Here is no confusion as to functions. In supplying the "best possible form" for each specific activity, business obviously is interested in promoting the salt of certain products, but the new designs are technically desirable because they make household operations simpler and more pleasant. The high standards presage a similar integration for other parts of the home. The "integrated house" goes along with the "prefabricated house"—one is evolution from inside out, the other from outside in. The"packaged" dwellings are just the beginnings of a new architecture that is coming out of American industry. In not so many years probably they will be considered as amusing as "horseless carriages" and "flying machines" are to a generation no longer excited over streamlined cars and stratosphere planes. One fact is quite certain: the new structural forms will be wholly unlike anything we have ever known before. The box-like geometry of our traditional architecture is the best that could be achieved with natural materials and handicraft methods of production; but with industrialism bringing new synthetic materials and new mechanical processes, the old limitations are removed and there is a corresponding increase in freedom of design. Radically new designs, forms that have never been dreamed of, are necessary to get fullest advantage of the new potentialities.

THE FOCUS OF THE NEW ARCHITECTURE IS MAN HIMSELF. New means of environmental control for the benefit of human life are continually being providedănew illumination, air-conditioning, electro-acoustics, labor-saving devices, and the like. Materials can be produced for almost any specific purpose; already more than 8000 different commercial alloys have been developed. Thrilling experiments are going on in the laboratories. Invisible radiation is used to excite specially treated surfaces into fluorescence. Wall panels are made to give or or absorb radiant heat in equilibrium with the human body. Ultraviolet floodlights form invisible "partitions" that obstruct the passage of air-borne germs.

With increasing environmental control, restrictions in time and space are annihilated. "Neighborhoods" are no longer limited to walking or horseback distances. Radio, telephones, communication and transportation systems of all kinds have made the nation, almost the entire world neighborhood. Each new productive activity, like teletype and television, involves a new production network at brings a closer social unity. "Town planning" as understood today becomes an obsolete term when city country merge into networks that cut across the country in sublime contempt of state boundaries and natural obstructions. The term "shelter" likewise is obsolete, if the dynamic factors of society are considered, for a house is no longer just a four-walled defense against men and the elements. The rewards of industrialism are mobility (increasing freedom in space) and leisure (increasing freedom in time); these objectives it becomes the function of the home to promote as an instrument of a productive society. But before there can be much further progress, a solution must be found for the many pressing social and economic problems left in the wake of each industrial advance. Here are retarding forces that cannot be ignored.

Suppose, for instance, that the third of our population which experts describe as ill-housed is brought up to par. The housing problem will still remain, for the deficiency yardstick represents only an average of existing accommodations. In light of what is technically possible and desirable such a standard is insufficient. Technically or culturally, our present houses have little to boast of. Their care demands much drudgery. Besides, as the 38,500 accidental deaths which occurred in the home in 1936 (35 percent of all accidental deaths for the year) would indicate, they are extremely hazardous. On a qualitative basis almost all houses are obsolete and the shortage becomes greater as standards advance. The housing problem becomes thus one of replacement. If we build new and better structures, what is going to happen to the old ones?

Housing, like other industrial production, will have to be considered as a characteristic cycle of events consisting of research, design, fabrication, distribution, utilization and final elimination. This sequence is fully recognized fifteen million cars have been officially "destined'' for the junk pile within the next five years to make way for an expected twenty million new vehicles. In the planned economy of the Ford Motor Company a thing is obsolete, no matter how good it is, the moment something better appears; the last eight years have seen 46 percent of the entire plant scrapped in this way involving equipment worth $175 million, mostly in excellent condition (compared to ordinary standards) but unfortunately obsolete.



Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003