A century ago, Henry Ford’s canny use of mass production put the automobile — a former plaything of the wealthy — within reach of the average American. Since then, mass production has made complex products from clocks to computers affordable to pretty much everyone.
In the same 100 years, however, the way we build houses has hardly changed at all. In fact, if you set aside niceties like electricity, telephones and central heating, basic building techniques have actually changed very little in a millennium. Whether we assemble houses with oaken pegs or pneumatic nails, they’re still largely handmade from laboriously cut and fitted individual pieces, and put together one at a time.
Over the course of the 20th century, there have been many attempts to bring mass-production methods to the building industry. The Aladdin Co. began selling precut houses in 1906, and two years later, retailing giant Sears Roebuck began offering houses by mail order. Each Sears Modern Home came in a 25-ton kit consisting of precut lumber and virtually all the other materials required to complete the building. Prices ranged from $650 to $2,500, and 22 styles were offered. Precutting the lumber not only made the houses cheaper, but also reduced onsite construction time by some 40 percent. More than 70,000 Sears Modern Homes were sold before the program ended in 1940, a victim of the Depression economy and vexing differences in local building codes.
Inventor Buckminster Fuller began pondering the concept of mass-produced housing in 1927, and by the close of World War II, he’d arrived at his Dymaxion House, a futuristic circular structure slung from a central pylon. The house used aircraft-style aluminum skin construction, allowing it to be mass-produced in aircraft plants left idle by the war’s end. It also incorporated a slew of visionary conservation features we’ve yet to see in today’s homes.
Yet only two Dymaxion houses were actually built in prototype form before the venture’s commercial failure.
By far the most ambitious attempt to mass-produce complete houses was the Lustron House, developed by inventor Carl Strandlund and introduced in 1947. Although the house featured a sleek porcelain enamel exterior, its design cleverly evoked a traditional cottage, and the company quickly piled up more than 20,000 orders. Strandlund’s 1 million-square-foot factory, built with $32.5 million in federal loans, was laid out like an automotive assembly plant and was widely presumed to augur the future of the housing industry. Yet Lustron was ultimately able to produce only 2,498 units before declaring bankruptcy in 1950.
Since that time, other attempts at mass-producing houses — or at least sections of them — have come and gone. A number of companies continue to furnish kit houses of various kinds, from log cabins to domes, but true mass production remains elusive. Ironically, the much-maligned "mobile home" industry — whose products were once known as house trailers but are now more politely dubbed manufactured housing — probably comes closest to offering a truly mass-produced house. Alas, the industry hasn’t yet managed to shake the public image of its products as flimsy, look-alike boxes.
Time after time, it seems, ambitious and sophisticated housing ventures have been torpedoed by the vast startup costs inherent in any mass-production enterprise, as well as by the equally vast resistance of both the public and the building industry to radical new ideas. Yet as the need for broadly affordable housing increases, the disconnect between how we build houses and how we build everything else will only become more glaring. If the previous century couldn’t offer a viable solution, we’d better hope the next one can.
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