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By Members of the Staff of the 
Department of Electrical Engineering, 
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 


Extensions to the Mathematical Training of Electrical Engineers 
By E. A. Guillemin 


A First Course for Power and Communication Engineers 


A First Course in Electronics, Electron Tubes, and Associated Circuits 


A First Course in Circuit Analysis for Electrical Engineers 


By Burnham Kelly 


A Case Study in the Shoe Industry 
By George P. Shultz 


By Charles P. Kindleberger 

By Arturo Rosenblueth 


The Social Implications of Scientific Progress 
By John Burchard 


Compiled and edited by Douglas P. Adams 

with Engineering Applications 
By Norbert Wiener 


Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine 
By Norbert Wiener 

By John Burchard 

By R. S. Bates 


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By C. A. Myers and W. R. Maclaurin 


By J. A. Stratton, P. M. Morse, L. J. Chu, and R. A. Hutner 


Measured and compiled under the direction of G. L. Harrison 




A Study by the Albert Farwell Bemis 
Foundation of the Prefabrication Industry 
in the United States 


The Technology Press of 

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York 
Chapman & Hall, Ltd., London 



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'. . . he that strives to touch the starres, 
oft stombles at a strawe" 


The Shepheardes Calender 


Fourteen years ago Albert Farwell Bemis completed his important 
trilogy on housing, published under the general title, The Evolving 
House. The final volume of this work, Rational Design, was largely 
devoted by Mr. Bemis to exposition of his modular theory, a theory 
which has since found wide application in the standardization of the 
dimensions of building materials. 

The volume also contained a long appendix which I had the privilege 
of putting together and which at the time of publication was perhaps 
the largest single compilation of the efforts of various people over the 
years to arrive at a design for a factory-made house. 

This appendix had serious defects, and the greatest of these was 
one common to the times, and one from which prefabrication has not 
yet escaped, that is, an inordinate interest in the engineering detail of 
the various proposals and an inadequate interest in all the other factors 
which might determine success or failure. 

It is true that I attempted to correct this by publishing a list of 
questions which a hopeful prefabricator ought conscientiously to ask 
himself, but even these were heavily weighted on the side of design; 
and, though the individual descriptions did attempt to state many 
facts about each proposal, these facts were obtained from the armchair, 
so to speak, by using the replies sent in by the sponsors themselves. 
Experience has shown that sponsors are universally overoptimistic. 

In the process of putting together this appendix, we naturally ac 
cumulated very substantial files of information. Mr. Bemis died in 
1936, while his last volume was in the press; in 1938 Mrs. Bemis and 
her children established the Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation for 
housing research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I had 
the honor to be the first Director. The information files came with the 
Foundation to M.I.T. 

We had scarcely put together a working team when war came along 
and scattered it. In 1945 when some of us came back I was soon suc 
ceeded as Director by Burnham Kelly, who is the author of this book. 


The interest in prefabrication was even more intense in the postwar 
period than it had been in the thirties. The files of the Bemis Founda 
tion, though far from complete, were certainly among the largest in 
the country. The Foundation was frequently sought out by visitors, 
especially from abroad, who were seeking the truth about a business 
concerning which many half-truths or untruths were being said. In 
the light of this interest it soon became apparent that we needed much 
more information than we had, and of many different kinds, if an 
approximation to truth was going to be possible. It was also clear that 
much of this information could be obtained only by personal observa 
tion in the communities of the various entrepreneurs. It was this that 
started the Foundation to collecting more information by the process 
of field survey. It is the results of this field survey and the conclusions 
which may be drawn from them that the reader will find in this book. 

Prefabrication, or the factory manufacture of houses, means many 
different things to different people. To some it is a variegated Gol- 
conda; the seeker for a house who finds that what he does not want 
costs more than what he wants to pay imagines that houses produced 
like automobiles or radios ought to be nearer his heart's desire; the 
entrepreneur imagines that he may be another Ford; the manufacturer 
of conventional building materials wonders whether he may not sell 
more of these by making them into some sort of package; the manu 
facturer of building equipment fancies that he may have all his latest 
apparatus in every house if he provides the package as well; a national 
president faced with depression may look to it as a new industry to 
lead from the morass; the opponent of subsidized housing may see a 
chance of arresting the tide if the cost of the housing unit can be 
materially reduced through factory methods. And all these hopes 
would have some justification if only the successful commercial manu 
facture of houses on a large scale could be achieved. 

To others prefabrication is a source of fear and not of hope. The 
investor who is overcommitted in loans on real estate may legitimately 
wonder whether a sudden and significant downward shift in the cost 
of a house may not be disastrous; the building-trades laborer who 
pursues an antiquated craft with little of the joy of the onetime build 
ing craftsman may fear technological unemployment; the realtor who 
is not wise about real estate and is really nothing more than a peddler 
of some one else's property may have the same apprehension; and to 
a certain extent every present homeowner can share the fear of the 
investor although he may display it in an attitude towards the appear 
ance of the product. All these vested interests are precisely the same 
in kind as those which have historically opposed every other innova- 


tion (and which in the long run have always lost out). And the 
methods they use to oppose are fundamentally the same-the marshal 
ling of adverse public opinion, the imposition of restrictive legislation, 
the technique of the strike. All their fears would have some justifica 
tion if successful commercial manufacture on a large scale came about 
too suddenly. 

But there are others, too, who are interested. There are sincere en 
gineers and inventors who think that by application of their personal 
talents something socially important (and personally profitable) will 
come about. There are blageurs who are more interested in personal 
publicity than in a successful house and who, therefore, propose pre 
posterous but fascinating fantasies. These take the eyes of publishers 
who have magazines rather than realities to retail, and they serve as 
interesting table conversation among the avant garde; unfortunately, 
they also raise hopes, only to shatter them again. This has been going 
on for a long time too long. 

It is of course always possible that some miraculous invention may 
open the gates which have so long resisted all attack, but this seems 
very unlikely. It has seemed to some that enormous investments of 
capital might offer the key, but that this in itself is not enough seems 
witnessed by some recent events. Some of us have hoped that a thriv 
ing, if small and unspectacular, manufacturer of fairly conventional 
houses, might, step by step, year by year, introduce the improvements 
in structure and materials and the efficiencies in design and production 
which would gradually drive down the cost and increase the market. 
But none of these things has yet come about. 

I have spent so much discussion on what is after all a foreword 
largely as an easy way of saying what was wrong with my appendix 
of 1936 and of appreciating the corrections which I believe the reader 
will find in the present volume. It should be of interest to all those I 
have cited as having hopes or fears, to houseseeker and houseowner, 
to investor and realtor, to manufacturer looking hopefully beyond his 
own range, to building-trades laborer, to politician, and to statesman. 
At the most it may suggest how really to open the gate; at the least 
it will suggest how not to. 

Successful factory manufacture of houses will depend upon a first- 
rate combination of managerial brains, financial acumen, engineering 
skill, aesthetic sensibility, social consciousness, and marketing wisdom. 
A study of the state of the art stands therefore at the crossroads of the 
applied physical and social sciences, an appropriate place for a teacher 
at M.I.T. to stand. 

It is therefore a pleasure to say of this book by Mr. Kelly that I be 
lieve it has an important message to tell. I am gratified that he has 
done such a good job; and I think that Mr. Bemis, if he were alive, 
would be gratified, too. 

Cambridge, Massachusetts 
January, 1951 


In the hope of serving readers of widely varying interests, this book 
has been divided into three parts. The first part is editorial in nature. 
It includes a brief history of the prefabrication of houses in the United 
States, a summary of the present state of the industry, and some specu 
lation regarding its future. This material represents the best judg 
ment of the Bemis Foundation, and, while it has a broad basis in fact, 
we have not hesitated to generalize, to extrapolate, and to present our 
unsupported opinions. 

The second part of the book can better be described as reportorial. 
Here the industry has been treated as nearly as possible on a factual 
basis, with opinions given only when there is no other way by which a 
trained observer may record the facts. This material approaches the 
status of working data, and we hope that it may be used by men wiser 
than we to correct the conclusions reached in the first part. 

The third part of the book is a collection of more detailed appendix 
material, not suitable for inclusion in the text, but likely to prove use 
ful to many readers. 

We have emphasized throughout the book the importance of treat 
ing the prefabrication of houses as a complete pattern of operations of 
which management, design, procurement, production, and marketing 
are the major subdivisions. Indeed, the material in the second part is 
so organized that the reader will have to look under each of these 
subdivisions in order to gather all the information on any one com 
pany. To have organized the material by companies, while maintain 
ing this emphasis, would have meant endless repetition and a doubling 
of the bulk of the book. 

Far more important, the full understanding of each subdivision of 
the pattern of operations might have been lost in a company-by- 
company analysis. We hope to make it abundantly clear that the 
company which has good design must also have good management, 
intelligent procurement, efficient production, and effective marketing 
to have any chance of real success. 


A large part of the material on which the book is based was collected 
over a period of years in the files of the Bemis Foundation and its 
antecedent, Bemis Industries, Inc. The backbone of this study, how 
ever, was a detailed survey of prefabricators in the United States which 
was made by the Foundation in 1946 and 1947 and supplemented by 
an extended field survey by our Research Assistant, Herbert S. Heaven- 
rich, Jr. At that time, there were in the field more prefabricators and 
would-be-prefabricators than there had been ever before or have been 
since. With a postwar housing boom in view, and with the encourage 
ment of government and financial circles, many of those whose in 
genuity and productive skill had proved valuable in the war effort 
determined to invade the field of housing. The high noon of this 
effort occurred, by chance, just at the time of our survey. Through 
good fortune, therefore, we are able to present an analysis of some 
general historical value. 

We are also fortunate in that relatively few new developments of 
importance have taken place during the period required for the 
analysis of our information and the preparation of this book. Recent 
news in prefabrication has consisted largely of the failures of some 
companies and the continuing development of others whose character 
was already well established in 1947. 

The work of writing this book was shared in large part by the sev 
eral Research Assistants of the Bemis Foundation. 

The original organization of the field survey and the first assembly 
of the material in the second part were the work of Herbert S. Heaven- 
rich, Jr. William F. Blitzer helped to develop the final form of the 
book and wrote drafts of many major sections of it, including in the 
first part the chapters on the history and present state of the industry, 
and in the second part the chapters on management, procurement, and 
production. Cyril C. Hermann put together the material on marketing, 
and John F. Falkenberg and Barbara W. Atchley assisted in the final 
editing process. 

Many of the concepts which are developed in this book are those 
of John E. Burchard, who was Director of the Bemis Foundation when 
this study was started, and whose special knowledge and experience 
in the field have been of great value to us. Although we have made 
many references to his writings, it would not be possible by such means 
to acknowledge the degree to which we have benefited from his in 

Our debt to those working in the field, whether as actual producers 
of houses or in collateral positions, will be evident throughout the 


book. We should like to express our deepest gratitude here, however, 
for the friendly cooperation and intelligent criticism which they have 
offered us from the start. 


Cambridge, Massachusetts 
January, 1951 




Chapter 1 DEFINITIONS 1 


I. Before 1900: Beginnings 7 

A. First Traces in America 7 

B. Early Prefabrication in Cast Iron 8 

C. Impetus of the Gold Rush 9 

D. Prefabricated Camp Buildings 9 

II. 1900-1920: Developments in Precut and Concrete 

Construction 11 

A. The Precut House 11 

B. Early American Experimentation 12 

C. The Emphasis on Concrete 14 

III. 1920-1930: Experimentation with Prefabrication 15 

A. The Postwar Stimulus Abroad 15 

B. Experimentation and Small-Scale Development in 

America 20 

IV. 1930-1940: Prefabrication Attains the Status of a 

Movement 28 

A. The Background Influences 28 

B. Non-Commercial Research and Development 31 

C. Government Activity: Techniques and Standards 33 

D. Government Activity: Prefabricated Construction 35 

E. Commercial Development by Private Enterprise 38 

F. General Trends and Characteristics 46 

G. The Analogy with the Automobile 51 

V. 1940-1945: The War Period 55 

A. Prefabrication on Trial 

B. Factors Favorable to Prefabrication 57 

C. Signs of Prefabrication's Growth 58 

D. The Contribution of Prefabrication 60 

E. The Effect of the War on Prefabrication 62 




I. Background 67 

A. The Shortage 67 

B. The Wyatt Program 68 

C. The Birth and Death of Firms 71 

D. The Building Boom 72 

II. The Prefabricator: A Stage in Industrialization 74 

A. The Panelized Wood Frame House 74 

B. The Stressed Skin Plywood House 77 

C. The Machine-Made Metal House 79 

D. Other Types of Prefabrication 80 

III. Broad Aspects of Prefabrication 81 

A. Modular Coordination 81 

B. The Rationalization of On-Site Building 83 

IV. Prefabrication: Nature and Cost of the Product 84 
V. Prefabrication: Current Problems 86 

A. Locus of Operations 86 

B. Marketing 87 

C. Public Acceptance 89 

D. Building Codes 90 

E. Local Trade and Labor 92 

F. Financing 92 

VI. Conclusion 95 


I. Introduction 99 

II. Current Trends within the Industry 99 

A. Management 100 

B. Design 101 

C. Procurement 106 

D. Production 108 

E. Marketing 110 

III. Future Problems within the Industry 116 

A. Central or Branch Plants 117 

B. Site or Factory Fabrication 117 

C. Low Price or High Value 118 

D. Evolution or Revolution 119 

E. One Model or Many 120 

F. Optimum Level of Standardization 121 

G. Duplication by the Conventional Builder 121 

IV. Larger Housing Issues 122 
A. The House Itself 122 



B. The Community 128 

C. Broad Economic and Policy Problems 131 

V. Conclusion 



Chapter 5 INTRODUCTION 139 

Chapter 6 MANAGEMENT 143 

I. Background 145 

II. Labor Relations 148 

Labor Relations in the Plant 148 

A. Unions 148 

B. Wages 150 

C. Restrictive Practices 153 
Labor Relations in the Field 155 

III. Financing 157 

A. Capitalization 157 

B. Sources of Investment Capital 159 

C. Credit 163 

IV. Public Relations 168 
V. Trade Associations 170 

A. Prefabricated Home Manufacturers' Institute 170 

B. National Association of Housing Manufacturers 172 

Chapter 7 DESIGN 175 

I. Introduction 177 

II. Classification of Prefabrication Systems 180 

A. By Materials 180 

B. By Structural System 185 

C. Miscellaneous Classifications 188 

III. Description of Components 196 

A. General 196 

B. Foundations 198 

C. Floors 202 

D. Walls 210 

E. Ceilings 244 

F. Roofs 253 

IV. Miscellaneous Design Features 262 

A. Plumbing 262 

B. Mechanical Cores 265 

C. Heating 268 

D. Electrical Wiring and Fixtures 273 



E. Acoustical Treatment 274 

F. Built-in Furniture 274 

G. Space Arrangement 275 
H. Product Variety 281 

Chapter 8 PROCUREMENT 287 

I. Raw Materials 289 

II. Finished Material and Equipment 293 

III. Fabricated Components 297 

Chapter 9 PRODUCTION 301 

I. Plant Facilities 303 

II. Location of the Industry 304 

III. Labor Force 308 

IV. Factory Processes and Equipment 309 

A. Wood 309 

B. Metal 318 

C. Concrete 321 

D. Honeycomb Core Sandwich Materials 325 

V. Some Particular Aspects of Production 327 

A. Factory Storage Facilities 327 

B. Plant Layout 328 

C. Production Scheduling 331 

VI. Analysis 333 

A. The Amount of Manufacture by the Prefabricator 333 

B. Production Volume and Production Costs 338 

C. Productivity 340 

D. Production Costs 344 

Chapter 10 MARKETING 357 

I. Introduction 359 

II. Markets 360 

A. Market Areas 360 

B. Special Market Types 364 

III. Pricing Policies 367 

IV. Channels of Distribution 372 

A. Factory Direct to Consumer 373 

B. Factory to Dealer to Consumer 376 

C. Factory to Distributor to Dealer to Consumer 382 

V. Sales Methods 385 
VI. Financing the Prefabricated Home 391 

A. Financing the Dealer 392 

B. Financing the Purchaser 394 


VII. Choosing the Site 

VIII. Transportation to the Site 

IX. Erection of Prefabricated Houses 

X. Service to Customers after Erection 

XI. A Review of Failures 

Chapter 11 CONCLUSION 

Appendix B 

Appendix C 
Appendix D 








I. Books and Pamphlets 
II. Conference Proceedings 

III. Trade Association Material 

IV. Periodicals 

V. Other Sources 






List of Illustrations 


1. Skillings patent drawings 10 

2. Precast concrete systems of the 1920's 22 23 

3. A typical wood frame panel 75 

4. A typical stressed skin panel 78 

5. The principles of modular coordination 82 

6. Hodgson houses following 96 

7. A precut house of 1920 " 96 

8. Buckminster Fuller's first Dymaxion house " 96 

9. Early General Houses house " 96 

10. Three prefabricated houses of the 1940's " 96 

11. Two circular houses " 96 

12. A folding unit designed for emergency shelter " 96 

13. Lustron houses " 96 

14. Conventional framing illustrating construction terminology 186 

15. The General Panel system 192 

16. The Acorn footing 201 

17. Examples of grade beam and concrete slab on grade 209 

18. Commonly used panel joints 220 

19. Metal construction systems 224, 225 

20. Sandwich panel materials 234 

21. Southern California Homes house following 256 

22. Reliance house 256 

23. Section of AIROH house " 256 

24. Pierce Foundation Cemesto House 256 

25. Production Line Structures 256 

26. Wingfoot house 256 

27. Acorn house 256 

28. The Fuller house 256 

29. Kaiser Community Homes house 256 

30. Green's "solar house" 256 

31. Patent drawing for the integrated Fuller bathroom 264 

32. Exploded drawing of Ingersoll Utility Unit 266 

33. Pkns of selected prefabricated homes 276-279 

34. The location of prefabrication plants in 1948 305 

35. Ford house following 320 

36. Butler house 

37. LeTourneau system 

38. Ibec system 32 



39. Gunnison plant operations " 320 

40. National Homes plant operations 320 

41. Lustron plant operations " 320 

42. Reliance plant operations " 320 

43. Crawford Corporation " 320 

44. Texas Housing Co. " 320 

45. Lustron plant flow diagram 330 

46. National Homes thrift model following 416 

47. Two other economy models 416 

48. National Homes house being erected " 416 

49. Lustron house en route 416 

50. National Homes house en route " 416 

51. The development of a National Homes project 416 

52. Lustron house being erected " 416 






The term "prefabrication" has often been loosely applied to any 
type of novel construction or to any method of building which differs 
in some significant respect from conventional construction. This 
stems from the plain truth that it is a difficult term to define, as can be 
shown by a consideration of some of the definitions which have been 

One of the most general definitions, and one of the most official, is 
the following: 

A prefabricated home is one having walls, partitions, floors, ceilings, 
and/or roof composed of sections or panels varying in size which have 
been fabricated in a factory prior to erection on the building foundation. 
This is in contrast to the conventionally built home which is constructed 
piece by piece on the site. 1 

Other writers try to be more specific: 

... It is a question of degree. To oversimplify, and to look a bit into 
the future, if you shove and snap a product into place in the field, that is 
prefabrication. If you mix, cut, spread, fit, and patch that's not pre- 
fabrication. If the field operation is essentially assembly, rather than manu 
facture, you have prefabrication. A brick and plaster wall, of course, em 
ploys manufactured ingredients, but such a wall is really manufactured in 
the field. 

The amount of scrap and waste that must be cleaned up and removed 
from a building site may be taken as a rough index of the degree of pre 
fabrication employed in any given building operation, since waste results 
principally from a manufacturing process, not an assembly process. 2 

Or are content to be more general: 

... a movement to simplify construction by increasing the proportion of 
work completed before erection. 3 

And a few have been driven to extreme conclusions: 
Prefabrication is a state of mind. 4 

1 Prefabricated Homes, Commercial Standard CS 125-47, 2nd ed., Prefabricated 
Home Manufacturers' Institute and U. S. Department of Commerce (Washing 
ton, 1947), p. 1. 

2 Howard T. Fisher, "Prefabrication. What Does It Mean to the Architect?" 
Journal of The American Institute of Architects, X (November 1948), 220. 

3 Quoted in Proceedings, American-Soviet Building Conference (held under 
the auspices of the Architects Committee of the National Committee of Ameri 
can-Soviet Friendship in cooperation with the New York Chapter of the Ameri 
can Institute of Architects; published in collaboration with The Architectural 
Forum, 1945), p. 43. 

4 Robert W. McLaughlin, quoted in Proceedings, American-Soviet Building 
Conference, p. 43. 

From these definitions it can be seen that, in general usage, 
"prefabricated" construction is "unconventional," but not all "uncc 
ventionar construction is "prefabricated." Secondly, there may 
said to be various degrees of prefabrication, of which precutting mig 
be one, the fabrication of panels another, the construction of volun 
enclosing sections a third, and the manufacture of a complete mob 
dwelling unit probably the ultimate. 

For our part, we shall attempt no general definitions of the ter 
Indeed, it is a major argument of this book that the distinction I 
tween prefabricated and conventional construction may well becoi 
meaningless within the next few decades. Nevertheless, it is tr 
that this study is concerned primarily with those companies whi 
are organized to manufacture and in some degree to assemble off t 
site one or more of the basic components of a house, such as founc 
tions, floors, walls and partitions, ceilings, and roofs. 

Some of the houses produced in this manner are completely conve 
tional in final construction; it is only the process by which they 2 
manufactured and assembled which distinguishes them from t 
product of the local builder. A large operative builder, develop! 
raw land, making bulk purchases of materials and equipment, a: 
building 200 or more houses at one time with work crews which mo 
from house to house performing highly specialized functions, may 
the end offer for sale houses which are far less conventional than the 
of a prefabricator. 

In this study, the operative builder is distinguished from the pi 
fabricator because his houses are manufactured and assembled large 
on the site, but attention is called to him because of the efficiency 
some of his methods. In the long run he is to be considered not 
much a competitor of the prefabricator as a potentially good custom 

Part A 





This historical study is concerned with prefabrication and almost 
exclusively with prefabrication in the United States as an industry, 
rather than as a trend or movement. It is written from the point of 
view of economic history rather than of technical history; that is, pre 
fabrication is treated more as an industrial development than as a 
succession of ideas about design. The latter subject has been very 
well covered elsewhere. 1 This study will concern itself with the ex 
tent to which these technical ideas were realized in production and 
the factors which led to their abandonment or adoption. Thus it is 
not so much a discussion of invention the disclosure of a new method 
of achieving some technical objective as it is of innovation the com 
mercial introduction of a new or improved product or process. 

I. Before 1900: Beginnings 

A. First Traces in America 

A search for the earliest historical evidences of prefabrication would 
lead us back to the burnt clay bricks of the Mesopotamian civiliza 
tions, many centuries before the Christian era perhaps further. For 
our purposes, however, it will suffice to know that as early as 1624 
the English brought with them to Cape Ann a panelized house of 
wood for use by the fishing fleet and that this house was subsequently 
disassembled, moved, and reassembled several times. 2 In 1727 two 

1 Albert Farwell Bemis and John Burchard, 2nd, The Evolving House: Vol. Ill, 
Rational Design (Cambridge: The Technology Press, 1936). 

Alfred Bruce and Harold Sandbank, A History of Prefabrication (Raritan, 
N. J.: The John B. Pierce Foundation, 1943). 

Housing Production II, or The Application of Quantity Production Technique 
to Building: Some Technical History and Considerations, Second Report of the 
Committee for the Industrial and Scientific Provision of Housing (London, 1943). 

D. Dex Harrison, J. M. Albery, M. W. Whiting, A Survey of Prefabrication 
([London]: Ministry of Works, 1945). This survey of prefabrication designs is 
among the .most complete of its type. Frequent reference to it is made in this 

2 Charles E. Peterson, "Early American Prefabrication/' Gazette des Beaux- 
Arts, XXXIII (January 1948), 38. 

houses " 'all cut to be erected' " 3 were exported from New Orleans to 
the West Indies, and there are other signs of the use of prefabrication 
throughout the next 100 years as a means of providing persons with 
shelter immediately on their arrival at a new settlement. 4 

B. Early Prefabrication in Cast Iron 

Perhaps the earliest metal prefabricated house was that built some 
time before 1830 for the lockkeeper at Tipton Green, Staffordshire, 
England. The walls were of flanged vertical cast-iron panels, bolted 
together, painted on the exterior and lathed and plastered on the in 
terior. 5 Cast iron was prominent in a number of other early experi 
ments in prefabrication. Watt and Boulton in England began erect 
ing their cast-iron framed factory buildings in 180 1, 6 and in America 
during the forties and fifties cast-iron columns and repetitive elements 
of cast iron and glass were used, respectively, for frame and en 
closure, as seen notably in the fagades of the commercial buildings 
by James Bogardus. 7 The use of cast iron in prefabrication reached 
a spectacular climax in the Crystal Palace, built in Hyde Park, London, 
in 1851. Joseph Paxton based the design of this building on a rela 
tively few mass-produced elements: glass panes, wood frames in 
which these were set, and cast- and wrought-iron columns and girders 
which were bolted together at the site to form the framework. 8 Pro 
claimed the largest single building the world had yet seen, it was 
erected in a mere four months, 9 and, demountable, it was later moved 
to Sydenham where it was re-erected. The Crystal Palace was a 
marvel for the light and airy quality of its structure, in some respects 
a reflection of Paxton's experience with greenhouses, but more than 
this it was a daring adventure in the use of carefully designed fac 
tory-fabricated components and of precision rather than sheer mass 
to achieve structural strength. 

8 Loc. cit. 

* Loc. cit. 

5 Harrison et al., op. cit., p. 3. 

6 Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture (Cambridge: Harvard Uni 
versity Press, 1941), pp. 124-7. 

* Ibid., pp. 129-34. 

8 Giedion, op. cit., p. 186. 

9 Tallis's History and Description of the Crystal Palace, ed. by J. G. Strutt, 
in 3 vols. (London: The London Printing and Publishing Co. [c. 1851]), Vol. I, 
p. 11. 


C. Impetus of the Gold Rush 

These, however, were but sporadic beginnings. The first real im 
petus to the production of prefabricated houses appears to have 
been the Gold Rush of 1848. 10 Houses were exported to California 
from our eastern seaboard, from England, France, Germany, Belgium 
even from China, New Zealand, and Tasmania. In the New York 
area alone some 5,000 houses for shipment to California had been 
contracted for or produced by 1850. Models which cost $400 in the 
East sold for $5,000 on the West Coast. And from Manchester, Eng 
land, came several hundred houses of corrugated galvanized iron, 
some of them outfitted with wallpaper, carpets, furniture, and water 
closets. But the end of this boom which was the first of several 
which were to push prefabrication for one reason or another came in 
1850, when the building materials market in California was flooded 
and prices fell sharply. After a local lumber industry had developed 
in response to the huge demand, the high shipping cost quickly put 
the imported prefabricated house out of the picture. 

D. Prefabricated Camp Buildings 

New settlements provided one market for early prefabricators; the 
demand for various types of camp buildings and cottages provided 
another. The continuing commercial development of panelized wood 
houses for this market dates from at least as far back as 1861. In that 
year Skillings and Flint, lumber dealers of Boston and New York, 
patented a system of building houses from a few standardized panels 
and a number of other interchangeable parts (see Figure 1). Their 
impressively bound, gilt-edged catalogue claimed that their houses 
could be erected in three hours and showed a number of designs 
suited to plantation and army camps. Indeed, this firm sold a good 
many houses to the Union Army. 11 In Germany the firm of Christoph 
& Unmack, organized in 1882, was soon to begin production of timber 
houses constructed of load-bearing panels. Its products were chiefly 
huts, cabins, and labor camps and were ultimately to be shipped in 

10 A very interesting account of this boom in prefabrication is given by Peter 
son, op. cit., pp. 42-6. 

11 Peterson, op. cit., p. 46. 


Figure 1. Shillings Patent Drawings 

very large quantities to many parts of the globe. 12 A decade later, in 
1892, Ernest F. Hodgson founded his company in Boston and began 
the manufacture of panelized dwellings of wood ( see Figure 6 ) . This 
firm, which is the oldest known to be still in the industry today, 13 
started by making small structures such as chicken houses, children's 
play houses, and dog houses. It received a boost when, with the ad 
vent of the horseless carriage, the demand for "auto stables" arose. 
A further effect of the automobile was to increase the demand for 
vacation cottages, enabling the company to enlarge its operations and 
furnishing a major part of its business until this day. This enterprise 
has been a notable instance of successful commercial development 
on a conservative basis. The house remained of essentially conven 
tional wood frame construction, modified to permit shop fabrication 
in panels. There was no rush to get into large-scale production nor 
any attempt to provide a universal set of building components adapt 
able to any plan. Emphasis was placed on modest single-story houses, 
and sales were direct to the customer, featuring speedy erection and 
good quality rather than low cost. 

II. 1900-1920: Developments in Precut and Concrete Con 

A. The Precut House 

Shortly after 1900 a peripheral development of prefabrication be 
came commercially important. This was the precut house, some 
times referred to as the "mail-order" house, and in some respects the 
first of the "self-help" houses designed for owner erection (see Fig 
ure 7). The first decade of the century saw the entrance into this 
field of a number of firms which were to become prominent in it: 
The Aladdin Co., Bay City, Mich.; Gordon-Van Tine Company, Dav 
enport, la.; Pacific Systems Homes, Inc., Los Angeles, Calif.; Sears, 

12 Harrison et al., op. cit., case sheet on Christoph & Unmack. 

13 The E. F. Hodgson Co. was combined with Allied Housing Associates, Inc., 
in 1944 to form the Allied-Hodgson Housing Corp. Each of the original com 
panies does business as a division of the corporation. 


Roebuck and Co., Newark, N. J. Although the mere precutting, 
notching, and marking of the lumber to be used in a wood frame 
dwelling might not appear to deserve the name "prefabrication," the 
precut house warrants consideration here for several reasons. One is 
that the grading, cutting, marking, and packaging of lumber and the 
preassembly of windows and doors in the precutter's plant have usu 
ally been carried out on an efficient line production basis. Secondly, 
the precut house has generally involved a number of standardized 
products in a field that long resisted standardization. Thirdly, it has 
made possible the large-scale estimating, purchasing, and collecting 
of materials (including roofing, shingles, hardware, etc.) to form a 
house package and has established the fixed price character of this 
package. Lastly, precutting was, until World War II, probably the 
most widely used application of factory production to housing; "cer 
tainly a quarter of a million houses have been built according to this 
method a number probably in excess of the total number of sectional 
and prefabricated houses built to date (1943), including the war 
time demountables." 14 

B. Early American Experimentation 

It was also about the turn of the century that early experimentation 
began in America; it was concerned primarily with concrete as a mate 
rial, and here we may mention Grosvenor Atterbury as a pioneer. 
His research in the techniques of housebuilding began in 1902, first 
at his own expense, subsequently with philanthropic support (after 
1907 chiefly from the Russell Sage Foundation). He has continued 
until the present day his search for better methods of construction 
with cast cementitious materials. About 1907 Atterbury developed 
a system of large 15 precast hollow-core panels for walls, floors, and 
roofs. Between 1910 and 1918 several hundred houses based on this 
system were built for the Russell Sage Foundation in Forest Hills, 
Long Island, the units being transported to the site in trucks and 
erected there with derricks. This was a significant experiment in a 
new construction technique, yet the importance of Atterbury 's work 
lies not so much in the achievement at Forest Hills, which, though of 
high quality, was not of radically low cost, but rather in his approach 

14 Bruce and Sandbank, op. cit., p. 57. 

15 Wall panels, for instance, were of story height and 6' 0" to 8' 0" wide. 


and in the persistence which marked his attempt to develop some sort 
of casting process, a method for which he saw great promise in build 
ing. His system along with others involving large precast concrete 
units entailed difficulties in the transportation and handling of heavy 
units and in the large investment in molds which was required be 
cause of the lengthy curing period for each casting. Therefore, al 
though a large-scale project such as that at Forest Hills might over 
come these difficulties economically, it was evident that the system 
was not well suited to the erection of isolated free-standing houses or 
small developments. To solve these difficulties, Atterbury has since 
experimented with various other cementitious materials and has de 
veloped better molds and worked out methods of shortening the cur 
ing time. 

Another development in which Atterbury pioneered was the growth 
of interest in prefabrication as a means of providing shelter for the 
vast bulk of our housing needs, not for just a few exceptional ones. 
Before the early twentieth century, the prefabricated dwelling had 
been of importance for new settlements, camp cabins, and vacation 
cottages uses in which a decrease in site work was desired even, if 
necessary, at an increase in total cost. But as the ever-accelerating 
industrialization of our life proceeded along with a great surge of 
urbanization, and as our attitudes towards slums and blight changed, 16 
it was felt that house production methods were falling far behind 
industrial techniques in other fields, and prefabrication came to be 
regarded as a means of providing more economic shelter for the 
mass of our housing requirements. There was no overnight change, 
of course, nor can the turning point be placed with too much certainty 
in the first decade of the century. 17 Yet it seems reasonably clear 
that after this time the interest in prefabrication was connected less 
and less with a few special housing markets and more and more with 
low cost in the general housing market; it was increasingly an interest 
in the overall industrialization of house production as an answer to 
what was gradually to become known as "the housing problem." 

16 Evidenced by the passage, between 1870 and 1890, of many municipal ordi 
nances governing the health and safety standards of housing. 

17 Atterbury 's work is, however, the earliest example our research has dis 
closed of philanthropically supported experimentation in prefabrication; the re 
sults, including patents, were offered to any "non-profit institution willing to 
continue the work along proper lines looking towards a scientific solution of the 
housing problem." (Quoted from a statement by Atterbury submitted to A. F. 
Bemis in 1935, files of the Bemis Foundation.) 


C. The Emphasis on Concrete 

The work of Atterbury was by no means the only experimentation 
with novel housebuilding methods during the first two decades of the 
century. 18 Many of the other attempts also employed concrete and 
generally involved but little prefabrication; they were limited to the 
precasting of wall units or the use of factory-produced forms. In 
1908 Thomas Edison proposed a method of casting two- and three- 
story houses in one operation. Sectional cast-iron forms were to be 
bolted together at the site, and concrete, carried by a conveyer, was 
to be poured into a funnel at the top of the enclosure. Edison's idea 
attracted a good deal of attention but was soon abandoned as im 
practical. Yet it is interesting to note that the monolithic concrete 
house is still a subject of considerable interest and is today being car 
ried out in single-story dwellings with equipment at least as complex 
as Edison proposed. 19 Other ideas were to follow: the Merrill Sys 
tem of monolithic concrete walls formed in situ (1908); Simpson 
Craft, a complete house system of concrete, about 90% precast ( 1917 ) ; 
Lakeolith, the precast ribbed panel system of Simon Lake, the sub 
marine designer (1918); the Hahn Concrete Lumber System of pre 
cast and site-formed concrete (1919). 20 Some hundreds, perhaps a 
few thousand, houses have been produced by these and similar 
concrete constructions, but no one system has ever been adopted on a 
mass-production basis. The early experimental work in concrete 
did not develop any fully realized techniques; it was rather a sign- 
perhaps the first sign of the growing interest in the invention of pre 
fabrication systems; it was in a sense the forerunner of what we call 
the prefabrication movement. 21 

18 Bemis and Burchard, op. cit. t p. 61T, list nine other examples. 

19 For example, R. G. LeTourneau Inc/s Tournalayer and Ibec Housing Cor 
poration's house-sized form. 

20 For further information on these and other systems see Report on Survey of 
Concrete House Construction Systems, Portland Cement Association (Chicago, 
1934); also works cited in footnote, p. 7. 

21 Bruce and Sandbank, op. cit., pp. 30-40. 


III. 1920-1930: Experimentation with Prefabrication 

A. The Postwar Stimulus Abroad 

We have passed over the World War I period because, unlike the 
recent war years, it was not very important to prefabrication. The 
production of precut and to some extent of panelized wood buildings 
was stimulated, but prefabrication as an industrial development was 
not appreciably promoted or advanced. The postwar years, however, 
did bring a strong stimulus to prefabrication, chiefly in Europe. 
While America continued to experiment with prefabrication, Europe, 
by contrast, built with it, and we might digress for a moment to 
consider what was accomplished there and why. 

1. Great Britain 

The earliest developments were in Great Britain, where the hous 
ing shortage, the dearth of bricks and of bricklayers and other crafts 
men, and the surplus of steel capacity all combined to provide a strong 
economic motivation for trying new methods of building. Most of 
the British preferred brick, but alternative constructions had to be 
available in case of trouble, so that the government could perform 
on its promise of "homes for heroes." 

By 1920, the Ministry of Works had approved some 110 systems 
of construction, of which, excluding systems of concrete masonry, 
perhaps 12 involved some degree of prefabrication, though not even 
all these reached the production stage. 22 There were no standards 
of functional performance employed, nor were the systems approved 
necessarily cheap or easy to erect. Rather, the emphasis was on 
meeting the situation described above, and so, between the years 
1918 and 1925, a large number of partially prefabricated houses were 
built of elements such as sheet steel, rolled steel frames, concrete 
masonry, story-height precast concrete units, and expanded metal 
sprayed with cement. The last type of construction, combined with 

22 Harrison et al., op. cit., p. 5. 


a steel frame, formed the basis of the Dorlonco house, some 10,000 
of which were built in England between 1920 and 1928. 23 Many later 
proved defective in that, because of insufficient cover, the metal lath 
rusted and the cement rendering cracked and fell off. In the years 
following 1918 some 10,000 concrete houses were erected by four big 
industrial concerns using either precast pier and panel construction 
or precast slabs to enclose a site-poured frame, and from 1926 to 
1928 another big corporation, G. and J. Weir, Ltd., built 3,000 houses, 
using timber frame, steel plates, and fiberboard materials relatively 
rare in British housing. It is important to note that until World War 
II, with the exception of the precut and possibly certain panelized, 
but otherwise conventional, wood frame houses, no American pre- 
fabrication system was produced as extensively as the Weir and Dor 
lonco houses. 

Yet even with such extensive trials, all these prefabrication systems 
fell into general disuse between 1926 and 1930. For one thing, there 
was labor trouble in connection with the Weir houses because of the 
fact that engineering union labor was used at lower wage rates than 
unskilled building-trades labor; as a result the building trades refused 
to work for any local authority which erected Weir houses. But, 
more than this, it is important to understand that the prefabricated 
houses were considered as makeshifts and, at least in part, as pawns 
in the struggle with conventional building labor. When the shortage 
was overcome and the normal building methods could handle the de 
mand, few prefabricated houses were built. They had not proved 
cheaper than the brick houses in whose stead they were being built, 
and they could not compete on even terms because of the prejudice 
against them as being new, untried, and substitute products. 

. . . the new types were, in design, mostly inferior imitations of brick 
buildings. No attempt had been made to evolve designs which suited, 
and took advantage of, the new structural concepts. So utterly bankrupt 
was the movement in this respect that the new constructions were labori 
ously worked to the same niggling plans which were in common use for 
brick houses at the same time. It was not realized, and it is still not 
realized, that plans and designs suitable for brick buildings, which can be 
cut and chopped about in extraordinary detail, are totally unsuited to the 
factory-made articles of standardized size which require the clearest and 
simplest planning for their economical use. 24 

This statement might well form the epilogue to a number of other 
essays in prefabrication. 

2 *Ibid., case sheet on Dorlonco. 

24 D. Dex Harrison, "An Outline of Prefabrication," in Tomorrow's Houses, 
ed. by John Madge (London: Pilot Press, 1946), pp. 118-9. 


2. Germany 

The Germans, because of the economic consequences of the war, 
did not begin to experiment with prefabrication on a large scale until 
about 1926, by which time the British were already returning to con 
ventional building methods. As in Britain, however, the necessity 
of providing housing under abnormal conditions brought into effect 
many new approaches. A large experimental program, exceeding in 
scale anything attempted previously in any country, was carried out 
under the direction of the State Research Institute ( Reichsforschungs- 
gesellschaf t ) , a government department charged, among other duties, 
with organizing and controlling building throughout Germany. Many 
new schemes for low-cost housing construction were tried, and the 
costs and physical results compared. A big slump in the steel trade 
in 1927 left Vereinigte Stahlwerke, the German steel trust, with con 
siderable excess capacity and the desire to seek new outlets. As a 
consequence, this trust introduced a number of different steel systems 
of three principal types: close-spaced frame, open-spaced frame, and 
load-bearing panels. The Germans did not build as many steel houses 
as the British, but they evolved more systems. Their development 
of concrete construction involved the introduction of various aggre 
gates such as clinker, foamed slag, and pumice, which were often pre 
cast into large story-height wall panels to be hoisted by crane into 
place within a structural steel framework. The way in which con 
crete and steel were used was largely influenced by the fact that 
much of the housing built was in the form of apartment houses going 
to three or more stories, and thus prefabrication was put on a much 
wider basis than in Britain, where it was restricted largely to single- 
family houses, or in America, where the concentration was on single- 
story, single-family houses. British writers conclude that "when pre 
fabrication is thus applied to large buildings it escapes the stigma of 
cheapness and nastiness and the development is of much more funda 
mental importance, invading as it does the whole fabric of the build 
ing trade." 25 It should also be mentioned that by 1929 Hugo Stinnes 
and Hugo Junkers, two major German industrialists, were consider 
ing industrial methods for improving housing production. Junkers, 
the expert in aeronautics, was making elaborate experiments in air 
plane-like stressed skin construction. 

Unfortunately the fine pioneer work of the Germans with metals 
and concrete, much of which was leading to substantial cost reduc- 

25 Harrison et al., op. cit., p. 8. 


tions, was curtailed by the depression in 1932 and completely halted 
when the Nazis came to power in 1933. The use of steel for house 
building was prohibited, and all civil building was limited by the 
channeling of resources to the construction of fortifications and mili 
tary and party buildings. In addition, the rational approach to build 
ing was condemned, and it was decreed that "Germanic" ideals were 
to be reflected in new construction. 

3. France 

The French, faced, like the British, with a well-rooted conventional 
architecture, appear to have begun their prefabrication efforts rela 
tively late. Their structural engineers were making great advances, 
but in such other directions as the development of reinforced concrete. 
In the year 1927, however, the steel industry started to sponsor sys 
tems which used steel for interior and exterior wall surfaces. Some 
of the units were similar to those introduced in America in the early 
thirties, and there were also steel frame structures and structures of 
stucco on metal lath, the last being developed with more success 
than marked the British projects of the same type. A development re 
lated to prefabrication was the move to standardize and coordinate 
the dimensions of various building elements, which received an early 
start in France, for beginning in 1929 the Ministry of Commerce pro 
moted a campaign towards this end. This was of importance to pre 
fabrication in its broadest sense because it was pointed towards the 
elimination of cutting and fitting at the site and a consequent relative 
shift of work to the factory. Several architectural competitions in 
the thirties, out of which emerged a number of proposed prefabrica 
tion systems, revealed that the ideas of standardization and modular 
design 26 were gaining acceptance to a substantial degree. 27 

2 See below, p. 24. 

27 Probably the most widely known of the French prefabrication efforts was 
the system of the engineer Eugene Mopin, used in the construction of multistory 
apartments in several large projects in and about 1934. The Mopin system, a 
combination of prefabrication and site fabrication, consisted of a light steel frame 
encased in concrete with intermediate posts of precast reinforced concrete and 
external walls of precast vibrated concrete slabs keyed into the posts. Though 
the buildings have been criticized for poor sound- and thermal-insulation quali 
ties, they were perhaps the most significant experiment of the decade in precast 


4. Sweden 

Meanwhile, in Sweden designers made use of local materials to 
meet their problems. In contrast to Britain and France, Sweden had 
an abundance of timber and prefabrication systems were evolved in 
terms of this material and, in the early years, a not very economical 
use of it. By 1923 technicians had introduced prefabricated houses 
of wood to meet the extensive housing shortage which developed 
after World War I. A major interest in the Swedish prefabrication 
experience lies in the role of the municipal government of Stockholm 
which, through its planning of land use, its provision of credit, and 
its self-help plan, encouraged the use of prefabrication for the hous 
ing of families of low and moderate incomes. The most interesting 
feature of this program was that the occupying family itself often 
supplied the unskilled labor needed in the building process. The city 
provided plans and skilled labor, such as carpenters, plumbers, and 
electricians, for a reasonable fee and furnished guidance to the 
family, who made the excavation, laid up the cement-block basement 
walls, helped the skilled craftsmen erect the shell and install the 
utilities, and carried out much of the final finishing work. 

The prefabrication systems were all similar in their main character 
istics: wood framed, load-bearing panels surfaced externally and in 
ternally with vertical tongue and groove boards and filled with an in 
sulating material such as sawdust. This was hardly a pattern suited 
to lands where wood is a relatively scarce or costly material (and 
this includes even the United States). The panels were delivered 
complete with doors and windows, were the full height of the house, 
and came in various widths to suit a number of designs. They were 
in general extremely heavy. Standards were high, and maintenance 
has since proved economical. Involving as it did municipal owner 
ship of land, municipal home financing, and municipal provision of 
many building services, this program represented the most compre 
hensive public assistance to prefabrication to that date. 

The self-help scheme was successful enough to persuade private 
contractors to offer the same service to homebuilders who were plan 
ning to live on either privately or municipally owned land; "in fact, 
the majority of small houses built in the garden suburbs on the 'self- 
help' plan have been constructed by private builders. But having 
pioneered in this method, the city continues its program, constructing 
on an average of three hundred dwellings a year/' 28 

28 John Graham, Jr., Housing in Scandinavia (Chapel Hill: University of North 
Carolina Press, 1940), p. 67. 


More than 3,000 self-help houses were built under the municipal 
plan alone between 1927 and 1940. 29 

B. Experimentation and Small-Scale Development in America 

Returning to a consideration of what was happening in America 
during the twenties, we note at once the difference in the role of 
government as compared with Europe. Whereas abroad there were 
various types of public stimulus to prefabrication public housing, 
government-supported research and development, government en 
couragement of modular design here there was, except for a small 
simplification and standardization program of the U. S. Bureau of 
Standards, no federal interest in prefabrication as such, or in re 
lated developments. We were in the midst of prosperity and a record- 
making building boom. Neither the government nor any of the big 
corporations associated with the building industry had reason to push 
prefabrication, and consequently development in this field was car 
ried on by a handful of crusading individuals and small companies 
with limited financial resources. 

1. Work in Concrete 

In the first part of the decade the interest was primarily in the ap 
plication of concrete to small-house construction both by on-site meth 
odswhich really involved little or no prefabrication and by use of 
precast elements (see Figure 2). Instances of the latter type were 
several systems of story-height units of precast reinforced concrete: 
Armostone (1920), Moore Unit (1920), and Tee-Stone (1923). Only 
the last of these systems involved more than the walls of the dwelling; 
floors, ceilings, and roofs were handled in a conventional manner, and, 
as was the case with almost all the early proposals, no attention was 
devoted to the mechanical equipment of the house. It is probable 
that a total of not more than 500 houses was built by means of these 
systems. Meanwhile Grosvenor Atterbury was continuing his work, 
which from 1919 to 1921 was being carried out in a laboratory sup 
ported by the American Car and Foundry Co. The conclusion 

*'Ibid.,p. 59. 


reached here was that while a casting process was a sound solution 
to the problem, further development by a non-profit agency was 
necessary before a commercial enterprise could be successfully under 

It should be noted that while these and subsequent developments 
in the use of large precast units were proceeding, the role of concrete 
in low-cost single-family dwellings increased significantly through the 
use of 16" X 8" X 8" concrete blocks. Such blocks, involving but 
slightly more prefabrication than bricks, have, through the years, 
been accepted to the point where they form the basis of more than 
one-tenth of our annual housing production. 30 

2. Research by Bemis 

It was early in the decade (1921) that Albert Farwell Bemis, a 
Boston industrialist, began the sponsorship of research in prefabrica 
tion. Through Bemis Industries, Inc., Mr. Bemis owned and con 
trolled a number of concerns manufacturing building materials and 
products. Among these, the Housing Company was equipped to 
fabricate and erect houses and other buildings by either conventional 
or novel means, while Bemis Industries itself maintained a laboratory 
and staff devoted to research in housing. For the next 10 years, a 
period during which prefabrication was quite removed from the 
limelight, Bemis Industries, Inc., studied building materials and struc 
tural methods in its laboratories and in the field, experimenting with 
a large number of different types of construction. 31 Its research pro 
gram comprised three stages: development of a scheme on paper; 
laboratory construction and testing of a full-size section; and finally, 
if justified, the building of a house to test the new method for physi 
cal performance and cost. Although the program proceeded by fun 
damentally logical considerations from one scheme to the next, it is 
perhaps fair to remark that the successive attempts were too little re 
lated to one another. The lack of continuity in approach may be 
noted when we consider that the 22 systems which were tried in 
cluded such elements as solid wood panels, plywood panels, concrete 
poured in situ, precast gypsum blocks, precast gypsum slabs, gypsum 
tubes, an excelsior-magnesite material known as "Acoustex," steel 

30 Bruce and Sandbank, op. cit., p. 40. 

31 For a summary of this work, see John Burchard II, "Research Findings of 
Bemis Industries, Inc.," Architectural Record, 75 (January 1934), 3-8. 






Figure 2. Precast Concrete Systems of the 1920's: 
(1) Frank Lloyd Wright 





Figure 2. Precast Concrete Systems of the 1920's: 
(2) Tee-stone 

frames, and steel panels a pretty fair sampling of all the then-known 
construction materials. During the twenties, so far as we know, Bemis 
Industries, Inc., spent more time, money, and effort on this type of 
research than any other single organization. With the advent of the 
depression, however, it was forced to curtail its activities somewhat, 
and from 1931 until Bemis' death in 1936 effort was concentrated on 
developing new materials in the laboratory (particularly a material 
which would at once provide structural strength, insulation, and sur 
face finish) and on the development of his cubical modular method 
of design. If none of the systems developed by Bemis Industries, 
Inc., was ever exploited commercially on a large scale, it is nonetheless 
true that its contribution was a significant one, for the development 
work on materials and structural methods, particularly on joints, 
provided a good deal of practical material for those who were en 
gaged in technical problems. 

Mr. Bemis' cubical modular method of design evolved from his 
work towards better and more flexible coordination of structural com 
ponents. He concluded early in his researches that a fundamental, 
all-inclusive basis must be established which would coordinate the 
dimensions of all structural components, building materials, and in 
stalled equipment. The cubical modular method was developed as a 
theory of design, but simultaneously its practicability was proved by 
applying it to a variety of materials and constructions in experimental 
houses which were built and sold. This objective explains some of the 
discontinuity in construction ideas referred to in the previous para 

A theoretical discussion of the cubical modular method is given in 
The Evolving House, 32 Vol. Ill, Rational Design. The method re 
quires that the space occupied by the building be considered as a 
continuum of cubes formed by parallel lines in each of the three di 
mensions, and spaced on a standard module for building layout and 
assembly details. Mr. Bemis showed that, in order to permit a maxi 
mum of freedom, the basic module should have a length of the order 
of magnitude of a wall thickness, and he chose 4" as the unit most 
consistent with existing products and practices (as, for example, the 
16" spacing of studs in wood frame walls ) . He further demonstrated 
that the 4" module could provide the basis for a sound standardiza 
tion of all dimensioned building products with at least as great flexi 
bility of building layout as was available with former "stock" sizes. 

32 Albert Fanvell Bemis and John Burchard, 2nd, The Evolving House: Vol. I, 
A History of the Home; Vol. II, The Economics of Shelter; Vol. III. Rational 
Design (Cambridge: The Technology Press, 1933; 1934; 1936). 


The first large commercial application of the method was made in 
1937 by Homasote Co. with technical assistance from Bemis Indus 
tries, Inc. The modular details developed for its Precision-Built con 
struction enabled Homasote to produce any house designed on the 
4" modular basis by relatively simple jig cutting and assembly methods. 

In 1938 the heirs of Mr. Bemis founded Modular Service Associa 
tion as a non-profit corporation to help the building industry in de 
veloping dimensional coordination. The industry effort was organized 
under the voluntary committee procedure of the American Standards 
Association and is known as ASA Project A62, with the American In 
stitute of Architects and The Producers' Council, Inc., as joint sponsors. 
Through Project A62 the industry has adopted the cubical modular 
method as the American Standard Basis for Dimensional Coordina 
tion, with appropriate changes in terminology. The method is called 
"modular coordination/' and the "modular lines used as a design 
matrix" have become the "standard grid to which building plans and 
assembly details are referenced." The standard module is 4". The 
objectives of modular coordination are discussed on p. 81. 

Through his work on modular design Bemis gave impetus to a 
much-needed movement in building, one which was to serve prefabri- 
cation through the elimination of much cutting and fitting at the site 
and which was to find added support from architects, building mate 
rials manufacturers, and the government as time went on. Last, but 
not least, was his contribution in The Evolving, House, an exhaustive 
study which, in treating modular design and prefabrication seriously 
for perhaps the first time, gave these ideas real form and stature. 

3. Early Steel Systems 

During the latter part of the decade several steel frame systems 
were introduced, but these were not of great significance. Those 
sponsored by the McClintic-Marshall Corporation and the Gary Struc 
tural Steel Corp., for instance, entailed prefabrication only of the 
framing members and used these with the close spacing typical of a 
wood frame structure. Consequently, little if any economy was 
achieved; instead the emphasis of the proponents of such systems 
was on the superiority of steel over wood from the points of view of 
strength, fire resistance, and dimensional stability. Furthermore, 
since the interest of the sponsor did not usually extend beyond the 


frame, there was the problem of overcoming the inertia of builders 
and of persuading them to depart from established practice for only a 
part of the structure, especially when the use of collateral materials 
may have offered some problems. The steel framed house of more 
recent design tended to use this material economically, taking ad 
vantage of its various properties and more efficiently integrating the 
frame with the rest of the structure. 

4. The Radical Approach 

One of the most interesting designs of the period was Buckminster 
Fuller's Dymaxion house (1927) (see Figure 8) interesting not so 
much because of the details of the house itself, which in its original 
form never progressed beyond the model stage, as because of the ap 
proach to the problem. Fuller serves as the symbol of a group of men 
who have thought of prefabrication in quite basic terms and have 
emerged with the conclusion that the design of the house must be 
fundamentally altered if we are adequately to meet the housing prob 
lems of our civilization that, in certain respects at least, revolution 
rather than evolution is necessary. Such a group should include, 
among others, those who have speculated about houses suspended 
from a central mast: the Bowman brothers, George Fred Keck, Eero 
Saarinen, Richard Neutra, Peter Pfisterer, and, of course, Fuller him 
self; about externally suspended houses: Paul Nelson, Keck, and Leland 
Atwood; about hemispherical houses of monocoque construction: 
Martin Wagner and Wallace Neff; about various types of mobility in 
housing the trailer house, the folding house, the sectional house: Cor- 
win Willson, William B. Stout, Temple H. Buell, Carroll A. Towne, 
Carl Koch, and John Bemis. This is not a complete list, nor were all 
these designers thinking in terms of low-cost housing or the indus 
trialized production of housing, although most of their schemes did 
involve a good deal of prefabrication. The kinship they bear to 
Fuller is in their attitude towards design, and it is this attitude that is 
the important thing about the Dymaxion house, not that it was to be 
suspended by wires from a central mast, or that it was to be hexa 
gonal in plan, or that it was to be air conditioned, have an automatic 
laundry, and a self-contained waste-disposal unit. Indeed, it was as 
an attitude that Fuller himself later characterized the house: 

An attitude to think truthfully. To think truthfully in the terms of the 
latest achievements of the intellect, quite unfettered by history's relatively 


temporary national, political and aesthetic bonds. Such bonds are not 
habits of thinking but habits of not thinking. 38 

Looking back, 34 Fuller has explained that behind the design of 
Dymaxion I lay an effort to maximize the performance of the house 
per pound of material in its structure. This objective led to a search 
for the means of enclosing the maximum volume with the minimum 
surface, for ways to use light materials, and for a structure which 
would utilize metals in tension rather than compression in order to 
take greatest advantage of their strength properties. Some have held 
that Fuller was not as rational as he supposed. Lewis Mumford 
pointed out, for instance, that "though Mr. Fuller . . . believes that 
he has swept aside all traditional tags in dealing with the house, and 
has faced its design with inexorable rigor, he has kept, with charming 
unconsciousness, the most traditional and sentimental tag of all, 
namely, the free-standing individual house. If we are thorough 
enough in our thinking to throw that prejudice aside, too, we may, I 
suspect, still find a place for the architect in modern civilization." 35 
Another aspect of Fuller's thinking that has been questioned is his 
pronouncement of performance per pound as a figure of merit for 
house design. Why, it has been asked, per pound of house? What 
if it should cost more to produce and use the light metals Fuller calls 
for than to fabricate and transport somewhat heavier materials? How 
important is transportation cost in the final cost, and to what extent 
does transportation cost depend upon bulk rather than weight? Per 
haps the reason that the designers of houses have not thought in 
terms of performance per pound is that they are not so deeply con 
cerned with gravity as are aircraft and ship designers. But this is 
not the place to examine the validity of details of Fuller's argument. 
The important thing is that he should have thought in terms of some 
figure of merit and in terms of what technology had provided and 
could provide in materials and structural methods. 

At the time his house was introduced, Fuller writes, 36 he extrapo 
lated curves of industrial progress, of housing demand and supply, of 
invention gestation, of the range and frequency of per capita travel, 
and concluded that the house, with all the improvements in technol 
ogy that would take place in the meantime, could not be industrially 

33 Buckminster Fuller, "Dymaxion Houses: an Attitude," Architectural Record, 
75 (January 1934), 10. 

34 R. Buckminster Fuller, Designing a New Industry: A Composite of a Series 
of Talks (Wichita, Kan.: Fuller Research Institute, 1946). 

35 Lewis Mumford, City Development: Studies in Renewal and Disintegration 
(New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1945), p. 73. 

36 Fuller, Designing a New Industry, p. 24. 


produced for some 21 or 22 years, until 1948-1949. For a while, in 
the last few years, it looked as though Fuller's prognostication might 
have been startlingly accurate. A new version of the Dymaxion house 
was prominent in the news. Basically the same as the 1927 design, 
it had been made round instead of hexagonal and had been lowered 
on its mast and fitted with a ventilator on top; recent developments 
in light metals, in synthetics, and in aircraft production techniques 
were to be applied to its manufacture; it was even accorded a "better 
than even chance of upsetting building industry." 37 But this later 
Fuller house never got into production, and changes introduced after 
Fuller left the company did not help the situation. 

It is clear that in 1927, even if the technology had been capable of 
it, no one was in a hurry to produce anything so revolutionary. The 
building industry had just finished one of the biggest years in its 
history and had already passed the turning point of its boom. There 
was little talk of a housing shortage; in fact it seemed to industry that 
plenty of houses, if not too many, were being produced, even if they 
were not going to those who needed them most. Although the ideas 
of Fuller and other members of this group of radical thinkers were not 
realized in production, they still served two ends: they caused the 
architects and engineers to think more deeply about house design, 
and, perhaps not so happily, they caused considerable public excite 
ment. The outburst of inventions and publicity really arrived, how 
ever, with the thirties, when the nation, struggling through a depres 
sion, turned anxious eyes towards the technical world in the hope 
that some mass-production miracle might occur. 

IV. 1930-1940: Prefcibrication Attains the Status of a Move 

A. The Background Influences 

It was in the early thirties that prefabrication became a widely 
recognized movement, and interest in one aspect or another of the 

37 "Fuller's House," Fortune, XXXIII (April 1946), 167. But see also: 
"What became of the Fuller house," Fortune, XXXVII (May 1948), 168. 


idea spread to a much wider group than the handful of inventors and 
small companies which had previously been concerned. The spread 
of this idea may be attributed to a confluence of factors, economic, 
social, and technical. 

1. Economic Factors 

There was, first of all, the overwhelming effect of the depression, 
the impact of which stimulated the search for new kinds of employ 
ment and investment opportunity. Though builders and mortgage 
institutions were not yet concerned about a housing shortage, it was 
clear to many who were casting about for new markets that a radically 
low-cost house would offer just such an opportunity. It was generally 
recognized that the purchase of a new house was beyond the means 
of at least half of the families in America. 38 Here was a market if only 
one could provide the product. But not only was there a search for 
new investment opportunities; it was also necessary to find an out 
let for the potential output of existing investments in plant and equip 
ment. The steel industry, for instance, operating at one-quarter of 
capacity, 39 looked desperately for a new market to absorb what it 
was capable of producing. Similarly, some of the large building ma 
terials producers sought to get housebuilding, which had slumped to 
10% of its 1925 peak, 40 out of the doldrums. The consequence was a 
widespread development of themes similar to that of an article in Col 
liers entitled, <c We Can Build Our Way Out/' 41 which called for a 
new house manufacturing industry to end the depression. 

