Michael Harris

GREEN GUIDE TO PREFAB: The History of The Kit Home

by , 10/25/11

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Prefabricated housing has seen a surge in popularity over the last few years as an affordable, eco-friendly and modern alternative to custom stick-built housing or suburban tract homes. Although prefab construction has experienced a recent spike in popularity in this past decade, the idea of prefabricated building construction is nothing new – prefab designs have been around for over a century, embedded in the history of the modern architecture movement. In order to really understand prefab housing, we’re going to dive into a history lesson and take a look back at the prefab home movement during the last century.

Inhabitat is pleased to announce the launch of a brand new six-part series, The Green Guide To Prefab Housing, where we are enlisting the expertise of graduate architect, former Lindal Cedar Homes CEO and green design consultant Michael Harris. In our first three installments, Michael introduces us to the prefabricated home as a modern, green design alternative, analyzing the roots of factory-made housing and how its core concepts have converged with the precepts of sustainability and modernism. How has factory-built housing been informed by modernism and the green movement? And how has prefab construction influenced green, modern design? Jump ahead to part one this series where Michael will take you on an in-depth tour of a particular type of prefab package; the kit-home.

GREEN GUIDE TO PREFAB: The History of Modernism and the Prefabricated Housing Movement

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The Prefab Industry: Convenience, Resource Efficiency and a Streamlined Design

The prefab industry includes producers of different home types that generally fall into two categories: Kit Homes and preassembled / prebuilt structures. Both these categories were born and developed under vastly different traditions and each offer different benefits to consumers.

The difference between the two types is basically in how assembled the house is when it is moved onto your site. Is the house arriving at the site as a fully built house or a ‘kit of parts’? (By contrast to this, a traditional stick is constructed on site, and all materials are measured, cut and assembled on site – which is a really inefficient use of time and money). Pre-cut, panelized, post and beam, and log homes that come as a pack of parts fall into the “Kit House” category, offering houses that are shipped effectively as a kit of parts — ready for quick and efficient on-site assembly. On the other hand, the “prebuilt” category includes houses that are shipped (usually on the back of flatbed trucks) as pre-constructed volumes that can be joined on-site to form a larger home.

The first part of our series is a detailed exploration of the origin and development of kit-homes. If you’ve ever considered, or are considering, jumping onto the prefab bandwagon, here you’ll find the low-down on how a kit-house works, and the best approach to constructing a modern kit home.

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The History and Development of Kit Homes

1908-1940: The Sears Roebuck Kit House

The birthplace of American prefab was in 1908 with Sears Roebuck’s pre-cut kit homes. This new iteration of the modern home offered hundreds of designs in a printed catalog and the possibility of a homeowner designing their own home — which Sears would pre-cut. Sears’ first ‘Modern Home’ catalogue offered 22 different kit designs and ranged in cost from just $650 to $2500 (20-60k in 2011 dollars).

Sears’ offer gave Americans the popular styles they were seeking, as well as up-to-date floor plans that didn’t require an architect. The option was also easily constructible, coming in a package of framing and trim materials that arrived by rail. The style, the convenience and the savings that resulted from reduced design fees and efficient on-site framing were attractive enough to consumers to earn Sears over 70,000 customers between 1908 and 1940.

More than just creating a space, Sears’ strategy was to eventually sell the home-building customer all the finishes, furnishings, plumbing and heating equipment — all which came readily available in the Sears main retail catalogue. Seeing the effectiveness of their plan, other mass merchandisers quickly followed suit.

By 1920 kit houses were popular with consumers, but the movement lost speed when many homeowners naively thought they could save substantially by building their own home. This disastrous misconception was memorialized in the Buster Keaton silent movie, One Week, in which a newlywed couple attempts to build a kit home. The movie may be silent, but it speaks volumes to the hazards of trying to become your own general contractor — something that exists today more than ever. The lesson to be gleaned from this is that if building is not your expertise, don’t let a smooth-talking salesperson convince you otherwise. Instead, take the proper steps to construction now to save you heartache (and money) in the long-run.

