Notes on “Prefab Architecture,” by Ryan E. Smith


I have started reading this book as a way survey the history and techniques of prefabrication in architecture and housing. I’m pretty excited about it so far.

The forward is pretty much a canned James Timberlake monologue, but it’s brief and valuable as a quick refresher on the potential of prefabrication in architecture.In the first chapter,  Smith details a brief history of prefabrication in architecture. He starts with the Manning Portable Cottage, an innovation from the 18’30’s but where it really starts to get interesting is when he focuses on mass production and kit homes in the united states. He mentions Sears-Roebuck’s catalog based housing, the concepts of Fordism, wartime housing, postwar housing, and the importance of Veteran Emergency Housing Act, which mandated the production of 850,000 prefabricated houses in two years. The VEHA spawned several companies, including the Lustron Corporation, Levitt Town, and Eichler Homes.

Lustron produced all steel houses in postwar vacated airplane factories, using automotive metal sandwich panel techniques.  The houses were too expensive and only 2,500 were produced. They were also, in Smith’s words, “cold, both visually and in temperature.”

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Levitt Used principles of assembly line production and a separation of construction planning and execution to maximize production efficiencies and material use. His houses were unremarkable, all alike, and foreshadowed contemporary cookie-cutter suburban subdivisions:

levittown image_main1

Joseph Eichler also developed a system-based construction method, but grew up in a Frand Lloyd Wright house and hired architects to design courtyard and exterior-interior relational plans which used post-and-beam designs and lots of glazing. Standardized mechanical and plumbing systems allowed for variation within a set system. Eichler was influenced by California modernists and was a socialist, who wanted to make modern available to the middle class. Smith asserts that Eichler was reasonably successful in comparison to Lustron and Levitt. However, the impact of his homes is very little. His success is attributed to aesthetics, location, and the attention to detail, quality, and design which Joe Eichler was willing to offer in the process.  This Eichler fellow sounds like someone we might really look into. Here are a couple images of his work:

livingroom photo2

After focusing on the postwar efforts of prefabrication, Smith visits mobile and manufactured housing. Mobile homes have had an undeniable impact on American housing. in 1968, one quarter of all single family housing in the united states were mobile. Mobile houses became wider (from 8′ to 10′. and from 10′ to 12′ and 14′ wide. ) in 1976, “double wides” were introduced, where two modules were towed to a site and set in place, creating a 28′ wide home.

Mobile homes are not subject to the IBC, but are instead governed by the less restrictive HUD code. They are now referred to as “Manufactured homes” by the industry. The lack of design variety and the poor construction quality of mobile homes have caused society to deem them insignificant, but as they do meet the basic requirements of shelter, and are the cheapest option bar none , it accounts for 4% of new single-family housing in the US. Smith asserts that it has succeeded Because it is not part of the waste-laden architecture and construction industry methods of delivery.

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