38 In the mid-thirties, when a mass of statistical investigation began to pro 
vide us with some disturbing facts about our economy, it turned out that, if 
one took the crude rule of thumb that a home buyer's income should equal half 
the cost of his house, some 79% of American families could not afford a "low- 
cost" house priced with lot at $4,000 (Family Expenditures in the United States, 
National Resources Planning Board [Washington, 1941], Table 1, p. 1). 

39 1936 Supplement, Survey of Current Business, U. S. Department of Com 
merce, p. 118. In 1932 ingot production was at 20% of capacity; sheet steel 
production at 25% of capacity. 

40 Total non-farm dwelling units started in 1925: 937,000; in 1933: 93,000 
(Housing Statistics Handbook, Housing and Home Finance Agency [Washington, 
1948], p. 2). 

"Collier's, 91 (June 10, 1933), 12 ff. 


2. Social Factors 

Added to this general economic outlook was a social atmosphere 
in which there were, on the one hand, those whose faith in our eco 
nomic system had been considerably shaken and who argued that at 
least in housing the government must take an active role in provid 
ing for the lower-income groups, and, on the other, those who were 
convinced of the basic soundness of a private enterprise economy. 
The industrialization of housing was a challenge to those who be 
lieved in the private industrial system and thought it could be made 
to work in all areas for the benefit of all the people. There were 
other relevant social trends: the increasing concern about economic 
insecurity, the movement of employment opportunities, and the mo 
bility of the population; the increasing scope of government activities; 
the growth of a housing movement. These will be discussed more 
fully later. 

3. Technical Factors 

There were also technical developments during this period which 
deserve brief mention here: the progress in plywood manufacture 
brought about by improvements in glues and veneer cutting; the 
better utilization of wood seconds and wood waste to make plastics, 
wallboards, and hardboards; the expanded production of other sheet 
materials made from gypsum, asbestos, cane fiber, newspaper, etc.; 
the development of sheet steel and the continuous strip and cold- 
rolled processes; the improvement in alloys, especially of the light 
metals; and the treatment of cementitious materials by vibrating, 
aerating, and use of lightweight aggregates. Again, these will be dis 
cussed later. 

This complex of economic, social, and technical factors will be 
analyzed here by summarizing the activities of those groups which 
concerned themselves with broad applications: the non-commercial 
research organizations, the government, and the business and financial 


B. Non-Commercial Research and Development 

One aspect that distinguished American research and development 
in prefabrication from those in other countries was their continuity. 42 
In America, as elsewhere, commercial sponsors were active, in gen 
eral, only if they saw profit possibilities. But here, unlike most other 
countries, there was a core of constant activity in research which was 
carried on with the principal object of providing better and more 
economic shelter. True, the scale on which development and ex 
perimentation were carried out varied with business conditions, but 
at least a small amount of effort was consistently expended regardless 
of the immediate economic problems at hand. 

1. Pierce Foundation 

In the twenties there were Bemis and Atterbury, and now, in the 
thirties, other organizations entered the field. The Housing Research 
Division of the Pierce Foundation, 43 in Raritan, N. J., was founded in 
1931 and under the direction of Robert L. Davison began a search for 
materials and structures that would yield a house of lowest possible 
cost consistent with adequate physical standards. Among the mate 
rials which this group tried were concrete, plywood, composition 
board, cellular glass, stabilized earth, and a hydro-calcium silicate 
composition known as "Microporite." Behind much of its experimenta 
tion lay the same aim that motivated Bemis: to find a single material 
which would serve both as structure and as enclosure. A number of 
test houses were erected. The first, in 1932, had an open-spaced 
(12%') steel frame and floor-carrying walls of welded lattice trusses 
encased in a cementitious material, a system intended primarily for 
multistory apartment construction. A second experimental house 
(1935) also used an open-spaced steel frame with precast reinforced 
Microporite slabs for walls, floors, roof, and partitions. Both these 
structures used panels horizontally, a type of design which the Founda 
tion tended to favor for its flexibility in planning and fenestration, de- 

42 Harrison, op. cit., p. 124. 

43 The John B. Pierce Foundation of New York City was chartered in 1924 to 
carry on educational, technical, and scientific work in the general fields of 
heating, ventilating, and sanitation. It was endowed in the will of John B. 
Pierce, New England industrialist and financier. 


spite the much more common preference for vertical elements. Later 
a community of 20 plywood houses in Highbridge, N. J., was built to 
permit a continuous study of family needs and maintenance prob 

The Foundation has also done considerable work on plumbing and 
heating equipment and was largely responsible for the integrated 
mechanical core as it first reached the market in 1935 in the American 
Motohome. Its work was reflected commercially in at least two 
other ways. The studies of floor plans and family living habits were 
at least partially responsible for the 24' X 28' single-story house 
which has to a large extent become "standard" in the low-cost field. 
A second instance was the Cemesto House, released for commercial 
development with considerable success in war housing. 44 This dwel 
ling had an open-spaced wood frame clothed with horizontally laid 
slabs of Cemesto, a sandwich material composed of a cane fiber insu 
lating core faced on both sides with cement asbestos sheets. At the 
present time the Foundation is continuing its work on a number of 
phases of house construction, concerned particularly with systems of 
prefabrication employing stressed skin plywood panels in connection 
with structural frames of either light-gauge steel or wood. 

2. Universities 

Purdue University's Housing Research Project, instituted in 1935, 
was another non-commercial agency that carried on work in the field, 
much of which was done in cooperation with industry. One of its 
early efforts was the building and testing of five commercial types of 
low-cost house, two of which were prefabricated. Engineering and 
cost studies were made and published. Considerable work has also 
been done in the fields of heating and ventilation. 

Other universities were, of course, also conducting research in re 
lated areas, yet this work was generally not focused specifically on the 
problem of building the house shell, but was more often concerned 
with various types of economic studies, with family needs, or with 
mechanical equipment. This was in part a reflection of the peculiar 
organization of the housebuilding industry which left it, by compari 
son with other industries in, for instance, the chemical and electrical 

44 For instance, the community built for the employees of the Glenn L. Martin 
Company near Baltimore, Md. 


fields, quite unable to pose the problems, encourage the research, and 
utilize the results. 

C. Government Activity: Techniques and Standards 

1. U. S. Forest Products Laboratory 

Several government agencies played a prominent role in the de 
velopment of prefabrication during the thirties. One of these was the 
U. S. Forest Products Laboratory, 45 whose purpose it was to study the 
utilization of our forest resources and which had for some time been 
working on various types of glue and plywoods. Later it began to 
work on house construction, and in 1935 its first stressed skin plywood 
house was built, embracing a structural design that was to have a 
very great influence on the development of the industry. The stressed 
skin principle was not new, except to housebuilding; the idea was 
simply to build the wall panel as a box girder and thus use the sur 
faces of the panel in such a way that they, as well as the framing 
members, would carry a major part of the load. Though not new, 
the principle waited for its housing application upon the creation of 
the proper plywoods and glues. Stressed skin construction offered 
good possibilities for saving material, mechanizing wood fabrication, 
and lightening the structure, and it was therefore eagerly adopted by 
a number of prefabricators and was extensively exploited in war hous 
ing. The contributions of the U. S. Forest Products Laboratory to 
prefabrication had really just begun, however, for in the ensuing 
years the research carried out there dealt with many of the technical 
problems besetting manufacturers, for example, dust patterns, inter- 
wall condensation, and the bowing of panels due to changes in mois 
ture content; and the work of the Laboratory with new materials and 
production techniques had great import for most of the firms in the 
industry. It is probably pertinent to remark that this publicly spon 
sored research organization served a unique role in an industry char 
acterized by small companies which were generally incapable of 
carrying on any extensive research of their own. 

45 Madison, Wis. Established in 1910, and operated by the U. S. Forest 
Service, Department of Agriculture. 

2. National Bureau of Standards 

Another government agency which rendered technical assistance 
to prefabrication was the National Bureau of Standards, which in 
1937 began a program of research in building materials and struc 
tures for use in low-cost housing. Testing procedures for such ele 
ments of the house as walls, partitions, floors, and roof were developed, 
and a large number of reports on the physical properties of various 
materials and systems of construction, some of them prefabricated to 
a large degree, have since been issued. 46 Work was also done on 
plumbing and heating equipment, on Simplified Practice Recom 
mendations, 47 Commercial Standards, 48 and building codes. Ulti 
mately this program of performance tests and related building studies 
may have a large effect on the writing of codes and specifications 
and on the whole development of better and cheaper methods of 

3. Federal Housing Administration 

It is the Federal Housing Administration, however, which has prob 
ably been the most important single influence in setting standards 
for the construction of low-cost houses. Through its guides for rating 
mortgage risk the FHA established many criteria for house construc 
tion. Prefabricators who were trying to tap medium- and low-cost 
markets with a new product had to rely to a considerable extent on 
FHA mortgages for home financing. When a prefabricator's house 
was approved on a technical basis, the Washington office of the FHA 
issued an Engineering Bulletin proclaiming that fact and giving perti 
nent data. One result of this was to create a basis for evaluating the 

46 Building Materials and Structures Reports, U. S. Department of Commerce, 
National Bureau of Standards (Washington, 1939+ ). 

47 Aimed at eliminating waste through the establishment of standards of prac 
tice for stock sizes and varieties of specific commodities that are currently in 
general production and demand. Adopted voluntarily by industry with the 
assistance of the National Bureau of Standards. 

48 Aimed at establishing standard methods of test, rating, certification, and 
labeling of commodities and at providing uniform bases for fair competition. 
Adopted voluntarily by industry with the assistance of the National Bureau of 
Standards. Commercial Standard CS 125-45 for Prefabricated Homes, accepted 
in 1945, was the first applying to the prefabrication industry. A revision, 
CS125-47, was brought out in 1947. 

prefabricating systems commercially available. Yet, while the FHA 
has had a distinctly salutary effect in revising mortgage financing, in 
inducing banks to lend on prefabricated houses, and in establishing 
standards, the influence of its approval has grown so great that a new 
house manufacturer is now apt to be severely penalized without it. 
The importance of this institution increased steadily throughout the 
thirties, but it was only in the postwar period that it reached its pres 
ent tremendous significance. It is perhaps not too much to say that 
FHA approval is now a matter of life or death to the prefabricator 
about to enter production with a new system, and in view of the power 
wielded by the FHA, its policy with respect to new developments in 
building has become a matter of considerable importance. 

D. Government Activity: Prefabricated Construction 

When we turn to a consideration of the various government agencies 
which entered into housebuilding directly, we find vast differences in 
approach, deriving chiefly from equally large differences in purpose. 
At one extreme there was the public housing program, first under the 
Public Works Administration and then under the United States Hous 
ing Authority, which was conceived in terms of highly permanent 
fireproof multifamily buildings having low maintenance, high physical 
standards, and long-term (60-year) amortization to make rents as 
low as possible. The program was aimed at rehousing slum dwellers 
and usually involved building in dense urban areas. For these and 
other reasons the public housing authorities did not regard prefabri- 
cation very seriously and did not use it at all until the advent of the 
war housing program. 

1. Farm Security Administration 

In contrast to this public housing program, the Farm Security Ad 
ministration 49 was charged with promoting self-sufficiency, decreas 
ing tenancy, and resettling migrants on the land. The FSA's ap 
proach was from the beginning characterized by a willingness to ex- 

49 Formed in 1937 to carry on the work of the Resettlement Administration 
and several other farm agencies. 


periment, and its technical staff, which was decentralized into 12 re 
gional offices and by comparison with the public housing program was 
relatively free from Washington control, emerged with many fresh 
approaches to construction. In 1938 the FSA built 100 farmsteads for 
sharecropper families in Missouri and achieved very low costs by 
prefabricating wall and roof sections and making use of a large pro 
portion of unskilled labor. The price was $1,105 for a 24' X 36' five- 
room house, and $2,000 for a farmstead including house, barn, stor 
age shed, privy, fencing, roads, and a well. 50 The following year 60 
farmstead units of steel were ordered from the Tennessee Coal, Iron 
& Railroad Co., a United States Steel Corporation subsidiary, and were 
erected in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. The houses, a 
little smaller than the wooden ones built in Missouri, cost 503? 
more. 51 In the west the FSA built whole communities for migratory 
farm workers and carried on a number of experiments with plywood 
and other unconventional construction in an attempt to provide mi 
grants with something more substantial and more economical than a 
tent. Some 6,000 steel "minimum" units, 12' X 14', were built for this 
purpose. Though not related specifically to prefabrication, the plan 
ning and building of these integrated farm communities were among 
the agency's most significant contributions in the field of housing. 
By the end of 1940 the FSA had built more than 26,000 individual 
houses, 52 and at that time The Architectural Forum could write, "To 
day in face of a national emergency, Farm Security stands out as the 
agency most experienced in the work of building houses quickly and 
cheaply." 53 Its work continued into the war period and included in 
a dormitory project near Vallejo, Calif., one of the first uses of stressed 
skin plywood construction in two-story buildings. 

2. The Fort Wayne Experiment 

Still another approach was the widely publicized Fort Wayne Plan 
developed jointly in 1938 by the FHA, the Fort Wayne Housing Au 
thority, and the PWA. The 50 single-family units comprising this 

*The Architectural Forum, 69 (November 1938), 393-4. 

51 The Architectural Forum, 70 (January 1939), 68; Architectural Record, 85 
(January 1939), 38-9. 

52 Including those built by the agencies the FSA had taken over ( The Archi 
tectural Forum, 74 [January 1941], 13). 

The Architectural Forum, 74 (January 1941), 3. 


project were built of stressed skin panels and rented for $2.50 a week. 
WPA labor was used in a factory rented and equipped by the Fort 
Wayne Housing Authority, and houses were placed in blighted areas 
on vacant lots which had been bought for $1.00 each, the seller be 
ing given an option to repurchase. This plan differed significantly 
from the public housing formula, and it inspired considerable con 
troversy. 54 Its 480 sq. ft. houses were below USHA standards; it re 
quired demountable units in case the land was reclaimed by the 
former owner; it called for lighter construction and shorter amortiza 
tion periods; it used WPA labor; and it involved private, insured 
financing. Perhaps the fact that this plan was not adopted elsewhere 
is evidence that it was not suited to the conditions and the times. It 
did, however, bring attention to another example of prefabricated 

3. Tennessee Valley Authority 

Probably the most important government effort in prefabricated 
building during this period, at least from a developmental standpoint, 
was the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority with demountable 
sectional houses. Actually this work extended well into the war years, 
but it had its origin in an earlier period and is therefore discussed 
here. The TVA required temporary housing for the construction 
workers on its many hydroelectric projects and had for some time 
speculated about making good portable houses as an alternative to 
building mere shacks. 

In 1934 Louis Grandgent, then chief of TVA's architectural section, 
proposed a scheme for building a house which could be separated 
into four or five sections each of such dimensions that it could travel 
safely by truck and trailer over public highways. After some ex 
perience with transporting conventional houses by barge, the sectional 
house idea was developed by the TVA staff under the supervision of 
Carroll A. Towne. In 1940 the first TVA sectional houses were built 
for transportation by truck to the site. 55 Sections measured 7%' X 22' 

54 See, for instance, Charles Abrams, "Fort Wayne Housing Plan Analyzed," 
American City, LIV (April 1939), 106; National Association of Housing Officials 
News (February 28, 1939), 9-11; (March 28, 1939), 21. 

55 In 1939 General Housing Corporation, Seattle, Wash., had begun manufac 
ture of a sectional but otherwise conventional wood frame house. The four-room 
dwelling was made in two 12' wide sections, completely finished and equipped 


X 9%' were of wood frame construction, and weighed three tons. 
They left the factory with all electric, heating, and plumbing equip 
ment installed, and arrived at the site completely finished even down 
to light bulbs and screens. Houses were finished at the site in as 
little as four hours by bolting together two or more sections. The 
next year the TVA's design was adopted by the Federal Works Agency 
for war housing, but in order to meet nationally standardized require 
ments, a pitched roof, hinged to let down during transit, was added. 
In 1942 the TVA began experimenting with designs that frankly 
recognized the house section as a trailer and used certain aspects of 
trailer construction. Weight was reduced by the adoption of stressed 
skin principles, and transportation costs were cut from 30^ per sec 
tion per mile to 23^. These houses were trucked as far as 600 miles. 
Still later, when the Army erected several thousand of these houses 
at the atomic bomb project at Oak Ridge, Tenn., a boom crane was 
used to put sections in place instead of the jacks and rails that had 
previously been used. This kind of prefabrication, which reduced 
site labor to as little as 5-10% of total direct labor, was later to have 
considerable influence in several postwar designs, notably the Prenco 
and Reliance houses and the British AIROH house. 

E. Commercial Development by Private Enterprise 

While a number of non-profit and government institutions made 
significant contributions to the development of prefabrication, its 
widespread adoption on a commercial basis awaited the efforts of 
private enterprise, and it remained for some entrepreneur to organize 
a successful pattern of operations. In the early thirties one element 
of the business world, big business, saw the challenge of prefabrica 
tion and talked as though it were prepared to turn the gleam in the 
inventor's eye into a profitable operation. For reasons outlined pre 
viously, at least a dozen of America's largest corporations entertained 
the idea for a while, and a few stuck with it continuously. Among 
the big names were United States Steel Corporation, Great Lakes 
Steel Corporation, American Car and Foundry Co., Pullman Standard 
Car Mfg. Co., The Celotex Corporation, Johns-Manville Corporation, 
U. S. Gypsum Co., American Radiator & Standard Sanitary Corp., and 

in the factory and trucked to the site (in the Seattle area) where it was bolted 
together. Average price, erected and with lot, $3,900; f.o.b., $2,980 (The 
Architectural Forum, 70 [April 1939], 286). 


General Electric Company. Several of these companies went no 
further than to supply certain components to prefabricators in accord 
ance with specifications. Some of the materials producers went to 
the extent of developing a house system, not infrequently a structure 
which reflected the attempt to find every possible use for that com 
pany's product. Only a few companies maintained a prefabrication 
research establishment that was more than a token effort, and these 
few did it on a budget that was meager compared to the research ex 
penditures of equally large companies in other industries. However, 
most of these companies and a number of others retained advisors to 
keep in touch with current developments. 

1. General Houses, Inc. 

Related to the interest of big business in prefabrication were the 
proposals for at least two rather ambitious corporate structures. 
The first of these was General Houses, Inc., organized in 1932. 
Under the leadership of Howard T. Fisher, General Houses was 
to design, coordinate, and assemble standard parts to be produced 
for it by a number of prominent specialists. It took its pattern 
from the automobile industry, in which the nominal manufacturer 
usually acts more as an assembler than as an actual producer but 
does assume responsibility for coordinating the many elements in 
volved and for providing a complete service to the customer. With 
unused capacity available in thousands of plants throughout the 
country, General Houses would need no plant and would have 
none; instead, parts were to flow from the specialized manufacturers 
via warehouses to the site where they would be assembled. The 
house was not to be standardized; it was to be custom built from 
standard elements. In many respects this pattern was followed, 
with the cooperation of several large corporations. 56 Research and 

56 Among others, Bethlehem Steel Co., Pullman Standard Car Mfg. Co., Curtis 
Companies Incorporated, American Radiator & Standard Sanitary Corp., Con 
tainer Corporation of America, and Weyerhaeuser Timber Co. General Houses 
had an extremely simple corporate structure. Only one or two of the cooperat 
ing companies ever held any stock, and their stockholdings were nominal. After 
Pullman withdrew to concentrate on the expanding car business, Bethlehem Steel 
took over and for several years fabricated all the steel parts used by the com 
pany. Most of the millwork and other woodwork was made by Curtis right 
through to the war years, when Curtis fabricated complete panels for walls, 
floors, ceilings, and partitions for some of General Houses' war housing projects. 


development were financed by General Houses itself and standard 
parts made to General Houses' specifications were purchased from 
suppliers as in the automobile industry. Beginning with a house 
of load-bearing steel panels (see Figure 9), General Houses changed 
in 1936 to a steel frame system with sandwich panels of cement 
asbestos sheet (exterior), insulation, and plywood (interior), largely 
in an effort to achieve lower cost. Architecturally the design was 
quite modern with a minimum of ornament, a flat roof, smooth 
exteriors, vertical battens, and a good deal of glass. 57 Up until 
shortly before the war General Houses built several hundred of 
these houses, an output far below its proposed mass-production 
levels. It had encountered a few technical difficulties such as 
interwall condensation, none of them serious, but had met with 
its largest problems in the realm of financing and marketing. The 
dealers came largely from outside the building industry because of 
opposition to prefabrication within the industry. In some respects, 
they could do a better job of retail merchandising, but they were 
severely handicapped by lack of practical building experience. An 
other major source of trouble was in obtaining suitable mortgage 
appraisals, a problem which derived largely from the unconven 
tional nature of the house. General Houses revised its approach 
towards the end of the decade, partly for these reasons and partly 
because of increasing shortages in steel. Fewer designs were of 
fered, wood was employed as a basic material, the roof was peaked, 
and the general appearance was made to conform with convention. 
About this time the defense housing program started, curtailing 
private building to a large extent, and General Houses changed 
its plans further, becoming one of the first prefabricators to par 
ticipate in the war housing effort and influencing in part the use of 
prefabrication in war projects. 

2. Houses, Inc. 

The second of these grand ventures was Houses, Inc., started 
by Foster Gunnison in 1934 at the instigation of Owen D. Young, 
then Chairman of the Board of General Electric Company. Houses, 
Inc., would build no houses, but it would cooperate with other com 
panies in the development of houses of several types. To this end 

57 Price in 1934, erected but less freight and cost of lot: four-room house, 
$4,500; six-room, two-story house with garage, $8,550. 


it proposed to engage in research and provide assistance in the 
management and financing of housing enterprises. American Ra 
diator & Standard Sanitary Corp. and General Electric Company were 
the companies which were to cooperate in the development work. 
Houses, Inc., was to own stock in other companies which would 
assemble and erect the dwellings. In 1935 there were two such 
affiliates, National Houses, Inc., which had a steel-frame steel-panel 
system, and American Houses, Inc., which was producing the 

The promotion of the Motohome was the biggest activity of 
Houses, Inc., that year. Engraved invitations to the first exhibition 
announced the "American Motohome" as "the prefabricated house 
that comes complete with food in the kitchen." In Wanamaker's 
New York store on April 1, 1935, President Roosevelt's mother un 
tied the ribbon that bound the Cellophane-wrapped house. 58 The 
public found a house of steel frame and asbestos cement panels, 
with a flat roof, corner windows, and an exterior which frankly ex 
pressed the panelized construction. Inside was a mechanical core 
including plumbing, heating, and electrical equipment, the product 
of work by the Pierce Foundation and General Electric Company. 
The promotional campaign included not only store exhibits and 
demonstration houses such as those built in Westchester County 
that summer, but also extensive publicity in the press; Sunday sup 
plements and trade papers alike carried illustrations of what a com 
munity of Motohomes would look like and what sort of truck would 
carry them from the factory to the site. In late 1935, however, there 
were several disputes among the backers 59 and the management of 
Houses, Inc., and, for reasons which were primarily personal, Foster 
Gunnison sold out his interest and went to New Albany, Ind., to 
found his own company. General Electric carried on Houses, Inc., 
for about another year without much success and then liquidated it. 

3. American Houses, Inc. 

Meanwhile, American Houses, Inc., which had had an independent 
existence of its own since its inception in 1933, continued on its 

58 500,000 people are said to have visited the Motohome during a six-month 

59 By October 1935 General Electric had bought out American Radiator's share 
in Houses, Inc., and owned it outright. 


way under the leadership of its founder, Robert W. McLaughlin. 80 
The Motohome, of which only about 150 had been sold, was aban 
doned. 61 Emphasis was placed on reaching the low-income market 
with a conventional product rather than the middle-income market 
with a "better than conventional" one. 62 In addition, American 
Houses radically altered its designs by adopting peaked roofs, wood 
sheathing, clapboard exteriors, and plywood interiors. The steel 
frame was retained for another two years, until 1938, when it was 
discarded in favor of conventional wood framing because the latter 
was more flexible, easier to use with other materials, and could be 
fabricated with less elaborate equipment in the plant. By the end 
of the decade American Houses' system was of traditional platform 
frame construction, and the extent of prefabrication had been re 
duced to precutting and partial preassembly of panels. 63 There was 
developing within the company at the same time a trend towards work 
ing through contractors who were building projects rather than 
selling through dealers to individual customers. While it was thus 
changing its pattern of operations, American Houses grew to the 
point where, at the beginning of the war, it was one of the leading 
prefabricators in the United States. 64 

4. Gunnison 

In the course of the same period, Gunnison had also developed 
one of the best-known firms in the industry. 65 He had begun in a 

60 Now a member of the Board of Directors. 

61 Possible reasons: sales resistance to its appearance; its mechanical core re 
quired servicing by American Houses; it was overloaded with equipment manu 
factured by its original sponsors. 

62 The minimum Motohome was a single-story four-room house with garage 
selling at $4,950, erected but less lot. Other models were priced up to 

<*The Architectural Forum, 73 (July 1940), 69 ff. 

Later (1943) American Houses began to describe its business as a "refining 
operation," a stage between the manufacturer of raw materials and the con 

64 One of American Houses' most successful projects was a 136-house sub 
division for Bethlehem Steel Co. near Baltimore, Md., 1939-1940. The four- 
room house was priced, with lot, at $2,750. At about the same time American 
Houses was also building in another price range: garden apartments in New 
Rochelle, N. Y., to rent at $20 a room (loc. ctf.). 

65 Starting in 1935 as Gunnison Magic Homes, Inc., the name was changed 
in 1937 to Gunnison Housing Corporation, and in 1944 to Gunnison Homes, Inc. 


modest way, renting a small plant in which to produce his stressed 
skin plywood panel houses. The first of these, even though of tradi 
tional appearance, aroused a good deal of protest, but this stemmed 
mainly from local building people who saw their interests threatened. 
Opposition diminished and public acceptance grew as Gunnison and 
his houses became known. The 1937 spring flood of the Ohio River 
accidentally proved beneficial by showing that the houses, some 
of which had been immersed, were of sound construction and by 
giving Gunnison an opportunity to compete with conventional 
builders in a relief project undertaken by the New Albany Housing 
Authority, a project which measurably added to his prestige. Em 
phasis had, from the beginning, been on low-cost homes 66 sold 
through dealers to the ultimate consumer. There was a brief at 
tempt at marketing through the building of housing projects under 
the Gunnison Village Plan, 67 but the overall trend was in the oppo 
site direction, towards the evolution of a system of retail merchandis 
ing that would diversify sales risk by making many small sales to 
individual customers. Gunnison brought to prefabrication the abil 
ity and approach of an organizer and salesman. He was more 
determined than most prefabricators have been to break completely 
with the traditional operations of housebuilding and to draw his 
personnel and his manufacturing and marketing methods from fields 
characterized by true mass production. In retrospect his influence 
appears as a major factor in shaping one of the important market 
ing patterns of the industry. 

5. The Nature of Efforts by Big Business 

A brief account of the early phases of several enterprises can 
hardly do justice to the effort expended on prefabrication in the 
thirties, but a few examples may suffice to show the kind and extent 
of activity by big and little business. 

Regarding the large corporations, it might be said that their re- 

66 In 1936 a four-room, 24' X 32' house sold for $2,650 erected but less lot. 
The "Miracle Home" offered in 1939 was priced at $2,950; $350 down, $21 a 

67 Under this plan a local corporation would acquire land, erect a community of 
Gunnison homes, and manage it after completion. 80% or in some cases 90% of 
the total value of the completed project was to be provided by an FHA-insured 
mortgage. The balance would be represented by a stock issue of which 
Gunnison Housing Corporation would own a portion, the rest being held by 
local investors. 


search was generally biased by some motive other than the indus 
trialization of housing; often they designed a house to use the 
maximum amount of whatever material they produced. This is not 
to deny that the materials and equipment producers, who, of all 
the elements in the building industry, were the only ones capable of 
financing research on a large scale, did make great contributions in 
improving their own products. There also was significant progress 
in mechanical, electrical, and heating equipment, and in insulation, 
wallboards, flooring, roofing, and glass. But effort at the integration 
of parts, research in house design, and studies in construction tech 
niquesthese were largely neglected. Development work by large 
corporations in prefabrication remained embryonic; rarely, if ever, 
was an idea carried through to the pilot plant level. On the mat 
ter of distribution there was little significant activity. The idea 
that an organization for mass distribution of houses would have to 
be established before there could be any mass production had nod 
ding approval in theory but little application in practice. Grandiose 
promotion schemes there were, but these should not be confused with 
serious attempts at establishing a marketing pattern, arranging for 
financing, meeting code difficulties, and overcoming problems at 
the site. This is not meant as an indictment of all the large cor 
porations; some put a good deal of effort into developing their 
products and struggled for a while with the idea of selling a house, 
but ultimately they retired for the most part to selling prefabricated 
components, usually for non-residential construction. The sub 
sidiaries of Great Lakes Steel Corporation 68 and American Rolling 
Mills Company 69 may serve as illustrations. 

Yet it is probably fair to remark that the large corporations never 
really threw their full resources into the fight. To a certain extent 
this may have been a manifestation of the inertia of bigness. But 
probably more than this it was a reflection of the organization of the 
building industry. There is, first of all, a basic schism of long stand 
ing in this industry. 70 On the one hand are the manufacturing and 
construction interests whose profits stem from the production of 
buildings, and, on the other, the rentier and realty interests whose 
profits stem from the ownership of buildings (and land). Where a 
high rate of production might lead to a disturbance of established 
values a conflict of interests is apt to occur, and the position of the 

68 Stran-Steel. 

69 Steel Buildings, Inc., and The Insulated Steel Construction Co. 

70 James Marston Fitch, American Building; The Forces That Shape It (Bos 
ton: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), pp. 334-9. 


rentier interests who control land and home financing is in this 
case a very strong one. Furthermore, the nature of the housebuild 
ing process up to now has been such that no single person, organi 
zation, or even industry has a sufficient stake in the completed 
house (in terms of dollar value) to justify research and develop 
ment in the fabrication, assembly, and overall construction of the 
house itself and the creation of coordinated marketing processes. 71 
Because his own stake in the house is small, no supplier makes a 
serious effort to reduce the use of his product or service though 
this might lead to greater overall efficiency. Each attempts rather 
to increase its use, firm in the knowledge that what he does makes 
little difference in the total cost. This attitude has been seen through 
out the field, in labor organizations, materials producers, and fixture 
and equipment manufacturers alike. There has been no element 
in the housebuilding industry with sufficient motivation and with 
sufficient power and means of control to initiate fundamental changes 
in the fabrication and construction processes and carry them through 
to the final product. Another factor in the housing field which might 
deter a large corporation from directing its research efforts in that 
direction is the likelihood that marketing outlets for the house 
package would be in direct conflict with existing marketing outlets 
upon which the company might be in large measure dependent. 
There was rarely sufficient likelihood of profit to warrant taking such 
a risk. In addition, experienced salesmen were well aware that pub 
lic attitudes about the home are more strongly entrenched than 
attitudes towards other less historic and less emotion-loaded products. 

6. The Role of Small Firms 

Because of the relative inactivity of the large corporations the 
role of the small entrepreneur, that is, the innovator of relatively 

71 This point has been made many times, notably recently by C. F. Rassweiler, 
Vice-President for Research and Development, Johns-Manville Corporation, in a 
talk before the Annual Fall Meeting of The Producers' Council, Inc., New York, 
September 30, 1948; and by Robert W. McLaughlin, architect, in a talk at the 
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, February 26, 1948. McLaughlin stated 
that his studies of a "typical" 750 sq. ft. low-cost house showed that the largest 
single element of cost, dimension lumber, represented less than 10% of the 
total final cost. By the same token, one may find here one of the keys to a 
successful approach to prefabrication capital aggregations and competent staffs 
large enough to bring vertical integration to the whole process of housebuilding. 

fest financial resources, was a quite important one. There were 
Jy scores in this category, but the vast majority never got be 
yond the initial stage of invention. Throughout the decade there 
continued the almost naive belief that the invention of some joint or 
wall section was the answer to the problem. Some went further 
and designed floor, roof, and partition details; a still smaller group 
went on to consider the mechanical equipment in the house; and 
only a few attempted to outline and organize a pattern of opera 
tions that included all phases of the enterprise including distribu 
tion. The number of would-be innovators in this period was so 
formidable that it would be hopeless to attempt here a review of 
even the better half. Instead we shall look briefly at the field as a 
whole and point out the broad trends. 

F. General Trends and Characteristics 

1. Ideas and the Public Mind 

One clue to the kind of thinking that was going on may be found 
in the Symposium on Prefabrication sponsored in 1935 by Richard 
son Wright, editor of House and Garden. Gathered for dinner and 
debate were some dozen people who had achieved a certain emi 
nence in the field. The discussion ranged over many aspects of the 
prefabricated house: its advantage over conventional houses, its 
optimum useful life, the problem of financing, the question of modern 
design, prefinishing versus site finishing of panels, etc. The steno 
graphic report of the Symposium 72 contains some remarks that are 
interesting in retrospect: 

John Ely Burchard, vice-president of Bemis Industries, Inc., 

It is very important that provision be made for financing the houses, and 
the prefabricator cannot dump the problem in the lap of the banks. Un 
questionably the prefabricated house will be a sounder and more uniform 
security but the industry itself must make some arrangements for financing. 

Raymond V. Parsons, consulting engineer, Johns- M an ville Corpora 
tion, New York City: 

72 House and Garden, LXVIII (December 1935), 65-72. 


It can almost be taken for granted that when good prefabricated houses 
become a fact their architectural style will be different from the quaint 
English cottages and Cape Cod Colonials that are the present favorites of 
the speculative builders. The idea that we should take new and better 
building materials and mould them into the lines and textures of old ma 
terials possessing any number of shortcomings is abhorrent. 

Howard T. Fisher, president of General Houses, Inc., Chicago: 

The final decision, in the matter of design, will of course depend on what 
the public wants. But in everything else the public has shown its prefer 
ence for the best in modern design, and I doubt if they will pay extra for 
faked imitations of the past when they buy their houses. As a matter of 
fact, I believe the greatest selling point these houses will have in the next 
decade will be their style. 

Robert L. Davison, Director of Housing Research, John B. Pierce 
Foundation, Raritan, N. J.: 

I can't agree with that [Fisher's statement that a 'sloping roof becomes 
economically unsound because it is too inflexible']; it depends on the 
material used. We have worked with one material where a flat roof 
was the only logical solution, and now we are working with a material 
which cries out for a pitched roof. 

Fisher (on what the useful life of the prefabricated house should 

I think if the cost could be correspondingly reduced it should be as short 
as possible up to a certain point! ... It would obviously be more eco 
nomical, due to the obsolescence factor, to buy a house that would last, say, 
fifteen years, and which would cost only 60% of a house that would last 
thirty years, if that were possible. We have been building this is par 
ticularly true of England for too great a period of time. . . . What 
would be the sense in building a refrigerator to last 100 years when you 
know improvements will be constantly coming into the market? 

This may have been the first symposium on the subject; it was 
by no means the last. The press, lay and technical, was very gener 
ous in its attention to prefabrication and produced words much 
faster than prefabricators did houses. The inventor's desire for 
publicity was of course abetted by the editors and apparently even 
by the general public, whose curiosity and interest in the home 
made it receptive to most of what was said. If a house suspended 
from a mast was no longer a sensation, then perhaps a mobile house 
was. The influence of the trailer craze that hit America about 1937 
spread into housing circles, and it was not long before someone 
had figured out how to cure our social ills with mobile dwelling 


units. There were houses of copper and of cotton; houses could be 
hauled down Main Street or floated down a river; and a hundred 
names, from "prefabs" to "motorized zipper housing/' were bestowed 
upon these proposals. Probably all this publicity did more harm 
than good. It led many people to believe that some miracle would 
solve the problem, and at the same time it confused them about the 
nature of that miracle, what the prefabricated house looked like, 
and where it could be bought and for how much. 

2. External Obstacles 

Prefabricators encountered a number of external obstacles as they 
tried to bring enterprises from the experimental stage into commer 
cial production. Such obstacles stemmed in part from local mate- 
rials dealers who might decline to sell to the prefabricator's dealer 
certain items needed to finish the house, or to grant him a line of 
credit; or who might bring pressure on the local building inspector 
not to grant a building permit. They were due in part, also, to 
organized labor, not so much because of actual fights, although these, 
too, occurred, as because of passive resistance and refusal to handle 
prefabricated material. The banks and local FHA offices presented 
another type of obstacle in their reluctance to lend or insure loans 
on prefabricated houses and in their tendency to make low ap 
praisals for mortgage purposes. Not the least of a prefabricator's 
troubles were those arising from local building codes written in 
terms of specification rather than performance, and very often ex 
cluding his type of construction. Where the code contained a clause 
permitting new types of construction if the building inspector was 
satisfied, as the result of a test, that the system was adequate, such 
tests had to be made at the prefabricator's expense. Sometimes 
one inspector would refuse to accept results of a test made in an 
other locality, or there would be a lengthy court case involving a 
code issue. Not infrequently the mere prospect of such obstacles 
was enough to dissuade the prefabricator from marketing in a cer 
tain area, and those firms hardy enough to pioneer in this respect 
were required to spend a major part of their energy simply in over 
coming the various types of external resistance. 

3. Trends in Design 

At the Chicago World's Fair of 1933 the modern house exhibit 
contained only three dwellings which were prefabricated to any im 
portant extent: General Houses' house of steel; Stran-Steel's house 
embracing that company's close-spaced frame system, and the 
Rostone Corporation's house of precast synthetic stone. This was 
not a complete representation of the embryonic house manufactur 
ing industry, nor was it especially successful in selling the idea of 
prefabrication. At about the same time the files of Bemis Industries 
and of United States Steel Corporation's prefabrication advisor con 
tained some 40 or 50 American systems which had been proposed 
and not yet abandoned. By the end of 1935 The Architectural 
Forum, already watching prefabrication as a parent might watch 
a precocious child, could list some 33 systems which were supposed 
to be commercially available. 73 Of these, 16 were steel frame con 
struction using panels of various materials such as asbestos cement, 
precast concrete, steel, or composition board; five were of steel load- 
bearing panels; eight were of precast concrete; one was of precast 
gypsum; two were of wood frame; and only one was of plywood. 
Of 25 commercially available systems which the Forum 74 reported 
in 1938, 15 used steel, two used plywood, and precast concrete was 
still a challenge not to be abandoned, with five systems in use. 

By the end of the decade a swing away from steel was visible. 
On the technical front, the combination of insulation, condensation, 
and corrosion problems had at least temporarily defeated many of 
the proponents of the steel house. Another and more formidable 
obstacle was the problem of selling houses fast enough to justify 
a large investment in plant and equipment. No matter how well 
steel might be suited to industrialized production methods, these 
methods usually required a very substantial capital investment in 
manufacturing facilities. Consequently, production at low volume 
would be high-cost production, and costs could not be brought down 
through mass production until a system of mass distribution had been 

Where was the vicious circle to be broken? Perhaps by using a 
material that would be economical even at low volume, although it 
might lend itself less to industrialized methods and ultimate cost 

73 J. Andre Fouilhoux, "Prefabricated Units for the Home," The Architectural 
Forum, LXIII (December 1935), 544-76. 

""The Architectural Forum, 68 (February 1938), 66, 70. 


reduction. Wood was such a material, and it was increasingly 
adopted. Indeed, this was one of the outstanding trends in pre- 
fabrication during the latter part of the thirties the abandonment 
of metals and of grandiose schemes which had come to nothing, 
for the use of wood on a more modest scale in a way that involved 
but a limited amount of prefabrication. Whether the metals would, 
in the end, prove to be the most useful materials for the industrial 
ized production of housing was for history to tell. Many held out 
hopes for their success in the long run, but they had received at least 
a temporary setback. 

4. The Achievement 

By 1940 there were not more than 30 firms 75 in existence which 
were manufacturing and selling prefabricated houses on a steady 
basis. 78 The great bulk of the production was of a sort that in 
volved comparatively little in the way of new materials or prefabri 
cation: precut and panelized wood frame (dry- wall) construction 
(see Figure 10). All in all, excluding the precut houses, not more 
than 10,000 prefabricated units 77 were produced between 1935 and 
1940, or less than 1% 78 of all the single-family homes built in non- 
farm areas during that period. 

75 The files of the Bemis Foundation would indicate this. 

76 Among the more prominent of these were: 

Adirondack Log Cabin Co., Inc., New York, N. Y. 

Allied Housing Associates, Inc., Langhorne, Pa. 

American Houses, Inc., New York, N. Y. 

Crawford Corporation, Baton Rouge, La. 

Ivon R. Ford, Inc., McDonough, N. Y. 

General Houses, Inc., Chicago, 111. 

Gunnison Housing Corporation, New Albany, Ind. 

Harnischfeger Corporation, Port Washington, Wis. 

E. F. Hodgson Co., Boston, Mass. 

Houston Ready-Cut House Co., Houston, Tex. 

National Homes Corporation, Lafayette, Ind. 

Pease Woodwork Company, Inc., Cincinnati, O. 

Southern Mill & Manufacturing Co., Tulsa, Okla. 

Willisway Construction Co., Chicago, 111. 

77 No precise figures could be found. This is the estimate of Miles L. Colean, 
American Housing; Problems and Prospects (New York: Twentieth Century 
Fund, 1944), p. 147. 

Housing Statistics Handbook, p. 6. 


5. Summary 

These, then, were the characteristics of prefabrication in the 
thirties: a huge amount of interest, but few houses; active participa 
tion in various ways by non-commercial institutions, government 
agencies, and the large corporations; a profusion of structural ideas 
only a few of which were technically and economically sound; and 
the failure of these to achieve real commercial success on a large 
scale because no one had yet brought together enough intelligence 
and capital to develop an integrated building organization whose 
operations extended from the procurement of materials through 
manufacturing to selling, financing, erecting, and servicing the 
home. 79 Among the firms which sold houses on a continuing basis 
there were several noticeable traits. There had been a retreat from 
steel to wood, and from flat roofs and battens to Cape Cod cottages. 
On the average, more and more was being included in the house 
package, though as yet few companies had gone beyond the shipping 
of wall panels and either panelized or precut floor and roof mem 
bers to the packaging of a complete house with all materials and 
mechanical equipment. There was, furthermore, a very minimum of 
prefmishing. And, in the field of distribution, there were at least 
two emerging patterns, besides those of the firms which catered to 
such specialized shelter needs as vacation cottages and oil field 
dwellings. One was the dealer organization, exemplified by Gunni- 
son, through which many dealers sold houses one at a time to a 
customer at a time; the other was the array of contractors and opera 
tive builders through which American Houses was selling its product 
in large groups to an anonymous market. 

G. The Analogy with the Automobile 

One other characteristic of the thirties which deserves mention is 
the tendency to draw an analogy with the automobile industry; it is 
one that has dogged prefabrication throughout most of its history, 
but had an especially large influence in shaping the theories of this 
period. Writers never tired of pointing out the example set by 
Detroit in the mass production and mass distribution of automobiles 
and never ceased lamenting the fact that the housebuilders had not 

79 For an outline of reasons for failures in prefabrication, see John E. Burchard, 
"How Better Houses WiU be Built," Technology Review, 39 (July 1937), 415-20. 

wrought similar miracles. But in their haste to draw the analogy and 
in their impatience with the building industry, they often forgot to 
consider important factors. An obvious one is the bulk and weight 
of the product, which directly affect the optimum degree of factory 
assembly and the optimum factory size and location. 

1. Subsidies and Land 

Perhaps not so obvious is the fact that the housing industry had 
yet to receive any such subsidy as the transportation industry had 
received the canals and railroads in the form of land grants, and the 
automobile industry in the form of roads and highways. 80 Cer 
tainly, transportation depended no more definitely upon cheap land 
than did housing. A public program to plan land use and write 
down high land costs for housing might therefore be defended as 
was an equivalent subsidy. Indeed, such an opinion was expressed, 
not by long-haired radicals, but by the business magazine, Fortune, 
which in 1932 wrote: 81 

The $2,000 house on the $2,000 lot is no answer to the demand for a 
$4,000 dwelling. Obviously, however, industry cannot alone insure the 
stability and initial economy of the land. The fact is that aside from 
temporary conditions due to the present emergency, land in or near urban 
centers where the housing need is greatest will not be available at the 
price necessary. The human inclination to speculate in land values will 
see to that. Nor will neighborhoods protect themselves (and their mort 
gagees) against blight of their own accord. Only some form of govern 
mental intervention can secure the ends desired. It is therefore obvious 
to the merest selfish considerations of private profit that the housing manu 
facturers must associate themselves in their land purchases and in the 
planning of their houses on the land, with some organization having gov 
ernmental powers to condemn land in the first place and governmental 
powers to protect it afterwards. 

Our concern is not the soundness of this argument, but merely the 
issues it raises: first, unlike automobiles, houses are not complete 
until they are placed on land, and the price of land is a part of the 
total over which the manufacturer has no control; second, public 

80 Before 1927 motor vehicle owners paid less in motor vehicle taxes than 
"their share" of road and street costs (Automobile Facts and Figures, ed. 22 
[Detroit: Automobile Manufacturers Association, 1940], pp. 48-9). The public 
powers used in road construction are much more important in this respect, how 
ever, than the financial assistance itself. 

** Fortune, VI (July 1932), 107. 


intervention and public subsidy have played a part in the indus 
trialization of more than one aspect of the national economy, and in 
comparing the industrialization of shelter with that of other com 
modities, they should not be overlooked. 

2. The Character of the Innovation 

A third point often neglected is this: of the new products which 
have successfully been mass produced and distributed, most have 
either offered a quality or service that differed substantially from 
that of existing objects intended for the same purpose, or else they 
have succeeded in performing a service that no previous object pro 
vided at all. The radio, the telephone, and the automobile are all 
examples of the latter. True, there were means of communication 
and transportation at the time of each of these inventions, but the 
new service was radically different from any existing at the time. 

Now consider the house. With one or two possible exceptions, no 
prefabricated house has yet provided shelter services that a con 
ventionally built house could not duplicate. The recent inventions 
which have entered the home, such as sanitary facilities, electric 
lighting, cooking and refrigeration equipment, convection and radiant 
heating systems, air conditioning, dish- and clothes-washing ma 
chines, all could be and have been a part of the house built at the site 
by traditional methods. For a long time, conventional houses have 
been able to provide perfectly adequate shelter; they have been 
strong enough, have protected the human body from the elements, 
and have enabled it to maintain a comfortable temperature in an 
environment which is visually and acoustically satisfactory. The 
chief problem has been the economic one of providing the mass of 
the population with such housing. Special factors occasionally favor 
the prefabricator remoteness of the site, importance of saving time 
or labor at the site, or speed in selling, for example; but these are un 
usual. Thus he has had to offer a product whose principal reason 
for being purchased was that it was claimed to be cheaper than a 
house of the same quality built by traditional methods. 

This is not at all the situation which faced the early automobile 
manufacturers. 82 No horse, no matter how high priced, could do 

82 Mark Adams, "The Automobile; A Luxury Becomes a Necessity," in Walton 
Hamilton et al, Price and Price Policies (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1938), pp. 


what a car could. Conversely, there were many people who would 
buy a car, even at a cost of several thousand dollars, simply because 
it would provide excitement and exclusiveness. For more than ten 
years the automobile manufacturers exploited their product's role 
as a luxury commodity and sought to give cars more weight, power, 
comfort, and brass ornaments to meet the demands of those who 
could afford them. It was not until Henry Ford began his sys 
tematic move to reduce prices in 1907 that the trend was reversed, 
and even then Ford had no competitors for a number of years. Dur 
ing the period of greatest expansion in the automobile industry the 
demand for the services that only a car could give immediately 
available mechanized transport, speed, convenience, a new freedom, 
and a new mark of prestige was so great that firms were able to 
finance their expansion largely by requiring deposits from their 
dealers in prepayment for deliveries. Later the industry was in a 
position to use its profits for expansion and had no great need for 
recourse to the banks and the stock market. What a different course 
has marked the initial stages of the industrialization of housing! 

3. The Question of Durability 

At least one other factor ought to be considered in comparing the 
mass production of houses with that of other goods: the life of the 
product. From the great durability of housing arises the circum 
stance that the prefabricator must compete not only with the con 
ventional builder but also with the vast supply of existing housing, 
which at any time far exceeds the annual production. From this 
great durability also stems the feast and famine character of house 
building, with which both those in the industry and those who 
would enter to revolutionize it must reckon. We may remember 
that the transition from a situation in which demand represented 
primarily first purchases to that in which demand is chiefly for 
purposes of replacement was achieved fairly smoothly in the auto 
mobile and radio industries because of the relatively short life of the 
product. Through a combination of technological obsolescence, style 
obsolescence, and physical depreciation, the average life of the auto 
mobile was established at about nine years 83 and that of the radio 

83 C. F. Roos and Victor Von Szeliski, "Factors Governing Changes in Do 
mestic Automobile Demand," The Dynamics of Automobile Demand (New York: 
General Motors Corporation, 1939), p. 48. 

at about seven years. 84 Compare this with ; the life of the house, 
which is often roughly estimated at 70 years, but which in many 
cases is known to exceed 100 years. Suppose it were possible to 
rehouse most of America with manufactured homes; would the 
industrialized housing industry then be able to readjust itself to 
producing primarily for a replacement demand? Could it reduce 
the life of the house and still produce a salable product? What 
about the cultural values that a house symbolizes do these affect 
the nature of a product which has a long history and tradition and 
is not just the child of an advanced technology? What about the 
land to which houses must be attached, and the ultraconservative 
branches of finance and law which deal with land? 

These and other questions have to be considered in attempting 
an analogy between the mass production of houses and of automo 
biles. Any comparison which neglects such problems can at best be 

V. 1940-1945: The War Period 

Just as the prefabrication industry was struggling to get on its 
feet, the defense housing program hit it and knocked it off balance 
with a whole new set of problems. Instead of a future of slow 
development through concentration on key areas of difficulty, such 
as distribution, prefabricators were faced with the prospect of a 
huge market or practically none, depending on whether or not the 
federal agencies 85 in charge of the war housing program could be 
convinced of the industry's capacity to do a major part of the job. 

84 Julius Weinberger, "Basic Economic Trends in the Radio Industry," Pro 
ceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers, 27 (November 1939), 708. 

85 The War and Navy Departments, the Maritime Commission, the Federal 
Works Agency which had inherited the United States Housing Authority and 
the Public Buildings Administration the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, 
and the Farm Security Administration were all active in the new construction 
aspects of the defense housing program during its early history. On February 
24, 1942, the President ordered the establishment of the National Housing Agency 
which took over the housing functions of 16 non-military government agencies 
and units. 


A. Prefabrication on Trial 

In the early days of the program there was more than a little 
skepticism expressed in government quarters. The failures of pre- 
fabrication in the preceding decade remained more firmly in mind 
than the occasional successes, and certainly instances of the latter 
sort had been of a modest rather than an overwhelming nature. But 
prefabrication ofFered potential advantages, and after a good deal of 
investigation and debate one of the agencies, the Public Buildings 
Administration, arranged a demonstration project at Indian Head, 
Md., where the prefabricators were to show what they could do. 
In the spring of 1941 contracts for 650 units went to 11 companies, 86 
several of them without previous experience, which were to compete 
in the erection of demountable houses on sites provided by PBA. 
The systems represented were chiefly of plywood, insulating board, 
or plasterboard on wood frame, although in spite of the materials 
situation two firms used steel for the exterior wall. As a demonstra 
tion project, Indian Head was not a great success. By the time 
it was actually under construction some 13,000 prefabricated houses 
were already being built or on order. 87 Furthermore, the perform 
ance of the inexperienced firms was not a credit to the industry as a 
whole, and the problems at the site, particularly in the joining, fitting, 
and alignment of panels, served more to show the prefabricators 
their own weaknesses than to disprove the case for prefabrication in 
general. It was shown, however, that the prefabricators could pro 
duce at a price competitive with that of the conventionally built 
house, especially when salvageability was taken into account. An 
average performance in demounting the house, transporting it 40 
miles, and reassembling it cost $474 and showed that on a dollar 
basis 95% of the house was recoverable. 88 Some of the actual projects 
which got under way before the demonstration houses at Indian 
Head had been started were more successful. A large project in 
Vallejo, Calif., of about 1,000 Homasote and 700 plywood houses 
was one of the best and clearly demonstrated the possibilities of 

88 Allied Housing Associates, Inc., General Fabricators, Inc., Harnischfeger 
Corporation, E. F. Hauserman Company, Home Building Corp., Lockwall Houses, 
Inc., National Homes Corporation, Sears, Roebuck and Co. with General Houses, 
Inc., Standard Houses Corp., Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. 

*iThe Architectural Forum, 75 (August 1941), 107. 

**The Architectural Forum, 75 (September 1941), 189 ff. 


prefabrication in a big development. 89 In 1941 prefabrication was 
for the first time on a mass-production basis. More than 18,000 
units were built, probably more than had been produced in the entire 
preceding decade. 

B. Factors Favorable to Prefabrication 

Prefabrication was used in the war housing program principally 
because of three requirements: speed, demountability, and the re 
duction of on-site labor and congestion to a minimum. These re 
quirements, arising out of special situations, did a good deal more 
to bring prefabrication methods into the picture than did the pre 
war performance of prefabricators in producing housing under nor 
mal circumstances. Although the industry had produced thousands 
of permanent homes in the thirties, it had not earned a reputation 
for unusual ability in this field; there were no outstanding firms of 
great achievement, and consequently the great bulk of permanent 
housing built during the war period, whether privately or publicly 
financed, was constructed at the site by conventional methods or by 
site-fabrication techniques. When, however, there was need for 
obtaining permanent housing very quickly near a war construction 
job or in a locality short in materials or building labor and super 
vision, prefabrication often was adopted. And as it became evident 
that shifting needs would be encountered, a considerable volume 
of demountable housing suitable for long-term use was built, most 
of which was prefabricated. Prefabrication was also used in areas 
where it was necessary to keep site labor to a minimum for security 
reasons, such as at the atomic bomb projects. After mid-1942 almost 
all publicly financed housing was of a temporary 90 type. Not only 
was it thought that further migration into crowded production areas 
would be, in most cases, of short duration, but it became evident that 
as the shortage of materials and labor grew increasingly acute the 
standards of the buildings would have to be lowered. This brought 
about such developments as a decided lightening of the structure, 

89 William W. Wurster, project engineer on this project, reserved the right to 
use entirely experimental design and construction on 25 of these units. It should 
be noted that the construction cost of these 25, built by three local contractors, 
was under $2,850 each, as compared with more than $2,900 for the regular 
project units. 

90 To be distinguished from demountable housing. 


the exterior use of sheet materials not suited to the weather, the 
elimination of as much metal as possible, and the sacrifice of space. 
It also brought about the extensive use of stressed skin (prefabri 
cated) construction in an effort to save framing lumber and gave 
impetus to dry-wall construction (much of which was also prefabri 
cated), which was faster and spared critical materials. 

C. Signs of Pre fabrication's Growth 

There were a number of signs of the growth of prefabrication 
during this period. One was the number of different types of build 
ings to which the techniques were applied: warehouses, hangars, 
two-story row housing, schools. Another was the amount and scope 
of speculative thinking and controversy. On the technical front 
the idea of the panelized versus the sectional house was being 
discussed, along with some variations such as the folding house. 
Notoriety attended a number of proposed designs: Martin Wagner's 
igloo-shaped house of steel, Buckminster Fuller's cylindrical house 
made out of a grain bin (see Figure 11), William Stout's folding 
house, Wallace NefFs unprefabricated but interesting hemispherical 
house made of concrete sprayed onto an inflated balloon (Figure 
11), and the Palace Corporation's suitcase house (see Figure 12). 
Even early in the war the postwar house was a favorite topic for 
discussion, and a glance through the architectural and homeowners' 
magazines of these years would show how extensively the ideas of 
prefabricated closets, bathrooms, and mechanical cores had taken 

The concept of overall modular design also had increasing ac 
ceptance, in theory at least, and was reflected in such diverse plans 
as those of the Federal Public Housing Authority, Homasote Co., 
Ratio Structures, and General Panel Corporation of New York. And 
in the realm of distribution there was much speculation over the fu 
ture pattern of the industry. When The Architectural Forum hypothe 
sized that in an integrated building industry the prefabricator would 
sell to large developer-builders, 91 Foster Gunnison was quick to 
reply that no such pattern could succeed and that the necessary 
diversification of sales risk could be had only if the prefabricator 

91 The Architectural Forum, 77 (October 1942), 79-80. 


sold to a great many small dealers. 92 Vaux Wilson announced a 
plan to sell his Precision-Built Homes through the department 
stores because of their vast experience in merchandising. Still an 
other sign was the amount of interest in prefabrication shown by 
organized labor. The CIO, which in the years just before the war 
had made small inroads into the AFL's building industry territory, 
talked in big terms of the industrialized production of housing and 
the industrial form of unionism that would come with it. A good 
many wartime prefabricators had CIO shops, but in spite of a lot 
of conjecture about AFL-CIO conflicts in war housing there was 
little actual trouble. In light of the postwar developments to date, 
the CIO's invasion of the housebuilding industry seems to have been 
largely a temporary affair. 

Another sign of the industry's growth was the formation in 1942 
of the Prefabricated Home Manufacturers' Association, set up to 
disseminate information, establish industry standards, study distri 
bution problems, improve manufacturing methods, make cost and 
accounting studies, and serve as a medium for the exchange of ideas. 93 
Prefabricated Homes, 9 * a monthly trade journal similarly aimed at 
giving the public a clear and favorable picture of the industry, first 
appeared in April 1943, instigated at least in part by PHMA. In 
September 1943 PHMA changed its name to the Prefabricated Home 
Manufacturers' Institute and expanded to include 12 charter mem 
bers, with Walter Ahrens of Southern Mill & Manufacturing Co. as 
president. Among the first things for which PHMI fought were 
certain changes in the FPHA plans on which, since September 1943, 
all prefabricators had had to bid for war housing. 

Other indications of growth in the industry were to be found in 
the number of active firms and their figures on output. Neither of 
these statistics is ever very precise because the lines between what 
is and what is not prefabrication and who is and who is not an active 
prefabricator are so hard to draw. 95 Even so, a few such figures 
will give a rough idea of the picture. As against not more than 30 

92 In an open letter to The Architectural Forum for the Prefabricated Home 
Manufacturers' Association, November 13, 1942, in the files of the Bemis 

93 The National Association of Housing Manufacturers, representing a few 
of the more unconventional and newer companies, was organized in February 
1947. Both are discussed in greater detail in Part II. 

94 From January 1948 until October 1949 the magazine was known as Pre 
fabrication. It is no longer published. 

95 Lists of active prefabricators prepared by different sources at about the 
same time have differed by as much as 100%. 


active firms in early 1940, there were at least 100 firms in production 
by the end of 1941. 96 At that time a government investigating com 
mittee which inspected 35 of these plants reported that there was a 
"reasonable certainty" of obtaining 27,450 units from the factories 
visited, in quantities of 100-2,000 each, within 90 days from the 
time orders were placed. 97 By April 1943 The Architectural Forum 
could assert that "there are now well over a score of prefabrication 
plants that have each manufactured more than a thousand houses, 
and many of which are now fabricating at the rate of several hundred 
a month/' 98 

D. The Contribution of Prefabrication 

A final summary of wartime prefabrication might credit the indus 
try with 200,000 units. 99 Of these, 116,390 were publicly financed 
under the Lanham Act; 10 16,000 were exported under lend-lease; 101 
some tens of thousands were built by the Army and Navy at atomic 
energy centers and American and overseas bases; and a compara 
tively minor portion went into privately financed housing. 

But big as this 200,000 figure may have been to an infant industry, 
it still represented but a small part of the total of approximately 

Q6 The Architectural Forum, 76 (February 1942), 83. A list of manufac 
turers and systems published by the prefabrication subcommittee of the Central 
Housing Committee on Research, Design and Construction in February 1942 in 
cluded about 200 prefabricates. 

