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Stick Stuck

ONE OF THE items in “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling,” the exhibition recently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was a short film, made in 1930, called “Houses While You Wait.” A grainy black-and-white screen opens up with a view of a vacant suburban lot. A delivery truck rolls up, filled with wall-size metal panels and other materials. A retinue of somewhat scruffy white men in baggy pants unloads the cargo and deposits it on the site. They scurry around at that ridiculous, fast-forward silent-film speed. Three minutes later—the film reports that some hours have elapsed—presto! A small, comfy-looking, pitched roof home takes its place in the neighborhood. The film closes with one of the builders relaxing on his new front porch, enjoying a smoke.

It is not so silly, really. Henry Ford developed the automobile assembly line nearly a century ago, and now few people expect their cars to be custom built. Automobile manufacturers perpetually update their design prototypes to incorporate the latest technologies and to accommodate changing consumer habits and tastes. They buy rubber, steel, engine parts, enamel paint, and sound systems from various suppliers, and they assemble cars in plants with time-managed efficiency, shipping the finished products to local distributors. There is no building every chassis by hand; no bringing in the engine builder for each engine, the electrician to install the wiring, the body builder for hoods and fenders, the HVAC technician for air conditioning and heat. Consumers “customize” their cars by selecting from a restricted range of choices on a limited range of features. Most elements in the typical automobile are standardized, making putting one together an insert-Flap-A-into-Slot-A affair.

Over ninety percent of the houses constructed in the United States are not designed by architects. Most observers would agree that, compared with the typical automobile, the typical developer site-built (also referred to, with uncanny aptness, as stick-built) house is remarkably retrograde in terms of its design and its construction process, during which a shocking amount of labor and material resources is unnecessarily expended. Compare the construction of the typical house with that of the typical car. Even stock house designs must be drawn and re-drawn to accord with highly variable local building and zoning codes. Foundations must be dug. Wooden frames are custom-built and hand-built. Roofers roof, plumbers run pipes, electricians thread wires and install fixtures, carpenters install doors and windows, contractors pack in fireproofing and insulation behind the sheetrock they tack up, painters paint, landscapers clean up, grade, pave and plant. Over many months, this parade of tradespeople through the typical stick-built house is coordinated, competently or otherwise, by the notorious figure known as the general contractor, who typically earns his fee as a percentage of the cost of construction.

Technologically, there is no reason why houses, like cars, cannot be mass-produced, and in other countries they are constructed that way. Prefabricated, mass-produced homes, like mass-produced cars, offer myriad advantages. Fewer resources, material and labor, are wasted. Weather does not dictate construction schedules. Higher and consistent quality is more easily and reliably achieved, because the product is fabricated in the controlled setting of a manufacturing plant, with all the attendant cost advantages. The Swedish residential building industry has long been dominated by prefabricated construction: nationally uniform building systems made possible an abundance of companies manufacturing high quality kit and modular homes and prefabricated housing components. By the 1980s, prefabrication was used in 85 percent of new residential construction. (Not surprisingly, Sweden-based Ikea offers its own prefabricated house.)

Even in the aggressively privatized United States, new houses commonly incorporate prefabricated components, from lumber precut into standard lengths and widths, to hardware, to factory-built windows and doors. And wholly prefabricated houses also exist. There are three types. The most fully prefabricated is the lowly mobile home. Higher up the chain of complexity, and allowing progressively greater levels of customization, are kit and modular homes. In a kit home, the client selects and purchases architectural plans and the associated building materials, and hires local labor to construct the building on site. Contemporary kit homes are sometimes called Flatpak homes, since their components come in flat packages which can be readily stacked onto flatbed trucks. At the highest end of the spectrum are modular homes, in which the client chooses from a pre-established set of three-dimensional volumes—the modules—and configures them in collaboration with the manufacturer or the architect into a suitable home. The modules are constructed in a manufacturing plant, then shipped to the site and “buttoned up” there.