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1937 – Walter Gropius’ Industrial Approach and the East Coast Tradition

In 1937, Walter Gropius, Germany’s venerable leader of the Bauhaus movement, left pre-war Germany for the United States to become Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Beginning with his own modest house in Lincoln, MA, Gropius demonstrated the power of a built environment that is carefully mated to its natural site. The Gropius House, in the true European Bauhaus spirit, celebrated industrialization and was built of off-the-shelf industrial products not yet common in homes.

 

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1949 – The Impact of Carl Koch’s Innovative Building System

In 1949, Carl Koch, a student of Gropius’, took prefab to a new level by creating an efficient building system. The new prefab consisted of a load bearing post and beam skeleton with ribs spaced on four foot centers, and prefabricated wall panels that fit between the ribs and were non-load bearing. Roof panels and large factory built windows fit neatly into the bays, and the efficiency of the building system was further enhanced by a fresh planning concept that incorporated the attic volume into the main living area. Koch also opened the basement to the daylight using it as secondary living space. Techbuilt claimed that their modern houses could save consumers 30-50% of the cost of a conventional home.

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Continuing in the Gropius architectural lineage, two of Koch’s architect colleagues founded Acorn and Deck House in Concord, MA. Meticulously designed post and beam building systems with their own architectural signatures, each came precut and panelized and was personalized to the building site and the client’s needs. Skilled systems designers created the efficient houses that utilized parts repetitively and efficiently, and reduced factory waste and on-site construction time.

Acorn continued to flourish, and during the late 1970s and 1980s they became leaders in the housing industry in passive solar (Deck House) and active solar (Acorn) design, which responded to the oil crisis and federal solar tax credits. The companies’ reputations in energy efficient eco-sited houses led to innovative manufacturers to select these companies to pilot new products — the Deck House was the first company to produce windows with Heat Mirror film and later low-e glass. Housing manufacturers had the research and development muscle to lead where local builders and small architectural firms struggled. Acorn produced hundreds of houses with it proprietary solar collectors, Lord Rumford fireplaces, while Deck Houses produced hundreds with passive solar sunspaces, trombe walls, mechanical sunshades and early radiant floors. Housing manufacturers showed that system building could save consumers on design expenses, construction costs, and now energy, year after year.

1945 – Case Study Homes: The West Coast Tradition

However, it was World War II that brought significant changes to the ideals of modernism. The rationing of commodities such as gasoline, and the retooling of industrial America from refrigerators and automobiles to the armaments of war led the country to a new American ideal; personal consumption took a backseat to the war effort.

As a response to this restrained climate, Art and Architecture magazine announced the Case Study House program in January 1945. The program challenged architects and manufacturers to act responsibly and responsively, stating: “The houses will be conceived within the spirit of our time using… techniques and materials best suited to the expression of… life in the modern world… to take the mystery… out of the hard facts that go into the building of house.”

The Case Study Houses, designed and built by leading architects of the time in Southern California between 1945 and 1962, defined American modernism as a design strategy irrespective of form. In these terms, modernism is responsive to the natural, social and economic environment, and to the cost control and efficiency afforded by mass production.

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In particular, the Case Study House #8, built by Charles and Ray Eames, utilized only off-the shelf materials procured for a previous version of the design, which were then reassembled into a new design. The latticed volume is situated on a hillside, blending with the topography in order to preserve the meadow and furnish views across it. Case Study Homes such as this inspired a generation of modern houses built throughout North America that were optimistic yet restrained, efficiently organized, free-flowing and were sensitive to the integration of the natural environment; modern was no longer defined by flat roofs or chilling spartan interiors. American modernism became a celebration of responsiveness, order, and efficiency. Homes built of industrial parts reduced cost, trading frivolous adornment for openness and flexibility.

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Unfortunately, while the Case Study houses pledged efficiency, cost control, and were assembled from industrialized parts, the houses never were systematized and mass-produced. This failure largely attributed to the inability of architects to discipline themselves to design within a system of predefined parts and details, and the inability of manufacturers to create systems that provide for mass-customization or welcome the inclusion of new materials and details into their existing system. Professor Colin Davies chronicles and analyzes the failure of architects and producers to form long lasting and productive partnerships in his 2005 book, The Prefabricated Home.

