In 1968, the National Commission on Urban Problems, chaired by the late Sen. Paul Douglas (D-Ill.), asked Boston architect Carl Koch to prepare a report entitled "Roadblocks to Innovation in the Housing Industry."
Koch was a pioneer in the postwar design and development of prefabricated housing systems, his most enduring and well-known being a Techbuilt House. I had been a student and employe of Koch's, and he asked me to assist in the study, a survey of the history of factory-made housing in the United States.
We began at the turn of the century with architect Grosvenor Atterbury's precast concrete, panelized system at Forest Hills, L.I., N.Y.. Atterbury had begun his research in 1902, built a prototype at his own expense, and finally, with the support of the Russell Sage Foundation (which acted as developer), erected the first row houses at Forest Hills Gardens in 1910.
The Forest Hills system used eight-foot-high wall panels composed of two 1 1/2-inch thick, unreinforced concrete membranes separated by a six-inch air space and stiffening ribs. Decorative patterns were cast into the concrete at the factory so that the panels, once erected, formed a complete, prefinished wall system inside and out. Abutting panels were grouted together.
Although Atterbury's prototypes were technically and stylistically acceptable, they were costly. Large trucks and cranes were needed to transport and erectthe heavy concrete panels. Molds and other manufacturing equipment represented substantial capital investments that had to be amortized. Only if prefabricated and constructed in great volume could the system prove itself economically feasible. This was never to be.
The Sage foundation completed Forest Hills Gardens with houses designed by Atterbury, but built conventionally and less expensively. Even many years later, in 1943, the New York City Housing Authority rejected Atterbury's proposal for constructing thousands of low-cost, prefabricated concrete housing units. Despite potential economies of scale afforded by volume production, the city still favored conventional construction.
Immediately after World War II, pent-up demand for new homes was accompanied by a consensus among designers that housing prefabrication and industrialization were at last achievable. Just as space-age technical progress in the 1960s had fueled the optimism of architects, engineers and builders, similar wartime advances in methods of production and technology had inspired their predecessors in the 1940s.
Among the first postwar prefabrication attempts was Koch's "Acorn House," a two-bedroom home whose 24-foot-by-35-foot shell could be folded up to form a single 8-foot-by-24-foot "core." Supported on exposed steel beams beneath the floor, the core contained the factory-made kitchen, bathroom and mechanical equipment. With its room wings folded, the compact house could be transported easily.
The Acorn House was built like an airplane. Its walls were stressed-skin, paper honeycomb sandwich panels, making the house light and durable. Interior wall surfaces were plywood. In one day, four men could move it from its trailer to a prepared foundation, unfold it, make necessary bolted joint and utility connections, install the "innards,", and turn it over for occupancy.
In 1949, the Acorn House was projected to cost $6,000 to $7,000 F.O.B., of which less than 15 percent was factory labor. Adding approximately $1,000 for transportation and erection costs, plus 10 percent profit, brought the selling price (excluding the lot) to just under $10,000. Estimates in 1951 anticipated that eight houses a day could be produced with 125 man hours per house, plus nine man hours for indirect labor and supervision. To achieve this level of productivity, $325,000 had to be invested in machinery, tools and equipment. On paper, the idea appethur Bartow commission report noted ". . . how vastly different the Acorn was from what people were used to. In appearance . . . it was rather unobtrusive and demure, but with respect to . . . methods of plumbing, framing and foundation, it was probably in violation on 15 or more counts of the building codes of every town in New England." Authorities wondered about wall studs -- codes required two-by-fours no more than 16 inches apart -- but the Acorn House had no studs at all.
Lenders balked at mortgaging prefabricated houses that could be folded up and moved ("were they really real estate?"). In New England, people worried about lack of a basement and heating a structure with paper in its walls. Smaller than many conventional houses, the Acorn House seemed too big and well equipped to be marketed as a vacation cottage. And perhaps most critically, its $10,000 selling price was about the same as many comparable builders' homes on the market at that time, whose price included the lot.
Despite good press coverage (including a spread in Life Magazine), the lack of guaranteed continuous sales and mortgage financing made plant financing difficult. Without a plant, dealerships and steady sales, there was no cash flow. Thus, the project remained only an experiment.
A decade later, the Alside Corp., an aluminum-siding company, developed an innovative factory-made building system based on a 12-foot-by-14-foot-by-8-foot repetitive space module. Formed by a black steel frame of tubular columns and beams, modules could be joined in a variety of ways to make different house models. Stressed-skin sandwich panels, made of polystyrene cores faced with aluminum were fabricated in several colors to compose exterior walls. All parts, including floor and roof panels, kitchens, bathrooms, appliances and mechanical equipment, were manufactured in the plant and shipped in kits to dealers.
Like the Acorn House, the only work done outside the factory was site preparation and foundations, atop which a crew of five workers could assemble the house in one week. In 1959, the crisply detailed, internationally styled Alside House was priced to sell at about $9 a square foot to compete with conventional builders' homes. Having built new automated factories using tape-control milling and high-speed data processing ($10 million was invested in tooling), Alside seemed both committed and destined to make its mark in the American housing industry.
But it failed. Despite sophisticated design, despite a network of dealers with model homes to show, despite acceptance by consumers and FHA and labor unions and building code officials, Alside was unprepared for the cyclical, erratic, localized nature of the real estate and mortgage markets. Financially unable to stockpile houses, dealers naturally placed orders only when customer orders were firm.
With purchase orders coming in unevenly, Alside had to slow down production and distribution, in turn driving up its per-unit cost and ultimate selling price, which then made its houses less competitive. Alside was trapped in a vicious circle from which it could not escape. Sales continued falling as dealers hedged and prices rose. Factory production slowed further. Having barely begun, the plant soon closed its doors.
What do these cases, among others, illustrate? Problems associated with prefabrication or industrialization of housing are not necessarily technological or even esthetic. There is no secret to designing houses acceptable to a large share of the market, that can be produced efficiently in a factory.
The real roadblocks relate to marketing and financing in volume, and to the uncertainties of national and local economic conditions. If sufficient numbers of people can't afford to buy on a continuous basis, if mortgages and working capital are unavailable or too expensive, or if there is no concentrated, large-scale housing procurement program, then no amount of creative design or industrial efficiency will make the factory-built house preeminent. of Maryland.