IN THE United States, prefabrication comprises a very small percentage of new housing construction. If the construction and financial industries learn only one thing from the current crisis, it should be that American consumers desperately want and need affordable housing, and would flock toward better built, lower-cost alternatives to what the market currently offers. The technology to build prefabricated housing exists. At every level of the industry, from low to high end, cost savings would be enormous. Fewer resources would go to waste, which would be better for the environment. If one were to ask an economist specializing in residential housing to devise from scratch a system for designing, manufacturing, and distributing quality new housing, it is unlikely that anyone would ever concoct, much less advocate the adoption of, the current system.

So what is our problem? Several hulking obstacles block our path to a more rational system of house construction. Building codes, which are municipally controlled, vary enormously, and not just from state to state but also from town to neighboring town. Currently, this system makes it nearly impossible for builders to employ standardization on a large enough scale for manufacturers of prefab houses to recoup their initial investment in prototypes. Ditto zoning codes. Mortgage lenders tend to reward the familiar and look askance at the new. Labor unions, which dominate most of the trades in the construction industry, will likely do what they can to block a re-organization of their industry that ushers many of their members onto unemployment lines.

Given the typical chasm dividing a formal ideal and an actual practice, it should hardly come as a surprise that the allure of prefabricated dwellings has captured the imaginations of architects for well over a century, and continues to do so. Since the first Model T rolled off Ford’s assembly line in 1914 (and some even before), the history of modern architecture in the United States has seen a steady output of proposals, manufactured prototypes, and occasional fistfuls of mass-produced prefabricated dwellings. These proposals vary in their approach to the market, and in how they contribute to discussions among architects about the future of architecture.

Regarding the market: at one end of the spectrum, there is low cost, high volume; at the other, higher cost, lower volume. There are architects, builders, and manufacturers who seek to manufacture mass-produced homes at high volume and low cost and create a genuine mass market. Most of these projects take no chances, and follow the well-established stylistic and typological conventions of stick-built developer housing. Such conventions were not conceived with contemporary living in mind, and although they may (or may not) have served consumer needs when they were initially designed, they typically do not serve home dwellers today nearly as well as they might, instead shoe-horning new ways of living into obsolete containers. On the higher-cost end of the prefabricated market, there are practitioners, mainly architects, who are less committed to marketing housing to large numbers of people and who explore prefabrication because they wish to deliver a better-designed, better-built product for the price, and sometimes also to manipulate new technologies, materials, and modes of design and construction to create new spatial or formal experiences. These projects tend to feature spatial planning and stylistic features better suited to contemporary (as opposed to anachronistic) living patterns.

Architects and builders take highly variable approaches to the architectural community in their ideas for prefabrication. Some proposals advocate a rigorous sense of social responsibility and present an at least theoretically achievable vision of better urban living. In this category, no exemplar stands taller than Moshe Safdie’s Habitat, built in 1967 for Expo 67 in Montreal, which constructed a wholly liveable and genuinely attractive prototype of social housing that enabled urban dwellers to enjoy some of the advantages of living in a single family home, complete with a terrace-garden for every unit, while forfending urban sprawl. Other proposals demonstrate a genuine commitment to low-cost housing, such as Estudio Teddy Cruz’s Maquiladora project for Tijuana, an infrastructural scaffolding onto which destitute residents can assemble salvaged building materials to construct their own low-cost dwellings. There is also another category of projects by architects who do not pretend seriously to engage the challenges of prefabrication. These projects, of which the most famous in the history of modern architecture is surely David Greene of Archigram’s portable, pneumatic, space-capsule-like “Living Pod,” can be amusing. They tend to be about the relationship of architecture to technology, and about prefabrication—essentially, they use design as social commentary.

