On a bitterly cold, gray February day in 1968, Boston architect Carl Koch and I left our Moscow hotel for a field trip. Led by our congenial guide, we were to visit a housing factory and several housing projects in the Soviet capital.
This chilly venture was part of our study, "Roadblocks to Innovation in the Housing Industry," for the National Commission on Urban Problems. Our mission was to compare the goals, methods, circumstances and achievements of European housing innovation with those of the United States.
What we saw and learned was impressive. Motivated by crisis-level shortages of housing after World War II, postwar European governments had undertaken or supported massive programs of housing production. Building in high volume had become a national priority for many countries, an unquestioned necessity in the face of severe, urban overcrowding and citizen demand for immediate remedies.
In the Soviet Union, factory-made housing had seemed to be the logical answer. Questions of architectural merit or aesthetic values were secondary, if considered at all. The objective was output, to produce as many individual dwelling units as possible, as quickly as possible, regardless of other compromises or considerations.
At the time, the Soviet government had built more than 1,000 plants to prefabricate housing components, mostly panels or box-like modules of concrete, to meet its goal. Indeed, they were erecting 300 units a day in Moscow alone. Nationally, more than 2 million dwelling units were constructed annually; nearly 85 percent were factory-produced.
Prefabricated dwellings in Moscow were small by American standards. Tiny, one-, two-, or three-bedroom apartments were stacked in walk-up or high-rise buildings. These slablike structures, in turn, were arranged regimentally in new, high-density districts that looked much like public housing projects built in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. Minimally landscaped open spaces, appearing forlorn and lifeless in midwinter, separated and surrounded buildings.
Reinforced wall panels, typically insulated, prewired, preplumbed and prewindowed in the plant, had rough and uneven finishes. Decoration, if any, was marginal. Ornamental ceramic tiles sometimes were cast into panel surfaces at the factory, but these frequently were misaligned and regularly fell off during or after installation. Precast elements were aligned only approximately; level planes, plumb lines and flush joints were rare.
Despite such design and construction shortcomings, vast quantities of new housing, ugly but structurally sound, were being supplied. Young married couples, previously obliged to share cramped quarters with parents and other relatives, at last could rent or cooperatively purchase a place of their own, no matter how modest. Citizens were grateful for whatever privacy and personal territory they could claim, never doubting the appropriateness of the government's efforts to meet quantitative goals first. Quality would come later.
Before arriving in the U.S.S.R., we visited Sweden, where conditions were obviously different. Sweden's housing industry, unlike Russia's, is not nationalized, although the government both collaborates with, and regulates, private enterprise. Sweden, too, faced nationwide housing shortages that might have suggested sacrificing quality for quantity. But the country has a centuries-old tradition of quality craftsmanship, along with its traditions of private home-building and manufacturing.
In Malmo, a quick hydrofoil trip from Copenhagen, we visited a plant making the "heart unit." It's a completely prefinished, three-dimensional, rectangular concrete box containing a kitchen, bathroom, hot-water heater and furnace and laundry. Everything was plugged into a common, central wall with built-in plumbing and wiring. Delivered by truck to the site, heart units were lifted by cranes and placed on prepared foundations or structural frames. They only needed to be connected to in-place utilities, after which the rest of the house or apartment could be assembled around them. In effect, the manufacturer was implementing part of Buckminster Fuller's 1927 "dymaxion house" concept -- the house as a "machine for living, a service core at its center. With specialized, standardized trade work concentrated in the factory, these appropriately named service modules nevertheless could be incorporated into a wide variety of flexible dwelling types.
In contrast to factories and housing seen in Russia, Sweden's were exceedingly refined, neat and well detailed. On plant assembly lines or construction sites, Swedish workers rigorously maintain craftsmanship standards of care and precision. Heart units were pristine, beautifully designed, consistently dimensioned and finished. Before leaving the factory, everything was in place and checked, ready for use. There was even a roll of toilet paper in the toilet paper holder.
Since our visit to Sweden in 1968, industrialization and energy consciousness have accelerated. According to the recently published "Coming in from the Cold: Energy Wise Housing in Sweden," ". . . the share of single-family houses assembled from factory-built elements has grown from 40 . . . to 90 percent." Yet construction performance, quality and consumer acceptance of prefabrication have grown with it. Sweden's housing producers simply have moved most of their construction indoors. Likewise, customers go enthusiastically to factories to select and inspect their products as they are manufactured.
Sweden believes that the provision of adequate housing is a matter of national policy and purpose. Its government works closely with designers, manufacturers, builders and consumers to reach consensus on all major issues affecting the supply and quality of Swedish housing. National construction standards and performance codes are mutually established; technical research is advocated, funded and applied; and virtually all home mortgages are subsidized. This public policy, a product of the ongoing partnership between government and private interests, has yielded a stable housing market accompanied by consistent levels of employment.
In marked contrast to Sweden and the Soviet Union, American housing markets and construction are extremely cyclical, regionalized, fragmented and chronically under-capitalized. Home building is an "industry" primarily in name.
Mass production of housing at a scale comparable to Europe's would require the action of centralized housing authorities capable of committing economic resources for hundreds of thousands of units annually. Vertical integration of all phases of production would be needed. Regional and national land-use policies, along with nationally accepted codes and standards, would have to be adopted. Or perhaps there would have to exist a relatively homogeneous national market with few differences in design taste, income, climate, building practices, technology or local politics. These clearly are not conditions characterizing the United States.
Only the mobile-home industry has achieved continuous factory production of a low-cost dwelling on a substantial scale. Yet mobile homes are still not a "mainstream" form of housing, being located typically in rural or urban fringe areas, and mostly in Sun Belt states (often, it seems, where tornadoes touch down). Mobile homes still are considered unacceptable as principal residences by a large majority of the population and the building industry.
In a geographically dispersed, diversified, free enterprise system such as ours, only concerted actions by all levels of government are likely to transform the nominal housing industry into an actual industry. Whether this in fact is desirable poses another, more ideological question, one that certainly has been answered "no" for the moment.