7 Ibid., p. 82. 

98 The Architectural Forum, 78 (April 1943), 72. 

The Architectural Forum, 84 (April 1946), 137. Fortune, XXXIII (April 
1946), 127, uses the same figure, but probably obtained it from The Architectural 

100 This represents about 25% of the war housing built with Lanham Act 
funds. Of these, 104,862 were family dwellings and 11,528 were portable shelter 
units designed for family use. Of the family dwellings, 1,428 were permanent, 
66,901 were demountable, and 36,533 were temporary. About 11% of the 104,862 
family units were fabricated in off-site factories and about 23% in on-site shops. 
All the portable shelter units were factory fabricated. Source: Housing and Home 
Finance Agency, in a letter to the Bemis Foundation, March 1948. 

101 Early in 1945 the FPHA, acting for lend-lease, contracted for 30,000 units. 
When lend-lease terminated, 16,000 of these had been started or completed. 
The rest were not produced. Great Britain received 8,600 on lend-lease; France 
bought the balance of 7,400 from FPHA. Source: Office of International In 
quiries, Housing and Home Finance Agency, in an interview, June 4, 1948. 


1,600,000 war housing units provided by new construction. 102 It is 
true that prefabricators made a major contribution in supplying hous 
ing quickly in a number of key areas and in meeting the require 
ments of special circumstances, but in the overall picture it remains 
a fact that by far the largest part of the war housing was built at the 
site by various techniques ranging from the conventional to the very 
advanced. Large projects made it possible to embrace many aspects 
of mass production at the site, such as standardization, specialization 
of labor, and highly planned scheduling of processes and material 
flow. Such projects also encouraged the use of power tools, jigs, 
conveyers, cranes, and other paraphernalia of factory production. 
Viewed in this respect, the war probably did more in rationalizing 
and improving the efficiency of on-site construction than it did for 
fabrication techniques in the factory, and it has been contended by 
some that, relatively, prefabrication was thus pushed back. 

The credit for this progress in methods does not all belong with 
the conventional building industry. In a number of ways the devel 
opment of site-fabrication techniques relied upon similar techniques 
used in the factory of the prefabricator who should, therefore, be 
given some credit. This development also resulted in part from 
the efforts of the government which did a considerable amount of 
research on site fabrication with its own technical personnel and 
educated a good many builders in the use of better methods. Yet 
the contributions of the "established" prefabricators (as of 1940) 
in "know how" were perhaps less valuable than their general knowl 
edge of the building operation. This may be a sign of their weakness 
at the beginning of the war period, for other firms with little or no 
previous experience in prefabrication found it possible to enter the 
field and to build quite as readily, quite as successfully, and quite as 
profitably, as the established prefabricators. It is probably also an 
illustration of the fact that emergency production for a single con 
sumera government at war requires a pattern of operations very 
different from that suited to the private sale of houses in normal 
times. To be sure, in industries other than housing persons with 
no previous experience in the field were successful operators, notably, 
for example, in shipbuilding. But it is hard to think of an industry 
in which this was so markedly the case as in prefabrication. After 
a decade or more of gestation, the industry had not arrived at the 
point where it could make a really unique and major contribution 

102 Housing Statistics Handbook, p. 162, Table A; and Public Housing; the 
Work of the Federal Public Housing Authority (March 1946), p. 8. 


to an important war problem. This reflected not so much the in 
competence of the industry as the extreme complexity of the prob 
lem and the relatively small scale of the effort with which it had 
been attacked. 

E. The Effect of the War on Prefabrication 

The war had a very positive effect on prefabrication. For the 
first time production operations were put on a really large-volume 
basis (though not always a steady one). A good deal was learned 
about design and manufacturing techniques. Many firms attained 
strong financial positions, and many new enterprises entered the 
field. These and the signs of the growth of prefabrication discussed 
above point to the positive effects of the war period on the industry. 

But no evaluation of the effects of the war on prefabrication would 
be complete if it did not include the harmful as well as the beneficial. 
While the war gave impetus to the growth of prefabrication, it pushed 
productive capacity beyond the industry's ability to distribute through 
any of the channels it had thus far established. It aggravated the 
unbalance between the prefabricated ability to produce and to dis 
tribute. Furthermore, it made the marketing problem more difficult 
because it gave the public a bad impression of the product. Whereas 
the prewar prefabricated house may have been suspect as an interest 
ing freak, the postwar product was often stereotyped in the public 
mind as a dreary shack. A consumer opinion poll conducted by the 
Curtis Publishing Co. in August 1944 103 showed that while 74.5$ of 
those interviewed had heard of prefabricated houses, only 17.2% of 
these would consider buying one to live in all year round. The rea 
son given most frequently by the potential homeowner for not buying 
a prefabricated house was lack of strength. Obviously, lightness was 
being confused with weakness, and speedy erection with short life. 
Another question indicated the public confusion over the industry's 
diverse marketing methods, probably more a reflection of the various 
speculative writings on the subject than of the actual practices them 
selves. When those interviewed were asked where they would go to 
buy a prefabricated house, 56.7% said they did not know; 13.7% said 
the manufacturer; 10.8% said mail-order house or department store; 
8.8% said dealer-builder; and 5.2% said lumber yard. Some two years 

103 Urban Housing Survey, Curtis Publishing Co. (Philadelphia, 1945). 


later, a Fortune poll 104 gave much the same results: 70% had heard 
of prefabricated houses, but only 16% were interested in living in them. 
Thirty-three per cent said they would buy them only if they could 
get nothing else, and when this group was asked what it disliked 
about prefabricated houses, the replies were: 

Unsatisfactory construction (included "not substantial 
enough," "not strong enough," "not permanent," "not 
warm enough") 67.4% 

Lack individuality 13.4% 

Too small 4.6% 

All other 18.4% 

Don't know 9.6% 

(Some gave more than one answer.) 

Thus, in meeting the need for demountable and temporary houses 
of the lightest kind of construction, the industry was given an addi 
tional handicap to overcome in the way of public prejudice. 

104 Fortune, XXXIII (April 1946), 275. 


Part A 





The preceding chapter outlined the development of prefabrication 
from early efforts through the war housing program. This chapter 
is devoted to a description of the industry during the few years since 
the end of the war. If in the first postwar months the homebuying 
public and much of the business world were overly enchanted by the 
promises of prefabrication, they probably have recently been as 
grossly disenchanted, so that now, in a number of areas at least, the 
opinion is that prefabrication has been tried and found wanting; that 
the issue is settled: "prefabrication isn't practical." This chapter 
might well begin with a protest against too great a disillusionment. 

I. Background 

A. The Shortage 

The background against which prefabrication played its role in 
the early postwar years included, among other things, a house-hungry 
public, some significant shifts in political opinion, a major building 
boom, and, not unrelated, a major inflation. The nation had been 
hearing about the postwar dream house for four years. On top of 
a cumulative shortage growing through the thirties and a shortage 
caused by the cessation of normal building during the war, there 
were returning veterans and high marriage and birth rates to be 
reckoned with. It was estimated that as many as 3,000,000 houses 
would have to be built in 1946 and 1947 just to keep the situation 
from becoming worse. 1 Furthermore, the great bulk of these homes 
had to be provided for families in the middle- and lower-income 
groups. Many looked to prefabrication to meet a major part of this 
need. It is true that in the public mind there remained a picture of 
the minimum standards to which prefabricators, through no fault of 
their own, had had to build during the war. But many also believed 
that World War II had done for prefabrication what World War I 
had done for the automobile industry. Dream houses would roll off 
production lines by the million and somehow end up in suburban 

1 Wilson W. Wyatt, Housing Expediter, Veterans' Emergency Housing Pro 
gram; Report to the President (February 7, 1946), p. 4. 


neighborhoods behind rose bushes and white picket fences. A group 
of startling housing ideas paraded before the eyes of the reading and 
movie-going public: the Dymaxion house, the Tournalayer, the "solar 
house." 2 Houses would be built of wood, as in the past, but large 
numbers would also be built of concrete, steel, aluminum, plastic- 
impregnated paper, and many completely new materials. 

B. The Wyatt Program 

In such an atmosphere, Wilson Wyatt was summoned to Washing 
ton by the President in January 1946 to become the Housing Expe 
diter. Five weeks later he submitted a program to the President 
establishing a goal of 2,700,000 housing starts by the end of 1947 
and calling for "the same daring, determination, and hard-hitting 
teamwork" with which the nation had "tackled the emergency job 
of building the world's most powerful war machine." 3 Private enter 
prise was to assume the leading role in this task with the aid of ex 
tensive federal measures aimed at expanding and directing produc 
tion. The labor force in residential construction was to be tripled, 
and local voluntary committees were to be established to help veterans 
find homes, eliminate building bottlenecks, provide sites, reform 
building codes, and speed the housing job in general. 

Most of Wyatt's legislative proposals were enacted by Congress in 
May 1946 as the Veterans' Emergency Housing Act. 4 The program 
which emerged from this legislation set out to increase production 
by using surplus war plants, by making premium payments to stimu 
late manufacturers of materials, by guaranteeing markets for new 
types of materials and prefabricated houses, and by the financing of 
new enterprises through Reconstruction Finance Corporation loans. 
It sought to direct materials flow by curbing non-residential construc 
tion and establishing a system of priorities, allocations, and restric 
tions on house size; and to check the strong inflationary tendencies 
(which had been aggravated by the liberalized FHA-financing pro- 

2 These terms are explained at length later in the book. 

3 Wyatt, op. cit., p. 1. 

4 Public Law 388, 79th Congress, approved May 22, 1946. Wyatt requested 
as an essential part of his program passage of S. 1592, the Wagner-Ellender-Taft 
bill. This was a comprehensive long-range legislation providing for increased 
FHA insurance, public housing, urban redevelopment, and other measures. 
Congress did not pass this bill, chiefly because of the public housing provisions. 


visions of the act itself) by controlling prices of materials and finished 

In short, the Housing Expediter and his executive powers with re 
spect to other agencies such as the Office of Price Administration and 
the Reconstruction Finance Corporation represented an extension of 
wartime government controls into a postwar period of acute housing 
shortage. As a part of the overall goal, 250,000 prefabricated houses 
were to be started in 1946, and 600,000 in 1947. Although this 
program was under attack from certain quarters even in its earliest 
phases, there was nonetheless a short period during which it ap 
peared that the kind of cooperation and self-restraint necessary to 
success would in fact be forthcoming. Committees were organized 
on the local level, labor leaders pledged full support, and a number 
of large industrial enterprises were reported to be ready to go into 
prefabrication: Henry J. Kaiser, Higgins Industries, Inc., Douglas 
Aircraft Co., Inc., Beech Aircraft Corp., Consolidated Vultee Aircraft 
Corporation. This lent the program a certain amount of prestige 
and, together with a favorable press, tended to bolster it against 
growing criticism from numerous elements in the building industry. 
But with the return to peacetime activities and interests, public sup 
port diminished; broad political attitudes changed; the press and or 
ganized criticism cried out against "government intervention"; gen 
eral price controls were weakened, then abandoned; and the housing 
program was the next to go. After the November election had placed 
the Republicans in control of Congress and after Wyatt had run into 
considerable opposition from a few key men in the Administration, 5 
he felt that the program was not going to receive the necessary sup 
port, and in early December he resigned as Housing Expediter. Ten 
days later the President announced the end of most of the controls; 
premium payments, materials allocations, curbs on non-residential 
building, and price ceilings were abandoned. The market guarantees 
and loans to prefabricators, however, were continued until the end 
of 1947, as specified in the law. 

In retrospect, it hardly seems possible to classify the Wyatt pro 
gram as other than a failure. Perhaps it was doomed from the start 
as a grandiose and somewhat visionary experiment. Building starts 
did accelerate in the late summer, but the overall total for the year 

5 Much of the dispute was over Wyatt's inability to secure RFC loans for 
selected prefabricators. The final breakdown came over his failure to have the 
Dodge war production plant in Chicago assigned to Lustron Corporation, plus 
a large RFC loan. 


was 776,000 units started, a good bit below the target of 950,000. 6 
Furthermore, completions dragged because of shortages in materials 
and labor. Prefabricators produced a total of 37,200 units in 1946 
and 37,400 in 1947 7 not a bad performance in view of the extent of 
shortages and unfamiliar restrictions, but far short of the program's 
ambitious goals. Of these totals only a small fraction can be attributed 
to the government measures. By the end of 1948 it was reported 
that of the 32 companies which had secured guaranteed market con 
tracts or loan agreements through the RFC only six were in active 
production. 8 

On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the program was 
never really given a chance. By the time the administrative machinery 
was working, hostility was so great that few if any positive results 
could have been expected. Whether the reconversion and expansion 
would have been faster without any government program at all, and 
would at the same time have provided for medium- and low-cost 
homes (as critics of the program claimed) is a question that must 
remain unanswered. Many of the critics spoke from long experience 
and good common sense. Nevertheless, some of the boldest, most 
risky, and in the long run perhaps most significant ventures would 
never have gotten under way without a stimulus from the govern 
ment along the lines proposed by Wyatt. The lessons learned from 
one such really industrialized house manufacturer as Lustron, even 
if it should never reach its production goals, may prove to be worth 
all the money spent by the government 9 and the temporary doubts 
cast on prefabrication as a whole. This, too, is a question that re 
mains unanswered. 

6 Both figures are for permanent dwellings, conventional and prefabricated, 
and do not include conversions and trailers (for which the 1946 target was 

7 PHMI Washington News Letter, January 30, 1948, p. 3. 1946 total by the 
Office of the Housing Expediter; 1947 total based on figures estimated by PHMI 
and submitted to the Bemis Foundation. The 1948 total has been estimated 
by PHMI at 30,000 and 1949 total at 35,000. 

s Business Week, 1006 (December 11, 1948), 25. 

9 It was estimated by the Office of the Housing Expediter in June 1948 that 
the guaranteed market program, at that time almost completely closed and 
settled, would not result in a loss to the government of over $3,000,000. What 
losses the RFC will take on the loans it has made, many of which are out 
standing, is hard to say. 


C. The Birth and Death of Firms 

Meanwhile the ranks of the prefabricators had swollen rapidly so 
that, by the end of 1946, 280 companies had received priority ratings 
from the National Housing Agency as against less than 100 firms in 
the industry some two years before. This rapid expansion served to 
emphasize the ease of entry into the industry, but it was also a re 
flection of the fact that many so-called prefabricators were nothing 
more than distributors of building materials who did a minimum of 
work on the materials they handled in order to secure higher prices 
under existing regulations. There were others who called themselves 
prefabricators in order to obtain priorities for certain materials and 
who hoped to obtain guaranteed market contracts and capital loans 
to start them on their way with little or no risk capital of their own. 
Because the established firms feared that their reputations and that 
of the industry as a whole would be adversely affected by the 
failures of the newcomers and the poor quality of their products, 
they sought to protect themselves by adopting quality standards and 
by attacking the program which had brought about this great 

Unfortunately, most of these fears were well founded. High ex 
pectations attracted new enterprises, and the new enterprises had a 
high death rate. Many never got into production at all; many others 
failed; some retired to more conventional phases of the building pat 
tern. By the end of 1947 the number of active prefabricators was 
again less than 100, and in the wake of the failures there had grown 
a profound skepticism regarding all that went by the name of pre- 
fabrication especially in banking circles. This purging of the pre 
fabricators was somewhat reminiscent of early years in the automo 
bile industry, and, if the outcome is as healthy, there may still be 
cause for optimism. 

Among the new enterprises were several of real interest, set up to 
rate along lines which in one or more aspects represented a greater 
reak with conventional building than was made by the vast majority 
prefabricators, and often facing great difficulties as a result. In 

is group might be included those who worked with aluminum and 
lastic-paper sandwich materials, 10 with standardized, universally 

10 Southern California Homes, Inc., was the only company in this category 
come close to production. 


adaptable modular panels, 11 with the sectional house idea, 12 with the 
"solar house" idea, 13 and perhaps, because the design of the house 
was approached with the same freshness that has marked the recent 
interior design of trains, ships, and aircraft, with the hemispherical 
Fuller house. 14 

D. The Building Boom 

All the above activity should be viewed against the general back 
ground of a building boom which proceeded with at least customary 
violence. The number of permanent non-farm dwelling units started 
with 209,000 in 1945 and went to 670,500 in 1946; to 849,000 in 1947; 
to 931,300 in 1948. 15 Residential construction costs went from 143.7 
in 1945 to 159.2 in 1948 to 193 in 1947 and to 214.7 in 1948 (1939 = 
100 ). 16 The emphasis was primarily on single-family residences for 
sale, and many families which might have preferred to rent were 
forced to buy in order to secure any housing at all. A flourishing gray 
market in building materials imparted to the whole endeavor a bad 
odor. There were some significantly successful efforts at producing 
good low-cost housing, chiefly by a few big operative builders who 
made news because of the efficiency of their large-scale operations, 
but by and large the housebuilding industry seemed to function much 
as before especially in regard to its characteristic of increasing costs 
with increasing output. With construction activity using the avail- 

11 The idea of selling such panels as building elements to contractors was pro 
posed at first by such companies as The HomeOla Corporation and General Panel 
of New York, but in both cases was later subordinated to the merchandising of a 
complete house or houses. 

12 In this country the Reliance house and the Prenco house ( produced by 
Robert F. Johnson & Associates, formerly Prefabrication Engineering Co. ) and in 
Great Britain the AIROH house remain in this category. Reliance is now in 
production, and Johnson has abandoned stressed skin construction for standard 
framing, sheathing, and siding in the conventional manner. 54,000 AIROH 
houses were produced for the British Temporary Housing Program, and an addi 
tional 15,000 have been ordered by the government as temporary housing. 

13 Green's Ready-Built, which pushed this idea in 1946 and 1947, is now 

14 Fuller Houses, Inc., now defunct. 

15 Includes privately and publicly financed units, prefabricated and conven 
tional. Data from Construction, U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (April 1949), 
p. 5. 

1 6 Compiled, from figures of E. H. Boeckh and Associates, by NHA and HHFA, 
Housing Statistics (April 1949), p. 8. 


able resources to their limit, building costs were bid up by a flood 
of purchasing power created by wartime savings, high incomes, and, 
most of all, by easy mortgage credit. Between the end of 1945 and 
mid-1948 the mortgage debt on one- to four-family residences had 
risen about 65%, while non-farm family incomes had increased only 
about 25% and the number of dwelling units by less than 10%. 17 In 
1947 more than half of the mortgage lending was being sponsored by 
the federal government under legislation enacted by Congress (the 
Veterans' Administration and Federal Housing Administration pro 
grams ) and was on a basis that required a very minimum of builder's 
or buyer's equity, 18 or no equity at all. Factors such as these led the 
Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System 
to describe "excessively easy mortgage credit" as "perhaps the most 
inflationary single factor in the present [November 1947] situation." 19 

By mid- 1948 a change in the situation was apparent. Mortgage 
lending, especially on small homes, was tightening up. The trend 
had been indicated for some months, and the expiration in April of 
the liberal Title VI of the FHA program brought the situation to a 
head. The re-enactment of a revised Title VI in the Housing Act of 
1948, 20 passed at a special session of Congress in August, again made 
very liberal government-insured credit available only to the lowest- 
cost houses. A PHMI survey of its membership in the fall found 
that nearly seven out of 10 placed the financing problem uppermost 
of all the factors limiting their sales. 21 Prospective homebuyers were 
having trouble making the higher down payments, and banks were 
slowing down their lending programs. Other housebuilders reported 
the same difficulty. The lid was being clamped down. In the short 
run, building activity might fall off until costs were shaken down, but 
the very high proportion of the outstanding mortgage debt which had 
been based on high prices would almost certainly be a serious con 
sideration in the longer-range aspects of economic stability. 

It might seem that, in a situation marked by an acute housing 
shortage and an abundance of purchasing power, sales would present 
no problem and the prefabricators would have succeeded in selling 
more than approximately 37,000 houses per year in 1946 and 1947 or 
30,000 houses in 1948. These figures represent 6.3% of all the single- 

17 "The Economic Situation at Midyear," The Economic Reports of the Presi 
dent, 1949 ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), p. 277. 

18 Marriner S. Eccles, "Inflationary Aspects of Housing Finance," statement 
before the Joint Committee on the Economic Report, Special Session of Congress, 
November 25, 1947, Federal Reserve Bulletin, No. 33 (December 1947), 1463-5. 

19 Ibid., p. 1463. 

20 Public Law 901, 80th Congress, approved August 10, 1948. 

21 PHMI Washington News Letter, October 8, 1948, p. 1. 


family dwelling units started in 1946, 5% of the total in 1947, and 3.9% 
of the total in 1948. 22 But the fact that the market was there was not 
enough it had to be reached; the marketing process had to be or 
ganized, and for a number of reasons which are outlined later in this 
chapter this was perhaps the central problem of prefabricators in the 
period of our study. 

II. The Prefabricator: A Stage in Industrialization 

The condition of the industry in the early postwar period is sum 
marized in this section by grouping the many different prefabrication 
operations according to the degree of their industrialization, under 
headings which represent the major categories into which the indus 
try may be readily divided. 

A. The Panelized Wood Frame House 

Least industrialized and most typical are those prefabrication enter 
prises which have brought the production of a standard wood frame 
structure into a shop where modular panels or room-size panels are 
fabricated from lumber studs, sheathing of lumber, plywood, or some 
type of wallboard, and insulation. Exterior and interior wall sur 
face materials are applied in either shop or field with about equal 
frequency. Such a shop is equipped with jigs, power saws, planers, 
jointers, and other woodworking machinery, and perhaps some type 
of machine to simplify nailing. There is a minimum of factory work 
on ceilings, roofs, and floors, usually amounting to not more than 
precutting. The house package which is shipped to the site repre 
sents somewhat less than half of the cost of the finished house, less 
lot. Since the design of the structure is quite conventional (see Fig 
ure 3), except for its panelization, and since the tools used are very 
largely the same ones that might be found in the precutting section of 

22 590,000 single-family dwelling units were started in 1946, 740,200 in 1947 
(Housing Statistics, Housing and Home Finance Agency [March 1949], p. 2), 
and 766,600 in 1948 (Bureau of Labor Statistics). 


2"x4" plate 

Gypsum board 
Interior finish usually 
applied in field 

2"x4 u studs 
Typical spacing 16" 
on centers 

Insulation metal foil 

Wood sheathing 

Building paper 
or equivalent 

Wood siding 
Exterior finish varies 
with builder 

2x4' sill plate 

Figure 3. A Typical Wood Frame Panel 

a medium or large site-builder's operation, there are few opportunities 
for cost reduction through saving of materials and greater labor pro 
ductivity. The principal cost reductions come through working con 
ditions which usually are more convenient, through better division 
of labor and organization of the work, and through large-scale pur 
chasing. Other potential advantages include better control of ma 
terials, more standardized production, better design, and less time 
and money devoted to site work. Such advantages over on-site con 
struction quite naturally increase as the prefabricated volume in 
creases or as the size of the site-built project decreases. Against 
these advantages must be charged the costs of plant overhead, trans 
portation, and marketing, so that when a final accounting is made 
we find these prefabricators offering a house of about equal or perhaps 
slightly better quality than the average site-built house at about the 
same price, any difference in price depending on the number of site- 
built and prefabricated houses in the projects subject to comparison 
and the degree to which the marketing and manufacturing processes 
have been correlated. 

While the designs and production techniques of such prefabricators 
do not represent any significant increases in overall efficiency, they 
encounter a minimum of resistance in the distribution process. The 
finished house is generally indistinguishable from the typical site-built 
house in the lower- and middle-cost brackets. It has one or one and 
a half stories, a pitched roof, clapboard or shingle exterior, walls 
of the customary thickness, and other conventional features. Conse 
quently there is little consumer prejudice against it. Furthermore, 
it is very likely to conform with local building codes. The substantial 
amount of trade done with local materials dealers and plumbing 
and electrical contractors helps to avoid another source of resistance. 

This is, of course, a gross description and within the group to which 
it refers there are some wide variations in particular aspects of design, 
production, or marketing. Yet the characterization applies with rea 
sonable accuracy to at least half of the companies now active. 23 

23 The figure of 75 active producers was given as an estimate by the Prefabri 
cated Home Manufacturers' Institute for 1948 (PHMI News Release, June 4, 
1949). It is very difficult to determine this figure accurately, both because 
entry into and withdrawal from the industry are relatively easy, and because 
the line demarcating prefabrication from other manufacturing and building oper 
ations is tenuous at best. For 1949, PMHI estimates indicate 85 companies in 
business, all but three of which used wood for their principal material (PHMI 
Washington News Letter, December 23, 1949, p. 1). 


B. The Stressed Skin Plywood House 

A greater degree of industrialization is achieved by the group of 
prefabricators who produce stressed skin plywood panel designs (see 
Figure 4). They have made several significant breaks with conven 
tional construction practices. Most important probably are the sav 
ings in the use of materials made through efficient design and precise 
engineering. There is also a tendency to use the structural skin sur 
face of plywood as a finish material as well, and to use such composite 
materials as paper-overlaid plywood and various types of wallboard. 
Other characteristics are the trend towards prefabricating more of 
the floor, ceiling, and roof elements, and towards providing a greater 
degree of prefinish than do the first group. The introduction of cer 
tain factory techniques has resulted in some important labor savings. 
In the factory of such a prefabricator, for instance, we should expect 
to find many types of woodworking machinery, jigs, and probably 
conveyer lines. We are apt to find glue spreaders, some type of hot 
press for gluing, sanding machines, paint sprayers, and drying ap 

Unfortunately, the savings in labor and materials achieved by these 
companies are countered to some extent by the resistance which is 
frequently met in the local communities. Buyers may be unhappy 
about the plain flat finish of painted plywood, or about the thin walls, 
no matter how strong these may be in fact. Many of the prefabri 
cators themselves feel that steps must be taken to conceal all joints, 
on the theory that buyers dislike joints in their houses. It is not un 
likely that the building code will contain some provision that ex 
cludes, for instance, the type of wall construction; and since these 
prefabricators have tended to supply more and more in their house 
packages, they may run into some form of resistance from local ma 
terials suppliers or local labor when they try to obtain certain goods 
and services needed to complete the house. But while such obstacles 
are very likely to be encountered in a region in which these pre 
fabricators are, in effect, not known, as in New England, there are 
large areas where their products have been widely accepted by con 
sumers, building inspectors, bankers, and local building-trades people, 
notably in the Midwest. In the numerous medium-size cities in this 
region the houses of these manufacturers are competitive in price 
with the lowest-cost housing being built and are apt to be somewhat 
superior in such qualities of construction as structural strength and 


2x3' framing 
16* on centers 

Interior finish 
applied in shop 

Insulation batts 

Vapor barrier 
Insulation backing 

Male Joint 

Female joii 

3 /s plywood 
Exterior finish 
applied in sho 

Figure 4. A Typical Stressed Skin Panel 

workmanship. They have not yet been markedly lower in price and 
consequently cannot be said to offer a solution to the problem of pro 
viding new housing for families in the low-income brackets, although 
the industry is now concentrating on reducing costs in every way on 
special low-income models. 

There are perhaps 20 or 25 prefabricators who are producing stressed 
skin plywood houses, and although this is but slightly more than one- 
quarter the number of firms in the industry, as a group they have 
been producing between one-third and one-half the total number of 
prefabricated houses sold in the last few years. In this group are 
many, maybe even a majority, of the strongest companies those who 
have the best plants and the most extensive marketing organizations, 
and are potentially most capable of conducting and utilizing technical 
research. 24 

C. The Machine-Made Metal House 

Last are those few firms which represent the most industrialized 
segment of the field. As a group, if indeed they may be called a 
group, they are much less homogeneous than are the manufacturers 
of the two types of houses described above. And as a group they 
have produced only a small fraction of the total number of prefabri 
cated houses built thus far. Although, as the heading indicates, their 
common characteristic is that they work principally with metals, by 
no means all the metal house producers are industrialized enough to 
belong in this category, and several of the largest firms in it concen 
trate on farm, industrial, and utility buildings with dwellings as only 
a minor part of their business. 25 

Because it represented the most completely industrialized of the 
house manufacturers, the Lustron Corporation may be taken as an 
example of this part of the industry (see Figure 13). Lustron was 
long the subject of bitter controversy, not only because of the sub 
stantial role of the federal government in financing it and helping it 
to obtain materials, but also because of its use of porcelain enameled 

24 For example: Crawford, Gunnison, Harnischfeger, Houston Ready-Cut, Na 
tional Homes, Pease. 

25 For instance: Butler Manufacturing Company, The Steelcraft Manufacturing 
Company, Stran-Steel (a division of Great Lakes Steel Corporation), and Fenestra 
(a division of Detroit Steel Products Company). 


steel for both interiors and exteriors, and because it was by far the 
largest and most heavily capitalized prefabrication venture to date. 
What made this enterprise unique, in the last analysis, was its scale: 
the extent of its resources in trained personnel, in plant and equip 
ment, and in financial power. If its projected output of 100 houses 
a day, or 30,000-40,000 a year, could be attained, this would be 
several times the volume of the largest peacetime builders. The 
Lustron Corporation invested some $15,000,000 in the types of 
tools and equipment that have long been employed in a number 
of mass-production industries but that have remained foreign to hous 
ing, such as large shears, presses, punches, welding machines, and 
enameling ovens. The design, engineering, and sales organizations 
were conceived on a similar scale. Inasmuch as size (in terms of 
capital resources) has long been regarded by many observers as the 
single characteristic most needed in a housebuilding enterprise if it 
is to overcome the inefficiencies and obstacles besetting the many 
aspects of the traditional industry, the discontinuity with previous 
experience which Lustron represented in the matter of scale is of 
considerable significance. Many have come to regard this venture 
as a crucial test case for prefabrication, and its receivership will be 
said to prove the folly of its basic concept. Yet its value as a test 
case may be limited by the turn in the housing market since plans 
were made, by the heavy commitment to one material and certain 
production operations (which restrict freedom of design if changes 
are to be made), and by the degree of attention which has been 
focused on the RFC loans made to the company and their possible 
economic, social, and political implications. 

D. Other Types of Prefabrication 

Besides these larger groups of prefabricators there are a few work 
ing with composite sandwich materials such as Cemesto or aluminum- 
surfaced paper-plastic honeycomb cores ( Southern California Homes ) 
(see Figure 21), with sectional house design (TVA and Reliance), or 
with certain mechanized on-site processes, usually in connection with 
concrete ( LeTourneau, Ibec, and Vacuum Concrete, Inc. ) . The manu 
facturers of cabinets, storagewalls, doors, windows, stairs, chimneys, 
and kitchen-bath utility cores also belong in the picture of prefabri 
cation as a whole; and making mention of them here will serve to 


emphasize the importance of learning to think not how many pre 
fabricated houses are being built, but rather how much of the "aver 
age" house is prefabricated. 26 

III. Broad Aspects of Prefabrication 

A. Modular Coordination 

Although prefabrication is here treated primarily as an industry 
rather than as a general development, mention should be made of 
some of the lines along which prefabrication as a broad movement 
is growing. Modular coordination (see Figure 5) is such a line. At 
first glance, there may seem only a distant relationship between pre 
fabrication and the effort to coordinate the standard dimensions of 
all building components so that they apply to any building that is laid 
out on the 4" modular basis without cutting or altering at the site. 
Yet it can be seen that if building materials and components were 
manufactured in coordinated sizes and with provision for certain 
standardized joints and constructions, they could be assembled with 
relative ease and little waste into a wide variety of structures de 
signed along modular principles. Even more important in its long- 
range consequences, if all dimensions of all buildings were coordi 
nated, many products now independently dimensioned, like kitchen 
equipment, could be made to fit together, and many major assemblies 
now rarely mass produced, like staircases, could be produced and 
marketed in stock sizes in the manner of windows and doors. The 
reduction of site work and the increase of factory work, involving at 
least a partial shift of the building process from site to factory, are 
the inevitable results of a successful program of modular coordina 
tion and represent a trend in the direction of greater prefabrication. 
The modular movement which started with the work of Albert Far- 
well Bemis in the twenties and gained momentum in the thirties was 
given added impetus in the war period not only from within the in- 

26 A detailed discussion of the entire industry during this period is contained 
in Part II. 


4- 4" 4- 4" 4" 4' 4' 4' 4" 4' 4T V V V V 4' V V V * V V V V * 4' V V V V V 







Materials are produced to fit 
multiples of basic module 
and produce uniformity 

Non-modular construction 
requires cutting of bricks 
which produces material 
waste and high cost 

Materials made in multiples 
of 4" reduce cutting and 
waste and can be fitted 
together simply and orderly 

Figure 5. The Principles of Modular Coordination 

dustry 27 but from the government as well. 28 Although it has not pro 
ceeded as rapidly as it might have, because of the hesitancy of build 
ing products manufacturers to incur the expense of changeover in 
the presence of a seller's market, the movement is an inherently self- 
accelerating one, and we may reasonably expect increasingly rapid 
progress as time goes on. Today there are more than 600 firms pro 
ducing modular structural clay products, masonry, wood windows, 
steel windows, and glass block, and committees are currently working 
on the modular design details of other products such as floors, kitchen 
equipment, toilet partitions, and shower stalls. 29 

B. The Rationalization of On-Site Building 

Another effort which has embraced certain aspects of prefabrica- 
tion is the "industry-engineered house" program sponsored by the 
National Retail Lumber Dealers Association and The Producers' Coun 
cil and directed primarily at the builder of fewer than 10 houses per 
year. The concept of modular coordination is basic to this program 
in its designs and use of materials. Out of the time studies and cost 
analysis of the sample houses built by the Small Homes Council of 
the University of Illinois has come, also, the conclusion that definite 
savings can be realized through the use of preassembled lightweight 
roof trusses, making it possible to close in the house quickly with no 
interior bearing partitions and with unbroken floor and ceiling finish. 
The flooring, heating, plumbing, and electrical jobs can then be done 

27 Project A62, sponsored jointly by American Standards Association, The 
American Institute of Architects, and The Producers' Council, Inc., was begun 
in 1939. It has been carried on with extensive technical assistance from the 
Modular Service Association, a non-profit agency supported largely by the sons 
of Albert Farwell Bemis. 

28 During the war, modular coordination methods made a large contribution 
to the success of the defense housing program, particularly in connection with 
houses on the design of which Modular Service Association worked closely with 
the Homasote Co. The Office of Technical Services of the Department of Com 
merce contracted with the Modular Service Association in 1947 for research and 
development along these lines. The Housing Act of 1948, Public Law 901, pro 
vided the Housing and Home Finance Agency with $300,000 for development 
and promotion of standardized building codes and standardized dimensions for 
homebuilding materials and equipment. 

29 "Modular Coordination," HHFA Technical Bulletin, no. 3 (March 1948), 
p. 53. 


more efficiently because the interior space is free from any obstruc 
tions, and interior partitions can be framed and partly finished while 
lying flat on the floor, and later tilted up into position. 30 These are 
perhaps simple methods, and the ideas are certainly not new; yet 
they are instances of the type of influence that the movement towards 
prefabrication is having on construction practices at the site. Most 
big operative builders today not only do extensive precutting but 
also a considerable degree of near-site shop fabrication of components 
such as stairs, plumbing stacks, cabinets, storagewall units, and frame 
assemblies for windows and doors. That some of these techniques 
have been adopted by small builders as well is only further testimony 
that the "conventional" builder of today is by no means using the 
same methods that Noah did on the Ark, despite inferences to the 
contrary which have had some currency. 

IV. Prefabrication: Nature and Cost of the Product 

To return now to the prefabricated house itself, it has been 
widely said that, compared with the lowest-priced conventionally 
built housing in the community, the prefabricator has been making a 
slightly better product for about the same money. This is a generali 
zation which is, of course, subject to exception. Certainly low-quality 
prefabricated houses have been erected in the last few years by the 
less responsible members of the industry, but on the whole careful 
control of materials, factory precision of measurement and assembly, 
and controlled factory working conditions have enabled the pre 
fabricator to meet, if not surpass, the average small-home construc 
tion standards. Not all prefabricators are producing for the lowest- 
price brackets, however; at least one has built houses for as much as 
$40,000 and others produce in the $15,000-$20,000 range. But by and 
large most prefabricators have been and are today reaching for the 
low-income market, which means for the prevailing two-bedroom 
house a median selling price of roughly $8,000, completely erected and 

30 Research Report on Construction Methods, Technical Series E2.1R, Small 
Homes Council, University of Illinois, in cooperation with Office of Technical 
Services, Department of Commerce, pp. 32-3. 


finished but not including the cost of the lot. 31 Naturally, in the 
seller's market following the war, selling prices for both prefabricated 
and conventional houses tended to relate more to what was offered 
than to costs. 

In analyzing costs, however, one must bear in mind that efficiencies 
of quantity production can be realized in the field as well as in the 
factory, and it can therefore be quite meaningless to make a com 
parison between the cost of a single prefabricated house erected 
on an isolated lot and the cost of a single site-built house in a project 
of a thousand. So large a project affords opportunities for economies 
in the procurement of materials and in the work of grading, installing 
utilities, and laying the foundation, and the builder is able to achieve 
to some degree the same type of division of labor and consequent 
specialization that characterize line production in a factory. It is 
much more meaningful to compare the costs of conventional and 
prefabricated houses where both have been built singly, whether in 
small or in large groups. For a one-house project the prefabricated 
house will typically show some cost advantage, perhaps as much as 
10-20%. As the size of the project increases, the cost advantage of 
the prefabricator is apt to decrease and the nature of the so-called 
"conventional" construction process will change, the site builder 
adopting more and more of the techniques used by the prefabricator 
until, in the very large projects of the operative builder, the pre 
fabricator typically offers no cost advantages. The most efficient 
housebuilding to date (as measured by cost per square foot) has 
been done in such large projects. They have embraced varying 
degrees of prefabrication, some builders doing the work in their 
own shops near the site, other procuring a house package from a 
prefabricator's plant as far as 300 miles away. The patterns of these 
operative builders have almost always been worked out in terms of 
wood, still our predominant housebuilding material. 32 

31 Such a figure is approximate, because of geographical variations and differ 
ences in standards. For the typical "economy" house of two bedrooms and 
768 sq. ft. of floor area, the median sales price among members of PHMI for the 
completed house, less lot, was estimated as $7,000 in 1949 (PHMI Washington 
News Letter, December 23, 1949, p. 1). 

32 A notable exception recently was the Byrne Organization, Inc.'s Harundale 
project near Baltimore in 1946-1947, where welded steel frames formed the 
basis of a structure using other materials such as plaster, stucco, aluminum 
clapboarding, and asphalt shingles. The expense of setting up near-site facilities 
to prefabricate structural sections for these houses has been cited as a major 
cause of the financial troubles which later plagued this project. See The Archi 
tectural Forum, 90 (April 1949), 143 ff. 

V. Prefabrication: Current Problems 

That prefabrication has not yet brought about marked reductions 
in the cost of housing and that it has thus far accounted for but 
about 5% of postwar house construction have been causes for both 
discouragement and disillusionment. It is said that, in spite of its 
promise, prefabrication has not offered any solution to "the housing 
problem," that it has utterly failed to realize its goals. Although 
the goals which some have held were unrealistic, it may still be 
asked why prefabrication has not been more successful in reducing 
costs and (to the extent that this question is not included in the 
preceding one) why it has not been more widely adopted. The 
answers to questions like these should be approached only through 
an understanding of the problems facing the prefabricator prob 
lems deriving not only from the technical and economic considera 
tions inherent in any comparable industrial process, but also from 
the complex character of the housing field within which the in 
dustry operates. 

A. Locus of Operations 

Under present conditions, with the majority of prefabricators using 
wood in a relatively conventional way, the practice in single-house 
projects is to leave something like half the work (in terms of both 
man-hours and value added) to be done at the site; in large projects 
the site work is a much larger part of the total. Whether because 
wood, used principally, is a material which can be processed with 
relative ease in the field, or because prefabricated houses have often 
recently been built in groups, or because engineering advances over 
conventional construction have not usually been realized, more ex 
tensive prefabrication seems simply not to be economically justified. 


B. Marketing 

Once the house has been designed and the production scheme 
worked out, there are two vicious circles which frequently confront 
the prefabricator: 

Vicious Circle A. Though the design is superior to current prac 
tice, from the point of view both of design and production, "people 
like what they know" and do not like this design because it is new; 
the banks consider the house too great a financial risk because of 
the public reaction; without loans, few houses can be built; and the 
design remains unknown and unaccepted. 

Vicious Circle B. Low volume of production means high unit 
cost; high unit cost means a small market; a small market means 
low volume. 

These situations are not novel; they occur in many other fields of 
design and production, though seldom, if ever, in so acute a form. 
But they serve to place the necessary emphasis on the fact that there 
can be no mass production without mass marketing. This was 
pointed out from time to time in the past, and today it is a truism. 33 
Yet in the frantic rush of postwar activity, and with materials short 
ages a major preoccupation, only a few saw marketing as a problem 
of any magnitude at all, let alone as their chief one. In the midst 
of a severe housing shortage it was perhaps natural to underesti 
mate the extent of the selling effort required and of the obstacles 
which would be encountered. The history of the thirties should 
have provided some lessons in this regard, but it was too easy to 
ignore these in the light of the war experience and the other prob 
lems of the immediate postwar situation. Now, at any rate, this 
has changed, and the topics of advertising, sales, dealers, and in 
terim and permanent financing are of major concern to most pre- 

Most prefabricated houses are currently marketed through the 
agency of dealer-erectors who combine the functions of selling the 
house to the consumer, helping him to secure permanent financing, 
erecting it at the site, and, often, servicing the finished home. There 
are probably as many as 2,000 dealer-erectors, some being small 
homebuilders who put up only a half-dozen houses a year, others 

33 A case in point was the statement of the William H. Harman Corporation, 
in its petition in bankruptcy, November 29, 1948: "We attribute the company's 
failure to its inability to overcome the complexities of distribution and the 
difficulties of financing sales and erection." 


being large builder-developers who work in terms of large projects. 
The choice and training of these dealers are of great importance to 
the prefabricator, for they must be able to supply him with a steady 
stream of orders on which to base his production, and they must 
be able to carry out the erection and completion of the house at the 
site with efficiency and dispatch; otherwise they will add in costs 
whatever the prefabricator may have managed to save in the shop. 
The prefabricator must train his dealers not only in the mechanics 
of the erection process, but also in a whole series of other marketing 
operations: the approach to homebuyers, building inspectors, lend 
ing institutions, and occasionally irate neighbors; an idea of what 
constitutes good site planning, and some notion of a "reasonable" 
profit. While a low price is a potent factor in stimulating sales to 
dealers, it is by no means the only one that must be present. Diffi 
culties presented by codes, building officials, local materials dealers, 
local labor, banks, and the FHA, plus consumer prejudice, are all 
problems which must be overcome by patient effort on the part of 
the prefabricator and his dealers. Bargain prices alone do not solve 
them. Furthermore, there is nothing that requires the prefabricator's 
cost savings to be passed on to the ultimate consumer. 34 The high- 
volume incentive of the manufacturer is not necessarily shared by 
the dealer-erectors, many of whom operate speculatively and must 
work hard to assemble land, develop it, and arrange for the many 
construction operations on each house. In a favorable market, 
charging what the traffic will bear may look to them like the best 
policy, and in the inflationary situation following the war there has 
often been a tendency for them to price the finished house at about 
the same level as conventionally built houses in the area even if, 
while still allowing a "reasonable" profit, they might have priced it 
somewhat lower. Thus it is possible that prefabrication may do 
better when the market enters a definitely deflationary phase, al 
though other factors then complicate the situation. Just what is a 

34 The same is generally true of the manufacturers of prefabricated building 
components. For example, the Ingersoll Utility Unit, incorporating kitchen and 
bathroom equipment and a central mechanical core, cost, when installed, about 
the same as or slightly more than comparable equipment supplied through the 
usual channels and assembled at the site. In spite of this, many of the units 
were sold, partly because procurement was thus simplified, and partly because 
the plumbing contractors who installed these units could do the job in less than 
one-third of the time it took by conventional methods and could thus turn over 
their capital more rapidly, taking a larger number of profits on their sales. 
Nevertheless, the Ingersoll Utility Unit Division of Borg- Warner suspended opera 
tions on June 30, 1949. 


"reasonable profit" is of course hard to say, but inasmuch as many 
dealer-erectors are construction people who have been partially 
weaned away from conventional practice, they may hold ideas that 
conflict with the mass-production concepts of the prefabricator. In 
the long run the prefabricators will have to leave the dealers enough 
margin for profit to attract the kind of ability that is needed for the 

A few firms have strong and well-disciplined dealer organizations 
which erect their houses at a fixed price schedule. These com 
panies have had the wisdom, endurance, and resources to develop 
extensive dealer outlets and train them well. But sometimes the pre 
fabricator has not developed a good marketing system, or he has 
relied, as a temporary measure, on a few large projects to carry him 
along, or both. At first glance this may seem more economical than 
the investment in time and money which it takes to establish many 
small dealers whose cumulative efforts supply the plant with a 
steady stream of orders. It may also seem more economical be 
cause certain efficiencies of scale can be achieved at the site. But 
unless large projects form just a part of a prefabricated volume, or 
unless he has, through an extended period, established relations with 
a number of large project builders who operate steadily, he often 
finds it difficult if not impossible to keep his plant running efficiently. 
The big projects materialize slowly; when they do come through, 
the prefabricator's procurement, production, and traffic departments 
are placed under a strain to meet high, but temporary, production 
requirements; and after this there is apt to be a slack period. Such 
a pattern is more characteristic of a general contractor than of a 
mass-production enterprise, but, unlike the contractor, the prefabri 
cator has a considerable plant investment and a labor force to worry 
about. For this reason there is increasing emphasis, especially among 
those firms which practice a high degree of prefabrication, on de 
veloping a distribution system geared to making many small sales 
rather than a few big ones, thus diversifying sales risk and increas 
ing the prospects for steady-volume operation. 

C. Public Acceptance 

A special aspect of the marketing problem has been the difficulty 
sometimes encountered in securing public acceptance. Occasionally 
there is a real prejudice against prefabrication which is not limited 


to a generalized opposition to something new, but leads to action 
not only by potential homebuyers themselves, but by the community 
as well, through deed restrictions, pressure on building inspectors, 
and the like. It stems chiefly from dislike of the minimum-standard 
prefabricated dwellings built during the war emergency under gov 
ernment contract. The bad reputation acquired in this way persists 
in spite of the fact that the vast majority of prefabricated houses 
built since the war compare favorably in every respect with con 
ventional houses in the same price class. Moreover, the very large 
number of prefabricated houses which have been financed under the 
FHA have had to pass tests a good deal stiffer than those for most 
conventional houses. As the public has become aware of this situa 
tion its hostility has lessened, and today it is principally the houses 
of unconventional materials such as steel and aluminum and those 
of unconventional architectural appearance that are apt to arouse 
suspicion and opposition, although many communities try to exclude 
prefabricated houses simply because they are small and inexpensive 
and therefore likely to give little aid in meeting local tax burdens. 
In regard to appearance, there has been a strong tendency to make 
the prefabricated house indistinguishable from the conventional house 
and to abandon flat roofs and battens. 

It is unfortunate that the general trend towards public acceptance 
is retarded by occasional poor-quality products which act to rein 
force latent prejudice. On the other hand, in reaching for the lowest- 
cost market prefabricators have to make compromises with what the 
public has come to consider, often wrongly, quality. Many a pre- 
fabricator, building sound houses which make use of new construc 
tion methods and as a result have light walls of thin cross section, 
has found it desirable to avoid publicity during the erection process, 
lest the house be considered flimsy. 

D. Building Codes 

Building codes have presented a serious obstacle to the growth of 
prefabrication. One very inhibitory aspect of codes is their diversity. 
They are so numerous and so non-uniform as to make it difficult if 
not impossible to standardize certain items for mass production in a 
factory. Plumbing codes are perhaps the outstanding offenders in 
this respect and have discouraged a good many prefabricators from 
attempting to manufacture plumbing assemblies. Another unneces- 


sarily restrictive aspect of building codes is that they are generally 
written in terms of specifications rather than of performance stand 
ards, and that the specifications are in many respects outdated. 
Some codes effectively exclude broad categories of construction, 
such as dry wall, by indirection. Many exclude new and more effi 
cient structural methods and materials which, from a performance 
point of view, are perfectly adequate but which fail to meet the code 
specifications: for instance, code provisions ordinarily require fram 
ing dimensions in excess of those necessary or economical in stressed 
skin plywood construction. There are some even more restrictive 
code clauses such as those requiring certain types of field inspection, 
and those providing for preference for local contractors and locally 
manufactured materials. 

An added problem arises from the fact that even an up-to-date, 
state-wide, minimum-performance code will be of little use to the 
mass producer if the local communities retain the power freely to 
impose their own restrictions in excess of those called for by the 
state code. The prefabricator, who wishes a large market area for a 
standard product, needs state- wide maximums as well as minimums; 
he needs protection against local code provisions which exceed those 
required in the public interest. The code problem has received a 
lot of publicity and a great deal of serious attention in the past few 
years. Many cities and towns are rewriting their codes; others are 
adding provisions permitting the testing and subsequent uniform 
acceptance of new materials and structures; performance standards 
are to some degree replacing specifications. Groups engaged in work 
to standardize codes include several building officials conferences, 
the National Bureau of Standards, and the Housing and Home 
Finance Agency. Congress recently appropriated special funds for 
this purpose. 35 But such work moves slowly, and it will require a 
great amount of time and effort to persuade thousands of local com 
munities to adopt the same overall type of building regulation. In 
the meantime prefabricators are managing, through the use of trial 
or experimental houses and the accumulation of legal precedents, to 
convince towns of the soundness of their structures, and they are 
making progress in their own right. Some of the companies in the 
Midwest producing stressed skin designs feel that in their area of 
distribution the code problem is no longer a matter of major con 

35 The Housing Act of 1948 included funds for research in two fields, modular 
coordination and building codes. 


E. Local Trade and Labor 

The prefabricate! occasionally encounters opposition from local 
materials suppliers, contractors, and labor, who see their earnings 
threatened by the prefabricator whose package represents materials 
and labor imported from another community. This has led some 
materials dealers to favor old customers during periods of shortage 
(which is perhaps only a natural reaction), to decline credit, to 
insist on tie-in sales, and to press for building-code provisions pro 
tecting their interests. Plumbing, heating, and electrical contractors 
have at times declined to make installations on equipment not fur 
nished by them because in so doing they lost their customary markup. 
Likewise, labor has from time to time refused to handle prefabricated 
material, even when made by another local in the same brotherhood. 
These obstacles have in general been of only minor and sporadic 
consequence rather than a consistent source of trouble, but they add 
to the prefabricated difficulties, and their net effect has been to 
cause him to eliminate from his package items and work which he 
might otherwise have included, often at considerable savings. 

F. Financing 

The aspect of marketing which has given most concern of late is 
that of financing. After production is under way, the houses must be 
sold and paid for, whether the sales are made to distributors, to 
dealers, or direct to customers. Excepting in the case of the last, 
arrangements must be made for some kind of interim financing. A 
house package is an expensive item, amounting to between $3,000 
and $4,000 in most cases, and few prefabricators are well enough 
capitalized to extend credit until permanent financing has been ar 
ranged on the house by a lending institution. Rather than tie up 
his capital in this way, the house manufacturer must keep it turning 
over in order to operate at high volume, and therefore he usually 
asks the dealer to pay upon delivery of the package. This in turn 
tends to put a strain on the dealer or to limit his volume, for he is 
often unable to obtain the credit extended to builders by building 
materials suppliers and must wait to receive payment from the bank 
in installments as the house progresses, the first installment not being 
paid, as a rule, until the house has been shelled in. A further com- 


plication is the fact that a prefabricated house is a chattel and does 
not become real estate until it is erected and attached to the land. 
It is therefore subject to different laws and requires a somewhat dif 
ferent credit instrument. 

The acceptance corporation has been used in other fields to meet 
this problem, and at least one company has succeeded in setting up 
one to finance the sales of its prefabricated houses. 36 When a house 
package is delivered to a dealer, the acceptance corporation pays the 
prefabricator for it and makes the first of several construction ad 
vances to the dealer. The acceptance corporation subsequently sells 
the mortgage, which represents final or consumer financing, to a 
savings bank or insurance company. There has been considerable 
interest in establishing independent companies to handle the prob 
lems of a number of prefabricators in this way, combining chattel 
and real estate mortgage financing, and possibly extending the scheme 
to cover such items as refrigerators and ranges. To date, however, 
no such independent company has appeared. The effect of federal 
insurance of mortgages (FHA and VA) in decreasing the risk and 
increasing the negotiability of mortgages as earning assets would be 
very significant in any such development. 

One other source of aid in facing interim financing problems has 
been the extension of FHA insurance operations to cover working 
capital loans to prefabricators and short-term financing of dealers. 37 

The last financial step is that of the ultimate buyer, usually in 
seeking a mortgage from a bank. Though the banks have presented 
no general obstacle, they have in some areas been very conservative 
and very skeptical about prefabrication. Sometimes this conservatism 
has made itself felt in the difficulty of obtaining working capital 
loans; more often it has been exerted in the field of mortgage financ 
ing. It is in no small sense true that the prefabricator sells his 
house to the bank (or other mortgagee) rather than to the home 
buyer. With present-day mortgages amortized over long periods, 
usually considerably in excess of the average span of homeownership, 
it is natural that lending institutions are concerned about resale value. 
Their opposition to unconventional appearance affects site-built as 

36 National Homes Acceptance Corporation, set up in 1947 by National Homes 
Corporation with the backing of the American Bank and Trust Company of 
Chicago, and later operating on RFC loans. 

37 Under Section 609 of the National Housing Act, as amended. Under this 
section commitments have been made for the insurance of loans to prefabricators 
with provision for substitution of purchase contracts by the manufacturer, making 
the principal amount in effect a revolving fund. 


well as prefabricated houses, but, reflecting local prejudice, they have 
sometimes objected to prefabrication as such, refusing to lend on it 
or taking a mortgage for only a small fraction of the value. The 
FHA has had a very important influence in encouraging banks to lend 
on prefabricated houses. FHA standards have long been recognized 
by the lending institutions, and when the Washington office of the 
FHA approves a prefabrication system and issues an Engineering 
Bulletin to that effect, there is much more confidence in these houses 
on the part of the lenders. Inasmuch as 40-50% of the prefabricated 
houses built in the last few years have been financed under the 
FHA, 38 it can be seen how important the FHA has been in the 
general marketing picture. 

Because of its almost decisive importance, a number of prefabri- 
cators have seen fit to criticize the FHA, chiefly in circumstances 
where they have had to make concessions in design or have had 
approval flatly refused. It has been held that FHA standards are 
too high, that they preclude the possibility of manufacturing a really 
low-cost house, and that house standards should be lowered to the 
point where homebuyers could afford them. This criticism seems 
much less valid than those which have been leveled at various local 
FHA offices for their conservatism in matters Of architectural design 
and for structural requirements held to be unnecessary. Local offices 
have at times declined to make commitments on houses approved by 
the Washington office because of disapproval of such design features 
as flat roofs and because of entirely local regulations regarding such 
details as door widths. In some instances, different local regulations 
were actually conflicting. This has led to suggestions that the 
Washington office issue Bulletins approving the architecture of a 
house as well as its engineering, thus forcing a certain amount of 
conformance by local offices and giving the house a chance to be 
accepted. Recently an assistant FHA commissioner has been ap 
pointed with the function of assisting the prefabrication industry by 
efforts to eliminate regional differences in rulings. 

In the last analysis this and similar questions of policy rest on a 
basic judgment as to just how much risk the FHA should take. 
Many prefabricators feel that the best long-range likelihood of na 
tional financial stability involves taking a certain amount of risk and 
encouraging innovations to speed the development of better housing. 

38 Estimate from PHMI survey of member companies, in a letter to the Bemis 
Foundation, December 17, 1948. 


VI. Conclusion 

In the widest sense, current prefabrication is a growing movement 
embracing a whole span of activities ranging from modular coordi 
nation through the manufacture of various building components to 
the production of houses themselves. 39 Within this advancing front 
there is distinguishable a house manufacturing industry which existed 
in embryonic form through the thirties and is now a struggling, 
growing infant. This infant industry produced more than 100,000 
permanent homes in the three years following the end of the war, 40 
a small fraction, perhaps, of the total amount of housing built in 
this period, but a significant total when one considers the investment 
it represents. Although the prefabricator has not often been able to 
produce at lower costs than the big operative builders working in 
the great metropolitan areas, he has clearly demonstrated his ability 
to compete with the lowest-cost housing produced in the smaller 
urban areas where the operations of such large builders cannot be 
continuously sustained. There has occurred a shaking-down process 
in which the weakest firms have dropped out and the strongest firms 
have grown stronger, their staffs expanded, their patterns of opera 
tion crystallized. And there is a growing body of laws and institu 
tions which are at least in part a manifestation of the strengthening 
hand of the prefabricator: the extension of FHA operations, the con 
tinuing aid of the government through the HHFA and the RFC, 
the enjoining of certain malpractices through labor legislation, the 
movement towards building-code reform, and the work of the Pre 
fabricated Home Manufacturers' Institute and the National Associa 
tion of Housing Manufacturers. 

It has for some decades now been a paradox that the wealthiest, 
most industrialized nation in the world should have been unable to 
provide adequate housing for its citizens. Even though the house 
building industry has moved to cheaper land and reduced the size of 
its product, it has not been able to produce for the lower-income 

39 "It has been estimated that about 20 per cent of the cost of the average 
small conventionally built house can be accounted for in manufactured products 
such as kitchen cabinets, kitchen and bathroom fixtures, heating plant, and the 
like, as distinct from such materials as bricks, lumber and nails" (High Cost of 
Housing, Report of the Joint Committee on Housing [Washington, 1948], p. 149). 

* PHMI Washington News Letter, October 1, 1948, p. 1. 


groups. Prefabricators have earnestly sought to solve this problem, 
almost always in terms of the free-standing single-family house, but 
they have not yet come up with a solution. They have pushed the 
lower edge of the housing market down a bit, but they have not yet 
moved it a significant amount. What was in the thirties the problem 
of the $2,500 house is now that of the $5,000 house; the problem re 
mains essentially unchanged. 

One suggested answer to the housing problem has been public 
housing. Fearing public assumption of what has been a private 
function, some prefabricators have called themselves "a bulwark 
against socialized housing." But regardless of political views, it is 
clear that, to date, prefabricators can at best claim for themselves 
such a role only in terms of future potential. 


6 Hodgson houses 

7 A precut house of 1920, courtesy The Aladdin Company 

_lL. . 


The Herford 

ERE is a cleanly designed, substan 
tial and altogether good-looking 
dwelling. There is not one foot of 

surplus lumber or timber, and yet the result 
presented is pleasing and wholesome. 

The Herford will accommodate a very large 
family, there being four bed rooms and bath 
on the second floor. And the living room and 
dining room are proportioned to the needs of a 
large family. 

Every feature of this design will be found to 
come under our plea for "modern, sanitary and 
attractive" workmen's homes. And every feature is 
planned at the same time to hold down the cost 
The Charleroi Gas Coal Co., the Lincoln Gas Coal Co., and the Roa- 
noke Mills Co. are among the many corporations who have found 
housing satisfaction by the use of the Herford 

The house requires but a 20x24 foot foundation and will take but a 
25 foot lot. No expensive embellishments are to be observed. A 
broad porch with the simple belt running around the middle of the 
sidewalls relieve what might be extreme plainness. 

No lower unit cost per person can Ixr secured than is |x>ssible in 
constructing this house. 

Price list attached gives our cost on this house. 


Size 20x24 Feet 


Mock* for ouuidc walla; Hcfeht of c 

.nd pU.i.-r tor l.nlnc w.lU. ilm. . 

8 Buckminster Fuller's first Dymaxion house 

9 EarZt/ General Houses house 

under construction 

completed (1933) 

1 Gunnison 

2 National 


10 houses 
of the 

3 Crawford 
( under 
construction ) 

1 1 Two circular houses 

Fullers "grain bin" house 

Neff Airform House 
(under construction) 


1 basic package 

2 half unfolded 

3 unfolding roof 

4 unfolding walls 

12 A folding unit designed for emergency shelter, 
the Palace Corporation 

5 completed unit 

73 Lustron houses 

two-bedroom model, with garage 

three-bedroom model 

Part A 





I. Introduction 

This chapter seeks to raise questions and to stimulate thought 
more than to attempt prophecy. Yet one general forecast should 
be made at the start, because it underlies much of the discussion 
which follows. We believe that it will become increasingly difficult 
to draw a line between prefabricated and conventional construction. 
At the present time one-fifth of the average house is made up of 
manufactured products rather than building materials in the ordi 
nary sense. In the future more significance will attach to the degree 
of prefabrication than to the numbers of prefabricated houses. 