AFTER SOME YEARS when interest in prefabrication has been dormant, architects, builders, and homeowners are once again exploring its possibilities. As of 2006, approximately 120 companies in the United States offered modular homes. Dwell, a shelter magazine, started up in 2000, and has built a circulation of over 350,000 by marketing what is commonly called mid-century modernism, especially newly designed, prefabricated versions of it, to “affluent, well-educated consumers.” In a sign that the rising interest in prefabrication may have legs among professional architects, two well-received exhibitions have explored the topic in depth: “Some Assembly Required: Contemporary Prefabricated Houses,” organized by Andrew Blauvelt of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, traveled to five cities in North America in 2006-2007; the other, organized by Barry Bergdoll and Peter Christiansen of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was entitled “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling.”

The MoMA exhibition excelled in bringing to fascinating life the history of prefabrication from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, presenting extensive research that uncovered a spectacular array of period advertisements, patent drawings, models, built mock-ups, promotional and documentary films, catalogues for kit homes (by the time Sears, Roebuck stopped offering its mail-order “Modern Homes” in 1940, over 70,000 had been sold), and photographs of prefabricated homes, including a virtually unknown copper house by Walter Gropius that still stands in Haifa. The exhibition also presents well-known proposals for prefabricated houses by Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Marcel Breuer, some of modernism’s most famous practitioners, and lesser known ones such as the Crystal House by the Chicago-based George Frederick Keck, and the Meudon, Tropical, and Portico houses by the French architectengineer Jean Prouve. Most spectacularly, “Home Delivery” displayed a fully reconstructed, factory-built, enameled steel, ranch-style Lustron House, complete with built-in bookshelves and kitchen cabinets. Designed after World War II by Carl Strandlund for the Lustron Corporation in the hope of easing the housing crisis, the Lustron houses were manufactured in a former wartime airplane factory, but never captured the market, and only 2,500 were ever released.

MoMA’s sprawling, action-packed history of prefabrication was long on visual stimulation, but it failed to differentiate between the many varied approaches that inventors and architects have taken to the marketplace, and between the different approaches architects have taken to the place of prefabrication in larger discussions about architecture. Genuine attempts to create mass-market housing by Sears and Lustron, middle-to-high-end prefabricated homes like those hawked in Dwell, and high-art cultural critiques such as David Greene’s Living Pod and Wes Jones’s reconfigured shipping container (a one-off, contemporary riff on the proverbial primitive hut) are all presented as equivalent musings on the problem of prefabrication. The Walker’s “Some Assembly Required” was a smaller exhibition, more intellectually demanding of its viewers, and far more tightly focused on contemporary practice, showing in depth projects by eight firms that genuinely grapple with the demands of the marketplace in search of new forms of prefabrication for the middle-to-high end of today’s housing market.

The premise of both “Home Delivery” and “Some Assembly Required” was that the current resurgence of interest in prefabrication is owed to recent developments in digital technology that, taken together, could potentially make the prefabricated dwelling commonplace in the United States. Among the most revolutionary of these digital technologies are Building Information Modeling (BIM, which is also sometimes called parametric design) and Computer-Numerically Controlled (CNC) milling, both of which facilitate mass customization. Parametric design allows architects to consider almost innumerable versions of a design in detail, rapidly performing the calculations for each one and making the necessary accommodations for the behavior of specified materials. One of the most important advantages of these technologies is that they enable architects to bypass the conventional byzantine process in which the architect prepares drawings and hands them over to a contractor to interpret. BIM produces detailed drawings that themselves become the template for fabrication, and CNC milling has greatly facilitated the fabrication of prototypes and aspects of construction. These and other new technologies make it possible to customize mass-produced products, including homes, to individual clients’ needs and wishes in previously unimaginable ways.

