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Packaged Houses

by C. Theodore Larson

Technical News Editor, The Architectural Record

July 1937

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AT THE PRESENT RATE OF TURNOVER, AS FRANK WATSON, head of Purdue University housing research, recently has pointed out, the American home will remain in use for 142 years. Compare this with the average life of a motor car, a little under eight years. With industrialization, buildings will obviously have much shorter life spans. But as this occurs what is going to happen to the many billions invested in mortgages based on the present long life expectancy for buildings?

Industrialization is precipitating a clash of economic forces that penetrates through all lines of activity. Business itself is split apart—there are those who make profits by producing things, while others make profits by merely owning them. One side favors rapid obsolescence, the other fears it. One wants change, the other status quo.

Many big manufacturers hesitate to undertake any new activities which may antagonize their present relationships with local dealers and builders, so far as possible they are proceeding cautiously, encouraging both the traditional and industrial techniques. The non-mechanizable businesses obviously must oppose technical advances if they are themselves to exist. This they are doing to an increasing extent by whipping up a ballyhoo for the virtues of handicraft production.

Likewise craft unions in the building field are opposed to technical and commercial innovations—an obstacle likely to disappear with the growth of industrial unionism, however. It will not be surprising if eventually the Green and Lewis factions bring their fight to a finish in the housing arena.

Like other labor, the white collars are also facing a drastic economic realignment. As the function of design becomes more important marketwise, the architects and engineers shift from general practice as professional freelances to specialized work as employes of large corporations. A phenomenon of the depression years has been the rapid growth of the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists and Technicians, which recently became the first white collar union to join the CIO.

The changing building market is already having repercussions in the publishing field, always sensitive to upsets home-conscious than ever, even to the extent of supplying readers with blueprints of "model" houses. Hearst, with large real estate holdings at stake, has bought up American Architect and Architecture, and combined them into a single archaeologically inclined journal. The tycoons of Time, Inc., long excited over prefabrication, have revamped their acquisition, Architectural Forum, into a magazine intended to "surround the building dollar"; its circulation now embraces builders, real estate and mortgage money men, as well as architects. F. W. Dodge Corporation, an organization originally set up to sell reports of scattered local building projects to market-seeking manufacturers, is taking a vertical rather than a horizontal approach toward integration by focusing its publications, Architectural Record and Real Estate Record, on the specialized functions of building design and building man agement, respectively. New publications—Building Reporter (also owned by Time, Inc.) and Building Product News (owned by Thomas Publishing Company)—have recently been started along industrial lines. Here as else where the implied outcome is a vast integrated system of highly specialized information services, probably centrally controlled, which will take the place of the present random assortment of trade papers.

Directly or indirectly, almost everyone is affected by this industrialization. Insecurity and unemployment—the negative aspects of increasing mobility and increasing leisurećare problems that become intensified with the industrial production of housing. For example, the claim so often advanced for mobile houses that "it is easier to get a job if you are able to move from place to place," is true only up to a certain point. Too many mobile unemployed moving in on a work center would mean a surplus labor supply and correspondingly lower pay scales which would be reflected in reduced purchasing power for the rest of the community. Then what?

After all, what is the ultimate purpose of this increasing freedom in space and time that comes with industrialization? A new social integration is implied but as one may well ask, is there any progress if advances along the technical front are followed by breakdowns along the economic front?

TECHNICALLY, WITH ALL OUR INDUSTRIAL RESOURCES THIS housing problem should be easy to solve. Economically, however, the difficulties appear increasingly more complex. And as industrialization proceeds the housing problem moves steadily out of the technical sphere into the economic. There it is swallowed up by the larger problem of planning a society that can utilize all its productive resources for the benefit of mankind.



Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003