This does not mean that the house will become an exclusively site- 
assembled product; development of the packaged house and the 
sectional house will doubtless continue. The new processes and 
procedures which typify many prefabricators seem sure, however, 
to spread throughout the housing field and the construction industry 
as a whole, and the benefits of mass production and mass distribu 
tion will become generally available. In the end, the prefabrication 
of houses may well prove to have been only a localized advance, a 
specialized movement, in this general process of housing industriali 

II. Current Trends within the Industry 

Although many of the broadest problems facing prefabricators 
have hardly begun to be understood, it is possible to point the prob 
able future direction of trends visible within the industry in its pres 
ent form. In large part, this discussion is based upon the detailed 
analysis of the present industry contained in Part II; for that reason, 
the comments made here may be very general in nature; and also for 
that reason, the overall order of that Part will be followed. 


A. Management 

It has by now become abundantly clear that every step of the 
prefabricated operations, from procurement through marketing, 
exercises an important influence upon every other step. The process 
used for erection affects the design as much as that used for produc 
tion; mass sales depend as much upon good financing as upon good 
design. In the future, therefore, the prefabricators will build up 
balanced staffs of experts, or will retain consulting services, in order 
to deal with this whole broad range of problems. 

They will also take steps to develop large procurement, produc 
tion, and marketing units in pursuit of the benefits of size. In the 
period since the war, more than 30,000 houses have been sold each 
year, although the number of companies involved has been sharply 
reduced; this is roughly 30 times as many houses as had been sold 
per year before the war. In the future, no doubt, there will remain 
small specialized firms for special types of product or of market, but 
the lion's share of the manufacturing business will go to fewer and 
stronger companies. Much of this business will go to companies not 
producing houses as such at all, but rather producing large compo 
nents, either of houses or of buildings generally, for assembly either 
at the site by individual architects, builders, and site developers, or 
in fairly localized assembly plants. 

At the same time, general industrialization of the building industry 
will be in progress, a very noticeable element of which will be the 
growth of dimensional coordination. This is a self -accelerating move 
ment, and efforts now being made to educate manufacturers, sup 
pliers, builders, and architects on the one hand, and the consuming 
public on the other hand, seem certain to bear fruit. 

As they grow in size, prefabricators will grow in responsibility and 
in the desire to maintain a high sales volume over a period of years. 
Long-range plans and policies and an understanding of the whole 
housing market will become increasingly important, and a great deal 
of attention will be paid to the devices of combinations, mergers, and 
licensing agreements. In the past, there has frequently been specu 
lation on the possibility of the development of a sort of "General 
Motors" for the production of houses. We have described in earlier 
chapters a few prior attempts to set this up; when the time seems 
right, it will be attempted again. 

Several of the prefabricators have already managed to integrate 
their operations to some extent more often by controlling or actually 


owning their suppliers of basic raw materials than by controlling 
their marketing operations. In the future, this process will continue 
in both directions, seeking the advantages not only of simplification 
in management and reduction in cost, but also of the marketing fea 
ture of making it possible for the buyer to turn all his problems relat 
ing to his house over to a single large organization. By the very 
nature of the product and its marketing process, however, it seems 
unlikely that there will ever be a housing "Detroit." The large pro 
ducers will probably be enough different, one from another, to prefer 
different production areas, and many advantages may be found to 
lie in decentralized production. 

B. Design 

1. Materials 

Wood. Since designs are very much a function of materials, the 
future prospects of the use of different basic materials are of con 
siderable interest. It has been said that the traditional domination 
of wood as a housebuilding material is being threatened. In the form 
of lumber, its use in prefabrication can be expected to decline. 

Plywood and the related bonded paper ply materials, on the other 
hand, seem certain for a while to maintain their popularity in the 
prefabrication industry unless there is a substantial reduction in 
supply and rise in price. Wood fiber products, already in wide use, 
will continue to grow in popularity, however, and other products of 
wood technology will continue their rapid development, some so dif 
ferent from those of the present as to warrant calling them plastic 
materials. This will almost certainly be the direction in which the 
industrial use of wood for houses will turn. 

Concrete. As for concrete, already an important building material 
in the form of concrete block, many recent improvements in tech 
nology will help to bring it into increased use for houses, but it can 
not readily be made the object of mass distribution. Rather it will 
come into its own in the site fabrication of huge projects, with in 
creased reliance on mechanized, portable, and re-usable forming, 
pouring, and curing equipment. 

Clay Products. Structural clay products have been less widely 


used in the building industry because of their increasing site-con 
struction costs and the objections on thermal and acoustic grounds to 
their use as a single-material wall. They will undoubtedly remain 
an important element in the design of large site projects, but for fur 
ther industrialization much will depend upon the success of current 
research in improving their physical properties and in developing 
larger and lighter units capable of production with greater precision. 

Metals. The metals have a bright future, if there is to be an in 
dustrialization of houses in the form of finish as well as of conven 
tional framing. Steel is admirably suited to mass production, and the 
major problems affecting its use in houses, condensation and corro 
sion, are approaching satisfactory solution. The increasing produc 
tion and decreasing costs of aluminum and magnesium make these 
light metals very promising, and they have good properties for hous 
ing purposes. 

Plastics. Plastics, in the sense of materials molded under heat and 
pressure, are already in use for trim and accessories about the house, 
but because of their relatively high cost and low strength they have 
thus far proved to be unsatisfactory basic building materials. Their 
future lies in combination as binders and adhesives with other mate 
rials such as wood wastes, wood fibers, wood veneers, paper, vege 
table fibers, glass fibers, and the like, or as finish coatings. 

It is the development of plastics along these lines which has made 
possible the rapid development of plywood, and the plastic core ma 
terials may in a few years become important building materials. 

Wallboards. The trend towards dry-wall construction will con 
tinue to spur the development of wallboards and composition boards 
of various types, such as cement asbestos, fiber, and pulp, especially 
when these are combined in sandwiches with other materials offering 
different technical or finish qualities. 

2. Large Panels 

Related to the use of such new materials as the laminated wood- 
plastic combinations and the metals is the trend towards large panels, 
which avoid seam and joint problems by maintaining continuity of 
surface, and simplify structure through a fusion of skeleton and skin. 1 

1 For a good discussion of the principle of continuity, see Fitch, op. cit., pp. 


In this connection, there will be an increasing effort to prefabricate 
those components of the house which offer large, unbroken surfaces, 
such as the ceilings, roofs, floors, and partitions, whereas today the 
major effort is directed at the walls. The inherent merit of frame 
and curtain wall structures for many purposes and in many materials 
will assure their continued development also, but the light, continu 
ous, combined-purpose walls will advance more rapidly. 

3. Factory Finishing 

Along with larger continuous surfaces will come the development 
of better factory finishing. In the metals this trend can be illustrated 
by the vitreous enamel finish of Lustron. In the woods it may take 
a new direction, such as resin impregnation or compression or both. 
Albert G. H. Dietz points out 2 that the assembly of a frame and the 
application of boarding offer much less opportunity for savings in 
construction labor and time than do the finishing of floors, the paint 
ing of woodwork, and the many other finishing details; and that 
significant future advances may come from the use of impregnation, 
compression, and high-frequency techniques to achieve the same 

4. Color and Texture 

Of greater importance to most people than is generally recognized 
are questions of color and texture, and here rapid developments seem 
sure to take place. What the public considers high in quality is often 
high only in finish quality, and manufacturing processes can produce 
economical finishes of better performance and of greater variety in 
color and texture than those now used in the housing field. At 
present there is some experimentation with color, but the possibilities 
of texture have gone almost unnoticed. It seems to be generally 
assumed that people like uniform flat surfaces on their walls, and 
to be further assumed by such companies as Lustron that they like 
uniform color and washable finishes as well. Yet little is actually 
known about the merits of different textures and finishes because in 

2 "Progress in Wood Construction," Wood Preserving News, XXV (December 
1947), HOff. 


the past relatively few possibilities have been available for use in the 

It should prove to be desirable to produce surface finishes which 
do not require constant cleaning, no matter how easily they can be 
cleaned. Certainly this seems to have been the conclusion of the 
makers of linoleum. A little texture a fine corrugation or processed 
pattern together with an irregular color pattern might make it pos 
sible to clean less often, and in addition add improved mechanical 
and acoustical performance. Less uniformity should mean easier 
production control, and corrugation or stamping should permit the 
use of lighter gauges of metal. These possibilities are certain to be 
explored in the future. 

5. New Structural Forms 

With the new materials and a higher degree of factory finishing 
will come new structural systems and new plastic forms for the fin 
ished house. Although in the mind of the typical homeowner the 
house may be essentially rectilinear, there is plenty of historical prece 
dent for other forms where the structural basis is other than post 
and lintel. At present, consumer resistance to the Fuller or Neff 
hemispherical houses would be violent but perhaps less widespread 
than has been supposed. In one known instance, the majority of a 
group of potential homeowners wanted to examine a hemispherical 
house before making up their minds, although they had summarily 
rejected a contemporary rectilinear design in favor of a traditional 
design. An entirely new form may have a better chance for accept 
ance than one close enough to a traditional stereotype to cause con 
stant irritation because of its differences. 

Revolutionary designers tend to feel that the logic of structural 
efficiency has an overwhelming appeal. There seems little reason 
to believe, however, that we demand a high degree of structural 
efficiency in the house. Architectural design involves many prob 
lems; and, in the future, basic considerations of plan will continue to 
dictate the structure, rather than the reverse. 

Indeed, the structure of the house is a mystery to the average per 
son, and he rarely even shows an interest in it. This was illustrated 
when a new type of steel construction was used in an exhibition 
house put up in 1933 at the Century of Progress exposition in Chi 
cago. Pleased with their achievement, the engineers responsible for 


the design put glass insets in the walls to show construction features 
and handed out questionnaires to find which aspects of the house had 
most interested their visitors. Far above all else in terms of popular 
interest was the presence of twin beds, and in second place by an 
equally commanding margin was the use of Venetian blinds. The 
construction was hardly mentioned. Clearly, the public expects 
professionals and trained officials to watch out for its interests in 
these matters. 

6. Project "Variety" 

The industry will gradually grow away from the tendency to seek 
"variety" through the application of exterior materials, details, and 
finish treatments to identical houses in the hope of giving the ap 
pearance of that random collection of structures which has charac 
terized our neighborhoods in the past. The results obtained by these 
devices are rarely pleasant, and often they achieve only what William 
W. Wurster has called "the monotony of slight variation." More 
important in the future will be variation in color, in placement of 
houses, in arrangement of the lot and street lines, and in relation 
ships established with garages and other structures a variation which 
obtains its quality from a frank recognition of the basic similarity of 
the houses involved. 

It will be recognized that, beyond a certain size (the definition of 
which requires study), a project of similar houses develops an op 
pressive monotony which no artistry can dispel. Those living in 
such projects know this, if the builders do not, because the reasons 
lie as much in the formation of an oversized mass of similar family 
groups as in the architectural effects. 

7. Mechanical Cores 

The mechanical services and equipment of the house represent from 
about a third to as much as half of its production cost. It is certain 
that the effort to design these as a unit core and to mass-produce such 
units in ever larger components will continue. In the next few 
years development here may come even more rapidly than in ra 
tionalization of the rest of the structure. The difficulties now faced 

by the makers of mechanical cores are certain to diminish, for im 
provements along this line offer great cost savings, production and 
erection simplifications, and sales and service advantages. One can 
easily foresee the development of a mechanical core together with a 
basic structural frame capable of carrying the weight of framing and 
finishing the entire roof as well as a curtain of walls and windows; 
and undoubtedly there will be special models of cores available to 
provide different standards of service. 

8. Integrated House 

There will be developing at the same time the integrated house, 
manufactured for sale as a single unit offering little or no design 
variation, and incorporating all its mechanical apparatus. While this 
may seem a logical extension of the mechanical core, it is in many 
respects a quite different development, for it requires that the entire 
house be dealt with as a unit, while mechanical cores may be used 
in connection with "conventional" buildings or even existing build 
ings, as well as with prefabricated houses. 

C. Procurement 

1. Materials 

The obvious procurement problem is that of future supplies of 
basic raw materials. For wood the situation at present is very dif 
ferent from that of a few decades ago. Our forests have very rapidly 
diminished, and although wood is the only one of the major raw 
materials of building which can be replaced as a crop, not enough 
concerted effort in that direction has yet been made in this coun 
try. Yet for wood, and for plywood, it cannot be said that there is 
any immediate prospect of a shortage. 

Furthermore, there are new processes in operation and under de 
velopment, making use of smaller pieces of wood in edge-grain ply 
wood and employing special surface materials which permit the use 
of smaller quantities and poorer grades of veneer. Illustrative of 
the materials made by these processes are paper-overlaid plywood 


(resin-impregnated paper bonded to rough plywood to give a smooth 
hard surface), K-veneer (heavy kraft paper bonded to a single thick 
veneer which has been slit and distended before bonding to increase 
dimensional stability), and several types of wood core with bonded 
metal surface. 

There seem to be few procurement problems for the concretes and 
clay products, and the story of the metals is widely known. The 
supply of steel is a matter more of national policy than of the avail 
ability of basic raw materials, although there may be significant 
changes in the production centers and distribution systems in the 
future with the development of new sources of ore and changing 
price policies. As in the past, any defense emergency will mean the 
pre-emption of steel supplies for war purposes, and the housing in 
dustry will be forced to use substitutes to the fullest degree possible. 

This is also true for the light metals, for which the future in terms 
of raw materials and increasing production capacity looks very bright. 
For both aluminum and magnesium, it is not the supply of raw 
material so much as the cost of power which determines available 
supply. Production of both metals increased greatly during the war 
and is likely to increase again in the future. It has been estimated 
that the aluminum used today in such elements as windows, insu 
lation, roofing, and spandrels for the building industry is greater in 
total amount than the prewar production for all purposes combined. 3 

2. Components 

Where prefabrication amounts to little more than the assembly of 
components fabricated by others, procurement obviously becomes 
the heart of the operation, but many feel that one of the most im 
portant contributions of even the typical prefabricator has been the 
streamlining of building supplies and equipment distribution. This 
function will expand in the future as supplies and equipment manu 
facturers satisfy themselves of the reliability of the prefabricator as 
a source of large and steady orders, and as further vertical integration 
occurs within the prefabrication organizations themselves. Eventu 
ally, more and more prefabricators will strive for the position common 
in the automobile industry, in which the company is large enough to 
control its suppliers. 

3 Howard T. Fisher, "Prefabrication; What Does it Mean to the Architect?" 
Journal of The American Institute of Architects, X (November 1948), 220. 


D. Production 

1. New Processes 

It is not possible to give general consideration here to the future 
of industrial techniques in prefabrication industries. Processes which 
are likely to show an increasing development in the next few years 
may be listed, however. For wood, they include gluing instead of 
nailing (a manifestation of the tendency towards more continuous 
surfaces), high-frequency induction heating for the curing of glues, 
and thermopressure molding of plywoods. For steel and for the light 
metals it seems certain that there will be more common use of fac 
tory finishes, such as vitreous enameling or some of the other forms 
of baked finishes at present used for automobiles. The cellular and 
corrugated core materials will leap into prominence with the devel 
opment of any method of continuous strip production of the cores, 
but this is not an easy problem. 

2. Production versus Erection Economies 

In the past, a great deal more energy in the design of the prefabri 
cated house has been devoted to securing economies in the factory 
than in the field, and often the result has been that unexpected field 
costs have overbalanced the factory savings which were so carefully 
planned. This will be discussed in more detail under Erection 
(p. Ill), but it should be pointed out here that this lesson is being 
learned, and that production schemes in the future will take into 
account the efficiency of the operation as a whole. 

3. Standardization versus Specialization 

In any production scheme, attention must be devoted to the ques 
tion of standardization. It is often said that parts should be stand 
ardized and made interchangeable to the fullest degree possible, but 
this depends very greatly upon the expected rate of production and 
the variation in production models. If a single product is to be fabri- 


cated in large quantity, there may be savings in designing specialized 
parts for maximum efficiency without full standardization. To stand 
ardize could be to make certain parts unnecessarily strong and thus 
wasteful in materials. On the other hand, when parts are standard 
ized as fully as possible, there may be greater simplicity in procure 
ment, production, packaging, and erection. The prefabrication or 
ganizations of the future will be better able to determine accurate 
costs and to decide these production problems on a realistic basis. 

4. Operational Decisions 

Production operations themselves will receive considerable study: 
the breakdown of the job into simple and repetitive operations, the 
use of a continuous-flow production line to pace production, and the 
use of jigs, of work-simplification and production-control techniques, 
and of sound accounting procedures. 

Many of the most important production decisions will depend 
upon the expected market. Analysis of the market in some cases 
will call for the decision to stay with wood construction and repeti 
tive station operation, in order to permit considerable variation in 
rate of production without undue plant costs. Once the choice of 
steel is made, however, a production line seems indicated, and a 
mass -marketing mechanism at a high level of stability is required. 
No mechanism has yet reached this high level, but attempts will be 
continued in the future. 

In any case, it seems certain that the prefabricators will be among 
the first to make available to the mass-housing market the new ma 
terials and methods of construction, and many of the new items of 
special service and appeal, in so far as these are well adapted to 
factory production methods. 4 As other builders fall in line with pub 
lic demand for this development, the fabrication of an ever-growing 
portion of the house will be transferred to the factory, until eventu 
ally the operations of the entire housing industry will become so 
advanced that little significance will remain in a distinction between 
the prefabricators and the other producers of housing and building 

4 Factory construction itself has long been a proving ground for new design 
ideas. See Fitch, op. cit., pp. 68-9. 


E. Marketing 

Throughout this book, emphasis has been placed upon the im 
portance to prefabricators of building sound marketing organizations, 
partly because mass marketing is always a prerequisite to mass pro 
duction, but largely because uniquely difficult marketing problems 
are presented by houses. Considered simply as physical products, 
they involve great difficulties of assembly, packaging, transportation, 
and, in most cases, erection, and the design and production processes 
are intimately concerned with the schemes developed for overcoming 
these difficulties. Briefly highlighted here will be a number of special 
aspects of this general problem, to which prefabricators will give 
increased attention in the future. 

1. Packing 

Prefabricated houses are generally transported by means of tractor- 
trailer trucks, the trailer units sometimes being used also as movable 
parts of the assembly line. In other instances components are pal 
letized for easy handling, and in still others loading from component 
bins is worked out as required by each order. In the future, if the 
design emphasizes many standardized parts, there may follow a de 
velopment of shipping containers for these parts which will them 
selves become a part of the final house; and, a small but important 
point, factory packing and loading will be designed for easy off 
loading at the site, where usually there will not be available the 
specialized equipment common at the factory. 

2. Transportation 

Generally it will not be possible to transport completed houses, 
and that fact in itself offers a possibility for variety in the finished 
house. Sectional houses made up in units of size suitable for ship 
ment in trailers or railroad cars may be varied and combined in dif 
ferent ways at the site to produce houses which are substantially 
different one from another, and not merely slight external variations. 
On the other hand, collapsing and folding houses are already well 


known and may develop rapidly in the future. Especially when 
they are made of the new materials with large continuous surfaces 
and of lightweight construction, they offer a very good solution for 
the problems of assembly, packaging, transporting, off-loading, and 
erection. They also have the advantage of immediate roofing-in at 
the site, which provides protection against the weather and permits 
the prompt departure and re-use of the trailers. They do not ease 
the problems of trailer size, of road loading and bulk, or of access to 
the site, however, and in some cases these will offer serious difficulties. 

3. Erection 

In theory one of the great savings of prefabrication lies in simple, 
expert erection handled by trained dealer organizations. In fact, of 
course, such trained organizations have been the exception rather 
than the rule because of the rapid growth of the industry and because 
a new type of man is required in the dealer role. The old-time lumber 
yards and the conventional builders in many cases appear to be un 
able to reach full speed or efficiency in handling these new respon 
sibilities. As a result, many a prefabricator is taking steps to create 
his own dealers by training young college graduates in his plant and 
later sending them out in the field and financing them until they get 
on their own feet. The establishment of expert dealer organizations 
will take time. As they come into existence, however, they will 
bring about cost savings very rarely achieved up to now. 

It should be added on the subject of erection that the small stand 
ardized parts, or components, which have so many advantages else 
where in a pattern of operations, tend to be at a disadvantage when 
it comes to assembling them at the site, often in positions awkward 
for manual labor, and to sealing the numerous joints that necessarily 
are involved. The prefabricator of the future will be wary of the use 
of such parts, particularly if they require extra strength or extra labor 
to make them easier to handle at the site. On the other hand, the 
smaller parts used in the erection process, such as bolts, screws, and 
the like, will become as fully interchangeable as possible so that 
time need not be wasted finding the right piece or trying to make 
the wrong piece fit. 


4. Regional Distributors 

At present, few prefabricators make use of distributors in their 
distribution channels, but the likelihood is that more will do so in 
the future. When mass-production quantities reach into many thou 
sands per year, it may well prove more efficient to divide the sales 
area into several regions, preferably having common conditions of 
climate and local design preference, and to ship the houses by effi 
cient railroad or comparable mass transportation to distribution points 
in these regions. It will not make sense to send 10 or 20 trucks per 
day over the same basic route for hundreds of miles from the factory 
before branching off to the local destination. Furthermore, regional 
distributors offer a partial compromise on the issue of factory versus 
site assembly. Site assembly usually means difficult and inefficient 
conditions. Factory assembly, on the other hand, usually is a space 
and overhead consumer, particularly when delay in the sales or ship 
ment process requires stockpiling on factory floor space. For a high- 
production factory, if knocked-down packages were shipped to re 
gional distributors somewhat in advance of normal sales, these men 
might perform a minimum of preassembly, and if orders were slow, 
continue with the preassembly process as far as possible within the 
limitations of the final means of transportation. At the same time, 
they might be responsible for carrying out regional variations in the 
basic house, along certain standardized lines. In cold climates they 
might install more wall and fewer window units, extra insulation, 
and larger heating systems. If regional construction requirements 
varied significantly from nation-wide standards, certain standard sub 
stitutions could be made at this point, for example in the plumbing. 

5. Simplified Selling 

One of the great advantages which the prefabricator can offer is 
the simplification of the various steps through which the individual 
purchaser must go in order to buy a house. This should start with 
the establishment of a fixed price. In the future, prefabricators 
will not continue to allow dealers to establish prices in their own 
locale. The stronger firms already have their dealers quoting prices 
from a fixed schedule under their control, and those firms will do 
best in the leaner days ahead which can advertise the ' price of a 
house (less freight and lot) on a regional or national basis. Further 


than this, they will have cut down to a minimum the paper work 
and costs involved in selling, so that title search fee, insurance, 
amortization, interest, possibly taxes, and even maintenance payments 
are all included in the only two figures which the homebuyer will 
have to consider: down payment and monthly payment. 

It may also be expected that the dealer, if he is to maintain a high 
sales level, will increasingly become a guarantor of performance of 
the product and an expert service man. One-year guarantees are 
already given in many cases. This will become almost universal, as 
will a high level of servicing of all sorts, possibly as part of the 
purchase price. 

6. Simplified Financing 

Unquestionably the emergence of well-advertised brand-name 
houses, in combination with a continued or expanded program of 
government mortgage insurance, will tend to turn the mortgage into 
a more negotiable form of earning asset. This will fit in with the 
growing tendency for families to purchase houses out of current in 
come rather than savings. It is possible that the trend will be in the 
direction of forms of tenure and home financing which combine 
ownership and tenancy in some manner, as, for example, the pur 
chase-option plan. Prefabricators may be the first to introduce such 
a scheme on a wide basis. 

The nature of interim financing (short-term or construction financ 
ing) may be expected to alter as the house is increasingly industrial 
ized. A common future procedure will be the combination of chat 
tel and real estate mortgage financing in which a finance company 
will pay the prefabricator for his package at the time of shipment, 
advance funds to the dealer for site improvement and erection and 
completion of the house, and sell the final mortgage to portfolio 
investors. 5 In this way the final mortgage lending institution does 
not enter the picture until the completion and sale of the house, and 
interim financing is secured less and less by the house itself and 
more and more by the general assets of the growing prefabrication 

5 This scheme was suggested to PHMI by John Richardson in 1948. 


7. Sales Cost 

Regarding the sales aspects of marketing, there is bound to be a 
growing realization of the importance of effective advertising and 
sound sales techniques involving greater expenditures than are gen 
erally allowed for at the present time. The industry has been re 
minded that it pays for advertising on the average only about $1 
per $7,000 house as compared with the automobile manufacturer's 
average expenditure of about $10-$15 per $1,500-$2,500 automobile. 
Yet insufficient allowance for the cost of selling at the producer's level 
has been the admitted cause for failure of more than one promising 

8. Sales to the Government 

As the participation of government in housing increases there will 
also be increasing opportunities for group sales to agencies of the 
government, and special attention will have to be paid to this sort of 
business since it is inherently different from regular private business 
and has rules of its own. Among these is an old maxim: in selling 
to the public, sales costs count; in selling to the government, pro 
duction costs count. 

9. Sales to Operative Builders 

Sales to large operative builders whose projects are generally 
identified only with their own names may become an important part 
of the total prefabrication business, and a few companies may con 
tinue to make this a basis of their pattern of operations, contenting 
themselves to carry on a sort of anonymous refining stage in the 
housebuilding process and organizing their plant facilities for a fluc 
tuating volume of production. Nevertheless, such sales will tend in 
the future to be more interesting to the manufacturer of house com 
ponents than to the prefabricator of finished or nearly finished houses. 
For in addition to causing uneven production, the large orders of 
operative builders usually involve little chance for disclosure of the 
manufacturer or trade name to the final purchaser, and great pres 
sure for variation in the product in view of the size of the order. 


The manufacturer finds it hard to build up in this way the all-out 
mass advertising, sales, and distribution required for mass produc 
tion. Further, the operative builder, with little fixed investment com 
pared to the prefabricator, can remain inactive when things are bad, 
and return to compete independently ( as he has in the last few years ) 
during a seller's market. This indicates a potential advantage to the 
manufacturer of components which the manufacturer of trade-name 
houses will seek to overcome by working with site developers who 
find value in his trade name, by building up his own site-develop 
ment teams, and, at the same time, by diversifying his sales as fully 
as possible. Such men feel strongly that, even from the point of 
view of a potential investor, the surest protection lies in the diversi 
fication of risk and in carrying the advertising and trade-name rela 
tionship right through to the ultimate purchaser, as has always been 
done in other mass-production industries. 

10. Market Analysis 

The attempt of prefabricates to get a sound market analysis 
is complicated by the nature of the housing market in general. 
There is a growing realization of the fact, pointed out by William K. 
Wittausch, 6 that competition between prefabricated and conven 
tional houses is overshadowed by competition between any kind of 
new house and the supply of existing houses. As times become bad, 
the owner of an old house can sell it at less than the production price 
of a new one; and, generally speaking, an old house in a good loca 
tion will sell better than a new one in a poor location, particularly 
if the new one is also very small. There is no assurance that there 
will continue indefinitely in the future to be a ready market for the 
mass-produced minimum standard house; some signs indicate that 
the stable market in the future may be rather for houses featuring 
good value at low rather than minimum cost. The private indus 
trialist will come to recognize that the purchaser of even the lowest- 
price mass-produced house is in all probability making the largest 
single purchase of his lifetime, and he will not be tempted solely 
because a house is in fact and in advertising claim a stripped-down, 
rock-bottom minimum. 

6 "Marketing Prefabricated Houses/* Harvard Business Review, XXVI (No 
vember 1948), 696. 


11. Seasonally 

Another aspect of the housing market which bears attention is its 
seasonal variation. Many a prefabricator seems to assume that this 
will be eliminated when the production operations are handled in 
the factory and the remaining local work is efficiently scheduled in 
advance. It should not be forgotten, however, that seasonality in the 
housing market is in large measure a reflection of seasonal forces 
in the lives of the families concerned. School terms, spring clean 
ings, June weddings, and summer vacations will continue to be im 
portant factors after production and erection have been put on a 
twelve-month basis. Although it doubtless can be reduced, seasonal 
variation may never be eliminated; in all probability it will continue 
to have an influence on costs and prices. 

12. The Special Nature of a House 

The largest marketing problem is found in the fact that houses 
are not mere consumer goods, to be used and thrown away when 
they fall apart. They are the focus of the basic social unit in our 
society and a natural locus for complex social drives and taboos, 
for unreasoned preferences and idiosyncrasies. Prefabricators are 
finding that it requires far more skill to mass-produce and market 
than is generally recognized. This is not understood, certainly, by 
most of those who would have us believe that the housing industry 
is completely out-dated and ridiculous. Something like a ball-point 
pen or a television set, designed to satisfy a relatively new, special 
ized, and uncomplicated demand, may be manufactured on a fairly 
logical basis and sold with relative simplicity; prefabricators deal 
with a real problem in marketing the family home. 

III. Future Problems within the Industry 

The major future problems arising out of the industry as we know 
it today include few that are new or unexpected. Yet their very sim- 


plicity and obviousness have tended to make them easy to forget, 
and for that reason they are briefly summarized here. 

A. Central or Branch Plants 

Prefabricators will frequently have to decide whether to expand 
central plants or open branches. For houses manufactured of rela 
tively conventional materials, the problem may be solved indirectly, 
as a result of combinations and integrations which bring a number 
of separate plants into one large procurement, production, and mar 
keting combination, with production or assembly remaining local 
ized. For the metal houses, a large central plant may be more logi 
cal, although component parts could be made by a number of large 
manufacturing plants and assembled at localized assembly plants; 
both types of operation have been attempted and so far the choice 
between them is not clear. The temptation to set up a large, efficient- 
looking, central production plant will be strong, and such a plant 
will have no small value as a device for giving both the public and 
financial circles a tangible spectacle of efficiency, large assets, and 
stability. For houses of concrete and comparable bulk materials, 
there seems little likelihood of the development of centralized pro 
duction or even assembly plants, excepting for specialized compo 
nents or in areas of unusual concentration of demand. More likely 
will be the continued development of mobile or portable production 
machinery and equipment, designed to be set up at the site and to 
effect great economies when a large number of similar units can be 
produced within a short radius of operations. Such equipment is 
particularly suited to the construction at one time of an entirely new 
project or community under a single developer. 

B. Site or Factory Fabrication 

It is sometimes argued that good site fabrication makes prefabrica- 
tion unnecessary, and certainly site preparation and fabrication tech 
niques will develop hand in hand with production techniques gen 
erally and will help to effect a general reduction in costs. As the 
prefabrication plants become increasingly efficient, and as substan- 


tial cost savings in the house package become available, however, it 
is reasonable to believe that even the site developers will find it 
advantageous to purchase many of their units from the prefabri- 
cators. Site developers may also turn to the prefabricators because 
of the advantages of shifting to them the worries about procurement 
and delivery and because of the possibility of cutting thereby the 
time and expense required for construction and financing. At the 
same time, as we have seen above, the dealers in prefabricated 
houses will become more interested in large site development. The 
problem thus becomes not one of choice, but one of taking fullest 
advantage of both fabrication methods. 

C. Low Price or High Value 

Although low-cost houses will necessarily continue to be the major 
market for prefabricators, the industry generally will be faced with 
the problem of deciding when the time has come to seek better values, 
by adding space, equipment, or facilities, instead of lower prices. 
For houses purchased with government aid, there seems every reason 
to believe that space standards will be moved up from the minima 
which have prevailed during the last few years; and when the house 
is privately purchased, owners may become increasingly conscious 
of the illusory quality of a bargain purchase which proves to be 
unsatisfactory for normal family living. Space can be added more 
easily and cheaply than many other features of a house, and, as its 
great value is understood, it will be increasingly demanded in the 
future. At the present time, however, space in the house is very 
hard to merchandise. 

The manufacturers who are most interested in better values are 
those who have found that they can market their product more easily 
if it contains certain special features or pieces of equipment which 
on the normal market might come under the heading of luxuries. 
Mass-produced as parts of the house, such special features probably 
add little to the cost but a great deal to the salability. Obviously, 
this can be overdone. The ingenious prefabricator will be careful 
to develop and include just what is necessary to give his house a 
special appeal at the best price possible. For a while this kind of 
gadgetry may have the effect of reducing the real quality of the 
house in the interest of including more sales features. There is rea 
son to believe, however, that competition within a highly indus- 


trialized housing industry and the examples set by the government 
in its programs for the lower-income groups, together with a growth 
in the store of general knowledge regarding basic physiological and 
psychological requirements, will counteract that tendency. 

D. Evolution or Revolution 

Of the general problems troubling those interested in prefabrica- 
tion, one of the most interesting is the problem of evolution versus 
revolution. Evolution is a normal, familiar process, and many argue 
that it alone can succeed. The argument for revolution may be 
summarized as follows: factory methods do not promise a reduction 
in wood-processing costs sufficient to offset the increases in over 
head expense which result from moving the operations from the 
site to the factory; therefore there is little hope of developing a 
genuinely low-cost home through evolution along conventional lines, 
and hope must be placed in revolutionary production techniques, 
probably making use of metal as a basic material. 

Against this must be weighed the difficulties of creating an entirely 
new production process and the necessary accompanying marketing 
process. 7 It is generally easier to create an entirely new industrial 
operation to produce new articles, whereas for the mere improve 
ment of old articles, the obvious pattern is a development of old 
industries. The house-trailer industry in this country sprang up to 
produce a new article, which offered a service not fully performed 
by any existing product (although it could also be used as a house 
when fixed in place); despite its very limited probable market, the 
industry grew up very rapidly, and recently has been selling more 
than twice as many units as the prefabricated housing industry. 8 
Perhaps this is a trend towards a new way of living and a step in the 
revolutionary process. Where the attempt has been made to set up 
an entirely new industrial organization to produce houses in the past, 
money has always run short before competition with the existing 

7 John Ely Burchard has presented a good discussion of this point in "Pre 
fabricated Housing and Its Marketing Problems," The American Marketing 
Journal, II (July 1935), 150-6. 

8 In 1945 the trailer industry produced 16,225 units; in 1946 it shipped 47,103; 
and in 1947, 70,078; with a further increase in 1948. Figures from Facts for 
Industry, Series M45A-68, U. S. Department of Commerce (October 11, 1948), 
Table 1. 


industry could be effective. "The sun's rays of capital have been 
applied often intensely but never for long because no one could 
afford a sustained effort/' 9 Furthermore, there are technical diffi 
culties to be overcome in producing a house equally suited to cli 
matic conditions in Minnesota and in California, and careful design 
is required if the product is to be both mass produced and non- 
uniform. And those operating at tremendous scale from the start 
have little basis in practical experience for finding a realistic com 
promise between a highly functional product which might not sell 
well because it is unpopular and a more conventional product which 
might not show enough saving in cost. 

The likelihood is that the natural process of evolution and the 
earnest attempts at revolution will both continue in the future, and 
that what might seem in prospect to be revolutionary will seem in 
retrospect to have been merely evolutionary. 

E. One Model or Many 

Another problem arises in deciding whether to produce a single, 
or at the most a very few, standard models offering the best plans 
possible for average buyers and a consequent efficiency in both pro 
duction and marketing, or to make a line of component parts which 
may be assembled to suit individual tastes to a much greater degree. 
There may also be intermediate stages between these extremes; for 
example, a company selling a line of many models which are as 
sembled by varying the numbers and arrangement of a relatively few 
standardized partial assemblies or components. A certain amount 
of variety in the product is compatible with mass production, as can 
be illustrated by the automobile industry, particularly by the recent 
lines of automobiles in which standard component assemblies may be 
interchanged not only in different models of a single make but even 
in different makes of cars, from the smallest to the largest. Further 
more, we have seen that it is possible within the requirements of 
mass production to make allowance for a certain degree of regional 
difference through partial assembly by the distributor. It seems 
likely that the lowest costs will be achieved when the product is 
the most fully standardized if a mass market for so standardized a 
product is developed. If the mass market cannot be fully developed 

*Burchard, "Prefabricated Housing and Its Marketing Problems," p. 152. 


for a highly standardized product, the line of models made up from 
standardized assemblies should prove to be the most economical. 
Undoubtedly, there will also develop a substantial market for simpler 
components such as panels, manufactured for general distribution 
as a sort of superior building material and for assembly by the local 
builder or architect. Unless a large project is being developed at one 
time, however, this pattern of operations will almost surely lead to 
somewhat higher cost to the ultimate consumer in return for in 
creased individuality. Finally, even those who prefer and can afford 
to have their houses built individually for them will take increasing 
advantage of the availability of manufactured assemblies and com 

F. Optimum Level of Standardization 

The previous question tends to become one of the optimum level 
of standardization: whether at the 4" building material module, the 
modular panel, the three-dimensional section, or the completed house. 
Undoubtedly all will be under development at the same time, and 
ultimately all may be the basis for a true mass production. The 
4" module can be assumed to be already well on the way towards 
this goal, and it might be argued in any case that differences in the 
character and purpose of its development rule it out of this discus 
sion. These are differences, however, only in degree. 

G. Duplication by the Conventional Builder 

Overriding all these problems, from the point of view of the pre- 
fabricator as we now know him, is the problem of the ease of dupli 
cation and the adoption of his new techniques by the conventional 
builder. The conventional builder has been criticized by many as 
old fashioned and unlikely to compete along the paths of industriali 
zation. Actually, as we have seen, many industrial techniques are 
already turned to his use as well as to that of the prefabricator. 
Aluminum siding and roofing are widely marketed. Even the highly 
industrialized vitreous enamel finish can be purchased for home use 
from manufacturers. Such vitreous enamel sheets are thin enough 


to have many of the characteristics of wallpaper. It is this quick 
utilization by others of his developments which illustrates that the 
prefabricator may serve primarily as an agency for the first substan 
tial penetration into the building industry of modern mass-production 

IV. Larger Housing Issues 

Lord Kelvin has said that one measurement is worth a thousand 
questions. In the prefabrication field, as in many others, this is not 
always true. With relation to some of the most important forces 
bearing upon the future of housing, even the basic theories have 
hardly been developed. For those dealing with such forces, one 
question may be worth a thousand measurements. It is the purpose 
of this section to raise some of these questions. These are often 
easy questions to ask; unfortunately, for most of them there is little 
indication of a satisfactory answer. 

A. The House Itself 

1. Shrinkage 

The house in which the average family lives has been undergoing 
a steady change in character in recent years. More and more of 
the functions which used to be performed within its walls have been 
transferred elsewhere, while in some degree there has been a replace 
ment by functions not previously considered part of the house. Thus 
food preservation and preparation require a very small portion of 
the time, energy, and space formerly devoted to such activities. The 
recent introduction of the home freezer and of other specialized 
kitchen equipment represents not so much a reversal of this trend 
as the provision of new types of conveniences. Rooms for formal 
entertaining and space for making and washing clothes have been 


curtailed sharply, and, here again, the recent growth in popularity 
of home entertainment devices and sewing and washing machinery 
takes the form of an added service for those to whom the commercial 
facilities were unsatisfactory. Space needed for heating equipment 
and fuel has been sharply reduced; servant quarters are fast disap 
pearing; and rooms themselves are becoming smaller. All this has 
been reflected in a contraction in the size of the "average" house 
over the course of the last few decades. 

In the future, to what degree will this shrinkage continue? Are 
there practical limits to the reduction of meal-preparation and eating 
space, or will there be a further contraction, possibly with the devel 
opment of precooked and fresh-frozen full-course meals, specialized 
catering services, and the like? Will families go out for more and 
more of their entertainment, using the automobile to get them to 
commercial and community recreation centers, or will the radio and 
television bring them increasingly back into the home? Large formal 
occasions tend already to be celebrated out of the home in rented 
quarters. Will this be true for smaller occasions also, as better social 
rooms become available on a neighborhood basis? 

This list of questions could be expanded, but it is enough to illus 
trate the point: an increasing reliance on the community means not 
only a shrinkage in the size of the house, but also an increasing 
community influence upon the family enjoyment of the house. The 
successful prefabricator will be prepared not only to modify his 
product, but also to pay increasing attention in selling, locating, and 
erecting his houses to the character of services now being performed 
by the community. 

2. Mechanical Independence 

Will there be an increasing trend towards mechanical independ 
ence? We know that, although families are steadily moving into 
the large metropolitan areas in this country, within these areas they 
are moving rapidly out from the centers to the suburbs. This subur 
ban movement has been speeded by the automobile and by the 
availability of electric power, and a boost was given by such me 
chanical appliances as the washing machine and the home freezer. 
Will there be a further development along these lines with further 
decentralization, or will peacetime living bring a return to the pre 
war inclination to purchase services from specialized and centralized 


organizations? For example, if it were possible to have electric 
power as cheaply from a home generator as from public service com 
panies, would the average family wish to have this added independ 
ence? An efficient and economical chemical toilet, with or without 
the re-use of the water, could make significant changes in the con 
struction of the house and even in the structure of the sewer-bound 
society in which we live. 

For the average person an increased provision of home machinery 
and equipment might be attractive, but it would substantially in 
crease the first cost of the house, and this the average family cannot 
stand. Although in some respects it is not in the best interests of 
those concerned, the trend towards designing for low initial cost will 
very likely continue, even in the face of higher maintenance and 
service expenses. This trend may be reversed principally in the 
construction of mass housing, whether supported by government or 
built as an equity investment; in either case there are clear advan 
tages in paying a high first cost which will be more than balanced by 
long-range efficiency. 

3. Flexibility 

From another point of view, it is important to know the degree 
to which the house must be made flexible to permit changes in 
size and arrangement with the changes in the composition and char 
acter of the family living in it. Many a prefabricator has been per 
suaded of the need for such flexibility, and, because his construction 
system offers easy demountability, this tends to be made a selling 
point. A large segment of the public, certainly, has expressed the 
desire to add bedrooms, shift plans, and generally have an "expansible 
house." Yet, it is fair to ask, to what degree is this desire real and 
to what degree imaginary? How many average householders have 
carried out extensive remodeling of their houses in recent years? 
How many more would have done so were it inexpensive and easy 
to do so? The frequency of family moving in this country may be 
enough to take care of such adjustments. Family pattern is partly 
a matter of size and facilities within the house and partly one of 
location in a general sense (urban, suburban, or rural to obtain cer 
tain definite benefits, real or imagined), of a desire for gain in social 
status, and of a complex of other factors. If there is no trend to- 


wards a fixed location for the family, there may be no particular 
need for great flexibility in the house. 

Where it can be easily provided, however, as by movable parti 
tions, little is lost in terms of cost and much is gained in sales appeal 
by providing flexibility. Further, if stable communities should de 
velop having a good cross section of types and sizes of families and 
serving them well enough to reduce the urge to move, then there 
might well be advantages for the prefabricator offering flexibility 
in the form of standardized building components for individual 
assembly and easy reassembly according to need. 10 On the other 
hand, several prefabricators propose to offer frequent new and im 
proved models and to persuade the homeowner to trade in his pres 
ent house for the latest model. This would offer another sort of 
flexibility, if it were easy to detach houses from the land and trade 
them about like chattels, or if land planning trends and social devel 
opments in the future should make it less of a problem of adjust 
ment for a family to find a new location for each new house. If 
models were traded in only at the time of major family changes 
or moves, of course, the problem would tend to take care of itself, 
since these changes often are accompanied by changes in location 
preference within the community. For example, young married 
couples like to live in central locations, while parents of small chil 
dren prefer open development, freedom from traffic, and suburban 

4. Single-Family or Multifamily Units 

Another important question is this: will the mass-produced units 
of the future be single-family or multifamily houses? It is often 
claimed that multifamily homes can be offered at slightly less cost, 
and that, with the benefits of the best of modern design, they offer 
certain advantages to the family. In fact, when it comes to very 

10 Suppose a family, growing through the years, has reached the stage of 
adding a "Cadillac grade"' mechanical core and a great deal of living space 
enclosed by standardized wall panels. Then, when the daughter marries and 
moves away, it becomes possible quite literally to break up the old home, giving 
her the old "Ford grade" core and enough panels for a small house in which 
to begin married life. This kind of speculation tends to minimize the prob 
lems of foundations, gardens, and land use in general, but it has a certain fasci 
nation, nevertheless. 


small units occupying narrow lots of land, many feel that multifamily 
units are definitely superior, offering better space with increased 
privacy. High apartments also have their strong advocates. Yet 
the prefabrication industry has attempted very little as yet along 
multifamily lines. This situation will be altered in the near future, 
no doubt; construction systems will increasingly be made adaptable 
to multifamily structures; and for the high fireproof structures, special 
systems will be worked out to take advantage of components adapted 
also to simpler construction. These developments will be accom 
panied, and greatly abetted, by two other developments: the growth 
of modular coordination and the increase of low-cost project-type 
housing built by public agencies, by large developers aided by the 
government, and by equity investors such as the large insurance 

5. Durability 

What is the optimum durability of the house? Prefabricated houses 
have in the past suffered from a popular belief that they were "tem 
porary" houses, when the fact is that the industry might better won 
der whether it has not been building too well. Two arguments are 
often put forward in favor of decreasing the length of life of the 
average house. The first is that long life means rigidity, whereas 
family requirements change, land use patterns change, and our whole 
way of life changes; in short everything changes except the house 
in which life is supposed to take place, and that is altered only by 
the addition of mechanical equipment and conveniences and by 
minor adjustments in the details. The second argument is that if 
houses were less durable, more would have to be replaced each 
year; the building industry would have a larger constant core of 
replacement building; larger-volume production would in turn lead 
to more efficient production; and fluctuations in building activity 
would be less extreme. The first argument can be answered in part 
by flexibility and good planning, and the second may be challenged 
on the basis of cost and practicality. Can the nation afford to 
replace housing on the basis of a life span of definite and rather short 
length? The advocates of greater replacement might ask whether 
it can afford not to do so. However, the building of a house calcu 
lated to last an exact number of years is no mean feat, and experience 
with temporary structures in the past has shown that the life of a 


house depends more on maintenance standards than on construction 
standards. Enforced replacement is hardly an immediate prospect. 

6. Obsolescence 

To this must be added another question, that of obsolescence. 
Whether we like it or not, the fact is that most of our large-production 
industries depend in part upon a rapid rate of obsolescence. This 
may be natural for some products, but it is largely artificial when it 
comes to radios or automobiles. Actual or pretended improvement 
in performance leads to a demand for the new product while the 
usefulness of the old one continues largely unimpaired. Something 
of this sort is very likely to appear in the prefabrication industry in 
the future, and it may have an important bearing on the question 
of durability as well. Would one build an automobile to last 60 
years if constant or significant technical improvements were antici 
pated? But obsolescence will not become a major force unless there 
is also developed a second-hand market. A house goes into use 
only after it has become a piece of real estate, attached to a certain 
piece of land. A second-hand market in house packages would re 
quire that dealers become real estate operators on a large scale in 
order to put the houses quickly into use, and that land use and home- 
owning customs undergo a sort of revolution. This is not impos 
sible, of course, but it does not seem likely to come to pass in the 
near future, at least in anything like this form. It seems far more 
likely that any second-hand market which develops will follow the 
lines of the traditional real estate market, 11 and that there will be 
little selling of used houses without lots for some time to come. 
The costs of moving houses and making and breaking utility con 
nections are too great, although we have seen that new developments 
may one day take care of even such problems as these. 

11 It may be noted in this connection that the new president of Gunnison Homes, 
Inc., is a man with vast experience in handling real estate. 


B. The Community 

1. General Problems 

In addition to an understanding of the changing character of the 
house itself, the prefabricator must have an appreciation of the extent 
to which it is dependent on external factors for satisfactory perform 
ance. Two quotations from experts will serve to give an indication 
of the factors involved. William J. Levitt, the well-known Long 
Island builder, points out: 

There is no such thing as a complete, factory-engineered house because no 
one has discovered how to prefabricate the land, how to prefabricate the 
road in front of the land or the water main that goes into the house. 12 

Russell W. Davenport, moderator of the Life Round Table on 
Housing, concludes that most of the trouble with prefabrication lies 
in the nature of the product itself. 

A house, in short, is not merely a mechanical product; it is not even 
merely a physical or material product though even on this plane stand 
ardization and mass production are difficult. A house transcends the physi 
cal and transcends the tangible to become part of its surrounding civiliza 
tion. It is a civic or social product; and for those who live in it it has a 
spiritual significance. These elementary facts must constantly be borne 
in mind if our efforts to house ourselves better are not to meet with dis 
aster. 13 

Many aspects of his market are beyond the control of the prefabri 
cator, no matter how large he may be, and can be influenced only 
by public understanding and action for example, a boom in specula 
tive land prices, a series of municipal "protective regulations" which 
in effect require excessive development costs, or a blight of excessive 
land subdivision and clouded land titles. The prefabricator should, 
however, make his plans and conduct his operations with an intel 
ligent regard for these broad problems. 

Life, 26 (January 31, 1949), 74. 
Ibid., 78. 


2. Future Demand 

One important element of his plans is the estimation of housing 
demand in the future. This is the most complex sort of problem, 
involving as it does everything from consumer tastes to government 
policies, and yet market-analysis techniques and data are woefully 
inadequate. Important considerations are the supply of existing 
houses and the measures provided for the demolition of those houses 
which are obsolete. The industrialist may argue that disposal of the 
obsolete will follow naturally from an abundant production of the 
new. If the obsolete drops sufficiently in price, however, and is 
usable, can the new reach abundant production? How does this 
take account, moreover, of the investment in developed land, utili 
ties, and community services? How long can we afford to concen 
trate new development on the outskirts of our cities and let blight 
move in behind? These may be the problems of the city planner 
and the investor in real estate, but they are also the problems of any 
mass producer of houses. 

3. Competition from Existing Houses 

The housing market displays the characteristic of rapid obsoles 
cence at the top and very slow obsolescence at the bottom. When 
houses have become actually unsuited to human habitation, energetic 
exercise of the police power will suffice to tear them down. Above 
this level, however, they remain a problem and a source of competi 
tion for any type of new housing. As a result, the prefabricator may 
decide to operate at higher price levels, counting on producing new 
models attractive enough to entice former purchasers to trade in their 
old houses. In this way the old houses are to be started on the 
"filtering down" process by which low-price housing becomes avail 
able at second, third, or fourth hand to those who cannot afford to 
purchase new houses. In the automobile field, this process works, 
and one can purchase a car for $200 whicn is far better than a new 
one built to sell at that price. In the past, however, the houses 
which have filtered down in this way have been too few and too 
poorly adapted to the need of those in the lower-income brackets. 
Much will depend in the future upon reaching a low price level for 
new houses, so that they may have a broad market from the start. 
Otherwise, prefabricators hoping to serve the whole range of hous- 


ing needs will have to trade purchasers out of their new houses at 
an impossibly high rate in order to start secondhand houses down 
the line in sufficiently high volume. Large-volume production might 
thus require such a combination of low price and high sales appeal 
that the old house will be traded in as often as every 10 years; other 
wise the prefabricator may become the victim of the housebuilding 
cycle as it has operated in the past. 

4. Problems of Turnover 

There are many difficulties in obtaining a rapid turnover of this 
sort. One is the likelihood that the new features upon which the 
manufacturer must rely for sales appeal will tend to be mechanical 
equipment and gadgetry which may relatively easily be purchased 
and installed in the old house, the shell of which is likely to dete 
riorate at a slow rate by comparison with its equipment if the level 
of maintenance is good. Another is the fact, which cannot too often 
be mentioned, that houses are attached to the land. Unless houses 
can be made demountable and sold through secondhand dealers like 
automobiles, 14 the purchase of each new house means moving to a 
new site, and usually a new neighborhood. What does this imply 
for the stability of communities, for the interest of people in the 
local governments and schools, and for those especially children 
who find adjustment to new social circles a personal strain? What 
happens, as a practical matter, to the well-kept lawn and the garden? 
If we avoid providing for expansibility or demountability because we 
expect our current high degree of family mobility to be maintained, 
then we must provide correctives for the problems which such 
mobility creates. 

5. Community Planning 

Broad problems facing the prefabricator often stem from problems 
of community planning. The rapid development of a large outlying 
tract with hundreds of similar small houses and insufficient com 
munity services and amenities, which appears to be the most eco- 

14 For an examination of this idea, see Neal MacGeihan, "The Myth of the 
Low Cost House," Prefabricated Homes, January-February 1945. 


nomical manner of providing houses in terms of first cost, may in the 
long run so prejudice the housing market that the effects will be felt 
by the prefabricator himself. He must seriously consider whether 
this sort of entirely unofficial zoning into a one-class, one-income, 
undifferentiated community may not be contrary to his own selfish 
interests because of the dissatisfaction of those living in such a com 
munityalmost certain to be carried over to the house itself. At 
present, few have had to worry about these problems, because few 
have attempted mass production on such a scale and with such equip 
ment and plant that profitable operation over a period of years is 
required if the investment is to pay off. In the future, unless the 
large producers consider such matters as they grow in stature and 
importance, public opinion may compel the local government to take 
steps to control them, and they run the risk of becoming in effect 
large public utility companies. Through intelligent planning, volume 
of sales can be maintained at a high level without injury to the 
community from which the houses derive so much of their essen 
tial character and quality. 15 

C. Broad Economic and Policy Problems 

Much that might come under this heading has already been 
touched upon, but there remain two aspects of the relationship of 
the government to prefabrication which deserve consideration here. 
Already committed to a public housing program and to a program 
of mortgage insurance which leaves the building of many small houses 
a matter of private enterprise in name only, the government is taking 
an increasing interest in the general field of middle-income housing, 
the field of greatest interest to prefabrication. 

1. Government Aid 

Government aid is not peculiar to housing; it has been widely 
used in many fields in the past. The automobile industry, our prime 

15 It should be noted that increasing attention is being paid to these matters 
of neighborhood planning. The checklist for veterans in For the Home-Buying 
Veteran, issued jointly by the several federal housing agencies in 1949, makes 
the character of the neighborhood and the character of the lot the very first two 
matters of concern. 


example of mass production, could hardly have developed without 
a tremendous subsidy in the form of public roads. 16 The day may 
come when the government will adopt the often-suggested policy 
of establishing a figure below which the production of housing would 
not be allowed to fall; under such a policy, if the necessary houses 
were not produced by private means, the government would take 
over at once. The importance of such policies, and of the govern 
ment guarantee of decent housing, will become increasingly large 
factors in the future as the prefabricators grow in size and in volume 
of production. Self-interest alone should induce the leaders in the 
field to take a constructive part in the formulation of broad plans and 
to cooperate with the government in setting up that stable market 
situation which is necessary for profitable operations. 

2. National Capitalism 

One aspect of government housing policies which secures a great 
deal of attention in business and industrial circles is the emergence 
of what has been called national capitalism. In the past, the hous 
ing industry has been considered a bulwark of private capitalism, 
but there can be no doubt that this is being altered. The problem 
is, To what extent? Of particular interest in this connection was 
Lustron, organized to produce houses at a scale never before real 
ized, and financed initially with $840,000 private equity capital on 
the one hand and a $15,500,000 loan from the RFC on the other. 
With no further increase in private equity capital, the public loan 
later more than doubled, and requests were submitted for increases 
to as much as $50,000,000. With a ratio of better than forty to one 
of debt to equity, this leverage seemed so great that it was said that 
for all practical purposes the government had gone into the hous 
ing business. 

Many private businessmen were concerned; they believed that Lus 
tron had received "favorite son" treatment. Either the government 
plans deliberately to take over the housing industry, or it will eventu 
ally take it over whether it plans to or not, they argued. Who would 
dare to raise the risk capital and create the facilities necessary to 
compete with Lustron on an entirely private basis? The government 

16 It has been suggested that this theory be carried over into the housing 
field, and that the government frankly subsidize housing by the purchase and 
free grant of house sites, retaining thereby the control of development. 


would surely continue its favored treatment in order to protect a 
investment. With private capital thus frightened out of the housing 
industry, the government would move inevitably towards national 
capitalism. Claiming to favor free enterprise, but becoming increas 
ingly addicted to close regulation and control, the government might 
continue to solicit private capital, but would certainly put up public 
capital if none were forthcoming. 17 And eventually the same 
mechanism would be turned to other fields, said the worried spokes 
men of business. 

On the other hand, there can be little doubt that many who had 
approved governmental support of Lustron were quite free of such 
motives. Prefabrication is a young industry, and we have seen that 
financing on a tremendous scale is often required for the mass pro 
duction and distribution of houses. The risk is so great and the pros 
pects of profit so dim in comparison with other investment oppor 
tunities that only the government, acting in the broad interests of the 
public, can be expected to give such an industrial approach a real 
test. When the way had been shown, supporters expected private 
corporations to move in quickly and set up competitive enterprises, 
and meanwhile Lustron should itself have repaid the RFC and be 
come a private industry in the normal sense. Certainly one can 
sympathize with the desire to give any likely method of increasing 
production and reducing costs a fair chance to prove itself. If 
operations should prove extremely profitable, why would large com 
panies avoid the field? They have had to deal with the government 

17 In his testimony of August 5, 1949, submitted to the House of Representa 
tives Banking and Currency Committee, Harry H. Steidle, Manager of the Pre 
fabricated Home Manufacturers' Institute, had this to say: "We are therefore 
strongly opposed to legislation that would definitely favor any one of several 
companies that are heavily indebted to the Government to the disadvantage of 
those companies which are in part paying the bill through taxes. . . . This pat 
tern of destruction to privately financed producers of prefabricated homes shows 
itself in numerous ways, some of which are as follows: (a) in the compulsion 
to extend further loans in hope of working out of an already bad situation; (b) 
by the practical effect of extending free rent from the War Assets Administra 
tion; (c) through intercession before other governmental agencies for the 
allocation of steel or other aids not available to privately financed companies; (d) 
through authorization of a large sales and public relations staff paid out of 
Government loans; (e) by approval of a national advertising campaign paid for 
out of Government loans; (f) through pressures of varying degrees exerted on 
Government buying agencies to purchase the houses made by the indebted com 
pany." The legislation in question, which would have authorized RFC market 
ing loans to companies already holding RFC loans, was defeated. 


It is too soon to know what the eventual result of the intervention 
of the government will be. The fully equipped Lustron plant has great 
potential value as a producer of houses, of bathtubs and sanitary ware, 
and of light structures in general. It contains probably the world's 
largest ceramic line. Dismembered and sold at auction, it would bring 
the RFC only a few cents on the dollar. Yet the political interest 
which has been aroused makes it unattractive to private investors, and 
competitors are standing in the wings, fears of national capitalism 
notwithstanding. United States Steel Corporation owns a control 
ling interest in Gunnison Homes, and its Ambridge research labora 
tories are at work on housing problems. Republic Steel Corporation, 
through its Truscon division, already supplies a great variety of com 
ponents to the housing industry. The aluminum companies have 
nearly all come out with lines of building materials. All could move 
in fast and make a good fight for the business. Some undoubtedly 
prefer to avoid making houses as such and, by manufacturing a line of 
highly developed components, plan to take over most of the business 
without direct competition. 

As a sidelight on this question, it should be pointed out that many 
public housers seemed to dislike Lustron with an intensity approach 
ing that felt by these businessmen. Conscious of limited objectives 
and unintelligent actions on the part of private builders in the past, 
they were inclined to dismiss as technocratic pipedreams all efforts 
to reduce the capital costs and to increase the supply of housing by 
processes of industrialization. While it is true that there has been 
some justification for a healthy concern, it seems illogical to be sus 
picious of any approach to an increased supply of better housing 
which does not involve public agencies and project developments. 
Between the suspicions of housers that Lustron was a mere attempt 
to discredit the public housing program through a cynical mass- 
production mythology and the suspicions of the businessmen that it 
was the first step in socializing the industry, the company had plenty of 
intangible difficulties to add to its normal production problems. 

A final note on these relationships: few business suspicions re 
garding the future seem to attach to the work of such government 
agencies as the FHA and the VA, through the combined resources 
of which it is possible for private builders to put up houses without 
the investment of any private equity risk capital whatsoever. Here 
the initiative remains in the hands of the local builder, it is true, and 
the financing is worked out in local circles, so that the process ap 
pears to be more conventional. But at the first major break in prices 
and employment, the government will take over a large share of our 


housing supply. Clearly, the government program needs to be con 
sidered as a whole. 