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Lindal Cedar Homes: Country Cousin to the Case Study Houses

Lindal Cedar Homes‘ prefabricated post and beam building system was founded in Canada by Sir Walter Lindal. In 1945 the system was developed as a countryside experiment running parallel to the urban Case Study homes. Sir Walter, a self-motivated inventor, sought to create a system that responded to the environment that used materials efficiently to control cost, and that could ultimately be personalized by the end-user to create their own weekend retreats. This system-built home utilized a kit of pre-designed parts, high quality lumber and windows

Like the Case Study homes, the early Lindal structures responded to the natural environment, they were open, flexible, practical and were efficient, post and beam homes. However, unlike the Case Study houses, they were created from one well-organized building system that today has been continually refined over the last 66 years.

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The Age of Excess Eclipses the Spirit of Modernism

While the preafab movement was a seemingly successful endeavor in creating efficient homes, at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, the spirit of modernism and its homes slowly devolved into a very different “moment” where the markers of success and wealth were measured by increased square footage and telescoping gables. Where consumers led, producers followed; time, materials, and money were consumed as if they existed in endless supply, and emphasis strayed from resource-efficient prefabricated housing to excess.

Stay tuned for our next two installments where we explore the roots of the “pre-built” home and how this faction of the prefab movement became a reaction to the ‘Age of Excess’. We will delve into the history of how these homes came to be, how they evolved, and how they’ve come to inform the prefabs we see built today by modern and green architects such as RES4, Marmol Radziner, Michelle Kauffman, and of course, those at Lindal Homes.

GREEN GUIDE TO PREFAB: The History of Modernism and the Prefabricated Housing Movement

Lindal Cedar Homes is the world’s largest provider of quality custom cedar homes. Founded in 1945, there are more than 50,000 Lindal cedar homes—and satisfied homeowners—worldwide. Known around the world for their signature post and beam building systemquality building materials and detailed craftsmanship, their experienced Lindal Cedar Homes dealers will help you each step of the way.

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Michael Harris is a MIT graduate with two degrees in architecture. Michael has made it his professional mission to innovate system-built design and the planning process to ensure fulfilling client experiences. Michael spent 31 years at Deck House Inc. working with clients, designing new products, innovating client-centric sales process and marketing, and was involved in the acquisition of a competing brand (Acorn Structures). He led the company as CEO and served on its Board of Directors for 15 years. In 2006, Michael joined Lindal Cedar Homes, working with executives, staff and dealers to build a new strategic plan, then implementing the plan as President and CEO. Today he works as an independent consultant and dealer (testing the efficacy of the plan by” walking the talk”).

While at Lindal, he led the company’s entry into the modern market; forged a collaboration with Dwell Media initiating Lindal’s participation in the Dwell Homes Collection; and created the Lindal Elements program, a new line of on-system designs and process he designed with the company’s creative staff. He brought the iconic industry player to become the first “Green Approved” building system by the NAHB Research Center and the only single family home included in TIME Magazine’s Green Design 100 in 2010.

In addition to selling and consulting, he serves on the Board of Advisors of Blu Homes, writes on the subject of manufactured housing, and enjoys life with his wife Carol, splitting their time between Seattle and their family’s home base in New York City.

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4 Comments

  1. baci October 20, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    My grandparents built a Hodgdon prefab house in Cohasset, Massachusetts. It is still there-with a two-storey addition over the original dining room. When we visited, I slept in the living room and I liked to look at all the bolts in the ceiling.

  2. quinny October 20, 2011 at 11:14 am

    My girlfriend and I are negotiating with several prefab factories as to who can quote us the best price for our new house.

    Saying that a house is prefab does not mean it is a kit house!

    We’ve designed our house ourselves (with a lot of help), we had drawings made for ease of prefabrication. It is a completely custom and original design.

  3. Jannes October 19, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    I have always wondered if prefab homes would last as long as a regular house. I suppose each prefab manufacturer is different and each house is subject to a unique environment, but as a general “rule of thumb”, which is more perennial?

  4. Diane Pham Diane Pham October 19, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    A fascinating read. I never really equated kit homes of the Sears Roebuck days with the prefabs we know and love today.

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