CONTEMPORARY prefabricated housing projects, technological breakthroughs notwithstanding, follow the same patterns as their historic predecessors vis-a-vis engagement with the marketplace and their approach to a jury of architectural peers. Most of the manufacturers currently offering modular homes target developers, and reproduce the inefficiencies and thoughtless design solutions of the typical stick-built developer home. “Some Assembly Required” and “Home Delivery” by and large ignore these projects, aspiring to demonstrate to the consumer the ready availability of better products at comparable or almost comparable prices. Regarding the professional audience of peers, there is, again, similar variability. Some projects ignore architects and simply serve marketplace demands, others address large-scale social issues and problems, still others push one or several new technologies or materials to some kind of prototypical limit, and some are not seriously intended for mass production. If “Some Assembly Required” relied on conventional architecture exhibition techniques—drawings, photographs, models, construction videos, prefabricated components, and wall text—to focus on actually existing mass-produced homes, “Home Delivery,” in its section on contemporary practice, orchestrated the grand gesture: five fully constructed commissioned pavilions, exhibited in the lot next to the museum, which were directed less to the actually existing marketplace and more to provoke discussions among architects and designers about the future of architecture.

MoMA’s approach led to some inspired projects—notably Kieran/Timberlake’s Cellophane House and Lawrence Sass’s Instant House—but also to one outrageously irrelevant proposal. Horden Cherry Lee and Haack + Hopfner’s offensively precious micro-compact house is a beautifully detailed, slickly modern 76-square-foot cube, which, through creative spatial engineering, packs in two double beds, a sitting area, a dining space, a bathroom and kitchen, and—suppress that smile—two flat-screen televisions. Richard Horden, a British architect, and his colleagues have been working on the micro-compact house for many years, and the version displayed at MoMA had a projected per square foot cost of $800, provoking a friend of mine to dub the MCH a $65,000 coffin. The architects’ proposals for how the Micro Compact House might be used are nearly as galling as the project itself: a lodge for skiers, or a high-rise hotel in a dense city. The architects reassure us of the MCH’s sustainability, maintaining that it could function off the grid. But it is awfully difficult to imagine anyone taking this project as anything other than an unwitting, self-parodying commentary on our society’s wasteful use of resources and space.

Two projects use recent digital technologies to offer prototypes that appear to bear promise for mass production. Lawrence Sass, in response to the loss of housing stock in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, tried to develop high quality housing at affordable costs. He used CNC laser technology to pre-cut plywood sheets that could be shipped flat and put together on site in less than a week by unskilled labor using only rubber mallets. (The project exhibited at MoMA cost $300,000, but that includes the cost of developing the prototype. Sass estimates that the houses would cost approximately $200 per square foot.) Resolution: 4 Architecture used BIM to develop a species of mass customized, prefabricated house, which was featured in the Walker show. From five basic modular configurations (called, after their shape in plan, H, I, L, T, and Z), at least thirty-five different configurations can be arranged, and through the use of parametric design these configurations can be adapted to specific client demands in many ways, including in length, depth, and height.

The Sass and RES4 projects overcome one of the principal obstacles to the successful marketing of prefabrication, namely, the cookie-cutter effect. In the past, prefabrication and mass production have been anathema to architects who believed it important to express, and to create, the particularity of a place. For his Instant House for New Orleans, Sass studied the ornate detail of typical New Orleans shotgun houses and devised mass production techniques to reproduce it; presumably he could do the same in other areas of the country, where different vernacular traditions obtain. RES4’s project appears to be close to matchmaking prefabrication with mass customization, although a video of one project under construction suggests that in this specific model the architects may have sacrificed too many of the virtues of mass production in their efforts at customization.

ONE OF THE more surprising aspects of the problem of prefabricated housing is that mass production and environmental sustainability do not necessarily go together. Employing prefabrication and mass production to create housing at a lower unit cost typically entails abiding by current market standards. In today’s American residential building industry, reducing carbon footprints or minimizing resource waste are not priorities. Most newly constructed houses do not abide by even the most basic environmentally responsible practices by using (to offer a scattered handful of low-cost examples) permeable paving, cellulose insulation, low-flush toilets and passive solar energy. The number of environmentally toxic products in the typical developer-built new house is astonishing: cement (foundations) and drywall (everywhere) are two of the three top producers of greenhouse gases in building materials. Then there is all that PVC piping, particleboard, paints, carpets, and other products containing volatile organic compounds.