V. Conclusion 

A number of questions have been raised in this chapter, but the 
problems extend beyond any single set of questions. Above all it 
should be clear that the prefabrication industry faces problems of 
very great variety, many of them far more complex than is generally 
recognized. To analyze these problems and to work out the means 
of finding significant answers is the job of research, and no one can 
doubt that a great deal of research is needed. By and large, the 
technical questions, while easier to answer, tend to seem almost un 
important by comparison with broad questions of economics and 
sociology. And yet even technical questions often require great skill 
and patience. For research is always a long process in building 
especially so and it is even longer before practical application takes 

Those familiar with the state of knowledge and research at any 
time can make fairly accurate predictions regarding the develop 
ments likely to occur over the next period of years, subject only to 
accelerations and decelerations resulting from such factors as wars 
and depressions. Everyone is aware of the detail in which such 
imaginative writers as Jules Verne and H. G. Wells were often able 
to forecast events which have since transpired. Ordinarily, there is a 
substantial time lag between the day when knowledge justifies a 
prediction and the day when the prediction comes true. The exist 
ence of this time lag makes it possible in normal times to foretell 
whether or not magical industrial advances are likely to take place 
in a given field in the next few years; there is little in the current 
state of building knowledge and research which suggests that any 
such advances may soon be expected. It is largely this belief that 
we were in a period of comparative calm which served to justify 
us in exploring in so great detail the existing state of the industry. 

For such new ideas as may now have reached the stage of clear 
anticipation, there remain long periods of development to be under- 


taken, first in the laboratory, and later at pilot plants. Such is the 
skill of modern engineering, however, that this process could be 
carried out easily, provided enough money and energy were put 
behind the development. Yet, with technical development com 
pleted, the new idea must buck other forces which oppose the in 
troduction of any innovation the so-called barriers to technological 
advance which have frequently been described. 18 For even the 
simplest ideas, therefore, a widespread application may be long 

Most of the ideas in prefabrication, furthermore, are not simple. 
They involve questions many of which could be answered compara 
tively easily if they could be put in direct, technical form; the 
trouble is that in this field few questions can be put in that form. 
To illustrate this point, take the question of corrosion. Prefabricators 
with corrosion problems may draw on scientific facts which have 
been well established for years, but they are more concerned with 
satisfactory performance at low cost than with scientific advances. 
The basic research in corrosion is therefore primarily conducted in 
laboratories little concerned with the problems of housing. 

This illustration might be multiplied, but it will suffice to point 
up the fact that little scientific satisfaction is available in the field 
of housing, where every problem is confused by considerations of 
economics, sociology, physiology, and psychology. The result is 
that, in the universities and elsewhere, research men have preferred 
less complex and more satisfying problems. 

During the war it was possible to attract to government war 
research a great number of the best scientific minds in the country, 
despite the fact that their work, with very few exceptions, was not 
scientific research at all, but rather the accelerated development, for 
war purposes, of scientific knowledge derived from research done 
as much as two generations earlier. Unquestionably there is an 
emergency in housing today, but the ^ense of urgency and of over 
all organization along lines of clear and definite policy has been 
missing. Such research as is being done frequently represents a 
search for suitable compromises limited by the special interests of 
sponsors, by lack of resources, and by the absence of programs broad 
enough to challenge assumptions and seek far afield for determin 
ing forces. 

is See, for instance, Bernhard J. Stern, "Resistances to the Adoption of 
Technological Innovations," Technological Trends and National Policy, National 
Resources Committee (June 1937), pp. 39-66. 


We have pointed out that when an entirely new product is devel 
oped a new industry will often be created. But houses are not new 
products, and they cannot quickly be "rationalized." Men may select 
a radio with a relatively dispassionate logic, but emotions and tra 
ditions tend to dominate in the choice of a house. Obviously, care 
ful sociological research is needed even to identify the main drives 
operating in this field, and much more research will be needed before 
we know how to direct these drives, or to what ends. At the present 
time, the beginnings of sociological studies in housing have been 
made. Of especial interest are recent studies made by the Research 
Center for Group Dynamics, of the University of Michigan, 19 and by 
Robert K. Merton at Columbia. 20 The work has barely been begun, 

Far more is involved than the tabulation of preferences regarding 
the size and arrangement of rooms. It may one day be shown, for 
instance, that satisfaction with a house depends less on the character 
of the house itself than on the social relationships formed by the 
family. The market may grow in the future for well-planned projects 
of small houses balanced by good neighborhood facilities. Even 
such broad considerations as full employment and increased leisure 
will have their influence on the product and on the industry. 

Lacking basic and fundamental facts in all these situations, we 
may seek empirical data on which to base decisions in the imme 
diate future through a careful analysis of the activities of such pro 
ducers as Lustron, such builders as Levitt and Sons, and such gov 
ernment activities as those of the FHA and the FPHA. In the past, 
following a national tradition of never looking back, we have been 
guilty of shocking waste through our failure to profit from the great 
experiments and projects we have built. We can no longer afford 
such extravagance. 

H. G .Wells pointed out that the rapid rise of the Germans in na 
tional strength and importance in the nineteenth century could be 
attributed in large part to their discovery that knowledge was a crop 
like any other, to be increased in quality and in yield by cultivation 
and by the intelligent use of fertilizers. This lesson the recent war 

19 Their original work in this field, sponsored by the Bemis Foundation, is de 
scribed in the book by Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter, and Kurt Back, Social 
Pressures in Informal Groups: A Study of Human Factors in Housing (New York: 
Harper, 1950). 

20 Reference to many other studies may be found in "Selected References on 
Family Living Requirements and Public Acceptance Factors Relating to Hous 
ing Design," HHFA Technical Bulletin, no. 4 (April 1947). 


has finally brought home to us in this country; let us apply it in the 
field of housing. 

One may ask who should do the research work: private companies, 
industrial associations, educational institutions, professional societies, 
or government agencies? Obviously, the answer is: all of these, in a 
coordinated effort. 

All now are needed, and the way seems open at last for all to take 
part. Private producers are becoming large enough to devote serious 
efforts to research; industrial associations are growing in importance; 
educational institutions have increasingly entered the field; profes 
sional societies have taken initiative indirectly and directly in the 
stimulation of new research, as typified by the formation in the Na 
tional Research Council of the Building Research Advisory Board; 
and the government is now provided with legislative authority for 
a large-scale program of research in the HHFA. 

The importance of prefabrication in helping to stimulate this re 
search effort lies in the fact that, because of the problems inherent 
in adopting and executing a suitable pattern of operations covering 
every step from the procurement of raw materials to the servicing of 
the final houses, it has brought sharply into focus the needs for re 
search, the possibilities and difficulties of industrialization, and the 
special complications of the production aspects of the housing prob 
lem. To return to the thought expressed in the introduction of this 
chapter, it may well prove in the end that prefabrication has been 
only a local and specialized advance within a broad process of in 
dustrialization, and that in the future there will be little point in 
trying to decide whether or not a housing process can properly be 
called prefabrication. The prefabrication industry has served, how 
ever, as an almost ideal framework in which to study the overall 
problems of housing. 


Part A A 




This part of the book is devoted to a detailed and, as nearly as pos 
sible, factual and objective analysis of 130 of the prefabricators whose 
production facilities were visited and representatives of whose man 
agement were interviewed during the course of an extended field 
survey. 1 

No one survey could give the definitive story of prefabrication as 
a whole; yet it has been possible to describe in some detail the 
activities of a large and entirely representative portion of the in 
dustry. All but a very few of the leading companies are included 
in the 130 analyzed, and a particular effort was made to include 
companies promising the greatest innovations, whether or not they 
were in actual production at the time. 

In this analysis, the various methods, designs, and facilities are 
discussed primarily in terms of the number of companies making use 
of them. This was a necessary procedure, for accurate information 
on production was often not available, and in many cases the value 
of an idea could not be fairly judged by production figures. Analysis 
by numbers of companies also has its weakness, however. If Lustron 
had reached its expected rate of production, for example, it would be 
making more houses per year than have been sold by the entire in 
dustry in any single year in its history. From the viewpoint of the 
general housing market, therefore, a decision by this one company 
might have importance far beyond the apparent meaning of our 
figures. On the other hand, our principal interest in this part of the 
book is in finding out what patterns of operation were being used at 
the time when the greatest number of companies was active in the 
field. This sort of information can best be approached by the method 
which we have adopted. 

The discussion is broken down into a consideration of five basic 
components of a pattern of operations: 






and the treatment is factual wherever possible. Factual treatment is 
not always possible, however; for example, the prefabricators' 

1 Material regarding the methods used in this survey, lists giving full names 
and addresses of companies visited, and other reference data are included in the 


thoughts regarding the government or labor can be reported only as 
opinion, although it is opinion based upon interviews, press state 
ments, and actions they have taken. 

The bulk of the material in this part of the book was gathered 
during the Bemis Foundation's field survey in 1946 and 1947, but 
references to more recent developments have been included when 
these would help to give a full understanding of the problems in 
volved or of the trends within the industry today. 

Because of the organization scheme which has been followed, there 
is in this part of the book some duplication of material presented in 
the first part. There, the references were usually brief, however, 
and they served primarily to illustrate general points under discus 
sion. Here, interest is centered on specific details of the prefabrica- 
tion process. 


Part A X 




I. Background 

Many of the differences in patterns of operations of prefabricators 
may be attributed to differences in background, that is, in the nature 
of the business from which the prefabrication business developed 
and in the previous experience of top management. Unquestionably 
many costly mistakes have been made by carrying over to this new 
industry techniques which were more familiar than suitable. On 
the other hand, background can explain the success of certain com 
panies in dealing with the very specialized conditions of a local 
market. In the companies analyzed, the following types of back 
ground were noted: 

Previous Experience (per cent) 

1 Building contractors, construction engineers, and operative 

builders 31.2 

2 Building materials manufacturers or salesmen 19.5 

3 Architects 19.5 

4 General manufacturers (including shipbuilding, boxmaking, 

light metal fabrication, and heavy industry) 17.5 

5 Salesmen 6.5 

6 Bankers 2.6 

7 Lawyers 1 . 9 

8 Other 1.3 

Without exploring in detail the relationships between background 
and the final nature of companies, a few generalizations are possible 
from our data. In the first group, several companies carried over 
into prefabrication the organizational characteristics of large con 
tracting operations. Some of these tended, after a short period of 
true prefabrication, to return once more to the more conventional 
patterns from which they had attempted to depart, and although 
there might be many other reasons for this return, familiarity with 
the old procedures and old friendships undoubtedly exerted their 
influence. In general, however, companies developed by engineers 
and builders were not wealthy or large enough to carry out a radical 
approach to design, even had they wished to do so. 

In the second group, particularly among the lumber dealers, the 
tendency was to regard prefabrication as a mere refining operation 
for the materials handled. Indeed, during the materials shortages 
following the war, some never prefabricated houses, but only took 

advantage of their favorable supply situation and the regulations of 
the Office of Price Administration to charge substantially higher 
prices for performing a few additional operations on the materials 
as "prefabricators." Others, however, particularly in the major lum 
ber supply area of the Pacific Northwest, made use of their experi 
ence with distribution and manufacturing methods to bring a genu 
ine efficiency to the manufacture of houses. 

As for the third group, architects have contributed theories more 
often than they have started companies, and, when they have set up 
companies, they have often met with difficulties. A few, however, 
have been aware of the complexities of operating in the house manu 
facturing field and have been able, usually by marshaling other tal 
ents about them, to build good organizations. 

The fourth group, with experience in manufacturing enterprises, 
often had the tremendous initial advantages of well-rounded staffs 
and good capitalization; some of them, however, have been impeded 
by their attachment to certain materials or by the deficiencies of 
their media of distribution. In general they have been characterized 
by a willingness to try new materials and designs which might be 
well suited to mass production, and for that reason they have been 
very important to the industry. 

Regarding the remaining three groups, the salesmen, bankers, and 
lawyers, the only valid generalization that can be made is that both 
their strength and their weakness lay in their emphasis on detailed 
organization and salesmanship. 

On the whole, the men in top management positions had not been 
trained in the industry itself, although a few companies had been 
started or staffed by "graduates" of other companies. This is under 
standable when it is realized that a man with 15 years' experience 
could rightly consider himself a charter member of the industry. A 
breakdown of the industry by length of time each company has been 
in business will highlight this point, the more so because many of the 
older firms were really precutters rather than prefabricators. As of 
1947, the age distribution data from 118 of the companies in our 
analysis was: 

Number of Years Number of 

in Business Companies 

2 or less 67 

3-7 24 

8-17 19 

18 or more 8 


An important recent source of trained men has been the various 
federal agencies dealing with housing, and there is a trend for in 
creasingly large numbers of men to enter the field from the profes 
sions and from special courses in the colleges, in the hope of growing 
up with the industry. 

The size of the staff may be used as a reasonable, if rough, indica 
tion of its ability to handle the complete pattern of operations. At 
the time of our analysis, at least 50 companies were known to have 
staffs exceeding 15 in number, a number probably adequate for the 
job. Of those having less, the majority tended to cut out certain 
services which they regarded as unimportant; architectural services 
were among those most frequently so regarded. 

Fortunately, the minimum requirements of the FHA and of build 
ing codes have helped to prevent some of the worst errors which might 
have resulted from this combination of ignorance and the desire to 
keep down costs. A few companies have hired consultants to advise 
them on various aspects of their operations, with the result that a 
group very small as yet of specialists has grown up to serve in this 
way. Other producers have allied with independent organizations 
which would distribute their output; these distributors were often 
land developers as well. Still others have purchased the design, pro 
duction, and even procurement and advertising services of a parent 
licensing organization; while a few, offering only design or production 
ideas, have sought out other organizations with the capital and ability 
to take over the rest of the operations. 

With regard to the function of research, no prefabricator was 
doing what might be called pure research and very few were doing 
applied research, although nearly all the 80 largest companies had 
staff personnel engaged at least part time in short-range product 
development work. There were 51 companies which had part-time 
research personnel; 25 had full-time research personnel; and at least 
15 had a separate research and development division. Naturally 
enough, the companies in the process of getting started were the 
more likely to be engaged in concentrated development work, while 
those under way tended to abandon research for the more pressing 
problems of production and distribution, hoping to return to it when 
their volume could support the expense and when they had had a 
chance to put their initial designs to a practical test. 


II. Labor Relations 

In discussing labor relations in the industry a distinction should 
be made between conditions in the factory and those at the site, for 
there are substantial differences. Of the industry as a whole, how 
ever, it can be said that labor relations have been generally good. 
Our survey found this to be particularly true in the plants, and a 
similar generalization has been made by PHMI, which reported that 
"relations between employee and employer have been uniformly 
good." 1 True, there have been instances of restrictive practices, 
but the testimony of the manufacturers seems to indicate that re 
ports of labor opposition to prefabrication have been magnified out 
of all proportion, and certainly since the end of the recent war there 
seems to be little justification for the accusation that organized labor 
as such is holding up the development of the industry. In part, 
labor's attitude stems from the pledge to cooperate made by unions 
during the Wyatt program; once good relationships were entered 
into, most unions found it to their own advantage to continue in 
this way. Of some import have been such factors as the recent high 
level of construction activity and the plentiful supply of construction 
jobs. Probably more important have been the facts that most of the 
producing units are relatively new and small, and that the volume 
of the industry as a whole has not yet been such as to attract special 
labor interest. 

Labor Relations in the Plant 

A. Unions 

The extent to which the industry had been organized at the time 
of the survey was difficult to determine because the situation was in 

1 Quoted from testimony by Harry Steidle before the Joint Committee on 
Housing of the 80th Congress, January 14, 1948. Mr. Steidle was referring to 
conditions in the plant. Austin Drewry, then President of PHMI, described 
employer-employee relations as "excellent" in his opening address, Fifth Annual 
Meeting, PHMI, Chicago, March 1948. 


a state of flux. The indications were, however, that in 1947 at least 
two -thirds and probably three-quarters of the industry was union 
ized, measured either by number of companies or by number of 
employees. The AFL had organized about seven times as many 
plants as the CIO, there being several unaffiliated unions also. 
Among the AFL shops, the most prevalent union was the United 
Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. Several plants 
were organized by such affiliates of this brotherhood as the millmen, 
boxmakers, or lumber and sawmill workers, who had less of a craft 
background and lower wage rates than the carpenters. 

With the advent of increasing industrialization in house manufac 
ture, and particularly with the increasing use of materials not tra 
ditionally handled by union members in the housebuilding trades, 
the CIO began to organize prefabrication plants. For a while it 
made some progress, aided by manufacturers who sought an end 
to the restrictive practices of craft unions, and occasionally by the 
circumstance that an existing union organization might be carried 
over from another enterprise which had previously occupied the same 
plant. 2 More recently, however, the CIO has lost ground, at least 
relative to the AFL. A substantial obstacle in its path has been 
the trouble sometimes encountered in the field where AFL labor used 
for erecting the house refused to handle material made by CIO 
labor. Another obstacle was the task of organizing trades such as 
those of the plumbers and electricians which have traditionally been 
organized along craft rather than industrial lines and have been 
saturated with craft attitudes. A not inconsiderable factor in explain 
ing the relative halt in the CIO's organizing drive has been the 
failure of some of the prefabricators using metal, many of whose 
plants the CIO had organized. 

One important effect of the CIO's organizing drive, however, was 
to provoke the AFL into meeting the challenge. AFL unions have 
entered into a number of agreements which indicate the AFL's deter 
mination to retain its position in the residential construction field, 
even in its most industrialized aspects. Contracts with some of the 
larger prefabricators such as Gunnison, National Homes, Pease, and 
Lustron, and with Borg-Warner are examples. The last two cases 
illustrate the special effort made by many prefabricators to secure 
union support. Borg-Warner went to the plumbers' union at an 
early stage and secured the endorsement of the international office 
on the idea. This company further went to the point of employing a 

2 For instance, two prefabricators were organized by the Industrial Union of 
Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America, CIO, for substantially this reason. 


man with a craft union background to handle relationships with the 
master plumbers, through whom it distributed the Ingersoll Utility 
Unit, and to participate generally in the labor relations between 
plant and field. In the factory, contracts were made with the 
plumbers, sheet-metal workers, and electricians. The Lustron man 
agement also requested unionization from the start; an agreement 
was made with three AFL unions to cover the whole building process, 
and it may stand as an example of the growing trend towards reduc 
ing the number of craft unions engaged in one building job; in this 
case lathers, plasterers, and painters were eliminated. The contract 
was made with the international offices of the carpenters, plumbers, 
and electricians in November 1947 and was featured at the 1948 
AFL convention as a sign of labor's willingness to cooperate. It 
provides for a union shop, for uninterrupted production and effi 
cient erection at United States and Canadian sites, and for the 
avoidance of jurisdictional disputes by limiting the number of crafts 
and by including the pledge of the international office to advise 
locals and enforce the contract. 

B. Wages 

As might be expected, wage rates in the plant generally appeared 
to be lower than those in the field for several reasons. First, the 
order of skills required is lower. Second, there is longer and steadier 
employment and therefore the likelihood of better annual take-home 
pay, both because of less seasonality in the volume of work and 
because of a lower rate of turnover among jobs. Third, working 
conditions are better. A rough measure of the difference which 
existed between factory and field wage rates is given by the fol 
lowing figures: average earnings per hour of employment in 38 
prefabrication plants working in wood in July 1947 were $1.14, 3 while 
average earnings for carpenters in all private building projects at 
the same time were $1.58.* In industries somewhat allied to pre 
fabrication, however, factory wages were lower: furniture and fin- 

3 PHMI Survey of Prefabrication Activity, 1947. (Actually this figure is a 
bit high since it includes a small amount of overtime earnings.) 

4 Monthly Labor Review, 65 (October 1947), 509. The comparison cannot 
be exact since the averages conceal rather large geographical variations which 
are not weighted equitably for purposes of comparison. Prefabricators usually 
more closely approach project rates of their own areas. 

ished lumber products, $1.059 per hour; lumber and basic timber 
products, $1.033 per hour. 5 

Some elements in the carpenters' union have gone on record 
against this differential in wage rates, 6 but, notwithstanding this, 
there seems to be a trend towards paying union labor in the factory 
at a lower hourly rate than members of the same union receive in the 
field. (Of course, the annual pay may be the same, or higher.) In 
the Kaiser Community Homes plant at Los Angeles, in February 
1947, the several hundred plant employees came under a specially 
negotiated contract calling for an AFL closed shop. All plant men, 
with the exception of about 15 painters, came under the agreement 
made with the International Office of the United Brotherhood of 
Carpenters and Joiners of America, rather than with any local. 7 

Inasmuch as a good many plants must still hire hands on a sea 
sonal basis, they are not yet entitled to contend that wage rates 
should be lower on the grounds that they offer stabilized employ 
ment, although other arguments may be valid. Where prefabricators 
have demonstrated the stable nature of their operations, the car- 

5 Ibid., p. 500. 

6 ". . . Therefore, be it resolved that the United Brotherhood of Carpenters 
and Joiners of America immediately put into force and effect the prevailing con 
struction carpenter's wage scale for all work performed within the pre-fab, pre-cut 
and mill industry which is normally performed on the job site by construction 

Resolution No. 13, approved and endorsed by the San Francisco Bay Dis 
trict Council of Carpenters, the California State Mill Committee, and six Cali 
fornia locals, Proceedings of the Twenty-Fifth General Convention of the United 
Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (Lakeland, Florida, April 22- 
30, 1946), p. 396. 

7 Certain jobs in the plant required journeymen carpenters' rates: those which 
would ordinarily be carpenters' work if done in the field. Jobs such as nailing 
framing members or cutting rafters earned a basic field rate in the plant, for 
instance, but the slightly different circumstances yielded a somewhat lower final 
rate of pay than the outside rate. Men in the plant got vacations with pay, 
however, while field carpenters did not. On the other hand, field carpenters 
received double pay for overtime up to the first four hours (45-hour week, gen 
erally). Millmen, affiliates of the carpenters, but included under the one agree 
ment like all other men in the plant, ran the jointers, bandsaws, etc. Those who 
stapled plywood onto framing, ran the portable sanding machines, and did other 
semiskilled tasks of a repetitive nature received 33# per hour less than journey 
men's rates. Others who came under the carpenters' agreement were the cabinet 
makers, the lumber handlers and millhelpers (members of the Lumber and 
Sawmill Workers local affiliated with the Brotherhood), clerks, and checkers. 
Plant foremen received 12^ per hour more than the journeymen carpenters, but 
5tf per hour less than a comparable job in the field. In general, it appears that 
wage rates paid in the plant were slightly lower than those paid at the site. 

penters, through their international office, have in some cases entered 
into contracts which establish the principle of differentiation be 
tween field journeymen and factory journeymen rates of pay for 
performance of the same type of work. Two trends thus seem evi 
dent: a decrease in the number of unions with which the prefabricate!* 
has to deal, and a growing acceptance by trade unions of different 
wage rates in different conditions of employment, even for the same 
type of work. 

Nor are these the only signs of change introduced by the pre- 
fabricator into the whole pattern of industrial relations in the house 
building industry. There is the growing acceptance of many of the 
welfare provisions which have for a long time been incorporated 
into union-management contracts in other industries, such as paid 
vacations, health insurance, and retirement plans. PHMI found in 
1947 that 33 member companies had one or more of the following: 8 

Number of Number of 

Companies Employees 

Life insurance 12 1,146 

Health insurance 20 2,357 

Paid vacation 26 2,624 

Retirement plans 3 497 

In addition, PHMI found that 15 companies employing 1,347 work 
ers had wage incentive or bonus plans of one sort or another again 
indicating that old patterns in the building trades were being changed. 9 
In the past few years there has been considerable discussion con 
cerning the guaranteed annual wage. The CIO has taken a strong 
position in favor of such a plan for the building industry, 10 while the 
AFL has voiced equally strong opposition, holding that building is 
clearly a field in which a guaranteed wage plan cannot be made to 
work. 11 The recent experience of prefabricators with the problems 
of stabilizing sales, procurement, and production has quite naturally 
led them to consider any such scheme a grave risk. While the issues 
involved are complex, it does seem evident that the guaranteed an- 

8 PHMI Survey of Prefabrication Activity, 1947. 

9 Loc. cit. 

10 Testimony of R. J. Thomas, President, United Automobile, Aircraft and 
Agricultural Implement Workers of America ( CIO ) ; Chairman of the CIO Hous 
ing Committee, given before the Senate Special Committee on Post-War Eco 
nomic Policy and Planning, 79th Congress, 1st Session (Post-War Economic 
Policy and Planning, Part 10, pp. 1678-9). 

11 William Green, "Your Postwar Income," American Federationist, 52 (April 
1945), 32-3. 


nual wage is still far from realization in the industry, because of the 
AFL's dominance in prefabrication, the general opposition to the 
scheme by the building-trades unions, the prefabricated struggle to 
overcome seasonality (which has thus far been but partially success 
ful), and his often insecure financial position. 

C. Restrictive Practices 

Despite the generally good labor relations in the plants, there 
have been instances of restrictive practices on the part of unions 
at this level. The testimony of certain manufacturers who related 
particular incidents must be weighted more heavily than the flat 
denial of such practices by some union spokesmen. Six companies 
stated that they were prevented from spraying paints in their plant 
because of union opposition, while others had spraying time severely 
limited. Whether the union's usual objection that spray guns are 
not safe from a health standpoint was adequately met in these cases 
is not known, but paint spraying can be made safe in a factory, and 
it is a fact that spray guns were known to be in use in seven AFL 
plants. Some 15 companies stated positively that they were pre 
vented from prefabricating plumbing of any sort because of union 
opposition. Many more were probably affected. In the case of 
plumbing, however, it is difficult to separate union opposition from 
what might better be termed resistance to a change in conventional 
plumbing material distribution methods, since the two are usually 
tied together, and from the effects of local building-code regula 
tions. Twenty-seven companies stated that they had refrained from 
prefabricating plumbing because of a combination of these factors. 
Master plumbers have a natural interest in opposing the prefabrica 
tion of plumbing, since its logical course is to reduce or eliminate 
their sales of fixtures and supplies in connection with their installa 
tion work. Prefabricators were able in some cases to make arrange 
ments with master plumbers to fabricate plumbing assemblies in the 
plant through what amounted to a royalty agreement with the 
master plumbers. On the other hand, at least 27 companies were 
known to be preassembling plumbing and six companies were known 
to be precutting it, which indicates that a new pattern is evolving 
and that through persuasion and compromise some of the opposi 
tion is disappearing as time goes on. 


There have also been cases where, because of definite opposition 
from the electricians' union, wiring was not preins tailed. However, 
it is often difficult to know just how the opposition is exerted, and 
just what connection, if any, the unions have with code provisions 
which protect their special interest. A not uncommon practice, for 
instance, is to resist prefabrication indirectly through a general code 
requirement such as that all wiring installations be field inspected. 
If such a provision is literally interpreted, it can prevent the pre- 
installation of wiring in panels which have both interior and exterior 
surfaces applied in the factory. Furthermore, some codes require 
rigid metal conduiting for electrical installations, while others require 
flexible cable, thus making it impossible for the prefabricator to stand 
ardize his installations. 

In some areas, according to the prefabricators, union officials have 
made purposefully unreasonable demands as to the number of skilled 
workers and the general wage rates to be agreed to by management 
before production could start, in order to prevent companies from 
establishing themselves in the house manufacturing field. 

No prefabricator reported having trouble in his plant from juris- 
dictional disputes. There may have been some loss in the potential 
efficiency of the labor force on occasions when the union contract 
would not permit a prefabricator to shift workers from one task to 
another, but no particular instance of this sort was mentioned. Gen 
eral Homes, Inc., which was organized by the CIO, did emphasize 
the importance of the provision in its contract which permitted any 
man in the plant to shift to different tasks at different times as the 
situation might demand. Such a provision might well help to stabi 
lize the factory labor force, and might be particularly important in 
the field, where flexibility would help to avoid delays and would per 
mit the more efficient use of manpower. This sort of thing has been 
resisted by the craft unions, but the CIO has strongly supported it. 
The following letters are an indication of this attitude: 

Since we are an industrial union, we have no difficulty with jurisdictional 
matters. We apply the same policy to those of our workers engaged in 
prefabrication of homes as we do to those engaged in the shipbuilding in 

. . . We do not oppose any device to expand the average productivity 
of the individual work. However, we do insist the economic result of 
increased productivity be shared by the worker, as well as by management 
and the consumer. . . , 12 

12 John Green, President, Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Work 
ers of America, in a letter to the Bemis Foundation, June 10, 1947. 

Members of this union are engaged in various types of lumber pre- 

We are not opposed to labor-saving devices, provided the workers are 
given a fair share of the added production which can be achieved through 
the use of such devices. . . . 

We are an industrial union in the logging and woodworking industry, 
and have no internal jurisdictional problems like the building trades craft 
unions. . . , 18 

Generally speaking, union efforts to restrict plant prefabrication 
have been minor in extent, and there is evidence that they are be 
coming steadily even less important. 

Labor Relations in the Field 

Labor relations of prefabricators in the field are much the same 
as in the rest of the housebuilding industry. They are, of course, 
tied up with the prefabricated marketing system, for when he 
undertakes to do his own erection, he is likely to use a different 
form of labor organization from that used by a dealer-erector. In 
fact, dealer-erectors have handled most of the erection work, and their 
labor relations have been typical of the small- or medium-sized 
builder and have involved a number of the same AFL unions at 
their regular hourly wage rates. On the other hand, General Homes 
planned to carry out its own erections with CIO labor under the 
contract mentioned above, an arrangement sought partly out of the 
fear that AFL labor would refuse to handle the job. 

Such a fear was not wholly ill-founded. There have been a num 
ber of instances in which AFL unions have opposed the erection of 
houses fabricated by another AFL organization or by non-union or 
CIO workers. These date back at least as far as the well-publicized 
occasion in 1940 when a gang of AFL men attacked a CIO erection 
crew working on a Gunnison house in East St. Louis, Mo. In the 
past few years there have been other incidents. 

In early 1947, The Green Lumber Company, which had established 
a CIO shop through a recent election, sold some 200 houses to a 
builder in Jackson, Miss. When the builder tried to hire AFL men 
to erect his houses, the business agent refused to allow his men to 
handle the job. Although both the National Housing Agency and 
CIO officials appealed to him, the sale had to be canceled. 

18 J. E. Fadling, President, International Woodworkers of America, in a letter 
to the Bemis Foundation, June 9, 1947. 


The Scott Lumber Company, producing Scott Homes, presented a 
somewhat different case at about the same time. The plant had been 
organized as a closed shop by the AFL carpenters, but the dealer 
in Dunkirk, N. Y., ran into strong opposition from local 689 of the 
carpenters. The local's position was that its members wanted to 
"build houses, not erect them," that there was plenty of labor and 
materials locally available to do the job, and that the Scott men, 
albeit of the same brotherhood, were performing in the factory at 
Wheeling, W. Va., the work they felt themselves entitled to do. 14 

The Harnischfeger Corporation also ran into trouble in 1947 when 
it refused to agree to a preferential hiring clause in a contract with 
the carpenters. The union ordered its members to discontinue erec 
tion of the houses and sent letters to its membership advising that 
neither they nor members of any other building-trades union erect 
houses which did not bear the label of the United Brotherhood. 15 
The carpenters even went so far as to direct their locals and district 
councils to adopt a by-law that 

No member will use, handle, install or erect any material produced or 
manufactured from wood not made by members of the United Brother 
hood. 16 

It should be noted that the above practices might well be found 
to be illegal under the secondary boycott provisions of the Taft- 
Hartley law. 17 

There have been other forms of union obstruction in the field, 
such as refusal to handle certain prefabricated elements plumbing, 
preglazed sash, prehung doors. On occasions there have been delays 
caused by jurisdictional disputes, most frequently in the case of the 
erection of a metal house where no clear precedent had been estab 
lished. The William H. Harman Corporation encountered one such 
instance; 18 and on occasion there has been a more general and very 
understandable opposition, such as that voiced by William J. Mc- 
Sorley, General President of the Wood, Wire, and Metal Lathers 
International Union, AFL: 

14 Dunkirk Evening Observer, March 29, 1947, p. 1. 

15 Labor Relations Reporter, Vol. 20, no. 51 (October 27, 1947), 395-6. 

16 Minutes of the Meeting of the General Executive Board, Lakeland, Fla., 
January 16, 1947, The Carpenter, LXVII (March 1947), 21. 

17 Labor-Management Relations Act, 1947 (Public Law 101), effective June 
23, 1947, Section 8 (b) (4) (A). 

18 The New York Times, August 20, 1948, p. 18. Jurisdictional disputes are 
also illegal under the Taft-Hartley law, but delays can occur without there be 
ing a strike and without the case coming to court. 


... I desire to say . . . that most of the prefabricated houses are de 
signed and built without any lathing and plastering in them. . . . This of 
course is one of the principal reasons why we are opposed to prefabricated 
housing, and some of the reasons are contained in the enclosed pamphlet 
which has been issued by the National Foundation for Lathing and Plaster 
ing. . . . We believe that all houses that are erected for the purpose of 
housing human beings should be lathed and plastered in a proper manner, 
so as to protect sanitation and health of the inhabitants ... to be candid, 
we are not doing anything to promote any program that will have a 
tendency to put us out of business. . . , 19 

Union opposition in the field has thus been of considerably more 
concern than that in the shop. But it should be remembered that 
the few cases of union opposition get more publicity than the many 
cases of union cooperation. Building is not the only field in which 
technological change has been resisted, and experience shows that 
adjustments are made in the course of time. Prefabrication, in one 
form or another, is a growing reality; the need for housing calls for 
production in tremendous quantities; and public pressure will call 
for an end to restrictive practices. In view of these factors it does not 
seem unreasonably optimistic to summarize that the problem of union 
opposition is relatively small and appears to be growing smaller. 

III. Financing 

A. Capitalization 

It has frequently been said in the industry that a successful pre- 
fabricator requires about $1,000,000 in capitalization. How many 
of them have reached this figure? Very little information on capital 
investment in the industry is publicly available. Some manufacturers 
decline to reveal such figures, and in other cases the capital invest 
ment for the production of prefabricated houses is hidden in a figure 
giving the total capitalization of a firm in which prefabrication is but 
a subsidiary activity. 

Table 1 gives the distribution of capital ratings published in 1947 

19 In a letter to the Bemis Foundation, June 2, 1947. 


Table 1 

Capital Rating of Prefabricators 








126 Firms from Thomas' Register of American Manufacturers, Ed. 38, vol. 1 
(December 1947), columns 7863-5. 


by one register. It will be noted that information was available for 
only slightly over half of the companies listed in the register. Those 
which refused information included several of the largest companies. 
It should be pointed out, however, that the 13 companies capitalized 
at over $1,000,000 represented for the most part investments not solely 
or even primarily in prefabrication. Only a few of the 13 started out 
as prefabricators and reached the million-dollar class. 

PHMI estimated that at the end of 1947 the 80 or so companies that 
were actively engaged in prefabrication represented a total capital 
investment of about $60,000,000, with an additional $36,000,000 in 
vested in the industry's dealers. 20 These figures, too, would indicate 
that there may be an appreciable number of firms in the industry 
capitalized in excess of $1,000,000. 

B. Sources of Investment Capital 

Only three prefabricators are known to have raised their capital 
through public stock subscription: Anchorage Homes, Inc., General 
Panel Corporation of New York, and William H. Harman Corpora 
tion. In the majority of cases, capital has been obtained privately, 
usually through individuals, sometimes through parent organizations, 
but seldom through financial institutions. It is more or less to be 
expected in an industry such as this where risks have been high that 
the banks would be of only minor assistance. Only 14 companies 
indicated that they had gone to banks for long-term capital loans, 
while 10 companies reported that they had experienced difficulties 
with banks; most companies reported no dealings at all with banks 
in connection with long-term capital requirements. 

A large segment of the industry has been financed by parent cor 
porations of one type or another. Among the prefabricators active 
at the time of our survey, many owed either their original formation 
or much of their capitalization to large industrial enterprises. Partly 
because of this parenthood, these were some of the best-known names: 
Gunnison Homes (United States Steel Corporation); Stran-Steel Arch 
Rib Homes (Great Lakes Steel Corporation); Wingfoot Homes 
(Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.); Butler Homes (Butler Manufactur 
ing Company); Kaiser Community Homes (Henry J. Kaiser); Ther- 
mo-namel Houses (Higgins Industries); Lustron (Chicago Vitreous 

20 Austin Drewry, President, PHMI, Opening Address at Winter Meeting, De 
cember 15, 1947. 


Enamel Product Co.); and P & H Homes ( Harnischf eger Corpora 
tion). Such companies also had some of the largest and best- 
equipped plants in the industry. 

Other prefabricators have been financed in large part by large con 
tractors and builders, as, for example, Johnson Quality Homes, Inc., 
by John A. Johnson Contracting Corporation, and Kaiser Community 
Homes by Fritz B. Burns. Still other companies have been financed 
by parent lumber or plywood organizations, such as Prenco by 
C. D. Johnson Lumber Corporation, Hayward Homes by Hayward 
Lumber and Investment Co., and General Timber Service by Weyer 
haeuser Timber Co. 21 

Some companies have financed part of their operations through a 
licensing system under which they receive royalties from licensee 
manufacturers operating in various localities. Ivon R. Ford, Inc., had 
some nine licensees at the time of the survey, and American Houses, 
Inc., had six, in addition to its own three plants. 22 

There have been numerous enterprises which failed to get into 
production for lack of venture capital. While this might be true of 
any enterprise, it is probably harder to attract venture capital to 
new methods of housebuilding than into most other fields, and per 
haps rightly so. Part of the explanation lies in the mass of obstacles 
which the innovator in this field faces in the way of restrictive prac 
tices, codes, consumer resistance to change, and so forth a list 
which has been enumerated many times. Another part lies in the 
extent to which aspects of building permeate a vast range of institu 
tions: family, neighborhood, city government, public utilities, or 
ganized labor, big business, real estate, financial institutions. What 
ever the causes, and there are more than a few, housebuilding has 
been dubbed "the industry capitalism forgot" 23 and has been singled 
out frequently as that industry most in need of the sort of revolu 
tion that has characterized the history of capitalism. Raising venture 
money has not been made easier by a number of well-publicized 
failures in prefabrication, especially recently, even though an anal 
ysis of the proposed patterns of operations would have revealed from 

21 Very indirectly, several other companies were related to large capital. 
Many Baldwin Locomotive officers were interested in Harman; Consolidated 
Vultee decided not to back a house, but some of its officers were associated with 
Southern California Homes; and the Ibec house is a venture of Nelson Rockefeller. 
The ultimate decision of Beech Aircraft not to produce for Fuller was a major 
blow to Fuller Houses. 

22 The license arrangement was perhaps most extensively used just before the 
war by Precision-Built Homes Corporation which at that time had 67 licensees. 

Fortune, XXXVI (August 1947), 61. 


the start that failure was very likely in most cases. Consequently 
the companies having the most radical ideas and generally involving 
the greatest risks have had even more difficulty with financing than 
might be expected. Perhaps the most spectacular case of this sort 
was the Fuller house, an enterprise attended by much notoriety be 
cause of its boldness and novelty, but one which never got under 
way because of failure to attract enough risk capital. 24 Other some 
what more conservative companies have also had to struggle to get 
private financing Lustron, General Panel Corporation of California, 
Reliance Homes, and Southern California Homes are examples, each 
one of which proposed major innovations. 

One result of this situation has been a debate, inside the industry 
and out, and often quite heated, as to whether a very large initial 
investment is a necessary condition for success in prefabrication and 
if so whether the government should take an active part by securing, 
or even making, such an investment. On one side have been the 
older and more conventional members of the industry, usually work 
ing in wood, who have held that the industry would grow of itself 
if only given the chance, that no huge investments were needed, par 
ticularly if they had to be government sponsored, and that no special 
favors were required, but only a minimum of government regulation 
of sufficient stability to make planning by business possible. On 
the other side have been many of the newer and more unconven 
tional companies which have argued that thus far prefabrication has 
not made good on its promise of cost reduction, that revolution, not 
evolution, is necessary, that houses can be mass produced at really 
low costs only by an enterprise which represents a complete dis 
continuity with the past in both the nature and the scale of its opera 
tions, and that in a housing emergency the government should take 
an active part in encouraging such ventures. By and large these 
divergent opinions were represented respectively by the Prefabri 
cated Home Manufacturers' Institute and the National Association 
of Housing Manufacturers, but were by no means confined to them. 
The latter philosophy lay behind the Wyatt program and in the 
somewhat less active role the government has played since the 
Veterans' Emergency Housing Program ended. In any case, the gov 
ernment has become an important factor in the financing of the 
industry in recent years. 

The sale or lease of surplus war plants to prefabricators is one 
direct means by which the government assisted certain firms in estab- 

24 See "What became of the Fuller house," Fortune, XXXVII (May 1948), 168. 


lishing themselves. The Housing Expediter was empowered by the 
Veterans' Emergency Housing Act 25 to direct that certain surplus 
production facilities be disposed of for use in the manufacture of 
housing. Nine prefabricators are known to have acquired plant 
facilities in this way, several of the factories being very excellent 
buildings once used for aircraft production. 26 

More important to the capitalization of the industry have been the 
three financial mechanisms involved in the government program: 
loans, market guarantees, and the insurance of loans made by private 
institutions. 27 The last two are concerned more with working capital 
than investment capital and are discussed later in the section on 
credit. The loan program developed out of a background which had 
seen the wide use of government powers in times of national defense 
and war, and out of legislation that extended some of these powers 
into a time of drastic housing emergency. Under the provisions of 
the Veterans' Emergency Housing Act the Housing Expediter was 
given the authority to direct the RFC to make loans to prefabricators. 
Early in the history of this program there were a number of disputes 
between the RFC, which declined to make loans that it considered 
unsound, and the Office of the Housing Expediter, which held that 
the risks were not as great as imagined and that in any event the 
housing emergency justified such risks. The nature and outcome of 
these disputes were partially responsible for Wyatt's resignation as 
Housing Expediter; 28 however, the RFC had made 20 OHE-sponsored 
loans to prefabricators by June 1, 1948. These loans totaled $38,- 
290,000, and, as of that date, disbursements had been made to 12 
of the companies in the total amount of $9,565,000. 29 

25 Public Law 388, 79th Congress, approved May 22, 1946. 

26 For instance, Lustron obtained part of the Curtiss- Wright plant in Co 
lumbus, O., and General Panel part of the Lockheed plant in Burbank, Calif. 
Source: War Assets Administration, Office of Real Property Disposal, June 1947. 

27 It should also be remembered that another type of government assistance 
to prefabricators was the priorities and allocations program through which, at a 
time of critical postwar shortages, materials were channeled to them. 

28 December 4, 1946. 

29 Source: RFC records to June 1, 1948, reviewed by the Bemis Foundation. 
Of the 8 companies to which no disbursements had been made: 

1 loan was outstanding. 

7 loans had been canceled. Of these: 

4 companies abandoned plans. 

1 company obtained financing from other sources. 

1 company failed to raise necessary equity. 

1 company withdrew application. 


The largest single loan was the initial loan of $15,500,000 to the 
Lustron Corporation, made only after a considerable period during 
which the matter was extensively debated. At the time that the 
formation of Lustron was announced $840,000 in private capital had 
been raised. 30 The RFC subsequently made loans to Lustron which 
eventually more than doubled the initial amount, by its own decision 
and not under direction from the OHE, which was later functioning 
in a liquidating capacity only. Thus the most heavily capitalized 
enterprise in the industry, one several times bigger than the next 
largest firm, was almost entirely financed by the government. 

The principle of government loans to prefabricators was extended 
by the Housing Act of 1948, passed by the Special Session of the 80th 
Congress. 31 The Act authorized the RFC to make loans for the 
production of prefabricated houses or components or for large-scale 
site construction, but if such loans were used for the purchase of 
equipment, plant, or machinery the loan was not to exceed 75% of its 
purchase price. Such loans were not to exceed $50,000,000 out 
standing at any one time, and were not to be made if financing was 
otherwise available on reasonable terms. 

C. Credit 

According to some, the most important and least understood prob 
lem facing prefabricators is that of credit. While this may be an 
extreme point of view, it is nonetheless true that obtaining credit has 
been a crucial question for many firms, particularly in the steady and 
continuous flow that may be required throughout every phase of the 
housebuilding process by the prefabricator to pay for raw mate 
rials, labor, and other costs of production; by the dealer to pay the 
prefabricator for the factory package; and by the homebuyer to pay 
the dealer for the completed house. In the production process the 
sums involved tend to be very large, and many prefabricators cannot 
finance their operations without resorting to working capital loans 
of one sort or another. 

The total investment of a prefabricator who undertakes to pro 
duce 100 house packages at $4,000 per package is $400,000. If 
these houses cannot be sold to a dealer for cash, the prefabricators 

30 The New York Times, November 1, 1947, p. 22. 
81 Public Law 901, approved August 10, 1948. 


capital will be tied up in them, and he will soon have to cease pro 
duction. Similarly, the dealer cannot use his capital again until the 
customer pays him for the finished house. It is not enough that 
financing be available at all stages; it must be available without 
delay, so that the flow of funds will proceed at a pace with the 
flow of materials and fabricated products. The last two stages, re 
lating to dealer credit and consumer credit, are discussed in the 
chapter on marketing, leaving only the credit which is extended to 
the prefabricator for working capital loans to be treated here, al 
though all three are interrelated. 

First of all, it should be pointed out that not all prefabricators 
have had a problem in obtaining working capital. Many companies 
have had no need to borrow for this purpose, either because they 
have steadily accumulated sufficient capital for their scale of opera 
tions, or because they have large parent concerns which make such 
capital available to them. Other firms were able to obtain credit 
from their materials suppliers, especially in cases where the pre 
fabricator had previously established contacts with them in some 
other type of building enterprise. Most of the older members of the 
industry had lines of credit with the banks. Thus it was primarily 
the youngest firms, and particularly those which planned to commence 
operations on a large scale, that encountered difficulty. Not infre 
quently these were regarded as risky ventures, and the problem was 
therefore to earn the confidence of the banks. The bankers expected 
these firms to prove themselves through successful operations over a 
period of time, but how were they to get started? 

One device which was designed in part to meet this problem was 
the guaranteed market contract, under which it was hoped to re 
duce the risk attending a new prefabrication venture by having the 
government act in an underwriting capacity. The Veterans' Emer 
gency Housing Act authorized the RFC to guarantee markets for 
prefabricated houses to the extent found necessary by the Housing 
Expediter in order to assure a sufficient supply for the Veterans' 
Emergency Housing Program, but the number of houses covered by 
the outstanding guarantees was at no time to exceed 200,000, nor 
was the net loss to the government to exceed 5% of the total guarantee 
undertaken. A number of criteria were set forth: guarantees would 
be of temporary duration, would be pointed towards low-cost prod 
ucts, would not cut into the market for conventional houses, and 
would be awarded only after rigid tests on the house and a demon 
stration of ability to perform by the prospective producer. In brief, 
the contracts specified a production schedule and provided that if 


the prefabricator was unable to sell what he had manufactured, 
the units would be purchased, subject to certain conditions, by the 
RFC. The manufacturer was obligated to repurchase the units from 
the RFC before selling any more houses of the same or equivalent 
type. Thus it should be noted that the guaranteed market contract 
did not provide a market into which could be continuously poured 
the output of a prefabricator; it did not offer an opportunity for 
operational improvements by absorbing the output during a period 
in which changes in design, production, or distribution technique 
might be made. Once a prefabricator tendered houses to the gov 
ernment, he was essentially forced to halt production. The con 
tracts did serve as collateral, however, by certifying that the gov 
ernment was ready to buy what could not be sold elsewhere, and 
thus they enabled some companies to obtain loans for much needed 

Of 74 companies which applied for market guarantees, 20 received 
contracts, all terminating December 31, 1947. 32 The contracts guar 
anteed the market for 61,696 units out of a total original scheduled 
production of 90,596, and involved a total liability of $195,833,708. 33 
Actually, however, fewer than 3,000 houses 34 were produced under 
these contracts, a disappointingly small total which reflects the fact 
that many of the companies did not get into production before their 
contracts were terminated or, in some cases, canceled by mutual 
consent. 35 The net loss to the government was about $3,000,000, 36 
about 1%% of the total liability and well below the specified limit, 
but in light of the production that resulted, the program can hardly 
be called anything but a failure. A redeeming point was its assist- 

32 The balance of 54 did not receive contracts for various reasons, including 
the following: 

( 1 ) Not enough experience. 

(2) Insufficient equity to qualify for RFC loan therefore had no funds. 

(3) House not technically acceptable. 

(4) Design too costly, used too much critical material. 

(5) Unable to obtain plant or equipment. 

(6) Showed only initial interest did not follow up with necessary papers. 

83 Source: OHE official records, reviewed June 1, 1948, by the Bemis Founda 

34 Source: loc. cit. 

35 The magazine Business Week (December 11, 1948), p. 25, covering the 
marketing and finance problems of prefabricators, stated that only six out of 32 
companies which secured guaranteed market contracts or loan agreements through 
RFC were still turning out houses. 

36 Source: OHE estimate, given to the Bemis Foundation, June 1, 1948. 

ance in the formation of several enterprises which may have a 
stimulating influence on the development of the industry. 

The underwriting of loans was the third of the financial mechanisms 
by which the government sought to help prefabricators obtain capi 
tal. This program was initiated on July 1, 1947, when Congress, by 
amendment of the National Housing Act ( Section 609 ) , provided for 
federal insurance of working capital loans. These could be for as 
much as 90% of the necessary current cost of manufacturing the 
house (package), exclusive of profit. In principle, this extension of 
FHA operations had its counterpart in the FHA Title VI program 
for conventional construction under which were insured the construc 
tion loans used in financing homebuilding at the site. Since con 
struction loans for conventional building were being insured only if 
the permanent financing for the home had been arranged, a pro 
duction loan under Section 609 was to be insured only if the pre- 
fabricator submitted binding purchase contracts as collateral evidence 
of sale and ability to pay for houses manufactured with the proceeds 
of the loan. 

By April 30, 1948, when the original form of the Title VI program 
expired, 24 applications for Section 609 loans had been received. 
Only one company, however (Housemart, Inc.), had actually ob 
tained an insured loan, and this was for the production of 194 
houses. Why, it may be asked, were so few houses financed under 
this program during the 10 months it was in effect? Part of the 
answer to this question lies in the difficulty of judging the technical 
merits of an applicant's product by a review of plans and specifica 
tions, and by examining and testing a hand-made prototype not pro 
duced under conditions to be expected in full production. Part of 
the answer lies in the length of time required to investigate all those 
other aspects of the applicant's business operations which the FHA 
considered it necessary to investigate the borrower's plant facilities, 
financial condition, manufacturing costs, marketing plans, etc. But, 
to the largest extent, the answer involves the "binding purchase 
contract" which the prefabricator was required to show before he 
could obtain a loan. Section 609 did not define such a contract in 
specific terms, and certain applicants for loans were led to criticize 
the FHA's interpretation of the phrase, which was cautious and con 
servative. In effect, the FHA did not wish to be involved in insur 
ing the marketability of the houses; it wished to make certain that 
they were not being produced for an unknown market. No loan was 
approved for insurance unless the dealer-erector involved in the 
purchase contract could show that he had the necessary cash in 


hand or arranged for, which meant that he must have arranged the 
permanent financing for the houses before the fabrication process 
could start. Many housing manufacturers held that this was an 
unrealistic requirement, that it was not practicable to make these 
financing arrangements so far in advance of delivery of the houses. 

The housing manufacturers feel that FHA will be fully protected if by the 
time the houses are to be delivered under a purchase contract, the pur 
chaser is required to have the cash for payment on delivery, or to have 
financing arranged which assures the payment of the balance due under 
the contract. 87 

It is clear that one issue involved here is the extent and nature 
of risk contemplated by Congress when it enacted Section 609. But 
whatever the pros and cons of FHA policies in regard to this pro 
gram, it remains a fact that, in its original form, it fell far short of 
its objectives, and changes were introduced into Section 609 when it 
was reenacted along with other elements of the FHA's Title VI 
program in the Housing Act of 1948. 38 

In this new form Section 609 authorized insurance of loans for the 
manufacture of prefabricated house packages on the basis of con 
tracts (for the purchase of these packages) which provide for pay 
ment of the purchase price within 30 days after delivery of the 
houses, or payment of 20% of the purchase price on or before delivery 
if the institution making the loan to the manufacturer accepts and 
discounts a promissory note for the unpaid balance payable within 
180 days from the delivery date. In addition to insuring loans to 
finance the production of house packages, the new Section included 
provisions for short-term financing of dealer-erectors by authorizing 
the FHA to insure the lending institution against losses sustained in 
accepting and discounting promissory notes of purchasers represent 
ing the unpaid purchase price of the packages. These notes could 
not exceed 80% of the purchase price, nor could they have a ma 
turity in excess of 180 days. 

A further feature of great importance was also added: the manu 
facturer was permitted to substitute new purchase contracts as security 
on the loan in place of contracts which had been performed. This, 
in effect, made the principal amount of the loan a revolving fund for 

37 ( Our italics. ) Statement by Nathan Wendell, Vice-President of the Na 
tional Association of Housing Manufacturers and Vice-President of General Panel 
Corporation of California, given before the Joint Committee on Housing, 80th 
Congress, 1st Session (Study and Investigation of Housing, Part 5, p. 5,062). 

38 Public Law 901, approved August 10, 1948. 


financing the production of additional houses above the number 
stated in the original loan agreement. 

IV. Public Relations 

Public relations has been an important problem of the prefabricator 
for more than a decade. Before the war it was principally a matter 
of overcoming consumer prejudice against novelty in the design of 
the house. Since the war it has more frequently been a question 
of correcting the impression that prefabricated houses are temporary 
dwellings which are structurally inadequate. 

Public attitudes have exerted their influence not only in consumer 
resistance, but also in active and organized opposition to the erection 
of prefabricated houses in certain communities. A typical example 
was the trouble encountered in 1947 when an attempt was made to 
erect in Natick, Mass., a suburb of Boston, a house produced by 
Winner Manufacturing Company, Inc., under license from Shelter 
Industries, Inc. The house was of modern design and stressed skin 
plywood construction. A building permit had been granted and 
erection was under way when a group of neighbors, fearing that 
their property values would be seriously endangered, brought pres 
sure on the building inspector to revoke the permit which he had 
already issued. After appeal to a special emergency board which 
had been set up in Massachusetts, and a consideration of this appeal 
mechanism by the courts, the permit was finally granted. Such were 
the difficulties and the character of public opinion, however, that 
the company later turned its attention to other areas with a modified 

One indication of the importance of public relations to the pre 
fabricator is the considerable number of firms, 18, which our survey 
found using public relations agencies or counselors. There has been, 
of course, a great deal of free publicity given to prefabricators in all 
types of communication media, and this is, perhaps more than any 
thing else, a reflection of the keen interest of the public in anything 
which might help solve the housing problem. Much of this publicity 
has been the wildest sort of fantasy, however, and much more has 


been entirely premature; it has probably done the industry more harm 
than good. 

Because some unquestionably poor houses have been produced by 
prefabricators and because some of the most widely publicized ven 
tures have come to naught, many firms have sought to distinguish 
themselves from the rest of the field by means of carefully directed 
advertising campaigns. Some do cooperative advertising with their 
dealers, splitting the cost, so that they can control the content and 
quality of the ads. Others seek to avoid identification with prefabri- 
cation entirely by disclaiming any resemblance to all that has gone by 
that name, by designing and erecting their houses so that they can 
not be distinguished from the conventional product, or by employing 
such terms as "prebuilt," "pre-engineered," "manufactured homes." 
There is, in fact, strong support for the abandonment of the term 
"prefabrication" in favor of "house manufacturing" or "home manu 
facturing." The use of the seal of the Prefabricated Home Manufac 
turers' Institute is another means by which some companies have 
sought to create a reputation of soundness for their products. And 
a very influential factor in establishing a prefabricator's reputation 
for quality is the approval of his house for mortgage insurance by 
the FHA. 

Mass distribution through brand-name selling is one of the im 
portant potential advantages offered by prefabrication. This is recog 
nized in varying degrees by most prefabricators and has been heavily 
stressed by a few. As the housing market has changed, and as the 
scope of the marketing problem has come to be recognized in the 
past few years, there has been increasing emphasis on the selling ef 
fort required and on the advertising that must be a part of the dis 
tribution pattern. Most firms engage in some form of advertising 
in addition to their descriptive brochures, usually in local newspapers 
and in trade journals; a few firms, like Lustron, Adirondack Log Cabin, 
and National Homes, have also done magazine advertising on a nation 
wide basis. But it is probably a fair generalization that the develop 
ment of brand-name selling through advertising has not yet been 
carried beyond the initial stages by the vast majority of prefabricators. 


V. Trade Associations 

There are at present two trade associations functioning in the in 
dustry, the Prefabricated Home Manufacturers' Institute 39 and the 
National Association of Housing Manufacturers. 40 These differ quite 
markedly in their membership, policies, and activities. 

A. Prefabricated Home Manufacturers' Institute 

The need for an association of prefabricators in 1942 led a half- 
dozen of the industry's pioneers to form the Prefabricated Home 
Manufacturers' Association. In 1943 the Association renamed itself 
an Institute, there being 12 charter members. By January 1946 mem 
bership included 30 companies, and in the boom days of early 1947 
it reached a peak of 67. In mid-1948 membership was stabilizing at 
46. While membership is not limited to users of specific materials, 
PHMI is largely comprised of those firms which work in wood (in 
cluding plywood), and which have approached most aspects of pre- 
fabrication with what might best be called a conservative attitude. 
Among the companies which have been most active in the organiza 
tion are Gunnison Homes, Inc., National Homes Corporation, Pease 
Woodwork Company, Inc., American Houses, Inc., Southern Mill 
& Manufacturing Co., The Green Lumber Company, Houston Ready- 
Cut House Co., Crawford Corporation, Ivon R. Ford, Inc., Page and 
Hill Co., Harnischfeger Corporation, and Johnson Quality Homes, 
Inc. The PHMI staff includes a manager, a public relations man, 
and a statistician and cost accountant. Harry H. Steidle, who heads 
the staff, was for five years Washington representative for the Douglas 
Fir Plywood Association and active in other trade association work 
before joining PHMI. Some years previously, he was Assistant Chief 

39 908 20th St., N.W., Washington, D. C. 

*o 1028 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Washington, D. C. 

Although the Douglas Fir Plywood Association is not, properly speaking, in 
the industry, it should be mentioned here because of its promotional activities 
in behalf of prefabrication since 1938. The Association regards prefabricated 
houses as an important long-run market for plywood and has published several 
booklets to further this type of construction. 


of the Division of Trade Standards in the National Bureau of 

PHMI maintains about a dozen standing committees, the most im 
portant of which deal with industry promotion, marketing, employer- 
employee relations, technical problems, accounting and statistics, ma 
terials, and government relations. The accounting and statistics com 
mittee has made some progress towards having a uniform cost-ac 
counting system adopted by member companies, while the technical 
committee has developed a set of performance standards for prefabri 
cated houses which was published as Commercial Standard 125-45 by 
the National Bureau of Standards. 41 In addition, the technical com 
mittee has worked with building-code officials in various sections of 
the country in order to reduce the code conflicts facing the industry. 

In its public relations role, PHMI furnishes information to the press 
and interested individuals and represents the membership at builders' 
conventions and similar meetings. The Institute's advertising cam 
paign, with its use of a seal and its emphasis on quality standards, 
has been an important part of this program. Members receive a 
weekly newsletter which presents an excellent summary of housing 
activity and pertinent legislation, occasional generalized reports on 
the operations of member companies, and other news of interest. 
Conventions are held several times a year and provide an opportunity 
for the exchange of information. 

Naturally, an important function of the Washington office has been 
to represent the interests of member companies and, when appropri 
ate, the industry as a whole, in the various federal agencies connected 
with housing and before committees of Congress. During the Vet 
erans' Emergency Housing Program, when the government allocated 
materials and controlled prices, this function was particularly im 
portant. The attitude of PHMI towards a government program for 
prefabricators, however, has rather consistently opposed special aids. 
The organization was against many elements of the Wyatt program 
on the grounds that they would bring into existence many get-rich- 
quick firms which could not last but which would impair the indus 
try's reputation and credit standing. This attitude has been strength 
ened recently with the failure of inexperienced government-financed 
firms, which resulted in the general loss of confidence in the industry 
in some banking circles. While PHMI has opposed guaranteed 
markets, RFC loans, and the Housing Act of 1949, it has fought for 

41 A second edition, Commercial Standard CS 125-47, was published in No 
vember 1947. 


liberal mortgage financing under Title VI and for stability and con 
sistency in federal housing legislation so that long-range plans could 
be made by those in the business of providing homes. 

B. National Association of Housing Manufacturers 

Founded in February 1947, NAHM from the start emphasized the 
use of modern methods and improved building materials and tech 
niques. Its efforts have been largely directed towards the new firms 
in the industry which have been using unconventional materials and 
new designs. The organization was not designed to serve as a public 
relations front, and so it has avoided publicity as much as possible, 
although it has testified at hearings. 

