Mass-Produced Homes For Individual Tastes

By David Minthorn
Associated Press
Saturday, July 26, 2008

NEW YORK -- Prefabricated houses don't have to be ticky-tacky.

A show that opened this month at the Museum of Modern Art argues that contemporary prefab homes can possess all the flair and durability of traditional housing. Computerized designs and innovative materials are behind this architectural revolution, replacing the cookie-cutter forms and flimsy materials from prefab's heyday after World War II.

"Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling," an engrossing survey of the prefab movement, runs through Oct. 20.

Visitors can stroll through five model homes built outside the museum to experience major architectural advances in prefabrication. Distinctive profiles, open floor plans, energy efficiency and off-the-shelf components are shared objectives.

The models, constructed in a black-topped lot next to the museum, form a kind of urban village in the heart of Manhattan.

Cellophane House is a five-story, steel-frame townhouse from Philadelphia. Burst 008 is an Australian beach house of laser-cut plywood. Micro Compact Home was designed and built in Britain and Germany, with all the comforts in just 76 square feet. System 3 is a modular home prototype from Austria in the shape of shipping containers. The fifth model is a digitally fabricated, one-room "shotgun house" designed for flood-ravaged New Orleans.

The accompanying exhibit inside MoMA traces the history of prefab housing to 1833, when H. Manning of London began selling portable cottages for emigrants to Australia, boasting that the homes could be assembled in a day.

Scale models, photos and architectural sketches range over the prefab work of modernist innovators like Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Jean Prouvé in Europe, and Thomas Edison, Frank Lloyd Wright and R. Buckminster Fuller in the United States.

The exhibit includes a two-bedroom Lustron house of porcelain-enameled steel, one of 2,500 produced in the United States (from 1948-50); photos of World War II-era Quonset huts; a model of Fuller's Dymaxion Dwelling Machine (1944-46); sketches of Wright's American System-Built Homes for Richards Co. (1911-17); and an advertisement for Edison's poured-concrete buildings.

Other highlights: Le Corbusier's path-breaking Maison Dom-ino construction sketch (1914), photos of the Gropius-designed Copper Houses exported to Palestine in the early 1930s and Prouvé's models of prefab houses from the early 1950s, a trove assembled by curator Barry Bergdoll.

Prefab pioneers shared the notion that dwellings assembled on-site from mass-produced factory components could overcome housing shortages from wars and urban expansion. But the reality was often alienating: rows of look-alike houses in suburban tracts and grim apartment blocks in cities.

Architects specializing in prefab now use "mass customization" of basic designs, developed with sophisticated software programs. Prefab homes can be modified to match customers' individual needs, according to the exhibition catalog.

The most elaborate and striking of the five prefab homes, Cellophane House's structural steel frame, nearly 50 feet high, mirrors the surrounding skyline. The glass-walled building rises from a street-level garage to rooftop patio with a solar-panel canopy.

Photovoltaic cells in the plastic membrane in the walls and roof gather energy during the day and channel it to batteries in a mechanical room. Water heated by the solar panels flows through a convection loop to a holding tank.

A double wall system, transparent on three sides of the house, anticipates internal climate needs and, using built-in dampers and fans, eliminates unwanted heat gains and losses, according to designers Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake of Philadelphia.

Two bathrooms and bedrooms, a spacious kitchen-dining area, a laundry room and a balcony totaling 1,880 square feet of living space spread over four floors, each measuring 20 by 28 feet. The anticipated cost is $300,000 and up, according to architects.

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