When Carl Koch wrote At Home With Tomorrow (1958), his paean to prefabrication in housing, he was mining a skein of modernist thought with roots back to the 19th century. More importantly, as the title suggests, he was advocating an idea that was gaining momentum and familiarity in postwar America. That idea—modular, configurable housing produced through industrial mass-production methods—was shared and promoted by progressive architects and thinkers such as Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Buckminster Fuller. With a boost from wartime technologies, and visual exposure to the ubiquitous military Quonset hut, the time seemed ripe to advance what had been perceived as a visionary goal, vaguely utopian, often less vaguely futuristic, and by 1956 there were some 225 different pre-fab house projects on the market.
Koch himself was involved in two notable efforts—the Lustron house, an early postwar attempt at an all-steel modular dwelling—and the TechBuilt house, which premiered in 1953. The Lustron project began auspiciously, with backing from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, but ended dismally in pre-production, with a taxpayer loss in excess of 30 million dollars. Koch was merely a design consultant on the project—he pinned the failure on bureaucratic scale and bad timing.
Lustron house, exterior and interior, circa 1950.
The TechBuilt house was Koch’s own project, and was, in his own words, an unexpected success, in terms of sales if not in terms of profitability. By 1956, when his book was being written, sales had reached 2.4 million dollars (upwards of 400 or so units). Koch attributed the appeal of the house to the use of traditional materials (wood) and traditional, regional architectural elements (A-frame roof, saltbox shape). Koch was clearly on to something here—his TechBuilt designs (there were eventually seven different models) mitigated the perception that pre-fab houses were too mechanical-looking and regimented.
TechBuilt house, circa 1953.
Optimistic that prefabrication was the wave of the future for the housing industry, Koch proclaimed in his book that "the industry is on sound footing, with necessity behind it." He may have been right, but he was off by at least fifty years. By the early 1960’s, the post-war flirtation with prefabrication had ended, and the business of housing construction in America returned to "hammer and handsaw," to custom building. Progressive thinking about prefabrication passed to England, Japan, and Finland. Only recently, with a groundswell of interest in green design, has a rationale for prefabrication re-emerged in the American market, reflected in a growing range of options from an increasing number of architectural firms. More on this in the next post.
TechBuilt house, second view.
Interior views of the TechBuilt house.