COLUMBUS, OHIO -- The debate over the role of factory-produced housing in the United States and the potential loss of that business to technologically advanced foreign firms divided building experts gathered here this week for a meeting on the future of the nation's housing.

Foreign housing innovations, particularly those introduced in recent years in Japan and Scandinavia, received mixed reactions from the 150 builders, developers and architects attending the meeting of the National Institute of Building Sciences, a Washington-based private and public partnership authorized by Congress 10 years ago to study a wide range of housing and construction issues.

Various housing experts said the American building industry lags far behind its counterparts in Japan and Europe, but that claim was disputed by several representatives from U.S. home manufacturing firms.

Those who warned about the foreign housing advances said the American home builder must wake up to the ever-changing market or face the kind of overseas competition that has wreaked havoc in the U.S. automobile industry.

"The world has gotten a lot smaller," said MacDonald Becket, a Santa Monica, Calif., architect. He said it was not long ago that Detroit car makers stubbornly "thought {foreign firms} couldn't ship their cars from Japan and Germany.

"If anyone thinks the foreign {housing} competition isn't coming, they're dead wrong," Becket said.

He added that the U.S. home builder "must move a lot faster" to stave off the increasing competitive advances by overseas housing companies.

In the past several years, more foreign housing firms have begun eyeing the U.S. home building market as the next possible target for large-scale invasion. The slumping U.S. dollar, mixed with a leveling off of the foreign firms' domestic housing markets, is making it more sensible for many of these firms to consider U.S. plants to tap the lucrative American home buying market.

"Our companies are getting very Westernized," said Masamichi Matsumura, international office manager of Sekisui Chemical Co. Ltd., a large Tokyo manufactured housing firm. In an interview, he characterized the U.S. housing market as "a business opportunity" for Japanese companies.

During the past couple of years, an increasing number of foreign firms, particularly Japanese companies, have been purchasing large office towers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Washington and other cities. Many experts say that with the success of these transactions, more foreign firms will view the U.S. housing market as a solid target.

At least 10 foreign firms are already importing their sophisticated factory-built homes to eager American buyers willing to pay the hefty shipping costs of imported homes.

The concept of factory-built homes is quickly being grasped by foreign housing manufacturers as a way to attract the attention of American consumers who always seem eager to experiment with new products. For those consumers, like the millions who have purchased foreign automobiles, buying an imported home does not raise questions of patriotism, as suggested by some car and home manufacturing firms.

"We are looking for a good chance to develop our business in this country," Matsumura said, adding that his company hopes to enter the U.S. market within the next five years.

Several speakers at the two-day conference said American builders must learn to adapt their long-held building traditions, especially their reluctance to embrace factory-produced housing, if they are to stay competitive in what is rapidly becoming a worldwide housing market.

"We have a difficult time accepting industrialized housing," said Daniel Riedel, a Brookville, Ohio, builder of manufactured houses. "People in America don't like to know that their homes come out of the factory."

That is not the case in many other industrialized nations, where sophisticated computer housing factory systems proliferate. In Sweden, for example, upwards of 95 percent of the nation's houses are produced in factories under a highly automated system that provides hundreds of home style options.

But in the United States, the perception generally associated with the factory-built home typically is one of low quality. Within the home construction industry itself, particularly builders of the traditional on-site, stick-built home, many of the manufactured homes are believed to be just "plain ugly," as one speaker said.

"Builders have to recognize the integration of industrialized housing in our society," Riedel said.

But not all the conference's participants were gloomy about the American builder's technological advances, especially representatives from modular housing firms.

John Slayter, research director for the Ryland Group of Columbia, Md., a large U.S. home building firm that produces factory-built houses as well as traditional homes, said American builders have been leaders in housing technology during the past 100 years "while other countries were in the Stone Age.

"We don't need a lot of high technology and we don't need to look overseas for them to teach us," said Slayter, who characterized the domestic housing industry as "highly evolved and quite sophisticated."

But others warned that ignoring the foreign building firms and their overtures to the American housing market could be disastrous.

"The worst thing is to turn our backs to that {foreign} competition," Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste told the housing group. "If the rules of the game are fair ... we can compete."

As foreign builders have already begun doing, American home builders must start looking to manufactured housing on a large-scale, nationwide basis, several industry officials said.

Art Danielian, an Irvine, Calif., architect, said that with the sharp decline in recent years of skilled and unskilled construction workers and the increase in the use of computers throughout society, highly automated manufactured housing will be seen as a viable solution by now-reluctant builders.

"It's inevitable the factory-built house will play an increasing role in our industry," he said. "How fast will depend on how quickly the industry will establish a national commitment to it."