The primary purpose has been to help secure the necessary legisla 
tion and regulations to make available the government assistance 
which these companies require, including loans for working capital 
and the marketing of houses, priorities and allocations of materials, 
and mortgage financing for the completed houses. In this connection, 
NAHM representatives have testified before various Congressional 
committees as well as committees and agencies within the executive 
branch of the government, such as, for example, the Office of Indus 
try Cooperation of the Department of Commerce, where the volun 
tary allocations program has been administered. NAHM has been 
of considerable influence in securing the legislation and assistance re 
quired by the industry, but in general it has remained in the back 

The membership has varied from time to time, and a number of 
non-member companies have participated in the meetings. Attend 
ing these have been as many as 15-20 companies, among which were 
a few producers of new-type housing materials. Among the com 
panies which have been most active in the Association have been 
Lustron, whose President, Carl Strandlund, was the initiating force 
behind the Association and has been its President from the beginning; 
General Panel, whose President, Abel Wohlstetter, is the Vice-Presi- 
dent of the Association; and Reliance, whose President, Harry Nagin, 
is also a Vice-President of the Association. Counsel is David L. 
Krooth, former General Counsel of the National Housing Agency and 
of the Housing Expediter. 

NAHM thinks of itself as representing the producers of industrial 
ized or machine-made housing, rather than the prefabricators, who, 


it holds, are for the most part still working in conventional materials 
in the conventionally inefficient way. Its policies and actions reflect 
the problems of some of the youngest firms in the industry who be 
lieve in new materials and methods and have built up higri produc 
tion capacities. If prefabrication is to mean revolution, these are the 
revolutionaries, and their Association is well versed in the new skills 
of securing programs of government assistance for enterprises likely 
to be of public benefit. 


Part J_ X 




I. Introduction 

Prefabricators of houses in the United States during the period of 
study by no means pursued the same goals. Their diversity of inter 
ests is reflected in their approach to design. To some this term meant 
structural engineering; to others it meant production engineering; to 
a few it meant architecture; and to many it meant sales appeal. The 
term properly includes all these aspects, and many others, for a de 
cision made in any part of the long operational channel which leads 
from raw materials to completed houses may have an important 
effect on the design of the house itself. 

Considering the term as broadly as this, one might with some 
justification say that this entire book is a discussion of factors which 
should influence design. As used in this chapter, however, the word 
means something narrower and more concrete. Described here in 
some detail are the different products which were made by the com 
panies studied, with some reference to the techniques by which they 
were made. This, then, is design, in the terms of plans and specifica 
tions, and as defined by production systems. 

That the subject does not lend itself to simple treatment can be 
illustrated on the one hand by the millions of dollars spent by 
Lustron before even starting production, and on the other hand by 
the small company which, in answer to our request for information, 
reported that it had been so busy getting into production that it had 
had no time to make plans and specifications. 

In large part, differences in design stemmed from differences in 
basic approach to prefabrication. The type of market sought, the 
house planned for that market, the scheme for the production of that 
house all these things varied tremendously, and it would be a fasci 
nating study to analyze the reasons of background, experience, intui 
tion, and prejudice which could lead to such differences among pro 
ducers in the same general field. 

One generalization may safely be made, however: the fundamental 
decisions upon which these different schemes were based were rarely 
the result of a thorough investigation of the whole problem; they 
did not come as the result of careful research. Whether research 
had a separate existence or was in effect just another of the responsi 
bilities of the top management, its scope seems to have been largely 


limited to the improvement of detail, the saving of material, and the 
speeding of operations. 

The average prefabricator seemed to think a great deal harder about 
the details of his design after it had been adopted and was going into 
the production or even the marketing phase than he had in the first 
place about the broad principles upon which the design was based. 
This is perhaps understandable, since time, energy, and money for 
broad analysis are often very limited once operations are under way, 
while in the early stages of organization and design the problems of 
financing and of creating a production and distribution system tend 
to seem very small and remote. When the realization comes that the 
first step in the pattern of operations should have been altered in 
order better to perform the last, the die has been cast. 

In many cases, the prefabricators set out to do little more than 
produce a conventional wood frame house by somewhat different 
methods and for about the same price, the new methods being under 
taken solely from the point of view of reducing production costs. De 
sign efforts were concentrated on the selection of materials, of fabri 
cation procedures, and of packaging, shipping, and erection tech 
niques. In time, and with a large enough volume of business, such 
producers might hope to sell a better house for less money. At pres 
ent they would say more often that they are selling a better value for 
the same money. 

A larger group have set out to simplify the design as well as the 
construction of this conventional house, so that it might be easier to 
build, ship, and erect, and at least as good. Frequently these pre 
fabricators have attempted to improve the space arrangements, the 
details, the appearance, and the general architectural design of the 
houses they build. But they have not usually moved in this direction 
beyond their ideas of current public acceptance, or perhaps beyond 
their interpretation of the ideas of public acceptance currently held 
by mortgage bankers. The industry well knows that it sells its 
houses to bankers rather than to purchasers; broad circulation 
is given to reports of companies which have brought out houses of 
radically simplified or of purportedly modern design, only to fail or 
lose money as a result. There have been such cases, and some justi 
fication exists for the feeling that good modern design does not carry 
with it the strong sales appeal that the predictions of the war years 
had attributed to it. In several cases x prefabricators were forced to 
stop production on models which had been given much favorable 

1 For example: Shelter Industries, Green's Ready-Built. 


comment in architectural magazines in favor of models of far more 
conventional appearance. 

Among the prefabricators there were a few, as there have been all 
through the years, who approached the problem with a real determina 
tion to seek out the basic facts of housing design and to strike out be 
yond the limitations of conventional methods. Of these pioneers, 
some strove for what has been called in England "austere" shelter: 
smaller houses, simpler in plan and construction, of less expensive 
materials, and more highly organized in their various functions than 
the conventional house ordinarily thought of as "minimum." These 
schemes were based upon a desire to find some sort of decent shelter 
which might be made available to a wide range of low-income fami 
lies. There were also schemes based upon emergency conditions and 
designed for temporary or at most periodic use; schemes of this sort 
were often designed for use in war production areas. Still others re 
sulted from the attempt to achieve a high degree of mobility, with 
the consequent desire to cut the weight and bulk to be moved (a few 
turned their attention frankly to the problems of the house trailer), 
or from the desire to capitalize on the possibilities of obtaining a high 
degree of elasticity by means of a very standardized production 

Some of these departures from the conventional were very radical 
indeed, based on the theory that true mass production will eventually 
have to make use of metals rather than wood, aimed at the exploita 
tion of some new use of metals or other materials, or guided by the 
determined effort to rationalize the whole structural theory of mass 
production of houses. 

The most familiar example of such a pioneering approach was Buck- 
minster Fuller's hemispherical aluminum house, a structure of true 
stressed skin design making extensive use of metals in tension rather 
than in compression, although as a production, erection, and sales 
proposition it was perhaps foredoomed to failure. From an entirely 
different point of view unconventional design principles were ex 
plored through the work of Wallace Neff, whose gunite structures 
were built up over balloon forms, and of R. G. LeTourneau, whose 
gigantic traveling forms were capable of carrying complete concrete 
houses, poured in one operation, and placing them at the selected 

The similarity to conventional construction stood out more than 
any degree of innovation, however. This is not necessarily a criticism, 
for construction has moved forward, and the conventional house of 


today has many features of design and construction which differ from 
those of the conventional house of only a few years ago. 

II. Classification of Prefabrication Systems 

Methods of classifying prefabricated houses are as varied as the 
purposes of those making the classifications. The general public is 
probably most interested in size and price, but these are also the 
most variable of characteristics and the least suited to broad analysis. 
Architectural style is perhaps the next mest popular basis of classi 
fication, and it will be discussed briefly later; attention will also be 
devoted to classification by structural system. First of all, however, 
attention is given to classification by the principal materials used in 
the house, since this offers the opportunity for a brief description of 
the characteristic qualities of the various materials for prefabrication 
purposes and thus provides a general background for the systematic 
analysis which follows. 

A. By Materials 

Materials have been chosen for ease of procurement and use, for 
adaptability to the prefabricated pattern of operations, and for tech 
nical satisfaction of normal performance requirements, the special 
qualities required in materials by most prefabricators being light 
weight, strength, wearing quality, adaptability to normal fabrication 
and transportation methods, and as low cost as possible. 

1. Wood Lumber and Plywood 

By far the largest group of prefabricators at the time of the survey 
used wood as the principal structural material. Of the companies 
studied, 92 used wood, and, of these, 61 used plywood. 


The development of plywood construction systems by the U. S. 
Forest Products Laboratory and others had, in fact, a large influence 
on the growth of prefabrication as a whole. The material is very 
light and strong, is extremely stiff, has some insulation value, comes 
in large sheets readily adapted to mass-production uses, has fairly 
good dimensional stability, and is reasonably durable and low in 
cost. It can be used to combine several different functions; for ex 
ample, a single sheet can be both surface and structural sheathing on 
the outside, or both surface and wallboard on the inside. 

Nearly all the companies using plywood used Douglas Fir rotary- 
cut veneer, although a few used other types, such as gumwood and 
yellow pine plywood, edge-grain fir panels for flooring, or oak ply 
wood for flooring. Some of the problems involved in using this 
material are discussed in Chapter 9. Its steady rise in cost has been 
discouraging to many manufacturers, but most of them felt that it was 
the best material available for their needs. 

Wood lumber, traditional material for domestic construction in 
most parts of the United States, enjoyed great popularity among the 
prefabricators, particularly because of its wide public acceptance and 
the long experience of builders in making houses of it. From the 
point of view of design, members fabricated from wood generally 
have the necessary strength, rigidity, and thermal-insulation value at 
a suitable cost, although the material offers certain complications in 
the factory (discussed in Chapter 9). Wood lumber, in other than 
shop grades, was in fairly good supply at the time of the survey, and 
its initial cost was low compared to that of other materials. Its char 
acter as a handicraft material was actually desirable in the opinion 
of most prefabricators, who dealt with a few houses at a time rather 
than mass production, and who had frequent occasion to change 
shapes and sizes to fit evolving needs. 2 

2. Steel 

Steel is the basic manufacturing material of United States industry, 
and there have been many attempts to use it for the manufacture of 
low-cost housing. Of the companies in the survey, 13 used steel as a 

2 For a very complete discussion of the use of wood and plywood for this pur 
pose, see Manual on Wood Construction for Prefabricated Houses, prepared by 
the Forest Products Laboratory in collaboration with HHFA (Washington, 1947). 


basic material in their structure. Of these, three used steel in com 
bination with wood and three in combination with aluminum. 

In housing design, steel has many disadvantages to counter its 
known advantages. Its thermal conductivity is more than 300 times 
that of wood so that careful attention must be paid to problems of 
heat loss and condensation. Its tendency to rust means that it must 
be carefully protected from contact with oxidizing atmospheres, and 
this raises costs. Its uniformity and strength are very high but diffi 
cult to exploit to the fullest degree, so that much steel is often wasted 
in overdesign. Occasionally, there is further waste in pointless imi 
tation of wood design. Further, its use requires special attention to 
problems of sound transmission and reflection. Nevertheless the 
cost of steel and its adaptability to manufacturing techniques will 
doubtless continue to appeal to designers. In special forms, such as 
the porcelain enameled steel used by Higgins and Lustron, it may 
have a new order of general sales appeal as well as improved physical 

In the last two decades, despite a great deal of experimentation 
with different steel designs in this country, there has not been so 
wide an experience with actual fabrication and use as in England. 
Recently, however, there is an increasing tendency among even the 
more conventional prefabricators to use steel for members in hori 
zontal position which carry loads over fairly large spans, such as 
floor joists. 

3. Aluminum 

Of the companies in the survey, 10 made use of aluminum as a 
major structural material, either as framing or as exterior structural 
covering. Many others were interested in the possibilities of its use 
because the expansion of aluminum production facilities during the 
war period had given hope of abundant supply, particularly of sheet 
aluminum such as is used in aircraft, and of a lowering of price. 

Aluminum has some of the disadvantages of steel, including a par 
ticularly high thermal conductivity, but it has certain advantages for 
housing purposes, including a positive value as reflective insulation 
and a strong resistance to serious corrosion under normal atmospheric 
conditions. Although it can be welded only with some difficulty and 
must be formed with careful attention to its properties, aluminum is 
suited to many industrial techniques. More expensive than steel, 


pound for pound, it is often competitive with that metal when prop 
erly designed, processed, put in place, and protected. Care must be 
taken in the use of aluminum, however, because electrolytic action 
takes place between it and steel, and because it is subject to attack by 
free lime in concrete. 

As in the case of steel, although there has been a great deal of ex 
perimentation in the United States with aluminum construction, and 
although the aluminum manufacturers are marketing an increasing 
number of products for use in houses, the largest production ex 
perience with aluminum houses has been in England, where the air 
craft industry has been producing well-designed units in quantity 
since the war. 

4. Concrete 

Generally speaking, prefabricators consider wet-process materials 
unsuited to mass-production methods, although there are exceptions, 
as when such special fabrication machines as the Tournalayer are used, 
in which case the production interest centers in the machine rather 
than the houses. Yet, of the companies in the survey, 10 used con 
crete as a major structural material, eight of these using it in the 
form of precast concrete slabs. Concrete may have distinct advantage 
over other materials in original materials cost, but its disadvantages 
of weight, bulk, and frangibility have limited its use primarily to 
group erections close to the production point of the slabs. In this 
country, where wood and steel are still available at relatively low 
cost, concrete construction has been by no means so widely studied 
and so carefully utilized as in countries where other materials are 
almost out of the question for housing. 

In recent years lightweight aggregates and foamed concretes have 
become increasingly important, since they lighten the slabs and im 
prove the otherwise poor thermal-insulation qualities of concrete. A 
great deal of effort has also been expended to improve physical quali 
ties and speed up the production cycle by steam curing and vacuum 
processes, and to reduce the expense of mixing, pouring, and forming 
equipment in relation to the quantity of production achieved. Pre- 
stressed concrete shows promise of achieving two or three times the 
strength of ordinary concrete with the same weight of material and is 
being more generally used in the construction industry, but all these 


processes are still relatively strange to the single-family-house market, 
with which the prefabricators were almost exclusively concerned. 

5. Plastics 

The literal meaning of this word is broad enough to include many 
substances not ordinarily thought of as plastics, such as concrete, 
brick, and glass. Plastics in the common sense of the word, however, 
were used as a major structural material by none of the companies 
surveyed. In part, this was undoubtedly the result of the high cost 
of most plastics, now and in the foreseeable future, but there is also 
evidence that the structural properties of most plastics are inferior to 
those of wood, steel, concrete, and aluminum. 

The comparatively low modulus of elasticity of most plastics, in 
conjunction with fairly high strength, also means that it would be 
inefficient to use such a material as a structural member designed 
to carry loads, since the amount of plastic required from the point 
of view of strength would be far less than the amount necessary to 
prevent objectionable deformation due to low modulus of elasticity. 

Laminated phenolics, the most seriously considered of the plastics 
as a structural material, have three or four times greater strength in 
compression than in tension, which makes it difficult to justify using 
so expensive a material in tension as a working skin. Where a mate 
rial is used as compression, or load-bearing, members, the aim of the 
designer usually is to produce members as light and as stiff as possible. 
Yet, to achieve the same resistance to deflection in a laminated phenolic 
as in a steel compression member, nearly two and a half times the 
weight of the steel would be required. 

The plastics industry is at work on these problems, and such new 
materials as glass-fiber-reinforced polyesters show promise. The 
major structural use for plastics, however, remains in the bonding 
of plywood and other built-up structural materials. 

6. Paper 

At the time of the survey several companies were planning the 
production of a house designed to use the surprising strength of 


plastic-impregnated sheets of paper, so formed and glued (either as 
a honeycomb or as a series of corrugated layers) as to form a struc 
tural core for stressed skin panels of which the skin might be plywood, 
aluminum, steel, or possibly paper itself. However, there was no 
actual production of houses made of this material. 3 

B. By Structural System 

Those interested in the production aspects of housing have a major 
interest in structural systems, but they have shown in the past a com 
mon tendency to classify entire structural systems, and particularly 
prefabricated house systems, according to the design of the cross sec 
tion of the wall. This practice may be very misleading, since the 
system employed in the wall is frequently entirely different from that 
used elsewhere in the house. For that reason, each prefabricated 
house is here broken down into more or less common component 
structural parts and the data are classified according to the system 
used in these component parts. The designations of these classes, 
furthermore, have been carefully selected to bring out production 
differences. Thus, while the phrases "frame assembly" and "frame 
panel" may indicate the same thing in final structural result, the 
difference between them lies in different amounts of factory prefabri- 
cation and different procedures for site assembly. Also, a prefabri- 
cator producing a conventional house by fabricating room-size panels 
is here distinguished from one producing the same house by merely 
precutting the various pieces. The basic pattern of operations of the 
prefabricator is indicated as well as the final structural scheme. 

1. Frame Assembly 

The typical frame assembly is the conventional wood frame house, 
in the course of construction of which individual framing members 
are erected at the site and various insulating and finishing materials 
then applied. The precut lumber house is an example of a fabrica 
tion system embodying frame assembly principles. 

3 More information about these designs is given on pp. 233 ff. A fuller descrip 
tion of the material is contained in Chapter 9. 





Diagonal % 



Figure 14. Conventional Framing Illustrating Construction Terminology 

2. Frame Panels 

In this classification, the structural members are preassembled in 
the form of panels, and some or all of the insulating and finishing 
materials are usually applied in the shop in order to save time at the 
site. The wall panel produced by what may be called the typical pre- 
fabricator is a frame panel, made up of framing lumber with wood 
sheathing nailed to it. 

3. Stressed Skin Panels 

Where the panels are so designed and assembled that the surfacing 
elements contribute in a major way to the structural performance of 
the whole, the result has been classified as a stressed skin panel. 
Typical design of such a panel is described on p. 228. In some cases a 
stressed skin action is partially obtained by the use of a single surface 
material bonded securely to the structural framing and by this means 
developing some stiffness and strength at the contiguous surfaces. 
Most constructions having a single factory-applied surface are not 
securely enough bonded to develop this added strength, however, 
and so are classified in this report as frame panels, rather than 
stressed skin panels. 

There have been some attempts to approach a monocoque system 
of construction, but requirements for openings and difficulties with 
internal shapes discourage the development for housing of a true 
single prestressed shell. Yet the Harman house made use of the 
tension stressed steel sheet construction developed by the Lindsay 
Corporation for truck bodies, and even closer approximations were 
made in the hemispherical aluminum Fuller house and in NefFs 
hemispherical and double paraboloid "balloon house." 

It is also true that, to a minor degree, nearly all so-called frame 
systems actually place some reliance upon stressed skin principles, 
but they are rarely used deliberately to reduce the amount and 
weight of the materials used. At least in theory, true stressed skin 
design has a better chance of realization by means of the continuous 
sheet surface areas, which are well adapted to mass-production in 
dustrial processes. 


4. Solid Panels 

The best example of the solid panel is the precast concrete slab, 
which is essentially homogeneous throughout. If the amount of rein 
forcing steel or the emphasis on such steel in the design is consider 
able, or if laminated panels with plywood or asbestos cement facings 
are involved, where major structural resistance to load is channeled 
into skin or reinforcement, the panels should perhaps logically be 
placed under other structural systems. But where the panel is fabri 
cated as a solid entity (thus excluding honeycomb core materials), 
and where all parts of the panel assume major structural roles, the 
designation of solid panels has been used. 

5. Poured at Site 

This classification includes essentially monolithic structures in 
which the emphasis in the prefabrication system tends to fall as much 
upon the pouring and forming machinery as upon the house itself. 
An interesting monolithic house, poured near the site, was the Le- 
Tourneau house, formed in a tremendous and fully mobile perma 
nent form known as the Tournalayer. 4 

This device, and other devices specially designed to make concrete 
pouring and forming operations at the site efficient and economical, 
have recently been regarded with a great deal of interest in this 
country. A factor in this interest has been the recent rapid expansion 
of the development of lightweight concretes, offering easier handling, 
better surface qualities, far better thermal properties, and a faster 
casting cycle than the regular concretes, while retaining sufficient 
strength to be self-supporting and avoid the necessity of added fram 
ing or skins. 

C. Miscellaneous Classifications 

Before turning to the question of architectural design, attention 
should be given to two aspects of structural design which are im 
portant enough to warrant treatment as separate classifications. 

4 Further detail is given in Chapter 9. 


1. Sectional Assembly 

The important feature of this classification is not the structural 
system or the materials used, but rather the degree to which the house 
is preassembled, by panels or otherwise, into complete volume-en 
closing units or sections of the final house. Although the Tennessee 
Valley Authority was not the first to use the system, 5 this is fre 
quently referred to as the TVA style of construction because of the 
extent to which sectional and truckable houses were used to provide 
living quarters for the crews engaged in the various construction 
projects in the Tennessee Valley. The houses were easy to trans 
port and to put together, and they required a minimum of labor and 
confusion at the site, thus freeing facilities and roads for the larger 
jobs at hand. These advantages also frequently recommended sec 
tional house types to those planning special communities for the pro 
duction of war materials during the recent war, though the TVA 
houses featured mobility to a degree greater than that required for 
most residential areas. 

Because design decisions were made by the TVA rather than by 
lending institutions, mortgage insuring institutions, or the ultimate 
consumers, the result was that the whole construction operation could 
be planned with assurance from the start, and a greater degree of 
final finish and building in of furniture was provided than might 
otherwise be considered a safe risk. 

Several different companies produced these houses for the TVA, 
and houses with similar design principles, such as the Prenco house 
of the Prefabrication Engineering Co. and the house of Prefabricated 
Products Co., Inc., were tried out in other parts of the country. The 
conditions of normal business, however, are different from those 
faced by the TVA, and the obstacles to be overcome are considerably 
greater. Nevertheless the TVA experience points up the fact that, 
under certain conditions, prefabrication in whole house sections can 
do a clearly superior job. 

The sectional house of Reliance Homes, Inc., was an example of a 
further extension of the TVA principle (see Figure 22). The Reli 
ance house was of steel frame construction, faced with corrugated 
aluminum over Homasote on the exterior and wallpapered Homasote 
on the interior. The house was factory assembled into seven three- 
dimensional room-sized sections, which were completely finished with 

5 General Housing Corporation's sectional house is described in Part I, Chapter 

2, pp. 37-8, footnote 55. 


wallpaper, wiring, floor covering, kitchen equipment, heating equip 
ment, etc. The sections were transported to the site on three trucks, 
unloaded by a crane, and assembled into a house in less than a day. 6 

The AIROH house (see Figure 23) in Great Britain, manufactured 
for the government by Aircraft Industry Research on Housing, is an 
example of the use of these general techniques in a light aluminum 
house which has been mass produced in tremendous volume for 
general residential purposes. 

The sectional idea has been carried even further when the complete 
house has been made available in one piece, as in the case of the well- 
known house trailer. Several designers have taken this trailer con 
cept and expanded it by ingenious means to produce a true prefabri 
cated house in a single section. Perhaps the best example of this is 
the Wingfoot Home of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (see Figure 
26). Similar in concept to the earlier Stout Folding House, 7 it was a 
fully preassembled and prefinished flat-roofed house of stressed skin 
plywood with utilities completely installed and ready for connection 
to municipal services. There were two bedroom sections which 
could be pulled out of the central section in the manner of drawers, 
expanding the original trailer to a living unit of 253 sq. ft. 8 

These were houses of which it is fair to say that the makers' aim 
was not so much to supply permanent living quarters for a complete 
family as to provide temporary houses with far more livability than 
the normal trailer. Another house under design during the period 
of the survey, however, carried the same expanding principle even 
further to produce a good-sized permanent house. This was the 
house designed by Acorn Houses, Inc. (see Figure 27) to move over 
the roads in a low trailer bed and unfold at the site into a two-bed 
room house of 800 sq. ft. This was made possible by the use of walls, 
floors, and flat ceiling-roofs of plastic-impregnated paper core with 
bonded plywood skin, having a cross section thin enough to permit 
the folding of hinged walls, floors, and roofs against the central 
utility core during transit. At the site, girders were laid on posts, the 
floor units unfolded downwards, the walls unfolded outwards, and the 
roof unfolded over the whole and bolted down. The scheme per- 

6 Reliance designs were considerably changed in the period following the sur 
vey. The latest schemes divide 'the house into three sections, one nesting within 
the other, so that an entire house can be carried on a single trailer. 

7 Developed in 1937, this was a fully mobile trailer which could be expanded 
to about three times its original size by folding the side walls up and out to form 
an additional room on either side. 

8 Construction of ceiling is described on p. 251. 


mitted complete factory finishing with a minimum risk of damage in 
transit or in construction. 9 

2. Modular Design 

A great deal of emphasis has been placed upon the principle of the 
dimensional coordination of building materials and components. 
This principle must be distinguished from the so-called modular 
planning long used by many architects in working out plans, although 
the two have elements in common. Architects' modules have been 
for the most part space planning tools, used as a means of assuring 
repetitive structure and planning simplicity at a larger scale, the 
modules for such purposes running from 3' or 4' in the case of houses 
to 20' or more in the case of office buildings and factories. 

An illustration of the use of architectural planning of this sort may 
be found in General Panel, which was originally designed to sell not 
houses at all, but only structural panels in modular sizes (based on a 
module of 40" ) and varying styles, capable of assembly into an infinite 
variety of houses or other buildings in accordance with the demands 
of the individual consumer (see Figure 15). It has long been the 
feeling of Walter Gropius, one of the original developers of the Gen 
eral Panel system, that the best combination of mass-production effi 
ciency and of marketing flexibility could in this way be achieved. At 
the time of the survey, however, a relatively small percentage of the 
business of General Panel Corporation of California had been along 
these lines. 10 A few other prefabricators made additional business 
for themselves by selling their panels for incorporation by local archi 
tects and builders into houses of conventional construction. The, 
HomeOla Corporation sold separate panels several times, and some 
of the resulting houses were given acclaim in the architectural mag 

Modular design is of obvious importance in prefabrication. Few 
prefabricators, however, have understood it as a basic principle of de- 

9 Further details on construction are given on p. 235. 

10 For many reasons, it has been necessary for prefabricators to concentrate on 
producing a complete house. These modular panels have not been generally 
available, although recent efforts have been made to bring them into more gen 
eral use. Even when offering packages of panels to be assembled into specific 
designs, General Panel has been able to take advantage of this basic flexibility 
and to offer as many as 25 radically different designs. 


is assembled when 
three parts are 
nested together and 
the fourth driven 
home with a hammer. 
The system is 
designed to permit 
joining of panels in 
any combination 







One way 

Two way 

Three way 

Four way 

are interchangeable. 
The entire house is 
panelized, all panels 
being similar in 
proportion, edge 
profile and method 
of connection 

Figure 15. The General Panel System 

sign, applicable to all parts of the structure. These basic principles 
have been briefly sketched 11 as they were developed by Albert 
Far well Bemis. All dimensions in Bemis' experimental prefabricated 
houses (1925-1932) were based on his cubical modular method of 
design, including dimensions of finish materials and of some equip 
ment. He demonstrated that one result was complete flexibility of 
layout and theorized that substantial production economies also 
should obtain. 

There are at least two factors which explain why prefabricators do 
not at present make greater use of modular design. The first is that 
they have standardized on only one or two or at least a very limited 
number of house plans. With so little variation of design, complete 
modularization carries small advantage. In the second place, the 
building materials industry has only just begun to standardize dimen 
sions on a modular basis, and much of this early coordination has been 
accomplished by the brick, tile, and masonry unit manufacturers so 
that it is of little use in prefabrication. Consequently, prefabricators 
have been forced to choose their materials and equipment from a 
poorly coordinated industry, and to design their houses around them 
in the most effective manner to meet immediate needs. Such prob 
lems as the interchangeability of wood and metal windows, free choice 
of built-in mechanical equipment, and complete flexibility of layout 
have been left to the future. 

Although none of the companies in our survey had completely 
adopted the modular theory of design, a majority of them were bene 
fiting by the use of some planning or manufacturing module. The 
most common such module was 4", or some multiple thereof. ( Amer 
ican Standards Association official American Standard No. A62. 1-1945 
states, "The basis for dimensional coordination shall be the standard 
grid based on the module of 4 inches.") 

At least 46 of the companies dimensioned their components in 
multiples of 2" or 4" and, of these, six favored the 40" manufacturing 
module, which is not only practicable for local purposes but also is 
close to the metric module widely favored abroad. Some sort of 
recognition of the 4" module was given by at least 62 companies in 

Other modules were used, however. At least three companies 
used a basic module of 3"; two used 39" as a manufacturing module; 
and one used 4' 3%" as a manufacturing module. 

11 Part I, Chapter 2. Extensive design details are available in the A62 Guide 
for Modular Coordination (Boston: Modular Service Association, 1946). 


Of those not using modules as a design or manufacturing basis, most 
were producing but one or a very few standardized models which 
permitted a relatively standardized production. Some claimed that, 
by disregarding modular dimensions, they were able in practice to 
effect saving in the fitting of equipment and the sizing of rooms. On 
the other hand, others making a limited number of models still 
found advantages in modular dimensioning. Thus Harnischfeger 
made up panels in widths of any multiple of 4', and found that it gave 
his dealers a good deal of elasticity in the erection procedures selected. 
Some preferred to handle 4' panels as such; others asked to have them 
preassembled in 12' and 16' lengths; and at least one asked for de 
livery in the form of fully assembled wall-length panels, to be erected 
at the site with a crane. 

3. Architectural Style 

One of the oldest and certainly one of the most popular methods 
of classifying houses is by the general appearance or architectural 
style. Aside from simply describing the basic surface material, this 
is indeed probably the way most people try to describe houses to 
one another. Those trained in architecture, however, would be the 
first to say that this is something less than the ideal method, because 
general appearance and architectural style may mean very different 
things to different people. 

As has been said at the beginning of this chapter, this entire book 
is concerned with architecture in the broad sense. The materials 
and structural design, the production system, and the erection 
scheme are far more important to the architecture of prefabrication 
than the so-called style in which the final house is clothed. Yet classi 
fication by architectural style cannot be entirely dismissed here, be 
cause it is a matter of great concern to most prefabricators, however 
widely their interpretations of architectural treatment may vary. 

A few prefabricators, including some of the prominent names in the 
business, have little use for architects and profess to believe they have 
nothing to offer the prefabricator. At the other extreme, several pre 
fabricators have come into the field directly from architecture. Some 
of these are crusaders, and a few appear to be far more interested in 
expanding the vision of the public and of their profession than in 
making houses on a business basis. 


For most of the prefabricators, however, good architecture is but 
one of several important aspects of the business, and they take steps 
to get it, according to their understanding of the term. As might be 
expected, the most rational architectural approach has generally been 
found in the companies making the greatest innovations, for in such 
cases the importance of the architect in producing a livable and sal 
able house by the new techniques becomes obvious. Probably archi 
tecture has had the least influence on those companies devoted to 
manufacturing, by a somewhat more industrialized process, the same 
kind of conventional house as is built in the area by speculative build 
ers. Yet even these often found a business advantage in devoting 
time and money to the appearance of the house and to the gadgets 
and decorations which frequently pass for architecture. The adver 
tising world has created too vivid a picture of the normal American 
dream house to be disregarded. 

In factual terms, by far the majority of the prefabricators during 
the period of survey were satisfied to put before the public what can 
only be called conventional houses, either as the result of careful de 
liberation or only unconsciously, because that was what a house had 
always meant to them. At least 80 companies came in that group. 
On the other hand, perhaps 40 wanted something different, usually 
along the lines of what has been called "modern" architecture. Archi 
tects would probably classify as of sound design whether conven 
tional or modern in spirit about one-quarter of these prefabricated 
houses, or very little more than would be the case with conven 
tional houses. In about the same fraction of houses, often although 
not always the same, were the services of an architect employed some 
where along the line. 

The value of architecture to most companies lay in its relation to 
marketing, and it was for the most part thought of primarily as a sales 
feature. Some prefabricators, in fact, spoke of a "basic house" to 
which such "architectural treatment" as false gables, long shutters, 
and special entrance details were to be added, often as extras. They 
were usually convinced that houses of modest and conservative ap 
pearance, reminiscent of the Cape Cod cottage, represented the safest 
gamble, and in this opinion they were reinforced by the commercial 
failure of several attempts to market more advanced designs. Many 
were, however, becoming convinced that in recent years the archi 
tectural tastes of the public have in some respects been tending to 
move away from the Cape Cod cottage. The suggestions of open 
planning contained in such terms as "picture window" and "ranch- 
house style" were becoming stronger, the more so the farther west in 


the country, and the wide appeal of the all-on-one-floor house was 
recognized. Few, if any, of the larger companies produced a two- 
story house. A sizable group produced, and perhaps twice as many 
were contemplating, a story-and-a-half house, usually of conven 
tional design with two bedrooms planned for the second floor but not 
finished, but in most cases this was done primarily for reasons of 

The largest single factor in making the prefabricators conscious of a 
more fundamental sort of architecture in terms of sound space plan 
ning and construction probably was the requirement, often a matter 
of life or death, that their houses meet the approval of the FHA. A 
certain minimum good design was assured in this way, but it is 
clear that the narrow views of many financiers on architectural mat 
ters were a severe limitation on those whose training was good and 
who were eager to offer an architecturally sound house created by a 
new approach. 

The Reliance house, first designed by William Lescaze with a flat 
roof, was refused approval for mortgage insurance by the Philadel 
phia FHA office, though the design met with no objections from the 
national FHA office. The Philadelphia office, stating that the design 
lacked "to a substantial degree those essential esthetic qualities and 
visual appeal which are necessary to assure continued marketabil 
ity/' 12 required that a pitched roof be added to qualify the house 
for mortgage insurance. The local office later did permit the flat- 
roofed houses to be erected, after finding that their acceptability ex 
ceeded that of the pitched-roof variety. 

III. Description of Components 

A. General 

In the discussion which follows, the system of classification by struc 
tural system is applied in detail, not to the house, but to its major 
components, using for this purpose those components into which the 

Architectural Forum, 88 (March 1948), 11. 

Chart A 




Frame Assembly 

! ! ! ! ! I Frame Panel 

Stressed Skin Panel 

Solid Panel 

Construction Used in 
Prefabricated Components 

Notes: Design information was analyzed for 
125 companies in all. In some cases the 
information required to prepare these charts 
was not available. In other cases, companies 
could properly be listed in more than one 
category. The totals should not, therefore, be 
expected to check with the headings in every 
case. At least 25 companies used concrete 
slab floors for most of their houses. Many 
more used slab floors occasionally. 


house is most readily divided, namely: foundations, floors, walls, ceil 
ings, and roofs. Chart A gives a breakdown of companies according 
to the structural system used in their various component parts. 

For each component, there is a breakdown according to structural 
system (as defined in the last section), and within each such subdi 
vision, as fully detailed information is given as possible. Thus, in 
order to find the wall-panel size most commonly used by prefabri- 
cators of houses of stressed skin plywood construction, it is necessary 
to turn to the component "walls," and under it to the structural classi 
fication "stressed skin." (In this case, there was no single preference; 
prefabricators were almost evenly divided between 48" panels and 
room-size panels. ) So far as possible, this information has been made 
available in tabular form, and from a brief scanning of these tables 
the characteristic construction systems become apparent. 

It should be recalled that the survey did not include the entire 
industry, that there was a predominance in numbers of small-shop 
fabricators of essentially conventional houses, and that the producers 
of potentially great numbers of new types of houses were in few cases 
in production and in no case in full production. The numbers which 
appear in these tables, therefore, are not suitable for statistical analy 
sis; they serve rather to give a generally accurate picture of the 

One general comment which is made here in order to give it due 
importance concerns the treatment of detail. In most of the houses 
studied, particularly the interiors, there was an element of crudity- 
lack of refinement of details, lack of precision of manufacture, and 
insufficient attention to materials used for interior finish which could 
well do injury to the whole product. By and large, this was no more 
true of prefabricated houses than of conventional houses built during 
the same period, but the prefabricators could far less afford to have 
criticism focus on such matters. 

B. Foundations 

Very few house manufacturers supply any sort of prefabricated 
foundation, and there are almost as few specialized manufacturers of 
prefabricated foundations. Several prefabricators did supply concrete 
posts or wooden piers, however, and two companies even had precast 
slabs for use in forming basement walls and floors, but except for 
specialized local operations prefabricators saw no economies inherent 


in the use of precast concrete slabs for basements because of their 
weight and bulk and general difficulty of handling, and because simple 
means of construction at the site were readily available. Neverthe 
less, special handling devices make it possible to move precast slabs 
into place, and several companies were working at least experiment 
ally on the simplification of their foundation construction work. 

Of the companies studied in the survey, at least 16 designed their 
houses specifically for a basement and supplied detailed foundation 
plans, although in most cases the basement was to be built by the 
local builder. These prefabricators were predominantly in the north, 
where continuous foundation footings to a depth as great as 4' might 
be called for anyway, but they also felt that the public wants base 
ments, as shown by almost all conventional houses in some areas. 
The arguments for the basement stress the large amount of storage 
and general utility space thus made available at a relatively low 
cost, and these considerations have enough weight to persuade at 
least 47 of the other prefabricators, who do not insist upon base 
ments, to offer them as an optional feature. 

Those opposed to the use of basements point out that they add 
cost to the final house on the average about $500 and that the func 
tions usually allocated to them can more safely and efficiently be per 
formed above ground in space designed for the purpose. Essentially, 
these men say, the basement is incompatible with the concept of 
prefabrication which would reduce site work to a minimum, and 
which requires the timing of site preparation to be as simple and de 
pendable as possible. To schedule steady sales throughout the year, 
a northern dealer would have to tie up money in many basements 
made ready in good weather to handle house erections in bad. 

This argument depends upon many design factors, and cannot be 
settled once and for all, 13 but the advantages to the prefabricator of 
the basementless house are such that there has been a strong tendency 
to build such houses, even in northern climates. At least 56 prefabri 
cators produced basementless houses exclusively. A few of those ex 
perimenting in northern and eastern areas with such houses found 
better public acceptance than they had expected, particularly if con 
struction economies were passed along to the consumer. On the 
other hand, several companies selling large quantities in northern cli 
mates when they gave the option of basement or no basement found 
that the market preferred the basement. Of course, this may be 

13 An interesting study has been made by the HHFA on "Basements vs. No 
Basements for Houses," HHFA Technical Bulletin, no. 8 (January 1949), pp. 


attributable to the nature of the differences in the design and cost 
of the two types as much as to a preference for the basement as 

The majority of basementless houses were placed on continuous 
foundation walls of some sort either poured concrete walls support 
ing a wooden or concrete floor system, or the edge of a floating slab 
designed in effect as a grade beam. Only a few of the houses, 15 in 
all, and mostly the smallest and least substantial, were placed on piers 
or posts. This was in part the result of FHA, building-code, and bank 
ing requirements of continuous foundation walls. 14 

Little new development has taken place in foundations, and that 
has been done mostly in connection with basementless houses. Some 
of the ideas developed for houses on pier or post foundations include 
the use of special built-in jacks to level the house on the permanent 
foundation system (TVA), the use of precast concrete discs with 
holes in the middle strung on an iron pipe to build up masonry posts 
(Swedish), and the use of precast concrete posts which are hung 
from the jacked-up floor beams (see Figure 16) until the bulk con 
crete footings poured about the posts have had time to harden suffi 
ciently to permit the removal of jacks (Acorn). 15 

With the grade beam foundation, which is not necessarily footed 
below the frost line, there has been quite a bit of experimentation, 
and study is in progress. In at least one case it was proposed to use 
radiant heat in such a slab to prevent frost formation in the ground 
beneath it. Most designs, however, set out to defeat frost heave by 
using sand and gravel under the slab and by otherwise naturally 
or artificially keeping the underlying soil well drained. Some de 
signers claim that the loading of many domestic superstructures is 
so light that little damage is likely, to structure, foundation, or 
plumbing, as the result of the temporary lifting of a corner through 
mild frost heave. 

Perhaps the second largest problem of the grade beam or slab 
foundation is that of insulating the walls and the corners and edges 
of the floor from the cold. This problem has been the subject of a 
great deal of study and is more fully discussed on p. 208. 

14 These requirements are becoming more liberal, and a pier or post founda 
tion, with proper insulation in the floor, is now acceptable in many more localities 
than at the time of the survey. 

15 Recent work by HHFA engineers tends to show that adequate ventilation of 
the crawl space under such houses is the only surely effective means of preventing 
accumulation of moisture in the wood of the structure above (HHFA Technical 
Bulletin, no. 8 [January 1949], p. 107). 



Girder bolted to precast concrete 
pier and lowered by gin pole into 
hole in ground. Jacks used to 
support girder and pier 


Girder is leveled by means 
of two jacks. Wood blocking 
inserted to support girder 
and pier. Jacks removed 


Concrete poured into 
hole and allowed to 
set Hole is then filled 
with earth and well 

Figure 16. The Acorn Footing 

C. Floors 

1. Frame Assembly 

Under this heading are included floor structures which are made 
up at the site from precut or otherwise prepared members. A large 

Chart B 

Frame Assembly Floor 
32 Companies 

Frame members 

Structural floor 






2" X 8" 


2" X 6" 


16" o.c. 


















prefinished hardwood 


unfinished hardwood 






glued and nailed 

Finish floor 

number of manufacturers who panelized walls and other portions 
of their houses preferred to precut the floor system, probably be 
cause of the bulkiness of panels built up with joist-size lumber, the 
difficulty of achieving a solid and silent structure, the known mar- 


ket preference for a continuous hardwood floor, and the relative 
advantages of site assembly over prefabrication in making allowance 
for imperfectly dimensioned foundations and in permitting the use 
of diagonal lumber subflooring. In all, 29 companies used frame 
assemblies of wood in their floors. 

It is significant, however, that three of the largest companies 
(National Homes, HomeOla, and Houston Ready-Cut) made use 
of wide-spaced (4' o.c.) steel framing members (I beams, channels, 
or open web bar joists) on which framed wood sections were placed, 
and at least as many more were considering use of this system. 

A summary of the data on frame assembly floors is presented here 
with (Chart B). This chart and the others which follow it give 
only a selection of the most useful information from our survey. 

Although no such system was actually seen in use in a prefabri 
cated house, the National Lumber Manufacturers Association has 
publicized the design of a floor of 2" X 6" dressed and matched 
tongue and groove planks laid over girders 6' 0" o.c. According to 
the preliminary figures of the Association, this offered hope of sav 
ings as high as 26% on labor and 14% on material in comparison with 
the conventional system, and might add as much as 24% to the in 
sulation value. It had been used by architects and was being seri 
ously considered by several of the prefabricators. 

2. Frame Panels 

Chart C presents a summary of the details of construction used by 
the 49 companies which employed frame panels in their floors. The 
variation in sizes and spacings of floor joists in these panels is the 
result not so much of building regulations or differences in engi 
neering standards as of variation in structural floor (usually sub- 
floor) thickness and design. 

Floor panels used in basementless houses are usually insulated, 
particularly in northern climates, and the importance of vapor bar 
riers is beginning to be realized. For the installation of insulation 
and vapor barriers, factory assembly appeared to offer some advan 
tages over field installation, although only 14 companies gave definite 
indication of providing both, and among them there was wide varia 
tion, both in materials used and in method of installation. Some 
took the chance that insulation, even thin reflective insulation, might 
be damaged in transportation and handling, and made no effort to 


Chart C 

Frame Panel Floor 
49 Companies 

Frame members 

Panel size 


Structural floor 

Finish floor 

* Types discussed pp. 218 ff. 








2" X 6" 


2" X3" 


16" o.c. 


24" o.c. 




glued and 



4' X 12' 


8' X 12' 


6' X 12' 














metal lath 

and concrete 










glued and nailed 














protect it or box it in, probably on the theory that where boxing can 
be avoided and bridging done at the site there are certain advantages 
of nesting panels during shipment. 

The difficulties of factory application of finish flooring are empha 
sized by the relatively small number of companies which attempt 
it. Unless joints 16 between panels, always a problem in floors, can 
be concealed under partitions and thresholds, it becomes a handi 
craft operation to make them tight, and there are additional problems 
of protecting the assembled and sanded floor in handling. Since 
floor panels also tend to be large, the factory application of finish 
flooring tends to make them hard to manhandle, particularly if 
lumber subflooring is used. With rougher floor panels, simple butt 
or lap joints can be used, and the finish floor applied in the field. 

In order to avoid doubling of framing members at the joint, sev 
eral companies have changed from butt joints to some variation of 
lap joints, which require a higher degree of subfloor uniformity and 
thus place some advantage on the use of plywood for the structural 
floor instead of lumber. 

3. Stressed Skin Panels 

Chart D presents a summary of the construction details of the 16 
companies using stressed skin panels in their floors. From the point 
of view of reducing weight, stressed skin panels have definite advan 
tages, and the double skin makes a substantial increase in the 
thermal-insulation value of the floor. It further obviates any neces 
sity for bridging between joists. However, some care is required to 
prevent condensation within the panels. 

It will be noted that these panels are not produced in noticeably 
larger sizes than the frame panels, despite the possibilities offered 
by lighter weight, and that the joints in such panels tend to become 
more complex because of the inability to get at the interior of the 
panels, although in some cases hand holes were provided as access 
for bolting or other inside connection. These joints, in addition to 
providing continuous structural connection, were used to position 
the panels, and a feature was often made of their special characteris 
tic of making the whole structure demountable. In some cases, 
however, they become so complex as to require rather expensive 
millwork pieces. 

16 Joint types are discussed on pp. 218ff. 


Chart D 

Stressed Skin Panel Floor 
16 Companies 

Frame members 

Panel size 


Structural floor 












2" X 8* 


2" X 4" 


16" o.c. 


glued and 









4' X 8' 


4' X 12' 


4' X house width 


















glued and 








riveted or 



Finish floor 

plywood (3 rotary, 2 edge grain) 

unfinished hardwood 


asphalt tile 



glued and nailed 


At the time of the study new interest was being displayed in the 
use of edge-grain plywood as a finish floor and subfloor combined, 
to be applied in one sheet. This was used by only two companies, 
and it was not known at the time whether a cost saving could be 
made in this way or not. However, it was generally felt that rotary- 
cut fir plywood would not be satisfactory as finish flooring, because 
of its relatively poor and uneven wearing quality. One company 
used oak veneer as a factory-finished floor surface, but it appeared 
to be rather expensive at the time. There was little experimentation 
with the new composition floor materials. 

Nearly all companies used linoleum flooring in the bathroom or 
kitchen or both, but none attempted to apply this in the factory. 
It was interesting to note an increasing tendency to use asphalt tile 
flooring throughout the house, in the case of wood floor systems as 
well as that of concrete, and, when used, it seemed to meet with 
little marketing resistance. 

4. Solid Panels 

Only five companies used solid panels in their floors, and these 
were for the most part precast concrete panels. The fact that so 
few companies used such floors may be explained in part by the fact 
that only one smooth surface is required for a floor, and companies 
using precast wall slabs find it simpler to cast the floor slab on the 
ground at the site. 17 

Where there is a basement there is the possibility, not actually 
tried by any of the companies in the survey, of constructing a floor 

17 Nevertheless, there are indications that certain techniques, such as the 
Vacuum Concrete process and the use of prestressed reinforcing, together with 
some means of bedding them down firmly, may make it economically possible to 
use precast concrete floor slabs, particularly in large projects. 


with long precast and prestressed reinforced concrete beams which 
have a rectangular cross section and usually a hollow central core. 
Such beams were widely marketed by The Flexicore Co., Inc., and at 
least two other companies for use in conventional construction, and 
they offered interesting possibilities for specialized construction if 
joint problems could be handled. 

5. Poured at Site 

At least 25 companies were using poured-at-site floor construction, 
the great majority of them using asphalt tile or linoleum for their 
finished floor surface. 

Since concrete is a porous material and a poor thermal insulator, 
it was becoming increasingly obvious to these companies that care 
ful attention must be paid to insulating it from both the ground and 
the outside air (see Figure 17). Western firms, with longer experience 
in this sort of construction, were often found to exercise great care 
in the placement of a waterproof membrane beneath and around 
the edges of the slab usually hot tar and #15 roofing felt even 
where no insulation was required. 18 Many of the slabs produced for 
northern climates, however, seemed deficient in insulation. 19 The 
possible use of lightweight aggregates having better insulative quali 
ties and of waterproofing admixtures was under consideration at the 
time of the survey. 

The development of the ground slab was being spurred not only 
by materials savings, labor simplicity, time savings, and generally 
lower costs, but also in some degree by the regulations of the FHA 

18 The Byrne Organization takes the following precautions with slabs cast di 
rectly on the ground: 

"All slabs have a porous sub-base of considerable thickness with a perimeter 
grade beam around the building sufficiently deep to be below the frost line and 
to cut off subsurface water. . . . We never locate slabs on lots which have an 
accumulation of water through poor drainage. The top of the slab is furthermore 
placed about a foot above the ground which is carefully graded away from the 
building on all four sides." (Letter from Wesley H. Blank, Chief Engineer of 
the Byrne Organization, to the Bemis Foundation, July 31, 1947.) 

19 See "Insulation of Concrete Floors in Dwellings," HHFA Technical Bulle 
tin, no. 8 (January 1949), p. 149. Also Concrete Floors for Basementless Houses, 
Small Homes Council, University of Illinois, Circular Series F4.3 (August 10, 


requiring a large ventilation space under a platform floor and above 
the ground in the case of a basementless house. Many companies 
felt that their small houses would have an awkward appearance and 

Metal flashing 
Asbestos cement 
Anchor bolt 
Concrete grade 

Footings not carried 
below grade beam 

Anchor bolt 
Foundation wall 
Concrete footing 

Footings carried 
below grade beam 


Roofing felt 

Figure 17. 

Roofing felt 

Examples of Grade Beam and Concrete 
Slab on Grade 

serious marketing difficulties if built up too high above the ground 
level, and there was reason to believe that the public was not seri 
ously opposed either to the basementless house or to the ground slab 


D. Walls 

1. General 

Prefabricators, housing theorists, and rationalizers of construction 
in general have devoted more attention to the construction of walls 
than to that of any other part of the house. The human being, 
viewing the world primarily in a horizontal plane, seems to assume 
that walls make the house, and the inventive mind has long dwelled 
on the possibilities of creating an ideal material to serve all the 
functions of the wall cheaply and efficiently. 20 

Nearly every prefabricator manufactured some major part of the 
house walls, and many manufactured nothing but the walls and 
were looking forward to the day when they could get into the 
extensive non-residential field as well. Yet to manufacture the walls, 
or walls and roof, leaving the bulk of the house to be provided 
locally, is to realize only a part of the potential advantages of pre- 
fabrication; indeed, because of the number and variety of openings 
required, some prefabricators claim that it is more difficult to manu 
facture walls than floors, ceilings, or roofs. To most of the companies 
in our survey, however, considerations of rationalization for large- 
volume production, or of marketing only stock components for 
assembly as desired by the local purchaser, were not important. 
These companies were out to make a profit by simplifying somewhat, 
improving somewhat, or lowering costs somewhat, without substan 
tially altering the normal house as it is known and as it has become 
acceptable to the public. The system developed for the production 
of walls was, in most cases, at the heart of the whole scheme. 

2. Frame Assembly 

Precut houses. There was a steady production of what was known 
to the trade as a "precut" house, in which not only the walls but the 
whole structural frame and much of the finishing material were pre 
cut and shipped in a single house package. Such a package rarely 

20 Walls and partitions represent from 30% to 40% of the total construction cost 
of a house if millwork and interior and exterior finishing are included. 


contained more than the necessary wooden pieces and possibly some 
roofing or flooring materials in addition. Although this system may 
offer a few specialized advantages (for example, minimum bulk for 
export purposes), it is basically a conventional frame structure with 
marketing advantages depending on price and convenience rather 
than design. In fact, in most cases, the precut houses were clearly 
not better designed from the architectural viewpoint than the aver 
age conventional house. 

At the time of the survey the National Retail Lumber Dealers 
Association had offered the "industry-engineered house," based on 
modular coordination in wood frame design, efficient precutting, and 
a rational assembly system. 21 The Peerless Housing Company, Inc., 
was also at work on precut houses of advanced design, making use 
of special assemblies such as trusses and girts and millwork of stand 
ardized parts to obviate the need of more complicated assembly, and 
further simplifying erection operations by procedures designed to 
eliminate the chance of confusing the various precut pieces a chance 
which, together with the tendency of the local erection crew readily 
to give up the search for required pieces and cut other pieces to fit, 
has long been a special difficulty of the precut house. 

Frame and curtain wall construction. This usually involved wide- 
spaced framing members which wholly support the roof system, 
leaving no structural function for the "curtain walls" applied to these 
members. In some cases these systems can be termed "exoskeleton" 
systems since their framing members are exposed on at least one 
side of the wall. As such they have an unconventional and not 
unattractive appearance. 

Such a system was used in the house designed by the John B. 
Pierce Foundation and produced primarily as the Celotex Cemesto 
House (see Figure 24). This house had 4" X 4" posts as much as 
12' o.c., with the edges of the Cemesto 22 board curtain panels en 
closed within the posts themselves, and with the roof load carried 
to the posts by built-up plywood girders placed horizontally at the 
top of the posts. Above the 4' high tier of Cemesto panels placed 
above the floor and its capping lumber member came a second tier 
which, because it served no structural function, provided a great 
deal of freedom for the location of windows and other openings. 
The system was used extensively during the recent war (together 

21 The "industry-engineered house" plan was used by the University of Illinois 
Small Homes Council for its time study of construction methods, Research Report 
on Construction Methods. 

22 A sandwich board made up of fiberboard filler with asbestos cement facings. 


with a vertical type using posts spaced 4' o.c. and eliminating the 
special top girder), and the free fenestration and low cost appear 
to have overbalanced the special requirements of the system: high 
precision millwork in dimensioning the framing members, and care 
ful protection of the edges of the Cemesto panel against fracture in 
handling and against moisture in use. Many such houses have been 
erected since the war by private builders. 

One such builder, Modern Standardized Buildings Co., made use 
of the 4' spaced post and Cemesto panel system in a variation specially 
designed to avoid the costs of select grade lumber, millwork con 
struction, and other expensive finishing detail, and to take advan 
tage of the properties of protective mastics and paints. The design 
was expected to yield cost savings even with small production volume 
because of simplified production and erection procedures. 

Another frame and curtain wall system of interest was the so-called 
"Ratio Structures" house of Wiener, Sert, and Schulz, developed 
during the recent war. 23 Exterior wooden posts 13' 4" o.c. supported 
longitudinal beams and tie beams which in turn supported a series of 
curved plywood-covered panels to form a continuous arched roof. A 
secondary framing system in the walls, using a spacing module of 
3' 4", was filled with solid insulated wall panels, windows, or doors, 
as the case might be. Interior partitions in the temporary war 
projects which used this system were built up of laminated fiberboard 
on wood frames and jointed by the use of plywood splines, and 
fiberboard ceilings were hung from the tier beams. This system, 
like the Pierce system, offered great elasticity in the design of open 
ings, but the secondary framing system tended to be a needless and 
somewhat wasteful duplication of the primary roof support system. 

Production Line Structures offered a good example of another 
frame and curtain wall system of special interest (see Figure 25). 
In this system, half frames composed of wooden members and 
nailed plywood gussets were brought together at the site to form, 
in effect, three-hinged arches 4' o.c.; these were tied together at the 
ridge and eaves by longitudinal members and at the lower ends by 
plywood panel members. Continuous openings between structural 
members above these panels were filled in at the site by wood 
awning-type windows or by solid panels, as the location might dic 
tate. End walls were light framed and plywood covered, and they 
served structurally only as stiffeners. The house was designed for 

23 Modern Designs for Prefabricated and Demountable Buildings, Office of 
Production Research and Development (Washington, 1944). 


ready production, in a standard width but in any multiple of 4' in 
length, by the use of standard parts. This design was suitable 
primarily to warm climates; its contemporary quality may be shown 
by the fact that it received first citation in the 1946 Progressive Archi 
tecture Awards. 

Metal walls. In this group were metal systems ranging from those 
which largely imitate wood frame structure to those in which some 
element of stressed skin design is employed in order to take advan 
tage of the possibilities offered by metal for production of thin, 
strong, and standard sheets. In metal structures the line cannot 
easily be drawn between frame assembly, frame panels, and stressed 
skin panels. Classification of a system often depended upon 
whether, at the time of the survey, the framing members went to 
the site as separate elements or preassembled into panels, or whether 
at that time the manufacturer was shipping out his parts "knocked 
down" or had the time and factory space to do a certain amount of 
preassembly. In general, if panels of some sort were preassembled, 
the system was classed as frame panel, and if great reliance was 
placed on stressed skin design, the system was considered under that 

Typical of the steel systems in which metal studs serve simply to 
replace wooden studs was that put on the market by Stran-Steel, in 
which the stud was specially designed to permit nailing into it. 
Nevertheless, the Stran-Steel Arch Rib Homes an outgrowth of the 
wartime "Quonset" huts were very different from wood design. 
They produced a structure of semicircular arch section, enclosing 
the house volume with substantially less material and avoiding the 
difficulties usually encountered at the juncture between roof and 
wall. In this system, corrugated sheet-metal cladding was applied 
to the exterior side of steel ribs spaced 2' o.c., with paint, special 
protective coating, or insulation used according to the circumstances. 
In many cases, roof sheets were raised from the main framing to 
permit continuous ventilation under the roof. Windows, doors, and 
other openings along the sides of the structure ordinarily were verti 
cally framed bay extensions of the structure, often in wood. The 
final product was used in many different situations, frequently pro 
ducing very interesting variants on the usual themes of domestic 

In systems of this sort special care has to be taken to avoid con 
densation resulting from contact between the highly conductive 
metal skin and the frame. The use of horizontal rather than vertical 
corrugation helps to reduce the area of continuous contact between 


these two, and the furring out of interior wall surfaces on wood 
battens, the separation of skin from frame by insulating felt or rubber 
strip, and the provision of weep holes and drip on the inside of the 
wall to permit escape of moisture which accumulates on the under 
side of the skin, are examples of other design devices employed to 
improve the residential qualities of this sort of construction. 

A frame assembly house construction system of aluminum was 
offered by the Fox Metal Products Corporation. In this system, the 
basic framing member was made up of two 6" channels of 0.064" 
thickness bolted back to back to form an I section into which facings 
and insulation could be screwed or nailed; the I sections were spaced 
2' o.c. Exterior surfacing was 0.040" thickness aluminum sheet, 
crimped for stiffness in such a way as to resemble clapboards. The 
crimping reduced the area of contact between exterior surface and 
frame, and further protection was offered by an insulating strip of 
asphalted felt. The interior surface was generally %" Upson 24 
board, applied over a V blanket of compressible insulation where 
required by climate, and held in place by cold-rolled vertical alumi 
num batten strips. Partitions were formed of 4" I-section channels 
having Upson board on both surfaces. The roof structure was much 
the same as the wall, with additional insulation and with a layer of 
Upson board placed immediately beneath the exterior surface as 
well. No further finishing was required for wall or roof surfaces. 
Windows were wood framed casements, placed in the 2' space be 
tween studs. 25 

Another frame assembly house, basically of steel, was that of the 
Harman Corporation. This house was one of the earliest to receive a 
guaranteed market contract (for 4,200 houses), and it was later widely 
publicized by the failure of the company. This house used the 
Lindsay trailer body structural system in applying thin sheet steel 
(26 gauge on walls, 24 gauge on roof, galvanized) in tension as an 
exterior surface over steel wall studs and roof trusses 39" o.c. When 
completed at the site, therefore, this became a stressed skin system, 
with the skin bracing the entire structure. An interior lining of 
insulation and wallboard was furred out from the steel members with 
wooden strips, and insulated partitions were made of light steel 

24 Upson board is a laminated fiberboard available in room-sized panels. 

25 More recently, Fox Metal Products Corporation has supplanted this model 
with its Marquette home, which varies from this description in many respects, 
particularly in the use of plywood interior finish, of more extensive insulation, 
and of a peaked roof finished with sheathing lumber, asphalt-saturated felt, and 
asphalt shingles. 


framing members with wallboard applied to both sides. Windows 
were of the steel casement type. The exterior was finished with a 
special paint, designed to derive added weather protection from 
imbedded grains of stone and similar to stucco in appearance. Har- 
man did a substantial amount of engineering in adopting various 
existing and new materials to the final house, but the company 
operated primarily as an assembly plant, purchasing most of its 
components elsewhere, and it was notable for the completeness of 
the package furnished from the plant. The system inherently re 
quired a good deal of relatively skilled site labor and led to unusually 
high erection costs. 