Two projects have taken up the challenge of marrying prefabrication to environmental responsibility: the transparent four-story Cellophane House by Kieran/Timberlake, which was the star of MoMA’s “Home Delivery,” and the lovely Sunset Breezehouse by Michelle Kaufmann, which was originally designed for Sunset magazine and was featured in “Some Assembly Required.” Kieran/Timberlake, a firm in Philadelphia, has made environmental awareness the centerpiece of its practice, and its Cellophane House is a four-story single-family home that can operate entirely off the grid. All the building’s elements are off-the-shelf. A structural aluminum frame and the building’s basic volumes are fabricated as modules off-site. By using connectors rather than on-site welds to connect the steel components, the architects ensured that the house can be easily dismantled and its elements reused. Water is heated by a solar collector on the roof. The Cellophane House celebrates transparency through its extensive use of plastics: its floors and staircases are made of polyethylene sheets in combination with aluminum grating, and its see-through exterior walls are made of polypropylene sheets embedded with photovoltaic cells, which channel energy to a battery inside the house. The degree to which these forms of plastic are environmentally friendly is debatable, but they, like many of the Cellophane House’s other materials, are recyclable. Furthermore, since the Cellophane House was designed using BIM, Kieran/Timberlake maintains that “it is a veritable model of mass customization” that can be adapted to a range of site conditions, climates, orientations, slopes, urban or rural conditions, as well as the budget and the taste of clients.

Michelle Kaufmann’s Sunset Breezehouse uses a different system. Some elements of the house are outsourced to specialized fabricators, and then all are shipped to a factory where modules containing interior and exterior sheathing, utility lines, interior partitions and stairs are built and shipped to the site in a near-finished state. The Sunset Breezehouse would not win awards for formal innovation (nor, for that matter, would either the Instant or Cellophane Houses), but it is a very functional and attractive house, with exterior and interior wood finishes, an airy, central living/dining space defined by large retractable glass walls, small exterior landscaped patios, and a butterfly roof that helps conceal glare from solar panels. Environmentally responsible decisions guide many features of the house. It is constructed primarily of renewable and non-toxic materials, and its design incorporates extensive cross-ventilation, energy-efficient appliances and mechanical systems. Kaufmann recently sponsored a study of the Sunset Breezehouse’s energy efficiency, and found that, compared to the typical stick-built developer house, the Sunset Breezehouse consumes nearly 50 percent less energy and has a carbon footprint 25 percent its size.

WHAT THESE exhibitions demonstrated is that there is no dearth of splendid ideas for prefabricated mass-produced housing. Were the best of these ideas adopted by the market—and in the right climate, more good ideas would be forthcoming—there is no doubt that the bulk of newly constructed houses would be less toxic to the environment, better built, and last longer with fewer repairs. They would more fully and attractively accommodate the ways people currently live.

Why do we continue to settle for residential litter in ever-more-degrading landscapes? That is the question these exhibitions fail to address. But of course it is not an architectural question. In social policies, better ideas by savvier architects will change little. For quality affordable mass-produced housing to be built, we need to create different conditions for a mass market. A new legislative structure must clear away the obstacles presented by non-standard, municipally controlled building codes and create enforceable national standards for prefab-friendly, environmentally responsible manufacturing and construction practices. Incentives must be offered so that the entrenched and intransigent construction industry, which has made plenty of money on its poorly conceived, shoddily built, environmentally toxic houses, will re-configure itself. If the necessary legislation were passed and new market incentives put in place, and the designers and manufacturers of prefabricated homes made all the real innovations in quality and reduction of price that the automobile industry has made since the Model T, who would walk away from a better designed and better built home for less money? Given the current housing crisis, and the new administration’s commitment to environmental responsibility and progressive social policies, it seems reasonable if not exactly realistic to hope that some of tomorrow’s homebuyers might be offered the opportunity to purchase products that are worth their price.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen reviews architecture for The New Republic.

This article appeared in the February 18, 2009 issue of the magazine.