Last month we kicked off our Green Guide to Prefab series with an article exploring the history of prefabricated housing. Now we’re back with another article in this series to take a look at mobile homes and their influence on the development of prefabricated housing. Although the words ‘mobile home’ today often conjure up images of sprawling trailer parks outside cities, these compact homes-on-wheels were, in fact, part of a design revolution that gave way to a low-cost, portable option for single-family home ownership. Read on for the second installment of our Green Guide to Prefab, where former Lindal Cedar Homes CEO, and green design consultant Michael Harris schools us on the history of the mobile home and how it helped shape modern prefabricated housing.
The Preassembled Prefab: Born On a Truck Chassis, Matured Into Cost Effective Homes
Motel Rooms on Wheels Evolve Into Primary Homes for a Mobile Society
A new type of factory-produced house evolved in the 1930s and 1940s – while architects and manufacturers were creating factory-cut and site-built systems, mobile homes metamorphosed from “weekend caravans” — or motel rooms on wheels — into practical homes able to hit the road. These mobile homes offered an alternative to traditional homes at a modest scale and affordable price.
When major weekend caravan producers shifted production to full-time homes on wheels, they sought to provide the lowest cost antidote to the mammoth housing shortages of the Great Depression and WWII, when hundreds of thousands of soldiers returned to their parents and spouses and wanted a home of their own. They also understood that relocating several times might be required if they were to find steady employment.
It is no surprise that the mobile home industry’s roots are in the Midwest – near cities where automobiles and trucks were produced. The mobile homes were built on chassis with wheels, clad in polished or enameled sheet aluminum with small sliding windows, and were sold completely finished with bathrooms, complete kitchens, wood paneling and furniture.
An Affordable Approach to Single Family Home Ownership
By the 1950s, hundreds of producers had sprung up across the country with names like Skyline, Fleetwood and Champion, selling 10 by 60 foot mobile homes for $4,000. These same companies have continued to refine their products and remain leaders among the nearly 100 mobile home producers today.
Mobile home owners didn’t typically purchase home sites – instead they tended to rent small “pads” with utility hookups in mobile home “parks.” The homes typically remained on wheels, sometimes with decorative skirting to conceal them. Affordability – not modern design and customization – was the primary design goal at the time.
While architects and producers of kit houses managed to create a new design paradigm aimed at efficiency and affordability, mobile home producers were the most successful in reaching that goal and they became the largest segment of the prefab industry. By 1970, mobile homes accounted for over 10% of new homes, with total production of over one million units.
The Mobile Home Construction and Safety Standards
Over time the popularity of mobile homes began to decline – fewer homeowners hooked their homes up to a vehicle and drove them elsewhere. Also, since they are classified as vehicles, mobile homes could not be financed with mortgages and this became a problem for consumers planning to purchase land and finance their homes. Mobile home parks were also viewed as a blight by some communities, and fatal fires and accidents drew focus upon the fact that the construction of mobile homes was not regulated by any building codes or safety standards.
In 1974, Congress enacted the Mobile Home Construction and Safety Standards Act (the HUD Code), and the mobile home industry was reborn as the “manufactured” housing industry. The wheels and chassis came off the units, which were placed, single or double wide, on permanent foundations. Sheet aluminum siding was replaced with aluminum clapboards, and windows were upgraded to double-hung windows which often came with shutters. Thus it was that prefab construction developed from caravans to mobile homes to modular houses that took on the appearance of conventional ranch homes. Home mortgage financing became available for modular houses, granting them legitimacy and giving buyers access to long-term home financing.
In order to capture more of the new home market, producers created systems that enabled flat roofs to fold up to form moderately pitched roofs once a home was installed on-site. Producers also developed systems for stacking modules together to look like traditional homes, drawing attention away from their modular construction.
Affordability was still the primary goal, and the crowing achievement of the modular producers. In 1995, they produced over 300,000 homes and captured over 20% of the new home construction market.
In keeping with the times, modular homes continued to grow in scale and complexity (I have seen a single family home composed of 35 stacked and connected modules!), and costs have risen with the inclusion of more upscale finishes and amenities. Still, the advantage of dramatically reduced on-site construction time and predictable cost continue to attract many consumers.