A metal frame assembly house even better known not so long ago 
was the hemispherical Fuller house (see Figure 28). The entire 
weight of this structure was borne by a central mast composed of 
seven high-strength alloy steel tubes bound together. The mast 
rested in a concrete footing, and three steel rings were hung from 
the top of the mast, one below the other in widening circles. These 
rings changed the direction and fixed the position of the tension 
wires which supported the structure. The tension wires were fas 
tened to the top of the mast and supported the outer edge of the 
circular floor structure, which was composed of wedge-shaped pressed 
aluminum floor beams with their narrow ends supported by the central 
mast. Curved ribs, acting in principle like those of an umbrella, 
supported the roof skin of aluminum. The side walls were curved 
double aluminum sheets with space between for insulation. Since 
the interior was entirely free of structural members with the excep 
tion of the central mast, the room arrangement was quite flexible. 
The final house was a metal stressed skin structure, but it was con 
templated that it would be shipped knocked down, with its various 
framing members and skins packaged into a cylindrical container 
4%' in diameter and 16' long, so it is therefore classified here as a 
metal frame assembly. 

Chart E presents a general summary of the construction details 
of the twelve companies using frame assembly in their walls. The 
great variety of systems falling under this heading is immediately 


Chan E 

Frame Assembly Wall 
12 Companies 

Frame members 


Vapor barrier 

Exterior structural cladding 

Exterior finish 






2" X 4" 


16" o.c. 


24" o.c. 


4' o.c. 






glued and nailed 


metal foil 


gypslim board 


metal foil 




asphalt membrane 










screwed or bolted 


glued and nailed 




wood siding 


wood cladding 


metal cladding 








screwed or bolted 




Interior surface 


gypsum board 


lath and plaster 








screwed or bolted 


glued and nailed 

3. Frame Panels 

The most common form of frame panel walls consisted simply of 
framing members assembled together with exterior surfacing ele 
ments. Interior surfacing was commonly field applied in order to 
facilitate field installation of plumbing, heating, and wiring and to 
simplify the application of acceptable interior finish. 

It is interesting to note that two of the largest producers of houses 
in this category 26 ( both of which combined pref abrication and site- 
fabrication techniques) used stucco for at least part of the exterior 
surface. This serves to illustrate the fact that strict rules cannot 
be laid down for the prefabrication process, for combinations of fa 
vorable climatic conditions, projects large enough to permit efficient 
techniques of application (in this case gunite), and highly organized 
construction systems can turn to competitive advantage even the wet 
processes often considered incompatible with prefabrication. It is 
foolish, therefore, to attempt to discover an absolute scale of values 
or an ideal to which various systems may be compared. It cannot 
too often be emphasized that design must be considered in a very 
broad sense, embracing the whole production and marketing scheme 
of the prefabricator. Nevertheless, the smallest details of design 
have a considerable interest of their own and are also properly the 
subject of consideration. 

Panel size. Ordinarily the factors controlling size are the bulk and 
weight which can easily be manhandled in the field. With the 
exception of the few producers of modular panels, whose aim in 
brief was to produce a rather more complex variety of stock build 
ing material, there has been a noticeable tendency, not clearly re 
flected in the data, to use the largest panel practicable in the field, 
thereby cutting down on erection labor and field jointing, among 

26 Kaiser Community Homes and the Byrne Organization. 


other things. 27 With this in mind, several producers had changed 
their 3' or 4' modular panels to room-size, or even wall-size, panels. 

Field joints have become to most prefabricators a design problem 
of the greatest importance. Many of them firmly believe that verti 
cal battens or any other external indication of joints, particularly 
on the exterior of the house, will be considered objectionable by a 
substantial part of their potential market, and some of them feel that 
it is important to conceal from the public the fact that the house is 
prefabricated at all. And it must be conceded that there has been 
some justification for this concern about the public reaction to visible 

This becomes, then, a limiting factor on the extent of factory 
application of surfacing materials, and many prefabricators have 
made a practice of leaving finish siding, facing, or shingling as a 
field chore in order to conceal joints. The use of room-size panels, 
on the other hand, offers the opportunity to conceal, eliminate, or 
finish with precision methods in the plant the joints of inside wall 
surfacing materials. It also becomes possible to reduce the exterior 
joints to one or two per wall and to disguise these by locating them 
at natural breaks in the elevation or by concealing them behind 
downspouts or other exterior details. 

A few companies carried this a step further and produced wall- 
size panels, but since these usually require special handling equip 
ment at the site, they tend to be limited to specialized situations. 
Nevertheless, as finishing materials become commercially available 
in larger sheets and as new lightweight walls are perfected (such as 
the plastic-impregnated paper-core sandwich walls), this trend to 
wards larger panel size will probably continue. 

Joints. A great deal of ingenuity has been exercised to develop 
joints 28 that will be at the same time simple to produce, hard to 
damage in transit or at the site, easy to erect in the field, and satis 
factory in terms of performance in the final house. Refinements in 
clude joints which permit panels to be put together either way rather 
than only one way (such as left to right), three-way joints for places 
where interior partitions join exterior walls, and joints which will 
connect standardized ceiling, roof, and floor panels as well as wall 

27 When Harnischfeger shifted from modular to room-sized panels, considerably 
less framing lumber was required, as well as many fewer kinds of parts. 

28 All panel systems and many other systems require field joints. Although 
they are first discussed here, their applicability is in no way limited to frame 


panels. Of at least some importance in selecting a joint system 
has been the possibility of getting patents on it. 

By and large, the majority of the prefabricated houses produced 
during the period of the survey were of wood construction, and the 
detailed problems of joint designs adequate for such systems need 
not be considered here since they are adequately discussed else 
where. 29 The importance generally accorded the joint is so great, 
however, that a brief summary of the various types is presented 
here. These joints are illustrated in Figure 18. 

A single or double lap joint is formed by the butting of contiguous 
skin sheets, on one or on both surfaces, over a common framing mem 
ber to which one skin sheet is usually bonded in the factory and the 
other in the field. Such a joint is referred to in the industry as a 
male and female joint. The common member may, of course, be a 
filler strip which fits into recessed edges on both panels, and in this 
case it approaches a spline in character. 

Batten strips can be used to join two panels which are butted 
together, and they usually increase the weathertightness of the 
joint. The batten is one of the oldest and simplest of joint methods, 
but there is a marked tendency to avoid it because of the belief that 
the general public will not tolerate such a sign of transitory character 
in a permanent house. 

The spline is usually a continuous joint, and it is popular because 
it permits use of the same simple field device at either edge of the 
panel and because it permits flush finishing in the factory of both 
frame and surfacing materials an advantage in transporting and 
handling and in certain manufacturing and finishing operations. 
This involves somewhat more millwork than the previous joints, and, 
since most prefabricators prefer not to nail in the spline directly 
through the surface skin because this means a nail head or hole to 
conceal, the structural tie achieved is often not so strong as in the 
case of other joints. The spline joint is, therefore, generally used to 
close vertical gaps and line up panels vertically, and rarely if ever to 
make horizontal connections. 

The interlocking joint is the most complex type of joint, mostly 
used for panels having both surfaces applied and finished in the 
factory. It requires a dimensional precision which is not easy to 
realize in ordinary framing woods, and may involve extensive mill- 
work. Because of differential shrinkage in wood, for instance, Z 
joints have frequently given trouble. Frequently special metal parts 

29 Manual on Wood Construction for Prefabricated Houses, Chapter 13. 


Double lap 
(also called 
male and female) 
Single lap has only 
one face lapping 
adjacent framing 

Butt and batten 



Figure 18. Commonly Used Panel Joints 

are designed to speed up or improve field operation, and nearly all 
such joints are patented. Occasionally, these joints seem to have 
been designed with more proprietary pride than logic, and some 
seem to cause more difficulties than they solve. 

Interlocking joints may have extra features, however, as when 
the design gives the added elasticity of permitting panels to be 
attached horizontally as well as vertically and thus makes possible 
the production of stock modular panels as a building material for 
assembly according to design of the local architect or builder. 

Nearly all exterior joints require some sort of caulking to make 
them weathertight, and the ideal caulking material is still to be 
found. In the case of most materials the edges of the exterior sur 
facing itself must be carefully protected as well. Of course, where 
exterior joints are concealed by field-applied (or field-finished) sid 
ing or shingling, no such problem arises. 

Wood frame panels. Examples of this type of construction were 
produced by Kaiser Community Homes (see Figure 29). A com 
pletely standardized one-story house "chassis" was produced in the 
factory (45% of the work) and individualized to some extent in 
the course of the field finishing. This chassis consisted of room- 
size panels made up of 2" X 4" studs to which %" plywood was 
glued and stapled to serve as interior wallboard. 30 Windows and 
doors were fitted or hung in their frames in the walls in the plant. 
The panels were spiked together in the field, and chicken wire was 
applied over building paper as a base for the application of an 
exterior finish of stucco, to which areas of siding or shingling were 
added for variation in appearance. Interior partitions were in some 
cases factory-built storagewalls (entirely utilized for closets, shelves, 
drawers, and the like) and in some cases stressed skin panels (de 
scribed in the next section). Inside surfaces were finished with a 
fabric-base wallpaper. At the time of the survey, about 3,000 of 
these houses had been built in the Los Angeles area. 

Another example was the house built by the Defoe Shipbuilding 
Co., the walls of which were frame panels from 4' to 12' in width, 
made up of standard 2" X 4" studs 16" o.c., %" fiberboard sheathing, 
and plasterboard interior surface, taped and filled at the site to 
present a smooth and unbroken appearance. With both surfaces 
factory applied, a special joint was necessary, and an interlocking 

30 Both gluing and stapling or nailing are frequently used in this way to give 
added rigidity and thereby eliminate much of the need of bracing in the walls 
and bridging in the floors. The staples or nails serve principally to apply pressure 
until the glue sets. 


joint was used, requiring some millwork. At the site joining was 
accomplished by diagonal nailing from the outside, with the final 
joints concealed by exterior siding. Aside from the joints and the 
factory application of surfacing, insulation, windows, and doors, 
there was little to distinguish this house from the conventional wood 
frame house. In that sense, it was typical of a large group of pre 
fabricated houses, more of which have probably been built and sold 
since the end of the war than any other type. Many of these com 
panies, while maintaining profitable operations with this sort of 
house, are at the same time working on more unconventional designs 
for eventual production. 

Metal frame panels. Houses using this type of construction were 
far less conventional than those we have just discussed (see Figure 
19). The widely advertised Lustron house was a good case in point. 
Here the frame consisted of steel studs, rolled in special "hat" sec 
tions and welded 2' o.c. on both sides of horizontal "hat" section 
members, with channel members welded in between the studs as 
bracing. Window and door framing were also welded into the 
panel, and the whole framing system then got a bonderizing coat 
and a sluiced-on protective enamel coat. The interior and exterior 
surfaces were steel pans finished with vitreous enamel, as were the 
roof and ceiling surfaces, and all were attached in the field except 
ing those in the special bay window section, which was factory 
assembled. The vitreous enamel finish was available in a variety 
of colors, and it offered a relatively permanent, easily cleaned surface. 
For heating, the house had a plenum chamber over the ceiling pans, 
converting these into a radiant ceiling, and insulation was factory 
applied to the inside of the exterior steel pans and field applied 
over the top of the plenum chamber. Through-metal contact and 
resulting condensation were minimized by continuing the insula 
tion between the metal studs and exterior pans. Weather bond 
between pans was achieved by extruded gaskets of Koroseal specially 
designed to seal the joint between the flanges of the pans. This 
house was notable for the completeness of the package offered 
through the chain of Lustron dealers, and for the utility room offer 
ing bulk storage within the house. 31 The standard two-bedroom 
house was about 1,000 sq. ft. in floor area, or substantially larger 
than the average prefabricated house. The three-bedroom house 
contained more than 1,200 sq. ft. 

31 The house was basementless and had a floor of asphalt tile over concrete 
grade beam and slab. 


Another metal frame panel house was that built in a 1,200-house 
project at Harundale, Md., by the Byrne Organization in a combina 
tion of pref abrication and site-fabrication techniques 32 ( see Figure 
28). Here Macomber-type steel studs (rolled to give a "hat-shaped" 
section) were used, with two opposed sections spaced by welded 
tie rods to make a complete wall stud. The complete studs were in 
turn assembled into steel frame panels in a shop at the site, a 1" 
glass fiberboard laid over the exterior of these panels, and a paper 
backed wire mesh pinned through the fiberboard to the panels by a 
special welding machine for stucco finish. The paper acted as a 
weather barrier, and the insulation near the outside surface pro 
tected the steel members from falling below dew point and causing 
condensation, while two coats of special aluminum paint on plaster 
served as a vapor barrier. The structure was placed on a radiant- 
heated floor slab and stucco applied as an outside surface in the 
field. Initially, before the company turned to the use of aluminum 
paint, vapor-barrier paper with wire lath had been nailed on the 
inside to the frame in the shop and plaster applied in the field. Walls 
were vented into the roof space to assist in carrying off any vapor 
accumulation which might occur. Interior partitions were site 
assembled, and the wall panels and roof trusses were welded together 
at the site to form a continuous rigid frame structure, far stronger 
than required by codes. 

A very different type of metal construction was offered by General 
Homes. Although this was primarily a frame panel construction, 
reliance was also placed in part upon stressed skin principles. The 
core of the panel consisted of 0.032" aluminum sheet, shaped into 
continuous trapezoidal sections 4" high and 6" center to center. 
The surface, inner and outer, was 0.032" aluminum skin bonded to 
%" fiberboard sheets. This surface was screwed to the shaped core 
in sheets 2' o.c. through aluminum trim strips. Aluminum straps, 
2' o.c. and riveted to the core horizontally, added stiffening. Panels 
were locked together in the field by tabs punched out of channels in 
the end of the panels. In the shop 4" batts of insulation were in 
serted into the cores, and all metal surfaces shop coated with zinc 
chromate primer. A simple screw attachment in the field was used 
to install windows in special framing prepared in the shop. 

32 The recent financial troubles of this project have caused a great deal of 
speculation about the principles of location, site planning, design, and fabrication 
used by the Byrne Organization. Needless to say, blame cannot be firmly fixed. 





eave panel 

roof panel 

Top stud 

Roof truss 

Vertical wall 


exterior panels 

Anchor bolt 

Bottom stud 

joint strip 

8" concrete 
foundation wall 

gable end 


Floor slab 

Figure 19. Metal Construction Systems: ( 1 ) Lustron 

Asbestos shingles 
Building paper 
Steel gutter 

Hat shaped 
roof truss 

Hat shaped 
steel studs 

Steel base 

Steel stud 

Asphalt tile 




\ Paper 
wire mesh 


Lower truss 

Metal lath 
Vapor seal 

Radiant heating coils 
'in concrete slabs 

Figure 19. Metal Construction Systems: (2) Byrne Organization 

Chart F gives a summary of the construction details of the 62 
companies using frame panels in their walls. It will be noted at 
once that the great majority, 55 out of 62, used wood as their princi 
pal material, and that, of these, the great majority, 46 out of 55, 
used conventional 2" X 4" studs, 16" o.c. 

Chart F 

Frame Panel Wall 
62 Companies 

Frame members 

Panel size 



Vapor barrier 








2" X4" 




16" o.c. 


24" o.c. 






glued and nailed 




room size 


wall size 












metal foil 


metal foil 


insulation backing 




Exterior structural cladding 

Exterior finish 

Interior surface 






fiber board 






1* (wood) 


M* (plywood) 


H" (plywood) 




glued and nailed 






wood siding 


wood cladding surface 


metal cladding surface 






gypsum board 












glued and nailed 





4. Stressed Skin Panels 

Lumber and plywood panels. Companies using this system of con 
struction varied the most, as a group, from conventional structural 
design, and they represent one of the most significant developments 
in the field. In all, 32 companies used plywood stressed skin panels. 33 

83 It has been noted above that the term "stressed skin" is somewhat loosely 
applied to this construction, since there is some structural reliance on the framing 
members themselves. The Forest Products Laboratory prefers the term "stressed- 
cover panels" in this connection, and other terms are undoubtedly in use. "Stressed 
skin" is nevertheless retained for use here because the term is so widely familiar. 


The general characteristics of this system include smaller con 
sumption of material and lighter weight, compared to conventional 
frame systems, achieved at the same time as increased strength and 
structural stiffness. Basically, the system depends on the strength 
developed by bonding rigidly together by means of specialized 
gluing techniques a system of light wood framing members and thin 
plywood surface sheets, so that the whole acts together in the nature 
of a box girder. Such a panel, when correctly made, is much 
stronger and stiff er than conventional wood frame construction. 
Wall thickness can be substantially less than that of conventional 
construction. From the viewpoint of economy, the system not only 
uses less wood than conventional construction, but has the further 
advantage that plywood uses a larger percentage of the log than can 
be made into lumber. On the other hand the quality of the framing 
wood must in most cases be better. Research has developed water 
proof, high-quality glues and improved techniques for binding the 
surface sheets to the framing members, and current development 
work on the composition and design of these sheets indicates that 
further improvements are to be expected in the future. 

At the present time, the quality of the construction is such that 
the plywood surfaces can be used for interior and even exterior 
finish, although there is still some difficulty in maintaining good 
exterior finish on plywood exposed to the weather. In this respect, 
edge-grained plywood and the recent redwood plywood perform 
better, and plastic and other surface coatings further improve per 
formance. The framing members, because of their smaller section 
and the need to present a flat surface for gluing, are somewhat higher 
in quality than ordinary framing and in some cases can be used 
by prefabricators as actual floor and window framing, thus vastly 
reducing requirements for trim in these locations. 

Interior partitions are frequently of the same construction, even 
when not load bearing, because of the availability of manufacturing 
facilities, although single plywood sheets, practically self-support 
ing, are occasionally used in locations such as closets where the 
sheet is not the sole barrier between rooms. 

The manner in which some of the new technical problems pre 
sented by stressed skin plywood panels have been met by the pre 
fabricators is of interest, particularly since in many cases these prob 
lems are also faced in the use of other new materials. For that rea 
son, a few of the most significant problems will be discussed here 


Condensation. A construction which makes the wall markedly more 
airtight creates the benefit of diminished heat loss but also the prob 
lem of diminished vapor permeation, and therefore condensation. 
When the vapor originating within a house in cold weather cannot 
readily escape through the floors, walls, and roof (as is the case 
with stressed skin plywood or with metal panel walls, for example), 
there is always the possibility of its coming in contact with some 
frame or surfacing element which has been cooled by outside air to 
a temperature below the dew point. At the point of such contact 
condensation occurs, and as this point is likely to be within the wall 
structure itself, the resulting moisture may do considerable damage. 34 
Among the prefabricators using stressed skin plywood and metal 
panels, at least nine were using special ventilation slots within the 
wall space, and many used vapor barriers designed to reduce the 
penetration of vapor into the wall structure from the house area. 

Among the most commonly used vapor barriers were asphalt mem 
branes laminated with kraft paper (and frequently backed by in 
sulation) and metal foils. The performance of such barriers is good 
only when they are carefully fitted and tightly fastened in place. 
In the common examples in which the material supposedly serving 
as a vapor barrier was not even tacked or stapled in place, there was 
serious question of its effectiveness. 

A problem of detail in stressed skin construction is that the heads 
of nails or staples on the interior surface are frequently the points 
at which there may be condensation, resulting in dark spots or stains. 
Several companies sought to solve this problem by countersinking 
and puttying over these heads, while others avoided it by bonding 
the plywood to the frame without nails or staples, through the use 
of glues set with hot or cold presses. 

In stressed skin plywood, as in plaster and many other materials, 
a combination of such factors as the static charges on dust particles 
and the differential rate of thermal and vapor conductivity between 
the sheet alone and the sheet backed by framing will often result 
in the collection of dust and dirt in such a way as to show on the 
surface the pattern of framing in the form of so-called "shadow lines." 
Some prefabricators sought to avoid this effect by developing designs 
which tended to equalize thermal and moisture conductivity through- 

34 For a discussion of the condensation problems in some fifty different wood 
and metal wall and roof constructions tested in the Pennsylvania State College 
Climatometer see Ralph R. Britton, "Condensation in Walls and Roofs," HHFA 
Technical Paper, nos. 1, 2, 3, and 8 (March, June, and September 1947; April 


out. Gunnison, for example, fluted the framing members wherever 
they came in contact with the surface skin in an effort to reduce this 

Insulation. The only common characteristic observed among com 
panies in this respect was the almost complete absence of loose or 
fill-type insulation for walls. The common insulations were in the 
form of sheets, batts, or blankets, usually paper backed; and the 
considerations to be met in the selection of an insulating material 
included the ease of handling and installation, the durability, the 
insulative quality, and the amount of space available for storage 
in the plant. 

Finishes. As a result of the development of waterproof glues, 
delamination of plies is a rare occurrence if edges are well protected, 
and of the 32 companies using stressed skin plywood construction 
in their walls, 20 used the plywood as the exterior finish material. 
A good deal of development work in paints and sealers has helped 
to make this possible, 35 although some of the good sealers, such as 
aluminum flake, have been little used by prefabricators because they 
add production difficulties. 

Several of the large companies were using the relatively new de 
vice of bonding plastic-impregnated paper to the plywood to serve 
as an exterior surface material and an excellent base for paint. Other 
companies made use of striated plywood, the scoring of which tends 
to conceal any checking which may occur, to disguise the joints 
between panels, and to give a pleasantly textured finish. On inte 
riors, where neither of these devices was used, it was common to 
find a rounding or beveling of the edge of the plywood sheets, in 
recognition of the fact that expansion and contraction of the panel 
surfaces will otherwise eventually make visible cracks in paint or 
paper surfacing anyway. 

Nearly all the companies using stressed skin plywood panels 
without further interior or exterior finishing materials designed their 
houses in terms of modular panel widths of 40" or 4', principally 
because the plywood sheets come in widths of 4', but partly also 
because of the tendency of larger panels to bulge as the exterior and 
interior sheets develop large differences in moisture content. Where 
additional surfacing materials are used, this tendency can be rather 
easily controlled. 

A few of the companies prefinished the plywood interior in the 
shop, usually with tinted sealers and lacquers to produce a subdued 

85 See Manual on Wood Construction for Prefabricated Houses, Chapter 7. 


grain finish. Most companies finished in the field, taking special 
precautions to combat the cracking of the finish materials at the 
joints. One method used for this purpose was taping and puttying, 
and fabric-based or other special wallpaper was another. Some com 
panies used batten strips, taking precautions to avoid the opening of 
cracks in the finish along the batten edges which result from shrink 
age and from movement of the panels behind them. 

Large plywood sheets were not ordinarily used in stressed skin 
panels, but more usually in frame panel construction. Such sheets 
were made up by factory joining of 4' X 8' sheets into room-size 
sheets by scarf or lap joining and gluing under a hot press, yielding 
a very satisfactory continuous wall. 

This brief discussion of the technical problems of plywood will 
illustrate the fact that the use of the material for efficient home 
construction has depended in large measure upon the development 
of sound factory processes. In the opinion of many a prefabricator, 
it is definitely a prefabrication material, which could be used effec 
tively in the field only through craftsmanship of cabinetmaker 

Several of the companies used laminated paper Upson board as 
an interior wall surface material, and at least one used it in a partially 
stressed skin design. Most frequently this material was used in 
room-size sheets, with the openings cut out of it. Designs took care 
to conceal cracks or unpainted lines which might appear as the 
result of movement of the board over the course of time. Other 
materials were also employed, such as Homasote, a wood-pulp board 
available in room-size sheets, used in one case in partially stressed 
skin construction. 

Examples. Green's Ready-Built Homes, Ivon R. Ford, Inc., and 
Winner Manufacturing Company, Inc., all produced stressed skin 
panel houses. Green's Ready-Built Homes produced a panelized "solar 
house" (see Figure 30), of which much of the design was the work 
of George Fred Keck of Chicago. The basic panel was 39" wide, 
of wall height, and composed of %" exterior grade and %" interior 
finish plywood glued (by high-frequency induction hot press) to a 
frame of 2" X 3" edge members supported by two 1" X 3" inter 
mediate studs. Panels were held together by metal connectors on 
the grooved and beveled panel edges, the connectors being held 
firmly by the position of the heads of screws attached to the inter 
secting edge of a partition or corner panel (and also to battens, 
which were inserted at each joint). This gave the system a feature 
of demountability. Between the plywood surfaces two aluminum- 


foil reflective layers were carefully bonded in such a way as to 
create three separate and approximately equal insulating air spaces 
within the panel. Exterior surfaces were sealed, primed, and fin 
ished with oil paints, and interior surfaces were shop finished with 
clear stain and lacquer or paint, as required. At the site wall panels 
were positioned in an extruded aluminum plate. A feature of this 
house, and one which was beginning to appear elsewhere also, was 
the use of fixed and sealed double panes of glass for vision, with 
separate wood panel openings top and bottom, louvered and screened, 
for ventilation. This design permitted the use of larger windows with 
out the expense of the complex carpentry often encountered in mov 
able sash construction. The house had a high degree of factory 
finish, and the finish was of a quality which would be expensive to 
duplicate in the field. In architectural planning the house was also 
unconventional, with an attempt to give all rooms due south orien 

I von R. Ford, Inc., and its nine licensees spread over the United 
States and Canada manufactured stressed skin plywood houses (see 
Figure 35) made up from room-size panels of %" exterior sheathing 
and %" interior finish plywood glued and nailed to 2" X 3" studding 
16" o.c. Doors and double-hung windows were factory installed. 
Joints, of male and female type, were glued as well as nailed, and 
siding or shingling was applied over the plywood sheathing, in the 
field. The bottom plate of the wall panel was rabbeted into the sill 
for alignment and fastened in place by toe-nailing into the sill with 
spikes. The design was relatively conventional and simple, and yet 
would be difficult to produce in economical quantity without a well- 
equipped woodworking shop. 

The Winner Manufacturing Company at the time of our survey 
produced the Shelter Industries House, designed by Donald Desky. 
Room -size panels were made up of %" striated exterior plywood 
and % 6 " striated interior plywood bonded to IKe" X 3%" studs 
16" o.c. Joints required to make up plywood sheets of the required 
size were factory caulked. Double aluminum-foil sheets and one 
vapor barrier were suspended in the wall to give a total of four 
interior air spaces. Field joints were of the male and female type, 
nailed and caulked. Doors and double-hung windows were factory 
installed, and the striated plywood finish was field finished with 
lacquer or paint as desired. This house was of unconventional archi 
tectural as well as structural design. 

Metal skin panels. This type of construction was used by the 
Butler Manufacturing Company which made a house (see Figure 


36) of 2' wide aluminum pans of wall height which acted in the 
manner of vertical channels, flange to flange. The web of the chan 
nel served as the exterior surface of the house, and in structural action 
constituted a stressed skin 0.051" thick. The 4" flanges gripped wood 
filler strips which cut down the thermal conductivity from outside 
to inside. In part, also, these filler strips served as a frame, and they 
provided a wood surface for the nailing of optional interior finish ma 
terials. Two braces per panel stiffened the flanges, and the panels 
were clipped together at the site with an H-shaped key, driven home 
by a hammer. Blanket insulation was added to the reflective insula 
tion provided by the aluminum surfaces themselves, and panels were 
ventilated to the outside to minimize condensation and obviate the 
necessity of a vapor barrier. Window sash and frames were of ex 
truded aluminum sections, and doors and door frames were of wood. 
Shorter lengths of panel were used under and over openings and to 
make up gable ends. Aluminum channels positioned the panels top 
and bottom and were bolted into the floor and ceiling; wood molding 
and base were used on the interior. Exterior finish was paint applied 
as desired in the field over shop-applied zinc chromate primer. 

Plastic-impregnated paper-core materials (see Figure 20). One of 
the most interesting technical developments in the postwar period, 
this construction was originally a development of the aircraft industry. 
Used because of their high strength/weight ratio, such materials have 
been the subject of a great deal of interest and investigation on the 
part of the prefabricators. Usually classified as sandwich construc 
tion, they are generally most like the stressed skin construction of 
those classifications which are used here. The two forms most com 
monly seen at the time of our survey were the honeycomb paper core 
and the corrugated paper core. 36 Development work on the former 
was carried on primarily by Lincoln Houses Corporation, Chrysler, 
Douglas Aircraft, and Consolidated Vultee; while the latter has been 
developed primarily by the U. S. Forest Products Laboratory. 

At the time of the survey, Utley-Lincoln planned to make a house 
with panels of the Lincoln core and aluminum skins bonded by the 
Chrysler method. Southern California Homes was starting produc 
tion on a house of similar basic material, and it is an indication of the 
structural advantages of this development that, for southern California 
climatic conditions, a wall section only 2" thick required no further in 

86 Described in more detail in Chapter 9. 


Typical structural panel 

Honeycomb paper core 

STEP 1. 
Glue applied 
at alternate 
lines on paper 

1. Cross-corrugated 
parallel to faces 

2. Cross-corrugated 
perpendicular to 

Cross-corrugated paper core 




STEP 2. 
Paper pressed 
together and 
allowed to cure 


Then pulled apart 
to form irregular 
pattern of cells 

Cemesto board 
(non-structural paneD 

Figure 20. Sandwich Panel Materials 

The Southern California Homes system included a semihoneycomb 
paper core, impregnated with phenolic resin, and faced with alumi 
num skins (3S, 0.020" thick, % hard) in room-size panels. Panel 
edges and openings were formed by channels of aluminum 0.064" 
thick, the flanges of which were bonded between skin and core ma 
terials. The bottom edge of the panel was bonded to a 2" box sec 
tion of aluminum which served as a wiring conduit and also pro 
vided access every 4' for bolting the panels to the foundation slab. 
On the inside this was covered by a simple baseboard. Aluminum 
rolled strip door and window stops were screwed to the channels, 
and served to locate steel casement sash and paper-core wood-veneer 
flush doors. On the outside the bottom edge of the panel had a 
lip to cover the exterior joint at the edge of the foundation. From the 
top edge of wall panels, bolts passed through to roof panels and 
held them in place. Paint over zinc chromate primer was the finish. 
This wall, complete, averaged only 1 Ib. per sq. ft. Architecturally, 
the house was of unconventional design and reflected an appreciation 
of the possibilities of the new material. It would require a few 
changes, however, particularly to avoid through-metal in the walls, 
for use in northern climates. 

Steel skins, particularly stainless steel, could of course be used as 
well as aluminum in paper-cored walls, but as yet no prefabricator 
had tried them. There was during the time of the survey, however, 
at least one house making use of plywood-faced paper-core walls. 
This was the Acorn House, designed by Carl Koch and John Bemis. 
Here the design called for a core, not of the honeycomb type, but 
made up of corrugated paper with the direction of the corrugations 
alternated for good performance structurally and as insulation, ac 
cording to the recommendations of the U. S. Forest Products Labora 
tory. The core was then bonded in a press to surfacing sheets of %" 
interior grade plywood and %" striated exterior plywood. Ad 
vantage was taken of the lightness of the material to design a house 
of 800 sq. ft. which could be put together in the factory around a 
completely equipped kitchen, bathroom, and utility core, folded into 
a compact 9' X 24' unit, shipped to the site on an ordinary trailer, and 
there set on posts and unfolded in a very simple operation to produce 
the finished house. Folding was made possible by simple hinged 
joints sealed with neoprene gaskets. This house, light as it was, was 
designed for use in northern climates. 

The development of these new lightweight materials has made it 
possible to assemble larger and larger sections, thus avoiding the field 
joint and site labor problems. This tendency in turn has brought 

with it trends towards a greater degree of standardization in the final 
house, in order to make possible simple and repetitive factory oper 
ations, and towards a highly integrated design for the whole house 
which assures full benefit of the thermal, structural, and acoustical 
properties of the new materials and careful attention to technical pos 
sibilities and difficulties. 

Chart G 

Stressed Skin Panel Wall 
41 Companies 

Frame members 
or structural core 

Panel size 










plastic-impregnated paper 


2" X3" 


1" X4" 


2" X 2" 


16" o.c. 


VA" o.c. 


12" o.c. 


glued and nailed 








room size 




m and f 










metal foil 


Vapor barrier 

Exterior structural cladding 

Exterior finish 

Interior surface 


insulation backing 


spray or brush coat 


metal foil 


















glued and nailed 


electronic glue 


hot press glue 








plywood cladding surface 


wood siding 


metal cladding surface 








gypsum board 




glued and nailed 


electronic glue 


hot press glue 







Chart G gives a summary of the structural details used by the 41 
companies which were, at the time of the survey, making use in 
their walls of stressed skin panels in some one of the many forms 
which have been considered. 


5. Solid Panels 

Precast concrete. The solid panel wall, as the term has been used 
here, is a wall in which the structural loading is spread throughout 
a more or less homogeneous panel system. The most common design 
falling within this classification is the "precast concrete" wall, of which 
there were 12 types under development at the time of the survey. 
At the time, very few were in production, and none on a large scale, 
although wide interest was evinced in their possibilities. 

Some of the disadvantages of concrete for this purpose have al 
ready been mentioned on p. 183. Of these, perhaps the greatest is 
the combination of weight and bulk with frangibility at the edges, 
although the designer must also deal with poor thermal insulation and 
with the problem of obtaining an adequate degree of accuracy for 
any complex concrete shape at the same time as production and erec 
tion economy. Lightweight aggregates and foamed concretes offer 
a potential saving in weight and an improvement in thermal insula 
tion, but relatively few prefabricators were making use of them. In 
deed, most concrete systems were designed for relatively simple and 
unfinished houses in relatively warm climates. 

The hollow slab is, of course, a partial answer to the problems of 
heavy weight and poor thermal insulation, but it is also much more 
difficult to precast than a solid slab. For low cost, the Portland Ce 
ment Association suggested precast ribbed slabs, and a few of the 
prefabricators used them. In most precast concrete systems, care was 
required to provide thermal insulation and to avoid condensation, par 
ticularly along the joints where there was likely to be through-con 
crete. At the joints, also, provision had to be made for expansion and 
contraction in the heavy concrete masses, and for the problems of 
displacement and poor alignment resulting from inaccuracies or 
changes in dimension or shape along the slab edges. An elastic 
joining material of relatively great thickness usually was employed 
for these reasons. It was also necessary, in most cases, because of 
the weight and bulk of the panels, to use additional reinforcing ma 
terial to protect them during the various handling operations from 
casting to final placing. 

Nevertheless, precast concrete slabs offered certain definite ad 
vantages, such as overall design simplicity and resistance to com 
bustion, corrosion, and insects. Development of simple casting pro 
cesses, of concrete aggregates permitting easier handling and simpler 


design, and of more effective joint details may well bring further con 
centration on concrete in the next few years. 37 

An example of a precast concrete house was that being developed 
by Merriam and Twachtman at the time of the survey. Wall panels 
of room size, as large as 8' X 20', were to be precast of a vibrated 
concrete incorporating an expanded slag aggregate, and given an 
exterior surface of white cement which was supposed to require no 
further painting. The interior surface was to be a factory-applied 
plastic-base paint intended to serve as a vapor barrier as well. Re 
inforcement was to be provided by wire mesh and by bars tightened 
together at vertical joints to tie the panels together and hold them 
in proper alignment. Thick strips of rubber mastic were to be used 
at all joints, allowing for imperfections and cutting down acoustic 
and thermal transmission; door bucks composed of metal sills and 
jambs were cast in at the time of making the sections, and exterior 
wall joints were to be protected by precast pilasters. 

Other precast concrete systems were quite different in concept; 
for example, there was the "Pfeifer Unit" produced by The U. S. 
Housing Materials Corporation. This was small (24" X 24") and 
served the function more of a building block than of a true wall 
panel. The most familiar example of the building block, of course, is 
the standard concrete block, made by simple machinery and available 
in every part of the country. Probably neither block should really 
be classed as a wall panel. 

Composite materials. These may also come under the heading of 
solid panel walls. Cemesto Houses have already been described 
under frame and curtain wall assemblies, but the use of a similar 
board as a load-bearing panel without structural framing has also 
aroused some interest, although it would require a tougher skin ma 
terial and careful attention to the joint and to the waterproofing of 

37 The work of Corwin Willson on concretes of extremely varying characteristics 
was reported during World War II. Willson tested 8,000 specimens from 225 
materials, which included organic and mineral wastes of all sorts in combination 
with a variety of fillers, leaveners, stabilizers, waterproofers, and surface coatings. 
He found potentially useful combinations composed of common wastes, and he 
was able to secure many concretes of excellent characteristics for building con 
struction. The possibility is thus presented that even a manufacturer of wood 
houses may make extensive use of his waste products for such purposes as floor 
tiles, wall coverings, piers, slabs, or other building components not now supplied 
in his house package. (Corwin D. Willson, Properties of Assorted Light Weight 
Aggregate Materials, Office of Production Research and Development [Washing 
ton, 1944]. Also available from Hobart Publishing Company, Washington, D. C.) 


Chart H 

Solid Panel Wall 
12 Companies 

Frame members 
or structural core 

Panel size 



Vapor barrier 
Exterior finish 

Interior surface 








6" thickness 


4" thickness 








room size 






tongue and groove 


insulating concrete 




spray or brush coat 




metal foil 


concrete cladding 


stucco or concrete 






cement concrete 


lath and plaster 


gypsum board 






the panel edge, since the Celotex filler of the Cemesto sandwich loses 
as much as 80% of its shear strength when it is wet. 

Another familiar composite which may eventually be used in this 
way is the panel of wood chips bound with cementitious materials. 
This has been experimented with for years, and such a panel was be 
ing manufactured for industrial insulation by the Porete Mfg. Co. 
under the name of Porex. Durisol, originally manufactured in Switzer 
land and widely used in Europe, is a similar product recently made 
available in the United States. Material of finer wood filler and 
denser composition was proposed by Newark Industries of Ohio. 
These compositions, although simple to prepare in small amounts, 
present a very difficult mechanical problem of mixing and handling 
for continuous strip production, and many of them can be thoroughly 
protected against moisture only through the exercise of great care. 
They were not in use for prefabrication purposes at the time of our 

Chart H presents construction details of the 12 companies making 
use of one or another of these solid panel walls when our survey was 

6. Poured at Site 

While this construction is not prefabrication, as we ordinarily think 
of it, some mention should be made of industrialized systems which, 
through design and factory fabrication of standardized forming and 
pouring equipment, amount almost to prefabrication. In their most 
extreme development, as in the LeTourneau house, such systems 
achieve mechanization and standardization comparable to those of 
the most standardized factory-built houses. 

Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of systems for more efficient 
site pouring of concrete walls have been developed, and from the start 
it has been apparent that ease of forming is of paramount importance. 
One of the simplest solutions has been the so-called "tilt up" system, 
in which the walls are cast horizontally, often directly on the floor 
slab and sometimes in tiers one on top of the other, and then tilted 
up into vertical position by various ingenious mechanical contrivances. 
Use has been made of wood blocks during pouring to position the re 
inforcement and in the finished wall to serve as nailing blocks. The 
potential savings over vertical casting are obvious. Important work 


on systems of this sort has been done by the Portland Cement Asso 
ciation, by E. J. Rappoli, F. N. Severud, and many others. 

Hal B. Hayes, producer of the Hayes Econocrete House, has done 
a great deal of work on the West Coast on industrialized collapsible 
forms for standardized houses, including withdrawable cores for 
cavity wall construction. However, at the time of the survey, he 
was more interested in factory precasting, in lightweight waterproof 
concrete, of solid wall and roof slabs 2%" thick and room size, with 
interlocking corners and tongue and groove joints. 

A mixed-material system, studied shortly after World War II by 
A. J. Higgins, made use of chemically foamed insulating concrete 
poured at the site into permanent "forms" of vitreous enameled steel 
which served as surface finish. In later development work, Higgins 
abandoned the steel surfaces and was at work on the design of a 
house using only site-poured foamed concrete slabs. 

One of the most ingenious systems, in terms of structural efficiency, 
was that of the Neff Airform house. This was not prefabricated, but 
made at the site of gunite (concrete) sprayed on light wire-mesh re 
inforcement which had been laid over an inflated rubberized-fabric 
form. The resulting structure was a monolithic monocoque which 
could be hemispheric, ellipsoidal, or semicylindrical in shape, and its 
efficient use of materials and form offered many potential cost sav 
ings. Neff produced many houses, mostly abroad, but there were 
difficulties in carrying out his system, particularly in construction 
controls and in making window and door openings and connections 
between shapes of this sort. 

The LeTourneau system was one of the most elaborate house-cast 
ing schemes to be commercially marketed and developed. 38 It in 
volved the use of a special forming system and a tremendous ma 
chine, the Tournalayer, which could pick up a monolithically cast 
house, carry it to the site, and position it there for final finishing 
(see Figure 37). 

Another site-poured system of considerable interest was that of 
the Ibec Housing Corporation (see Figure 38). This system, de 
signed to apply mechanical processes to large-scale concrete construc 
tion of houses, used heavy lifting equipment and a unitary set of 
wall forms. These forms, operated by levers and having nylon- 
rubber corners to speed up and facilitate stripping and resetting, 
were used on a 24-hour cycle. Roof slabs were poured on the ground 
in stacks, pancake fashion, thus requiring only edge forms and per- 

88 This system is fully described in Chapter 9. 


mitting the top surface of each slab to act as the form for the suc 
ceeding slab. After the form for the walls and partitions had been 
lifted, the roof slab was picked up and set in place by a vacuum 
lifting mat. Ibec used lightweight aggregates for wall and roof con 
struction where climatic conditions required an insulated wall. 

It should be noted in connection with these various systems that, in 
the first place, all have their most likely application in large projects 
and, in the second place, all require a great deal of finishing work at 
the site, often by handicraft methods, to produce a house having the 
heating, lighting, and mechanical standards common to this country. 
In warm climates particularly, and in special circumstances of urgent 
need for shelter or lack of other housing materials, however, these 
systems have already proved their usefulness and offer real advan 

7. Windows and Doors 

One of the important considerations in the prefabrication of walls 
has little to do with the structure of the wall section itself; this is the 
problem of windows and doors. In the course of the earlier discussion, 
reference has occasionally been made to the manner in which win 
dows and doors are incorporated into the walls. Here attention is 
turned to the methods of fabrication of these elements. 

There was an increasing popularity of metal windows, in wood as 
well as metal construction. This was largely because of the superior 
dimensional stability of the metals, which helps to give an accurate 
and lasting fit. However, at the time of the survey, the metal win 
dows, particularly aluminum, were higher in initial cost than the 
wood windows and were able to compete principally because of di 
mensional stability and the possibilities of lower overall cost of main 
tenance. Undoubtedly design factors, consumer preference, and sta 
bility of supply also affected the choice. Counteracting these ad 
vantages were the problems of condensation on frames and sash, 
particularly on frames in the wall interior, and of substantial heat loss 
through the metal frames. 

Windows have long been prefabricated by specialty companies, as 
have doors. At least seven of the prefabricators had developed new 
window designs, however, to fit their particular houses and manufac 
turing operations; although they rarely produced these windows, 
they usually helped to pay certain costs of tooling up, such as the 


cost of an extrusion die for an aluminum window. Particularly when 
the wall section was thin, there was an effort to cut down the section 
of the windows by having the glass slide or roll without any enclos 
ing sash in a frame carefully designed to avoid stress concentrations 
on the glass. This usually required better-quality glass and special 
attention to details, however, and therefore did not give lower final 

Many of the manufacturers, particularly those using frame panels, 
tended to omit weatherstripping as such from wood window construc 
tion, although some used metal sash guides and thereby obtained 
some weatherstripping action. The metal windows were usually de 
signed to give full weatherstripping action. 

In the case of doors, there was a definite trend towards the use 
of lightweight composite doors with various types of grids for cores, 
including plastic-impregnated paper. Such doors were especially 
common among the makers of stressed skin plywood panels, for they 
are just another form of stressed skin plywood or sandwich panel. 
At least one of the prefabricators in this group regularly used the 
plywood cut-outs from the door openings in his wall panels to make 
up flush doors with light wooden grid cores on his own presses. 

One development in this connection which deserves mention was 
the use by the Lustron Corporation of sliding doors in most interior 
locations in its house. Such a door, designed to be foolproof, has 
obvious advantages in the saving of space, and public reaction to 
it in the Lustron houses seems to have been favorable. Made up as 
a part of a storagewall system of interior partitions, this may be the 
first of a number of such doors to appear in prefabricated houses. 

E. Ceilings 

1. General 

The ceiling is one element of the house which should lend itself 
readily to mass production because of its large unbroken surface, and 
which should be prefinished more accurately and easily in the shop 
than in the field. The elimination of the awkwardness and difficulty 
of conventional ceiling construction is a natural goal for the prefabri 


Furthermore, the ceiling offers to ingenious designers an oppor 
tunity for improvement of house performance with respect to acous 
tics, lighting, and heating. Many heating engineers and physiologists 
have argued that the best position for radiant heating is in the ceil 
ing surface, despite the fact that other considerations have led to 
the installation of most radiant heating systems in the floor at the 
present time. Modern lighting experts are turning more and more 
attention to the overall luminous ceiling; acoustics experts have long 
recognized the overwhelming importance of the ceiling for control 
of sound. While in some respects these goals may be opposed to 
one another, they offer a special opportunity and a challenge to the 

Structurally, one of the most important considerations regarding the 
ceiling design is the usual code regulation limiting maximum deflec 
tion. Few prefabricators use plaster, which is ordinarily allowed a 
maximum deflection of % 60 of the span, while many use dry finishes 
which are allowed maximum deflections up to %4o- 89 Further, the 
dry finishes reduce dead load and thus permit further reduction in 
the framing members supporting the ceiling. This saving is well 
enough understood by the prefabricators, and they have fought to 
have such construction allowed in building codes. 

Other considerations, of course, are the possibility of hanging an 
extremely light ceiling from the roofing frame; the possibility of using 
as the ceiling merely the underside of the roof construction system, 
as would be the case in many flat-roof schemes; and the possibility 
of designing the roof structure to be supported only on exterior walls, 
leaving the ceiling surface unbroken by load-bearing partitions. 

For the most part, it will be seen that the prefabricators were con 
servative in their thinking on these matters, with the exception of the 
last. The bulk of the designs were quite conventional, and, as a re 
sult, the ceilings were often the least prefabricated components in 
the house. 

2. Frame Assembly 

At the time of the survey, 44 companies used frame assembly sys 
tems in constructing their ceilings. In 23 cases, the frames which 
supported the ceiling were also the bottom chords of the roof trusses; 

39 Prefabricated Homes, Commercial Standard CS 125-47, p. 11. 


Chart I 

Frame Assembly Ceiling 
44 Companies 

Frame members 

Surface element 


Vapor barrier 










2"X4 /r 




16' o.c. 


24" o.c. 




screwed or bolted 




shop , 


part of roof construction? no 




bottom chord of truss? yes 




gypsum board 




lath and plaster 










screwed or bolted 









metal foil 


metal foil 


backing of insulation 


asphalt membrane 

this left for field application only the surfacing sheets themselves, and, 
because in most cases the roof trusses were preassembled, field appli 
cation of surface components was probably the only practical answer. 
Room-size or house-size ceiling sheets would be too difficult to 
handle under these conditions, and among the most satisfactory ma 
terials used was regular gypsum board. 

A good example of unconventional ceiling construction of the frame 
assembly type was that of the Lustron house, in which vitreous 
enameled steel pans were screwed to the bottom of the doubled 
lower chord of the roof truss. Above this, and fastened to the upper 
member of this doubled lower chord, were sheets of insulating fiber- 
board, topped by heavy insulation. The area between the two sur 
faces thus became a plenum chamber which was used to heat the 
house, with the steel ceiling pans serving as a radiant heating panel. 
Heat was directed throughout the plenum by a sheet-metal baffle sys 
tem. This was a most ingenious way of taking advantage of the 
characteristics of the Lustron construction system to produce up-to- 
date heating; from the point of view of the prefabricator the troubles 
with it were the amount of site labor required to put together with 
sufficient tightness the many elements of this plenum chamber in the 
difficult working area formed by the chords of the roof trusses, and 
the risk of high heat loss if this work were not well done. 

The details of the construction of frame assemblies used by the 
prefabricators in their ceilings are summarized in Chart I. 

3. Frame Panels 

The use of frame panels in ceilings is complicated by the difficul 
ties of installing vapor barriers and insulation and of getting tight, 
good-looking joints which are proof against the soiling action likely 
to result from the passage of air from the attic space. Nevertheless 
54 of the companies in our survey used such ceiling panels in one 
way or another, and the summary of the details of their construction 
systems is presented in Chart J. 

The difficulties with joints have led in general to simplification of 
ceiling panel joints and the use, in many cases, of simple lap joints be 
tween ceiling surface sheets over a single solid framing member. 
Where a regular butt joint was attempted, there was almost no way 
to allow for such shrinkage of surface sheets as might have taken 


place even before installation of panels other than by the use of 
battens, and these were generally felt to be unpopular with the pur 
chasing public. Several of the companies had attempted to panelize 
such frangible surface materials as gypsum board, but many more 
of them used plywood for this purpose. 

Chart J 

Frame Panel Ceiling 
54 Companies 

Frame members 

Panel size 












2" X 4" 


V X 6" 


2"X 8" 


16" o.c. 


24" o.c. 


8M" o.c. 




glued and nailed 








part of roof construction? no 




bottom chord of truss? no 




4' X 12' 


8' X 12' 


4' X house width 



room size 




m and f 



Surface element 





gypsum board 


fiber board 


lath and plaster 




glued and nailed 




electronic glue 










metal foil 




insulation backing 


metal foil 


asphalt membrane 


spray or brush coat 

Vapor barrier 

Experimental panels of this sort were designed by the Crawford 
Corporation, using %" plywood in 4' X 12' sheets made up in a 
panel with the ceiling joists, and having an impermeable reflective 
insulation installed in the plant. A design feature was the use of 
steel straps to tie these panels together over the center bearing par- 
ition, to tie the panels to the rafters, and to position the structural 
elements before nailing. 

4. Stressed Skin Panels 

Because of the excess strength inherent in the stressed skin panel, 
it is generally used for the ceiling only when it also serves as the roof 
or as a second floor designed to carry live loads. In these circum 
stances it offers some advantages in the reduction of dead loads, and 
in fact it may be more appropriate than on the first floor, where there 
is rarely any advantage in a smooth undersurface. 

However, it is difficult to avoid irregular-appearing joints between 
such panels without using special batten or jointing strips, unless the 
complete ceiling for each room area is made up as a single panel. 


Chart K 

Stressed Skin Panel Ceiling 
21 Companies 

Frame members 
or structural core 

Panel size 








plastic-impregnated paper 




2" X 6" 


2* X 4* 




16" o.c. 


12" o.c. 


8}i" o.c. 


glued and nailed 


hot press glue 




screwed or bolted 


electronic glue 






part of roof construction? yes 




bottom chord of truss? no 




4' X 12' 


4' X house width 


40" X 10' or 6'8" 






8' X house width 








m and f 



Surface element 






gypsum board 




glued and nailed 


hot press glue 




electronic glue 


screwed or bolted 








metal foil 


reflective paint 


spray or brush coat 


insulation backing 


asphalt membrane 


metal foil 


Vapor barrier 

In the Wingfoot home there is a single stressed skin plywood roof 
panel which also serves as a ceiling for the entire center section of 
8' X 26'. ( The house also has two small bedroom extensions. ) This 
ceiling is made of %" plywood, sealed, primed, and finish coated in 
the plant and glued and stapled 40 to the underside of 1" X 6" and 
2" X 6" ceiling-roof joists. The interior of the panels contains a 
vapor barrier and 2" blanket insulation, and the exterior surface is 
%" plywood. 

In the Southern California Homes house, ceiling-roof panels as 
large as 8' X 18' are made up of 3" plastic-impregnated paper core 
to which are bonded sheets of 0.020" aluminum. Exterior joints be 
tween contiguous panels are closed by an aluminum cover strip 
which fits over standing edges on the panels. 

A summary of the details of the various types of stressed skin ceiling 
panels used by 21 prefabricators at the time of the survey is given 
in Chart K. 

40 Some authorities have questioned whether stapling gives enough glue-line 
pressure for a good bond in stressed skin construction. 

5. Solid Panels 

Almost every solid ceiling panel being produced at the time of the 
survey was a concrete slab used in a concrete structure, though there 
were designs under development making use of Cemesto-like sand 
wiches and similar materials. The concrete panels were relatively 
massive and generally required specialized equipment to lift them 
into place and a very strong wall structure to support them, so that 
their application was necessarily somewhat limited. 

In this category, however, should probably be included precast 
spanning units of reinforced concrete, 41 even though they ordinarily 
are made with a hollow core. Such units come ordinarily about 
If 2' in width, with length and thickness varying according to the 
requirements of span and loading. In place, the units are grouted 
together and present a flat concrete surface, the underside of which 
often serves as a ceiling. The use of prestressed concrete systems 
in housing applications was also under study, but none were used for 
specific prefabrication applications at the time of our survey. 

All of the seven companies producing solid panel ceilings designed 
them to be used as ceiling-roof or ceiling-second floor combinations. 
The joints usually consisted of a lapping or keying system with a 
mastic filler, although Vacuum Concrete utilized a vacuum form to 
cast the joints at the site and give them high early strength. This 
company was also engaged in studying the use of prestressed concrete 
slabs, so designed that tensioning of the reinforcing rods in the slab 
after setting would throw the concrete into continuous compression 
and thereby stiffen the slab and increase its strength, perhaps as much 
as three times, without increasing the amount of material used. 

6. Poured at Site 

The rigid structures of the LeTourneau house, the Ibec house, and 
the Neff Airform house were the only ones which could be placed 
in this category at the time of the survey. However, work was being 
done at that time on cast-at-site ribbed concrete ceiling slabs, and on a 
number of other systems which cannot properly be called prefabri 
cation. Of these, among the most interesting were those which used 
the floor slab as a form for the ceiling slab. In one of these, developed 

41 As made by The Flexicore Co., Inc., Illinois- Wisconsin Concrete Pipe Co., 
Cities Fuel and Supply, and others. 


simultaneously by Philip N. Youtz and Tom Slick, the reinforcement 
pattern of the ceiling-roof slab was designed to permit the pouring of 
this slab around properly located metal columns which contained 
jacking devices. After the slab had set, the ceiling-roof could be 
jacked to the proper height and fixed in position, leaving nothing 
but curtain walls to be supplied to close in the house. 

It was in these fields of concrete design, handling, and erection, 
rather than in true prefabrication in concrete, that some of the most 
interesting research and development work was being done at the 
time of the survey. 

F. Roofs 

1. General 

In most cases the roof is one of the most difficult of the house 
components to prefabricate although, as a relatively simple and un 
broken large area, it should lend itself to mass-production methods. 
The main difficulty, of course, is the application of final roof surfac 
ing, which in most cases must be done in the field to ensure weather- 
tightness. Joints on the roof surface are difficult to make secure, and, 
in fact, of all the elements of the house subjected to weathering, the 
roofing is likely to be the least durable. The development of a good 
inexpensive roofing scheme is still one of the great needs in the field 
of building construction. 

With regard to flat versus pitched roofs, many of the more experi 
enced pref abricators agreed that it was cheaper ( estimates were given 
varying from $150 to $500) to produce a flat- than a pitched-roof 
structure, partly because of savings in surface area and partly because 
of the elimination of gable-end walls. Yet many of these prefabri- 
cators felt that it became impossibly expensive to assemble a satis 
factory protective surface on a flat roof, and that pitched-roof con 
struction retained several other advantages in the prefabrication of 
houses, particularly if it could provide bulk storage area and space 
for future expansion. In the future, the improvement of metal roof 
ing skins may alter this balance. General Homes, for instance, had 
designed a roof of factory-bonded aluminum skins with special joints 
to be made in the field, which eliminated further field roofing work. 


(The company was required to change to a pitched roof by FHA, 
nevertheless, at a cost estimated by its chief designer at $500 per 
house. ) 

A design idea which had been studied by several of the prefabri- 
cators (Production Line, Fuller, Southern California) was that of 
sealing the entire roof panel, butting panels together at the site, per 
mitting some water to run down between them, and carrying it off 
below in troughs on top of the structural members or batten strips 
which bridge the joint. It was thought easier to maintain the in 
tegrity of such joints and troughs and simpler to make the joints in 
the field than in the more usual designs, and the mastics or caulking 
used under the panels would be shielded from the worst effects of the 
weather. On the other hand, many new and difficult problems of 
freezing and clogging had to be faced before the idea could be widely 

2. Frame Assembly 

This type of roof construction was almost invariably found in con 
nection with pitched roofs where extensive use was to be made of the 
attic space beneath, and where the desired continuous surface of roof 
ing applied over framing members was not so easily panelized in the 
factory as were other components. Furthermore, shortages of the 
larger pieces of dimension lumber and planning and construction ad 
vantages had led to an increasing interest in truss construction sys 
tems, with some prefabricators seeking additional benefits through 
the use of timber connectors. These specialized members tended to 
become the subject of quantity production themselves, and accord 
ingly interest was turned away from the development of roof panels 
as such. 

The possible advantages of the truss over the normal ceiling joist 
and rafter construction, in addition to permitting factory fabrication 
instead of difficult site work, lie in the use of shorter lengths of lumber, 
in the use of smaller sections of lumber if the truss spacing is the same 
as that of rafters or wider spacing if the sections are the same, in the 
resulting clear span from wall to wall without interior bearing parti 
tions, and in the design freedom resulting from this clear span. 
Most truss systems break up the attic space, and so they tend to be 
employed in connection with designs which make no use of this space. 


Production advantages of the truss lie in the fact that it can be jig- 
assembled by unskilled labor, that it undergoes little change of shape 
after fabrication, that it is not particularly bulky to ship or handle, 
and that it serves automatically to line up exterior walls and level 
ceiling surface. 42 

In this connection it is interesting to note that several steel fabri 
cating concerns and at least one aluminum fabricating concern were 
offering lines of roof trusses to the general housebuilding market. 

Few of the roofs in this category are insulated to any great extent 
so that, in order to prevent condensation from occurring in the attic 
space and to avoid overheating that space in hot weather, it is custo 
mary to ventilate the roof, either through louvered openings in the 
gable-end walls or through eave vents, or both, and to put a vapor 
barrier or insulation layer, or both, next to the ceiling. The roof 
structure thus becomes essentially an umbrella over the rest of the 
house. This is particularly true in the case of some of the metal roof 
systems, in which a much more serious condensation problem must be 
met by employing large quantities of moving air, and to which, be 
cause of their rib-like framework and thin protective skins, the um 
brella analogy is much more clearly applicable. 

In the Lustron house, for example, steel "hat sections" were welded 
together to make up trusses which, spaced 4' o.c., supported vitreous 
enameled steel pans shaped to give the general appearance of tiles 
and interlocked in much the same way at the joints. Beneath this 
umbrella the air was quite free to move about, while a thick blanket 
of insulation protected the heating plenum chamber beneath. 

The Steelcraft Manufacturing Company offered a house in which 
the steel angle trusses were spaced 8' o.c., supporting a latticework 
of steel angle rafters 2' o.c. and hat-section steel purlins 10" o.c. Over 
this framing were laid aluminum sheets, to the underside of which 
was cemented 43 Ib. felt. The edges of these sheets turned up to 
form vertical standing joints. Louvered openings at gable ends were 
used for ventilation. 

These metal roofs were the exception, of course, rather than the 
general rule. A summary of the details used by the 52 companies 
using frame assembly construction in their roofs is given in Chart L. 

42 For a discussion of the use of roof trusses, see HHFA Technical Bulletin, 
no. 8 (January 1949), pp. 61-6. 


Chart L 

Frame Assembly Roof 
52 Companies 

Frame members 

Structural cladding 

Roofing surface 








1" X 6" 




16" o.c. 


24" o.c. 




screwed or bolted 








part of ceiling construction? no 




top chord of truss? yes 










screwed or bolted 






asphalt shingles 




wood shingles 






27 Southern California Homes house 


living room interior 

showing garden wall and 
storage unit 


22 Reliance ho 

23 Section of A1ROH house 
being unloaded from trailer 

24 Pierce Foundation Cemesto House 

25 Production Line Structures-prototype house under construction 

26 Wingfoot house, showing bedroom sections extended 

27 Acorn house 

folded unit in place, 
showing supporting 
beams in place 

unfolding floor 
and end wall 

unfolding side walls 
unfolding roof 
completed house 

28 The Fuller house under construction 
floor structure laid 

mast erected and roof structure assembled 
roof raised and walls suspended 
ventilator hoisted on to finished structure 

29 Kaiser Community Homes house 

30 Green's "solar house' 

3. Frame Panels 

The same general considerations apply to a frame panel system as 
do to a frame assembly system, and again it will be noted that the 
large majority of prefabricators in this classification used wood and 
made it up in a relatively conventional manner, applying the roofing 
as a continuous surface at the site. In fact, since trusses were usually 
fabricated as units and rarely combined in panels, frame panel roof 
construction was on the whole even more conventional than frame 

There were a few prefabricators, however, who sent out panels 
which were entire roofs, or large sections of roofs. These were, 
naturally enough, in the group which used mass-production methods 
in erection as well as in fabrication. One such was the Byrne Organi 
zation, which at Harundale made up in the project shop an entire 
pitched-roof frame of steel trusses to which wood sheathing and shing 
ling were nailed and gable-end walls welded, also in the shop. The 
complete roof was then transported to the site, placed atop the house 
with a special lifting machine, and welded to the steel wall members. 

The roof of the Hamill and Jones house was an unusual example 
of frame panel construction in wood. In the first place, this was one 
of the few hip-roof schemes. Also, the roof was made up of 4' panels 
extending from eave to ridge or hip, with 2" X 4" rafters 24" o.c. 
except at panel edges, where a V X 4" was used; V braces supported 
these rafters at center span. The most interesting feature was the 
fact that shingling was shop applied in such a way as to be woven 
together over the butt panel joints at the site. This was made pos 
sible by a master jig on which the whole roof assembly was put 
together in the shop, and then separated into panels for transporta 
tion to the site. 

A summary of the construction details of the frame panel roofs 
used by 54 prefabricators is contained in Chart M. 

4. Stressed Skin Panels 

This type of construction was seldom used for a roof unless the 
underside of the panel was also to be used as a ceiling, for otherwise 
the extra strength and finish were not warranted. Thus it was prin 
cipally a flat-roof construction. Since it is also the lightest sort of 
roof construction in most cases, special attention often had to be 


Chart M 

Frame Panel Roof 
54 Companies 

Frame members 

Panel size 


Structural cladding 








2" X4" 




2" X 8" 


16" o.c. 


24" o.c. 




glued and nailed 


screwed or bolted 








part of ceiling construction? no 




top chord of truss ? no 




eave to ridge X 4' 


eave to ridge X 8' 


width of roof X 4' 




m and f 










glued and nailed 







asphalt shingles 


wood shingles 




painted metal 


built-up roof 





Roofing surface 

paid to negative wind-loadings which would tend to lift the panels 
free of the house. 

The construction of several of these panels was described under 
stressed skin panel ceilings, p. 251. Further details regarding some of 
these may be given here. For the Southern California Homes house, 
the addition of an asphalt-base paint over the zinc chromate primer 
on the aluminum surface was considered advisable, and at the joints 
there was a metal cap over the standing panel edges and a cover 
strip on the underside of the panel joint to carry any seeping water 
down to gutters and downspouts. The Wingfoot roof panel was 
finished on the exterior with roll roofing mopped onto the complete 
roof panel surface in the factory. 

In the proposed Fuller house, it was planned to rivet sheets of 
aluminum to W-shaped metal ribs which arched in umbrella fashion 
from a central supporting mast. Moisture was relatively free to 
enter the grooves of the W-shaped ribs, and in these grooves it was 
to be carried down to a gutter located inside the bottom edge of the 
roof. There has not been a great deal of experience with such inside 
drains to test their effectiveness in the face of freezing and clogging 
conditions, since for the most part they have been used in houses 
designed for warm and relatively dry climates. 

Most of the companies used stressed skin panels in what might be 
called conventional manner, as will be seen from Chart N, which sum 
marizes the construction details of the 14 companies constructing their 
roofs in this way. 

5. Solid Panels 

In the case of each of the six companies producing them, the 
solid panel roof systems were so designed that the underside could 
also serve as the ceiling of the space below. The weather surface 


Chart N 

Stressed Skin Panel Roof 
14 Companies 

Frame members 
or structural core 


Structural cladding 




plastic-impregnated paper 






V X 6" 


r x4* 




16* o.c. 


48" o.c. 


12" o.c. 


glued and nailed 




screwed or bolted 






part of ceiling construction? yes 




top chord of truss? no 








m and f 












glued and nailed 


hot press glue 






Roofing surface 


built-up roll 




painted metal 


unpainted metal 








metal foil 




normally was the conventional built-up roofing of felt, asphalt, and 
mineral granules. A great deal of research was being devoted to the 
use of homogeneous materials such as improved concretes, wood waste 
composites, and rigid insulating compositions as self-supporting roof 
materials which might supply finish as well as surface and which 
offer at the same time the possibility of mass production of large, 
simple elements. This work had not led to commercial developments 
at the time of the survey. 

6. Poured at Site 

The few systems which fall under this heading have been de 
scribed already under the same heading in the section on ceilings, 
since in every case poured monolithic ceilings also served as roofs. 
As a weather surface, the LeTourneau house had a coat of water 
proofing applied to the standing shell. In the Neff Airform house, a 
layer of waterproofing compound was sprayed on the surface just be 
neath the final coat of gunite. 

7. Gable-End Walls 

In the many cases in which the attic was not designed for living 
space, the gable-end walls were single-surface, uninsulated sections. 
In all but a very few such cases, therefore, they were separate panels, 
rather than a vertical continuation of the end wall construction, which 
was likely to be quite different. It was also considered preferable to 
make a separate gable-end wall panel so that the lower wall panels 


could be more thoroughly standardized. Of the companies making 
such panels 32 had wood louvers installed in them for ventilation, 
while another 15 used metal louvers. 

IV. Miscellaneous Design Features 

A. Plumbing 

Many prefabricators took one step beyond most of the conventional 
builders in working out a standardized plumbing layout as an integral 
part of the house design. Seventy-eight companies were known to 
provide a standard and specific plumbing plan, detailing piping and 
connections, in their blueprints. In theory, prefabricators are in a 
good position to use the most advanced and economical methods 
commensurate with good engineering practice; actually, preference, 
prejudice, codes, the plumbing industry itself, and the unions have 
made it difficult to use such rational designs, or even to use standard 
ized designs of relatively conventional nature over very wide market 
ing areas. 

This problem was recognized by all concerned, and efforts were 
being made to solve it. Particular mention should be made here of 
tests made by the National Bureau of Standards, with the cooperation 
of the Housing and Home Finance Agency, of private groups, and of 
the plumbers themselves, to determine by scientific methods the an 
swers to many long-standing plumbing controversies, and in the end 
to stimulate code simplifications which will have the support of all 
groups. 43 

As for the degree to which prefabricators are able to make use of 
rational plumbing designs, it can be pointed out that 49 companies 
had arranged to place their kitchen and bathroom fixtures back to 
back for simplified connections from a single "plumbing wall." The 
majority, however, seemed to feel that many a subcontractor refuses 
to pass along the savings made possible in this way, and since to some 

43 The Uniform Plumbing Code for Housing," HHFA Technical Paper, no. 6 
( February 1948 ) . Preliminary edition out of print, revised edition in preparation. 


degree the requirement that these fixtures be back to back is a limi 
tation of freedom in planning of kitchens and bathrooms, it could be 

Where the prefabricator actually put together part of his plumb 
ing in the factory, however, he did not disregard the possibility of 
such savings in pipe and fittings. Of the 27 who assembled their 
own piping panels in the plant at the time of our survey, nearly all 
used back-to-back layouts. Six other companies, which themselves 
made no attempt to assemble the piping but only sent it along with 
the package already precut and threaded for local assembly, also 
sought back-to-back economies. 

Many of the prefabricators were convinced that copper-tubing 
supply lines and soldered connections were more economical than 
the conventional iron, even though materials cost a bit more, be 
cause the labor costs were less. Some would even have liked to offer 
welded steel plumbing assemblies featuring pipe bent on tube turn 
ers, but feared conflict with existing code and inspection provisions. 
An interesting plumbing development was the plan of Southern Cali 
fornia Homes to prefabricate its system completely in three sections, 
a copper-tubing supply system, an underground waste system, and a 
vent system. 

The prefabrication of plumbing is one rational step which most 
prefabricators were anxious to take, for plumbing is a good example 
of an expensive item which can be completely standardized and 
which permits mass-production and mass-procurement economies at 
the same time as simpler handling and lower costs of erection. A 
typical prefabricator made the point clear with a question: "A com 
plete set of plumbing materials and fixtures probably costs $100, but 
the installed cost of a bathroom is at least $500 or $600. Why?" 

From the prefabrication of plumbing, the next step is the prefabri 
cation or at least preassembly of the fixtures, too, and six companies 
attached fixtures to the piping in the plant. There is nothing new 
about this, or indeed about the fabrication of a specially designed 
combination of fixtures in the form of a single unit. Buckminster 
Fuller's bathroom design (see Figure 31) was tried out and seriously 
considered for mass production a dozen years ago, and at least 10 of 
the prefabricators who were visited had worked up designs for unit 
bathrooms or bathroom-kitchens. 

A design for a bathroom unit which was in production at the time 
of the survey was that of Standard Fabrication, Inc., which had a 
guaranteed market contract for 25,000 units. The unit combined 


bathtub, adjustable shower, toilet, lavatory, storage cabinet, and 
medicine cabinet with an integral low partition all of stamped steel 
finished with porcelain enamel. The final dimensions were 7%' long, 

Figure 31. Patent Drawing for the Integrated Fuller Bathroom 

4' high, and 2%' wide, making it possible to carry the unit through 
any door and install it in any room. The plumbing was built in, 
requiring only four site connections, with supply and waste lines and 
vent stacks. 


B. Mechanical Cores 

The discussion of plumbing leads naturally to the mechanical or 
utility core. The desire to combine all the plumbing, heating, and 
mechanical elements in the house in a single centralized and mass- 
produced core has long intrigued designers. Furthermore, it should 
be possible so to design such a core that it can be used in a variety of 
house plans, thereby combining in a single unit suited to production in 
large volume many of the troublesome and costly ^elements common to 
all houses within a certain range of sizes and types. Since several 
prefabricators estimated that the plumbing, heating, and electrical 
subcontracts alone commonly run as high as 25% of the total cost of 
the house, and in frequent cases even higher, this concept was widely 

A mechanical core so conceived might logically become a starting 
point for the rational architectural planning of the whole house, but 
few of the prefabricators felt they could afford to wait until the ideal 
core was in production, or to make major alterations in their designs 
to fit the cores already on the market. Still, such cores as there were 
offered the advantage of very great compactness, and they were in 
the main well suited to incorporation into prefabricated houses. Sev 
eral of the prefabricators tried them out. Lustron used a similar 
approach in the design and production of its own plumbing wall 
and bathroom fixtures, and at least five others were working on their 
own mechanical cores, including Fuller. The cores available on the 
market, however, were not produced by prefabricators. 

The best known of these was Borg- Warner Corporation's Ingersoll 
Utility Unit (see Figure 32). This was a standard unit consisting of 
a mechanical core plus kitchen and bathroom equipment, and con 
taining the major installations, equipment, and controls for heat, 
electricity, water, and gas. In the mechanical core was a forced 
warm-air furnace with blower, air filter, and thermostatic controls; 
an automatic water heater, either electric or gas; a prefabricated 
sewer stack and vents; a prefabricated copper water-piping assembly 
and gas lines; a chimney flue base with drafts or dampers, depending 
on fuel; complete wiring and multibreaker for all components, plus 
thinwall conduit; and a cold-air return system all mounted within a 
welded steel channel frame 30" wide, 94" long, and 77" high, with 
attached wood stripping to which to fasten finishing materials. The 
kitchen equipment included a 7 cu. ft. refrigerator, a single-bowl 
porcelain enamel sink with supply and waste connections to the core, 


a four-burner range, and various cabinets and lights. The bathroom 
equipment included tub, lavatory, and water closet, together with 
connections, standard accessories, and medicine cabinet. 

Figure 32. Exploded Drawing of Ingersoll Utility Unit 

The builder or contractor installing the unit had to supply plenum 
chamber, ducts, registers, and chimney piping for the furnace; lead-in 
lines for sewer, water, gas, oil, and electricity to the core; soffits 
to the ceiling above the core; access and clean-out panels; and plaster 
or wallboard sheathing and all finishing materials. 


A "deluxe" model added laundry equipment, a few refinements, and 
some rather larger items than supplied in the standard model. Borg- 
Warner manufactured many of the elements in addition to assembling 
the core and planned eventually to manufacture all the units con 
tained in the core. At the time of the survey, the unit was generally 
somewhat more expensive than comparable equipment assembled 
locally, but it was sometimes able to compete because of convenience 
of installation or because essential elements might not always be 
locally available. A few prefabricators were using this core, but 
most were proceeding with local assembly, with an eye on the rela 
tive cost figures (thus making it difficult for Borg- Warner to realize 
the economies possible through mass production 44 ) . 

A different approach was used by Timber Structures, Inc., the pro 
ducer of Mobilcore. This was actually a factory-built kitchen, bath 
room, and dinette or utility room, complete and ready for attachment 
to a new or old house, rather than just a core and equipment package 
for insertion between kitchen and bathroom. In one model, this pre 
fabricated section was 24' long, 8' wide, and 9' high, with walls, floors, 
and ceiling of conventional wood frame design and floors factory 
finished with linoleum. The usual fixtures, attachments, and storage 
elements came in the standard model, with heater, hot-water heater, 
laundry tray, storage cabinet, and exterior door in the optional utility 
room, and stove, refrigerator, and mechanical washer also optional 
features. When hooked up with utilities, this unit was ready to use. 

An interesting sidelight of this development was the design for a 
rather unusual house worked out by the company as the result of 
measures taken to protect the unit during installation. In this design 
the basic mechanical unit served as the load-bearing structure on 
which were placed cantilevered trusses to support not only the roof 
but also a set of non-load-bearing exterior curtain walls. This sup 
ports the theory, often put forward, that ultimately the rational pre 
fabricated house will be an outgrowth of the mass-produced mechani 
cal core, rather than the reverse. 

Several companies evinced interest in prefabricating complete 
kitchen units. The Puraire kitchen, for example, was designed for use 
in small homes and in converting large houses to housekeeping apart 
ments. It came complete with sink, stove, refrigerator, and storage 
facilities, and it has been used as a convenient manner of supplying 
the full kitchen equipment in at least one development of prefabri- 

44 Borg-Warner suspended production of the Ingersoll Utility Unit on June 30, 
1949. In the words of Progressive Architecture, XXX (June 1949), 1, it "failed 
to meet the present economy demand for minimum units." 


cated houses that for married veterans at Massachusetts Institute of 
Technology. The use of or manufacture of such partial units, and of 
bathroom units, has long been considered by the prefabricators but 
almost none were actually used by them at the time of the survey, 
for reasons of cost, design complication, and marketing difficulty. 
Presumably the other problems would be more willingly faced were 
the costs to come down. 

C. Heating 

Heating is an important element of any scheme for housing in the 
greater part of the United States, and the prefabricators were well 
aware of this fact. They followed with interest the recent develop 
ments of the heating industry, and the new ideas on which extensive 
research was being done. In order to stay within the price range 
which seemed to them best suited to the concept of prefabrication, 
most of them hesitated to try anything requiring large initial capital 
investment. At the same time, in order to stay well within what they 
considered the range of general public acceptance, most of them 
also hesitated to try anything radically new. 

Of the companies visited, 70 had decided upon a specific and 
standard heating layout for their houses, and, of these, 50 commonly 
supplied the heating unit, while nine more offered the unit at the 
purchaser's option. At least 50 of the companies regularly supplied 
prefabricated stacks or flues of metal or asbestos cement, and three 
more supplied them at the option of the purchaser. Only a few of 
the prefabricators attempted to take advantage of their quantity pro 
duction to procure a heating unit specially tailored in size and char 
acter to their house; the Byrne Organization designed a boiler for its 
radiant-heated floor slab, and Lustron an overhead heater and plenum 
chamber for its radiant heating ceiling panels. 

It will be noted that, with a very few exceptions, the prefabricators 
have avoided the use of hot-water or steam piping and radiator-type 
heating systems, and of any system requiring coal as a fuel. This is 
clearly the result of a balance of convenience and cheapness of in 
stallation with convenience of operation. Certainly the most popular 
heating systems from the point of view of the prefabricators were 
the various warm-air systems. In areas where natural gas was avail 
able at low cost, gas-fired warm-air systems were the rule. 


1. Gravity Warm-Air Heating 

Gravity warm-air heating systems were specified by 14 companies, 
and, of these, 13 companies regularly furnished the furnace as part 
of their package. Most popular seemed to be the floor furnace, 
which takes up a minimum amount of usable living space and, with 
proper design, gives reasonably satisfactory performance for a small 
house. It requires no ductwork to distribute the warm air and is for 
that reason probably the least expensive heater in terms of initial 

In some cases, two warm-air heaters were installed, one as a stand-by 
to go into action only in conditions of extreme cold. In at least three 
cases, a vertical stack was added over the heater to speed up air 
movement in the manner of a chimney and to get more even heat 
distribution. In the Kaiser Community Homes house, such a stack 
had louvered openings near the ceiling, which, combined with the 
cool-air intake near the floor, provided a better circulation of air 
than is usually possible in basementless gravity units. 

2. Forced Warm-Air Heating 

Forced warm-air heating was specified by 22 companies, although 
in several cases only as an optional feature. Only a few found it 
advisable to furnish such units for use with conventional duct sys 
tems. At least 13 companies supplied prefabricated ducts, plenums, 
and even risers with their packages, and, when required to do so for 
houses with basements, they provided the necessary risers, ducts, and 
grilles in the walls. In basementless houses, some of the companies 
supplied prefabricated plenum chambers of metal or asbestos cement, 
usually concealed above a dropped ceiling in the central hall, to 
distribute the heat from the warm-air discharge to various sections 
of the house. 

Interesting technical developments coming on the market at the 
time of the survey but not yet used by the prefabricators included 
very compact furnaces designed to make use of high-powered com 
bustion principles worked out during the war for aircraft heating and 
to distribute the heat through flexible hosing instead of ducts; these 
were based on concepts of few moving parts and high operating 


3. Radiant Panel Heating 

Widely discussed in general, radiant panel heating systems have 
been of particular interest to the prefabricates. Since such systems 
require careful engineering and close adjustment to the characteristics 
of the house in which they are to be installed, and since the cost of 
installation in some cases shows promise of coming down to the 
small-house range only through the application of industrial tech 
niques and repetitive production, their use would seem to offer a spe 
cial advantage to those who manufacture a limited range of models 
in large-quantity production and who can, therefore, afford to spend 
money for a careful integration of the house and heating design and 
for the necessary tooling up. Houses which offered radiant heating 
without excessive cost, whether in the floor, walls, or ceiling, and 
whether by means of warm air, hot water, or electric resistance ele 
ments, appeared to have gained, because of general public interest 
and favor, a sales advantage over those which offered conventional 

Radiant floors were the most common of the radiant systems in 
stalled or specified by prefabricators at the time of our survey. At 
least nine of the companies were using them or were planning to do 
so, six with concrete floor slabs in basementless houses and three with 
wood floor systems. Of the concrete slab installations, the majority 
circulated hot water in copper tubing. The Harundale project of the 
Byrne Organization had a 40-gallon, specially designed hot-water 
boiler which also supplied the hot-water needs of the house, and a 
pump to circulate the hot water through copper tubing which was 
spaced at V intervals in most of the slab and somewhat closer in the 
kitchen and bathroom. In this fairly typical installation, slab surface 
temperature was designed for 85 F., and it was hoped to keep heat 
loss into the ground as low as 10%. The economies of combining do 
mestic hot water and heating, and of obtaining an efficient design 
of floor slab for a cold climate, together with potential fuel economies, 
had to be balanced against somewhat higher installation cost and 
several recognized design problems. These included the problems 
caused by time lag in supplying or in reducing heat because of the 
large mass of the concrete slab, the need to provide against accidental 
blocking or progressive obstruction of the tubing, the complications 
caused by rugs and other floor coverings, the interferences resulting 
from other plumbing and mechanical installations, and the measures 
which must be taken to protect against freezing the water and burst 
ing the tubing during unheated periods in extremely cold weather. 


Three companies had erected experimental models of systems which 
made a radiant panel of a wood floor system by using the space be 
tween the floor and the ground slab of a basementless house as a 
plenum chamber heated by forced warm air. In an experimental 
house built by the Field Detroit Co., warm air was forced into the 
plenum at the center and returned to the house through registers 
located beneath the windows. In the Green's Ready-Built house, 
warm air was first circulated through the house, then returned through 
registers to the underfloor plenum, and eventually carried back to the 
furnace. (This system was not approved by the FHA.) The Solar 
Homes Co. used warm air circulated in the space between the floor 
joists, which was covered and insulated at the bottom to produce 
a sort of duct. 

Three other companies were experimenting with forced warm air 
in various hollow slab or tile systems. 

Radiant walls were not in production among the prefabricators 
visited, although a few were experimenting with them. This was in 
part the result of the difficulty of designing a heating system for uni 
form performance at different distances from the walls and for sur 
faces which are complicated by numerous openings and many insula 
tion problems. 

Radiant ceilings were scheduled for regular production in only two 
houses. One of these was the Lustron house, the heating system of 
which has already been described on p. 247. The other was the Mod 
ern Standardized Buildings Co. house, in which warm air was heated 
as it rose through a series of finned hot-water coils and was then 
conducted into a plenum at the ceiling, made up of a sheet of %" 
asbestos cement which was suspended 2" below a sheet of aluminum 
foil backed by 2" of blanket insulation. A %" open space between 
the edge of this plenum and the wall permitted the warm air to 
circulate down into the house area and then to return to the heater. 

These two systems reflect the design interest in ceiling installations 
which many consider the most satisfactory from the point of view 
of the physiological needs of the body. Unhampered by the large 
mass of the floor slab and by the problem of floor coverings, the ceil 
ing panel can be highly efficient in its action and can greatly assist 
the development of open and flexible planning; nevertheless, it cre 
ates the new difficulties of installing a somewhat complex structure 
at ceiling height and of insulating it against heat loss upward into 
the attic or roof areas. Other new techniques such as the use of 
electric resistance panels, either of a special rubber material such as 


the United States Rubber Company's Uskon, or of conductive alumi 
num alloy fused into tempered glass, were being carefully studied 
where costs of electric power were sufficiently low (1%^ P er kilowatt 
hour or less), because of the possibilities offered for extremely low 
installation costs and efficient use of heat. 

4. Solar Heating 

Very few companies at the time of our survey were attempting any 
considerable use of solar radiation to heat their houses, and those few 
were interested only in the use of large so-called "solar" windows, 
facing directly south and so shielded that the sun can penetrate the 
window and warm the interior space in winter but cannot penetrate 
in summer. This idea has captured the imagination of many archi 
tects and, to some extent, the public. The technical, psychological, 
and esthetic arguments and pronouncements pro and con are well 
known and need not be rehearsed here. 

Green's Ready-Built solar house was designed expressly to utilize 
solar heat. Most of the living spaces had large windows to the south, 
so that the house tended to be long and narrow, running from east to 
west. The design of the windows, with fixed glass and openable, 
louvered, and screened ventilation areas above and below, has been 
discussed on p. 232. There was also added to the exterior of the house 
a series of louvered screens projecting from the wall between window 
areas, which served to protect the windows against late afternoon sun 
shine without interfering with the flow of air along the southern front 
of the house. This house, frankly designed for the middle-income 
group, received a good deal of architectural acclaim, but it was never 
put into mass production, at first because of limitations imposed by 
the Veterans' Emergency Housing Program and later because of the 
failure of the company. 

No prefabricator was known to have made any attempt to put into 
production a heating system designed to trap the solar radiation im 
pinging on the house, to use some of it for immediate heating, and to 
store the rest for later use when solar radiation is not available. Re 
search in this field is followed with interest in many quarters, but is 
not yet at a stage where its advantages or disadvantages are clearly 


D. Electrical Wiring and Fixtures 

The intended position of electrical outlets was specified by 69 com 
panies, and 49 prefabricated their wiring to some degree. Of these 
latter, 11 simply precut it, nine factory-installed dummy lines in the 
conduit to help the electricians pull through the wires in the field, and 
27 actually preinstalled the wiring, usually in wall panels. Most of 
these companies used BX or Romex cable rather than rigid metal 
conduit, and in some communities they encountered code difficulties 
on that score. 

The average prefabricated wiring system had outlets in the wall 
panels, with the connecting cable stapled or clipped by brackets to the 
structural members or run through conduit cast in the walls. The 
connecting wire usually projected through the top or bottom edge of 
the panel, with the balance of the wiring placed inside during ship 
ment, ready to be pulled into position in the attic or crawl space at 
the site, and attached to major circuits and to service leads from 

A few companies had devised systems for prefabricating the major 
circuit wiring (for example, by stapling connecting wires to a board 
running the length of the attic space) so that all that was necessary 
at the site, after connecting house circuits, was to connect this "har 
ness" to the service leads. In such a case, the meter and a master 
circuit breaker or fuse box, or both, were also wired and installed on a 
panel in advance. 

Most prefabricators felt that the savings possible from prefabricat 
ing their electric wiring, if their construction permitted it at all, were 
not great enough to justify the probable difficulties with code and 
labor which would result. Many companies which had no wall panels 
adapted to prefabricated wiring of this sort used a channel behind 
the baseboard or a molding attached to the baseboard to carry the 
wiring inside it. In concrete systems there frequently were metal or 
cardboard conduits cast in place. In all systems there seemed to be a 
general desire to keep the outlets at or near baseboard level, and to 
run cable for ceiling or wall fixtures or switches up behind batten 
strips at joints, or inside door casings. For example, Southern Cali 
fornia Homes used a 2" box section at the base of its panel, among 
other reasons, for wiring, and ran wiring for three wall and overhead 
fixtures and a few switches inside the channels which served as the 
edges of the panels, the wiring being placed in these channels before 
they were bonded to the skin surfaces of the panels. 


Few companies had given special attention to the design of lighting 
fixtures or to a general lighting plan, although in this field lies another 
possible advantage of the prefabricator over the conventional builder. 
Such companies as were concerned about fixtures had for the most 
part concentrated on getting maximum procurement advantages from 
mass orders without, so far as was seen, attempting to engineer and 
produce a house in which lighting might reach a standard of high 

E. Acoustical Treatment 

A very few companies had given serious attention to the acoustical 
properties of their houses, and these were the companies offering 
houses of unconventional design or construction which might give 
rise to particular problems. Even they relied primarily on the 
furnishings for the deadening of sound. Only one house (Green's 
Ready-Built) is known to have made use of acoustical tile for its 
standard ceiling surface. 

No attempt was made in this survey to make scientific acoustic 
measurements or tests, but there were many houses in which reverbe 
ration was noted, and several more in which the partitions and doors 
could not have been much above the level of acoustical transparency. 
The problem would have been much more prominent had the com 
panies visited not limited their interests primarily to the prefabrica- 
tion of small detached houses. No doubt, more attention will be 
devoted in the future than at present to the noise problem, even 
in such detached houses, for in lightweight construction noise may 
cause a great deal of unpleasantness and yet its solution is known to be 
neither complex nor unduly expensive. 

F. Built-in Furniture 

Many of the prefabricators were aware of the advantages they could 
offer over conventional builders by building in elements of furniture 
and storage at the plant, particularly when it was possible in this way 
to make use of scraps of material which would otherwise be wasted 
and, by the use of their regular equipment, to produce articles which 
could hardly be duplicated at the site for comparable costs. Thus 


one company (Red-E-Bilt Homes) offered a series of inexpensive 
built-in features (a mahogany- veneered ceiling in the entry, a kitchen 
ceiling vent, ironing board, and spice cabinet, and, in the garage, a 
workbench) which, in its opinion, added considerably to the sales 
appeal of the house. 

At least 73 companies regularly supplied kitchen sink cabinets as a 
part of the package, and 66 supplied other kitchen cabinets, but six 
companies supplied kitchen cabinets only as an optional feature. All 
their cabinets were manufactured by 31 companies, in each case out 
of wood. Several said they did so only because of cabinet shortages, 
but many others found that they could in this way make use of facili 
ties which were well suited to this kind of work. 

Other built-in features included dining tables (seven companies), 
bureaus, or dressing tables and drawer space (eight companies), and 
storage or closet walls (17 companies). All these features appeared 
to be growing in popularity, particularly the use of storage or closet 
walls in place of partitions, with the storage and closet areas prop 
erly subdivided and drawers provided where necessary. Such storage- 
walls were supplied primarily in construction systems permitting the 
use of non-load-bearing partitions. 

Building in furniture to a greater degree than this was limited 
to a few companies offering minimum plans in which high efficiency 
was possible only through special design of the furnishings as well 
as of the structure itself, and to a few other companies offering houses 
for special purposes; for example, in the construction areas of the 
Tennessee Valley Authority, where it was found practical and eco 
nomical to build completely finished houses, to transport them to the 
site in sections, and to move them away to a new site when the occa 
sion demanded. 

Though none of the prefabricators had actually made designs, a 
few were considering plans in which certain standard elements such 
as beds might be built in, which would afford the extra saving of not 
having to finish the floor under the bed as well as the possibility of 
using the space under the bed for storage drawers. 

G. Space Arrangement 

Without a detailed consideration of floor plans and other architec 
tural elements, the quality of architectural space planning cannot be 
properly discussed. On the other hand, space planning in small 


Figure 33. Plans of Selected Prefabricated Houses. These plans are presented on 
a uniform 4' grid so that the allocation of space and the overall areas may readily 
be compared. Kitchen, bath, and utility area have been shaded. A number of 
unconventional houses have been included for contrast, as have the plans of 

three-bedroom models. 


Gunnison Homes Basic 

Shelter Industries 

Ibec Corp. 

Lustron Corp. - Standard 

Southern Calif. Homes 

Crawford Corp. Basic 

Lustron Corp. - Economy 

American Houses Basic 

Airform House Typical 

Fuller House 




LeTourneau Typical 

Green's Ready-Built Homes 

Lustron Corp. 

Gunnison Homes 



BR. BR. 



Crawford Corp. 




houses is largely dictated by the needs of family living, and while 
there is no single rational approach to the small house plan, the com 
bined pressure of needs and costs greatly limits the choices open to 
the designer. Most of the plans were in many respects similar, as a 
result (see Figure 33). This aspect of the subject has been well 
treated in architectural sources and needs no further development 

It is important, however, to give some idea of the standards of space 
provided by the pref abricators at the time of the survey. The follow 
ing summary averages the room sizes of the most popular plans and 
models of typical companies. The figures give the number of com 
panies from which the average was compiled as well as the average 



of Com 


















Dining area l 



Master bedroom 



2nd bedroom 



3rd bedroom 2 



Closet area 



Other storage area 






Covered porch 


1 There were very few companies with separate dining rooms. These were usually ells. 

2 More two-bedroom than three-bedroom houses were minimum in space planning. 

Combining the figures for average room sizes, we find that the three 
different combinations of living-dining-kitchen areas result in aver 
age houses (allowing 10% wastage in floor planning) of the following 
floor areas: two-bedroom house, 770, 773, or 830 sq. ft.; and three- 
bedroom house, 894, 898, or 955 sq. ft. 

Trends in the matter of space planning included an increasing use 
of truss roofs, with the resulting freedom of interior arrangement, and 
an increasing interest in the three-bedroom house. The Kaiser Com 
munity Homes project in Los Angeles built only three-bedroom houses, 
and many of the more conventional wood prefabricators were turn 
ing to story-and-a-half houses in order to get extra bedroom space, 
although at the time of the survey many of them were leaving this 
second-story space unfinished for later finishing by the purchaser. 


The prefabricated house, on the average, was not generally dis 
tinguishable from the conventional product in respect to the space 
allocated to closets, utility room, bathroom, or kitchen, although there 
were instances in which prefabricated houses offered increased effi 
ciency in respect to all of these. Of the two, there was more likeli 
hood that one would find space wasted or inefficiently used in the 
conventional house. In a carefully prepared ratio of usable or effi 
cient space to price, the average prefabricator would probably do 
better than the average conventional builder. 

The previous summary indicates that at least 13 companies offered 
covered porches. Despite many architectural and marketing advan 
tages favoring such a combined entranceway, play, recreation, and 
storage space, it was not generally offered as a standard part of the 
prefabrication package. 

There had been little experience with the practical effectiveness of 
the very different space relationships offered in houses of specialized 
construction and form, such as the Fuller or Neff house, since almost 
no houses of this type had reached the common market in this coun 
try. Published descriptions of these houses met with a strong interest 
and, in certain segments of the public, with a decided approval. 
Further than this, the many attractive adaptations of the "Quonset" 
hut structures as houses in the last few years have added to the evi 
dence that space planning and relationships quite different from those 
believed to be required by the general public may be found to be 
entirely acceptable. 

H. Product Variety 

1. Quality Standards 

More than one quality standard in their houses were offered by 15 
companies, with the difference lying primarily in the materials used, 
in the size and spacing of members, or in the degree of finish and 
number of fixtures added. A common practice was for a company to 
offer one house for sale on the general market to individual homeown 
ers, and substantially the same house, but of different quality stand 
ard, for sale to industrial concerns or developers buying groups of 
houses for rental or sale, typically in new communities. Or a com- 


pany might offer one version of a house which would be eligible for 
FHA insurance or pass certain building codes, and another version 
which would not. 

Typifying the latter production plan was U. S. Homes, Inc., which 
offered a "Suburban Home" and a "Village Home." Essentially the 
same in general appearance and floor plan, the "Suburban" had a 
finish floor of oak and inlaid linoleum, while the "Village" had south 
ern pine tongue and groove flooring and printed felt-base linoleum. 
The "Suburban" had bathtub, laundry tray, medicine cabinet, hot- 
water heater, and forced air heater with ducts supplied with the 
package, while the "Village" had none of these. The "Suburban" also 
had linoleum covering over its sink cabinet. 

2. Basic Design Standards 

Several basic design standards were offered by 13 of the companies, 
either to reach a wider market or to experiment with very different 
designs produced at the same time and under the same conditions. 
Thus, Texas Housing Co. produced a "Town and Country" house of 
768 sq. ft. floor area with more or less conventional wood frame 
design, and also a 16' X 16' "Homette" developed from army hut 
ment designs and having a pyramidal roof of the same 2" plywood 
panel construction as the walls. The former was acceptable for FHA 
insurance and would pass most building codes, while the latter was 
designed for emergency situations, for public or university temporary 
minimum housing, or for owner-built houses for temporary use or 
in minimum housing areas. 

3. Architectural Styles 

The houses of any one company were usually of a single architec 
tural style or character, but 17 companies offered two styles, four 
offered three, and five offered more than three, most of the last be 
ing those companies which were prepared to make up nearly any 
style desired on a job-lot basis. Often those offering more than one 
style were offering a "modern" house with flat roof to see how well it 
would sell in the prevailing market, and generally the companies do- 


ing this reported that their "modern" models were not doing very well. 
This may represent a market prejudice, but it was probably also a 
reflection of the quality of the design which some of the prefabri- 
cators termed "modern." 

There has been an earlier discussion of the general matter of archi 
tectural style on pp. 194-6, but it may be added that most of the prefab 
ricated houses on the market at the time of the survey were supposedly 
reminiscent of, and often termed, Cape Cod cottages. Since many of 
the prefabricators preferred not to have to supply such details as 
shutters (where these were supplied they often were long, hanging 
well below the window sill to give an appearance of larger windows ) , 
colonial entrances, and the like, there was also a tendency to call the 
resulting unornamented, pitched-roof house by the style name of 
"American cottage." There was also a tendency towards a new 
name, and partly also towards a real style, called the "ranch house," 
theoretically all on one floor, with large windows and good cross 
ventilation, rambling in character, and incorporating several outdoor 
living areas, although in a small prefabricated house these aims were 
rarely accomplished in fact. 

4. Achieving Variety 

There appeared to be, at the time of the survey, a definite opinion 
on the part of many prefabricators (and probably of much of the 
general public as well) that some sort of variety would have to be 
offered in prefabricated houses, on the theory that people insist on 
individuality in their homes, particularly if large projects are to be 
made up of the same units. However, the architects of some of the 
companies were satisfied that variation in actual form and space ar 
rangement could be very limited and still give the public what it 
wants; they tended to agree that the worst form of monotony is the 
monotony of slight variation. Some of the largest enterprises were 
offering a single model, without even the variation of left and right 
plans, presumably on the theory that mass production should start 
with maximum standardization and that the resulting product should 
be superior enough to that of its competitors to attract purchasers de 
spite any emotional resistance they might feel at first to the idea of 
standardized houses. The subtleties and merits of the arguments pro 
and con need not be rehearsed here, but it does seem to be a fact 


that the largest volumes, and in many ways the lowest costs, were 
being reached by those offering the least variety and relying on color 
and good site planning for the creation of distinction within a general 

Many more prefabricators, however, sought to make nominal vari 
ety possible on easy terms by offering different types of entrance, of 
exterior finishing material, of window trim, of shutters, porches, gar 
ages, breezeways, and of colors, all amplified by right and left plans. 
Of these, a substantial number found it practical in effect to limit 
their prefabrication to a chassis of some sort and to finish the houses in 
the field with a wide variety of "treatments." They represented a 
sort of mid-position between those who believed that maximum econ 
omies could be achieved only by strict standardization of the com 
plete house and those who believed that the public could best be 
served by a maximum standardization only of the panels and assembly 
parts, leaving it to the local man to put these elements together in 
any form he might wish. It has not been possible as yet to determine 
with any degree of assurance what the market will show with refer 
ence to these varying points of view. 

5. Models 

Assuming the same structural system and architectural style, many 
companies offered variety through different floor plans sometimes 
different only in arrangement, but usually different also in size. At 
the time of the survey, 14 companies offered two plans, seven offered 
three plans, 12 offered four or five plans, 16 offered five to ten plans, 
five offered 11 to 25 plans, two more than 25 plans, and six any plan 
at all, depending upon the order. Further than that, at least 21 com 
panies offered both right and left plans. 

Several of the companies, after having offered a variety of models 
and having learned that certain ones sold badly, discontinued produc 
tion of the less popular models. Thus, Kaiser Community Homes 
originally offered both two-bedroom and three-bedroom houses in 
the Los Angeles area, but at the time of the survey only the three- 
bedroom model was being produced. Harnischfeger, after having 
limited the number of models, was able to achieve further economies 
by producing the components of the remaining models in larger panel 


6. Flexibility within the House 

There is a common belief that one advantage of the prefabricated 
house is the ability to alter or add to it at pleasure. Actually only 22 
companies emphasized the possibility of adding rooms or wings, sup 
plied by them, at a later date. Few, if any, stressed the possibility 
of moving partitions about to meet changing family needs or de 
veloped designs pointing out various alternatives, even when truss 
roof construction would permit this. Although certain designs, par 
ticularly the modular panel systems with universal interlocking joints, 
had a basic demountability which might lend itself to rearrangement 
or addition over the years, particularly if this desire is taken into 
account in planning the layout and capacities of the mechanical sys 
tem, there had been little actual experience with this sort of thing 
other than the experience with the demountable war housing. When 
the time came to move these houses, all of which were carefully 
designed to be demountable, most of them were simply sawed into sec 
tions and carried off without taking the trouble to follow the dis 
mantling system. Nevertheless, many of the prefabricators offered 
schemes which were to some degree demountable and which offered 
possibilities of obtaining elasticity of plan through moving component 
elements, adding other elements, or taking elements away and replac 
ing them with others. Important economies might be gained through 
planning for re-use value or resale and secondhand value. None of 
these possibilities had been tested in the market, however, and the 
tremendous site planning problems involved had hardly been con 


Part A A 

Chapter C_7 


This chapter and the following one are devoted to two phases of 
the actual manufacturing process: procurement and production. The 
distinction between these two seems easy to make; procurement is the 
purchasing of the materials and finished goods which pass through 
the prefabricated plant, and production is the actual business of 
performing work on material to produce a product. Yet the line is 
sometimes hard to draw; for instance, are those prefabricators who do 
no more than assemble a house package from fabricated components 
purchased from others engaging in procurement or production? This 
difficulty of distinction emphasizes the point that economies may ac 
crue to the prefabricator as much because of the large scale of his 
operations, particularly in procurement, as because of his skill in fac 
tory production per se. It is important to understand the advantages, 
real or potential, which stem from each of these two phases of the 
manufacturing process. 

Procurement advantages stem primarily from size. It is the fact 
that the prefabricator buys in carload lots, that he must spend large 
amounts of working capital for materials inventories, and that he is in 
a position to carry out himself the functions of handling, sorting, 
grading, and repackaging, which puts him in a position to buy direct 
from the manufacturer. Such advantages are, naturally, available to 
either a prefabricator or a large operative builder, and it is a fact that 
at the time of the survey the largest operative builder and the 
largest prefabricators were of roughly the same size, judged by their 
volume (1,000-3,000 houses per year). 1 

In the following pages are examined the prefabricator's procure 
ment policies and the extent to which he was, in fact, able to lower 
his costs in three kinds of purchases: raw materials, finished items 
for which he acted as a jobber, and fabricated components. 

I. Raw Materials 

It is significant that most companies at the time of the survey 
thought that cost reductions were more likely to be realized through 
a change in the conventional materials distribution system than 

i Levitt, 3,000 in 1947; American Houses, 1,600 in 1947; Kaiser Community 
Homes, 2,500 in 1947; National Homes, 2,500 in 1947. 


through any other single factor in the whole realm of manufacturing. 
This was particularly true, of course, of those companies which 
counted on volume production rather than on unconventional con 
struction or materials for their economies, and it seemed to be the 
case whether or not the firms had as yet actually realized such econ 

Certainly there would seem to be potentialities for cost reduction 
in the distribution of materials. The following table shows one esti 
mate of the cost of distributing one dollar's worth of several building 
materials from the manufacturer to the site: 

Cost of Distributing Building Materials through Conventional 

Cost of Distribution 

Combined Profits 


Cost of 




Cost of 




at Site 













Plaster, lath, and 




















Concrete and 










Source: Housing Costs; Where the Housing Dollar Goes, National Housing Bulletin 2 (Washington: National 
Housing Agency, October 1944), p. 46. The data on which this breakdown is based were obtained from un 
published studies of the Office of Price Administration and in general represent 1940-1941 conditions. 

There are obviously inviting targets here for any sort of large house 
building enterprise, and this is one point where the largest operative 
builder, along with the largest prefabricator, has had a degree of 
success. 2 It is difficult to define the degree to which many prefabri- 
cators succeeded, because at the time of the survey they were not able 
to buy under what might be called "normal market conditions." It 
may be said, however, that only a few companies were able to effect 
really substantial economies in their materials purchases, and almost 
none had effected all those which they thought they should have. 
Even so, it is true that the industry's dozen largest members had, for 

2 See, for instance, the talk by William Levitt to The Producers' Council, Oc 
tober 1947, reported in The Architectural Forum, 87 (November 1947), 10, and 
in Journal of the American Institute of Architects, IX (June 1948), 253-6; and 
the rebuttal letter by H. M. Long in The Architectural Forum, 88 (January 
1948), 18. See also the builders' and manufacturers' points of view as pre 
sented in testimony before the Joint Committee on Housing of the 80th Congress, 
High Cost of Housing (Washington, 1948), pp. 127-30. 


the most part, been able to buy directly from the mills, or in some 
cases where they had been frustrated in their attempts to do so, they 
had begun to manufacture materials themselves, acquiring lumber 
mills and even engaging in logging operations. Most of the small 
manufacturers, on the other hand, were not established in volume or 
reputation and were finding it very difficult to secure accounts with 
direct sources. During the Veterans' Emergency Housing Program 
it was expected that the prefabricators would be able to buy directly 
from the mills, but after the program ended a number of mills refused 
to sell directly any longer, with unfortunate results for some of the 
smaller companies. This refusal is not difficult to understand. Under 
the VEHP allocation program of 1946-1947, 300,000,000 sq. ft. of ply 
wood was shipped to prefabricators during a one-year period at the 
direction of the government. 8 The mills did not believe that the 
prefabricators were able to use more than % of that amount, 4 and 
some sources 5 put the figure as low as %. By late 1947 and during 
the first half of 1948, the situation had changed substantially, and 
many prefabricators reported difficulty in securing sufficient plywood 
at "reasonable" prices. 

It is estimated that half of the 37,400 prefabricated houses pro 
duced in 1947 were constructed chiefly of plywood. The industry's 
consumption of this material in recent years is shown in the following 

Estimated Consumption of Softwood Plywood, 1946-1948 

(millions of square feet, %" equivalent) 




























Prefabricated houses 







Other residential construction 







Source: U. S. Department of Commerce, Construction Division, Construction and Con 
struction Materials; Industry Report (April 1948), p. 7. 

3 Source: Douglas Fir Plywood Association, in a letter to the Bemis Foundation, 
August 21, 1948. 

4 Loc. cit. 

5 Construction and Construction Materials; Industry Report, U. S. Department 
of Commerce, Construction Division (April 1948), p. 6. 


Corporate integration reaching back to the raw materials stage was 
observed in quite a few instances, particularly among those firms 
working with wood. At least 14 prefabricators were cutting their 
own timber or were closely affiliated with logging operations, while 
38 companies were known to have equipment for various aspects of 
lumber manufacture. Two of the companies producing houses or 
house components (General Plywood Corporation and Buffelen 
Lumber and Manufacturing Co.) were also producing plywood, and 
others were trading peeler logs cut on their timber stands for the 
final plywood product. Other examples of this type of integration 
include the purchase of a sheet-steel mill by Borg- Warner for the pro 
duction of its Ingersoll Utility Unit, and such tie-ups as that between 
Precision-Built and Homasote or between Lustron and Chicago Vitre 
ous Enamel. 6 

Another sort of integration which at least five prefabricators utilized 
in the procurement of materials was the establishment of subsidiary 
wholesale lumber and supply companies, which made it possible for 
them to buy material and equipments at the lowest possible prices. 7 
Many of the companies, as has been pointed out in the chapter on 
management, started as, or were backed by, lumber companies and 
so were able to enjoy this advantage without the necessity of setting 
up separate purchasing entities. At least 30 companies were in this 
category. As might be expected, some of these subsidiary purchasing 
organizations found it expedient to sell on the open market as well. 
Not only did they sell materials which they had bought in excess quan 
tities, but they also served as outlets for items such as doors, windows, 
or cabinets which their parent companies might have produced in ex 
cess in conjunction with their house packages. 

This sort of subsidiary purchasing organization was established 
by Ivon R. Ford, Inc., after the war for its own use, and that of 
nine licensees in various parts of the country, under the direction 
of Guy C. McKinney in Washington, D. C. In 1947 this purchas 
ing subsidiary became an independent organization, and its services 
were made available to the entire membership of PHMI. Purchasing 
powers were pooled, and McKinney & Co. was able to arrange with 
materials and equipment producers for large orders on a steady basis. 

6 Precision-Built was a subsidiary of Homasote Company and made extensive 
use of its materials. Similarly, the Lustron Corporation was in its early days a 
subsidiary of Chicago Vitreous Enamel Product Co. 

7 Texas Housing Co., California Prefab Corp., Ivon R. Ford, Inc., Brady Con 
struction Co., and Claude T. Lindsay, Inc. The savings made by Levitt on Long 
Island through such a device have been well publicized. 


It was hoped that these producers might become, in effect, "perma 
nent suppliers" of the service, which would receive its income from 
a monthly fee paid by participating companies. Although such a 
service might have been a boon, especially to smaller operators whose 
activities had been severely curtailed before participation by inability 
to purchase sufficient materials at reasonable prices in that confusing 
period, it did not work as planned. During its existence the service 
paid mill prices or slightly more for the materials and equipment it 
bought but, in most cases, less than the wholesale price. Dimension 
lumber, for instance, was furnished at less than wholesale quotations, 
and kits of electrical fixtures were bought at savings of 35%, 40%, and 
even 50% over local wholesalers' prices. 

In 1946 and 1947 there was considerable criticism on the part of 
the materials producers that too many prefabricators had placed orders 
based on huge estimates of production and that, when these estimates 
were not fulfilled, cancellations came thick and fast. Although confi 
dence in the prefabricator is not the only condition that must obtain 
before a materials producer will be willing and anxious to sell direct 
to him, it is one of the most important ones, and the prefabricators 
were anxious to achieve it. 

II. Finished Material and Equipment 

Apart from the structural shell fabricated by the house manufac 
turer there are various components which he seldom if ever fabricates, 
but rather buys in large quantities to furnish with the house package. 
There are several reasons for his doing so. One is the possibility of 
supplying these items to the ultimate consumer at costs lower than 
those the consumer would have to pay; generally speaking, such econ 
omies as were obtained in this way were very modest, although in 
several instances they were considerable. Another reason is the ad 
vantage gained from marketing as complete a package as possible. 
Most of the advantages accrue directly to the dealer-erector, however, 
and only indirectly to the prefabricator. They include, for instance, 
the time saved the dealer in procuring his materials, and the elimi 
nation of wastage at the site through the use of the proper amounts 


of material. Such advantages were particularly important during 
the period of the survey, which was one marked by frequent short 
ages and irregularities in materials flow. The prefabricator was not 
always in a position to help his dealers in this way, but when he was, 
the savings obtained constituted real economies to the dealer and 
probably more than offset the prefabricated storage and handling 
costs. Thus costs were lowered even if purchasing was not done at 
particularly advantageous prices. 8 

A further reason why the prefabricator may strive, by acting as a 
jobber, to furnish as complete a package as possible is that by so do 
ing he enables his dealer to make a larger dollar sale and thus to ob 
tain a larger profit. Of course, there is also the opportunity for the 
prefabricator to take a substantial middleman's profit, and many 
did so. 

Number of Companies Known to be Acting as Jobbers for Various 
Finished Components 

Regular Part 

Item of Package Optional 

Electrical fixtures 26 6 

Flooring 58 16 

Furnaces 50 9 

Heating stacks 25 3 

Hot-water heaters 41 8 

Kitchen cabinets 73 6 

Plumbing fixtures 31 12 

Refrigerators 10 5 

Roofing 70 4 

Screens 43 12 

Stoves 13 7 

The table above gives the number of companies known to be acting 
as jobbers for various finished components. That there were not 
more companies furnishing plumbing assemblies and electrical fix 
tures was largely due to the fact that prefabricators wished to make 
it possible for their dealers to subcontract plumbing and electrical 
work. Such equipment is customarily sold through the contractor 
who installs it, and most contractors were understandably reluctant 
to install fixtures included in a prefabricator's package when in so do 
ing they would lose their selling profit. Since these contractors had 
plenty of regular business, and since the prefabricator was often new 

8 Note that savings through simplified purchasing and elimination of waste 
have also been the objectives of the "industry-engineered house" program and 
the proposed program of the Research Institute for Economic Housing, New York 
City, Spring, 1948. 


to them, it was frequently necessary for the prefabricator to eliminate 
certain items from his package in order that his dealer-erectors might 
establish successful working relationships with the local contractors. 

A second factor that sometimes entered the picture was the refusal 
of some local unions to handle such items as preglazed sash and pre- 
hung doors. Few prefabricators, however, mentioned this as a major 
difficulty. Another factor that affected the activities of some prefabri 
cators as jobbers was the choice of marketing pattern. One firm 
which was planning to sell through department stores said that it 
would have been able to furnish refrigerators with its house packages 
at 60% of the retail price, but that it could not do so for reasons con 
nected with the merchandising policies of its outlet. 

Considered as a whole, prefabricators were not achieving sub 
stantial economies by acting as jobbers, even though they may have 
bought in carload lots. Thus, much the same situation obtained in 
their procurement of finished materials and equipment as in their 
procurement of raw materials. Generally speaking, the "average 
prefabricator" in his role as a middleman was able to offer his dealer 
prices which were the same as or only slightly lower than would have 
been paid to the regular distributive outlets. The mere fact that a 
prefabricator might be classified by some as a manufacturer rather 
than as a builder did not, it seems, entitle him to a special discount. 
This was particularly true after the Veterans' Emergency Housing 
Program ended when, as in the case of raw materials, some producers 
of home equipment refused to continue selling to house manufacturers 
at factory or even wholesale prices. One prefabricator who had been 
furnishing along with his house a certain shower unit that retailed 
for $65 had, during the VEHP, been able to buy the unit direct from 
the manufacturer for $21, and supply it to his customers for $35, in 
stalled. After the expiration of the program, the manufacturer de 
clined to sell the unit in any way except through the intermediary of 
wholesale and retail plumbing houses. 

There were a number of cases that differed markedly from the 
"average" cases in which prefabricators had sufficient volume of suffi 
cient power to obtain real savings in their purchasing. One of the 
largest firms in the industry stated that its experience showed net 
savings in finished materials and equipment costs of about 35% over 
small conventional builders. Another company which did some 
what less business, but was affiliated with a very large materials pro 
ducer, reported that it was buying its jobbed materials at industrial 
discounts and selling them to its dealers at a 15% mark-up. Hot-water 
heaters which retailed at $150 were bought by this company at $44. 


An eastern company stated that it had been quoted unit prices on a 
set of kitchen cabinets of $48 per set. If, however, it had ordered 
10,000 units, the price would then have been only $17 per set. The 
same firm estimated a saving of $1,000 per house through such mass 
purchasing if production volume were raised from 100 to 21,000 
houses per year. A study of the proportion of the final cost of finished 
materials and equipment that is represented by distribution costs 
confirms the opportunities afforded for savings by direct purchasing: 

Cost of Distribution of Finished Materials and Equipments through 
Conventional Channels 

Cost of Distribution 

Combined Profits 


Cost of 




Cost of 




at Site 



Finish hardware 





































Source: Housing Costs; Where the Housing Dollar Goes, p. 46. 

In light of the potentialities for cost reduction offered by direct 
purchasing, one might well ask why prefabricators have not been 
generally more successful in cutting their finished materials and equip 
ments costs. The problem involved here is not one peculiar to the pre 
fabricators. It confronts the building industry as a whole and is a 
crucial one in the evolution of large building enterprises of any sort, 
whether of operative builders or of prefabricators. One conclusion 
that has emerged out of almost every study of the building industry 
in the last decade is that few if any of the industry's problems cannot 
be traced in some way to the small scale on which operations are car 
ried out; yet, when a building organization begins to grow to a 
really significant size, it still cannot obtain many of the advantages 
and efficiencies which ought to go with its stature. This has been 
the protest of many of the big builders, of whom Levitt of Long 
Island has been perhaps the most vocal, and it has also been the 
protest of many a prefabricator. Even though prefabricators buy 
materials in carload lots and even though they carry out most of the 
functions which normally fall to the middlemen in the regular dis 
tributive chain principally stocking and maintaining a sizable in- 


ventory, handling, sorting, grading they still cannot, in most cases, 
obtain mill prices. The reason is fairly obvious. Every time a pre- 
fabricator buys at the mill, and at mill prices, at least one and per 
haps two elements in the distribution channel (the wholesaler or job 
ber and the retailer ) have been completely by-passed. The mills have 
established stable business relations with their distributors, and they 
are naturally not in a hurry to upset things by circumventing them; 
the conventional building industry is based on the existence of these 
long distribution lines. If prefabricators were producing 50% of the 
housing in the United States instead of 5%, they would be so large 
an element that the materials producers could hardly afford to ignore 
them. But until the industry acquires that stature and until the firms 
who produce more than 1,000 houses a year account for a major 
portion of the annual building output, it is probable that the materials 
producers will feel obliged to rely upon and support the conventional 
distributors. The early phases in the development of big builders are 
therefore likely to be the slowest. 9 The importance of the large-scale 
Lustron endeavor is great if from no other point of view than this. 
As more big housing producers emerge, they will tend to become an 
increasingly significant element in the industry, and the small builder, 
to whom the present materials distribution scheme is well suited, may 
tend to become increasingly unimportant. Neither trend was con 
spicuous at the time of the survey. 

III. Fabricated Components 

In a manufacturing operation which consists largely of assembling 
fabricated components purchased from specialized producers, the 

9 The Architectural Forum feels that this trend is already established. In the 
November 1947 issue, on page 10, it reports that its research, based on building 
permits issued in 1946 and 1947, indicates that builders of 10 or more houses a 
year presently account for three-fourths of all United States house construction, 
whereas nine years before they accounted for less than half the houses built. 
However, this statistic should not be interpreted without considering the fact that 
housebuilding in 1946 and 1947 was proceeding at about twice its rate in 1938; 
furthermore, there is a big gap between the builder of 10 houses a year and the 
builder of 1,000. 


distinction between procurement and production is very tenuous in 
deed. This is, however, an important consideration, for not only 
is there the question of how much of the house should be built in 
a factory and how much at the site, but there is also the problem 
of how much of the house should be produced in a central plant 
and how much assembled from components of various manufacture 
at one or more distribution points. The distinction is between the 
prefabricator as a producer and the prefabricator as a synthesizer. 
In either case he may retain the functions of design and integration 
and of distribution. But there are a number of other considerations 
which had led certain prefabricators to prefer one or the other of 
these different types of operations. 

By producing as much as possible of the house in his own plant, 
the prefabricator will avoid paying for the overhead and profit of 
other manufacturers; he probably will have greater freedom in de 
sign; and he should have greater freedom in the administration and 
control of his business operations. On the other hand, some of the 
prefabricators visited had several reasons for freeing themselves of 
as much actual production work as possible. For one thing, many 
lacked the capital to build the necessary production facilities; this 
was particularly likely to be true of a proponent of a metal house. 
Furthermore, even if he had sufficient capital, the prefabricator might 
well prefer to use it elsewhere and avoid tying himself to any par 
ticular material or process. The period during which the survey was 
conducted was one of great flux and high technological expectations. 
It was natural that in such an atmosphere a number of companies 
avoided heavy investment in plant and equipment and replaced 
production with procurement so far as possible. Even in more stable 
times highly centralized production might interfere with an objec 
tive approach to design and deter the company from adopting new 
materials or structural techniques simply because these would not 
utilize existing facilities. 

Perhaps the most obvious reasons for purchasing rather than pro 
ducing certain components, however, were those of relative imme 
diate costs. Component manufacturers might well achieve sub 
stantially lower costs than a prefabricator making the same items 
because of two advantages: specialized high-volume production on a 
steady basis, and optimum location with respect to resources. It is 
clear that some prefabricators did not have a large enough volume 
to justify the purchase of a complex glue press, for instance. Fur 
thermore, prefabricators had to locate these plants with reference 
to their market as well as to such other factors as raw materials and 


labor. The component manufacturer, on the other hand, worries 
less about the location of the general housing market, locates near 
the resources he uses, and thus avoids paying the transportation cost 
for material that is lost in component manufacturing. Also, he main 
tains a steadier production rate by selling to a much broader and 
larger market. The lumber companies thus did a great deal of initial 
processing for prefabricators. In the production of doors, windows, 
and cabinets these advantages were great enough to warrant the 
growth of a large industry specializing in this type of manufacture; 
other examples of factory-made components which were purchased 
by prefabricators included chimneys, stairs, and plumbing assemblies. 

The decision to avoid heavy investment in specialized tools was a 
fundamental consideration of the Harman Corporation in determin 
ing its whole pattern of operations. Its plant in Wilmington, Del., 
served more as a warehouse than as a factory. There some fabrica 
tion was done, such as of wood furring strips, but the operation was 
generally one of storing and packaging the steel frames, panels, 
windows, insulation, wallboard, and plumbing and heating equip 
ment, all of which were being produced elsewhere by other firms. 
In many respects the Harman operation was more like precutting 
than prefabricating, but the example is illustrative of the assembly 
operation. The HomeOla Corporation carried out a large share of 
its manufacturing by subcontracting to firms near sources of supply. 
A large Tacoma, Wash., lumber company assembled the modular 
floor, wall, ceiling, and roof panels from its own lumber and plywood 
and shipped these parts directly to the dealers. At its own plant 
in Chicago, HomeOla manufactured some of the plumbing and equip 
ment, assembled the heavier steel items produced by affiliated firms 
in the area, and shipped this portion of the house package to the 
local dealer at the same time that the wood portion was being shipped 
from Tacoma. One Oregon prefabricator estimated that it would 
entail about $75,000 in woodworking machinery and about $35,000 
in assembly equipment to tool up for the production of stressed skin 
panels, and largely on the basis of this estimate decided to subcon 
tract his panel manufacture to one or more established manufacturers 
in the region. On the opposite side, it can safely be said that the 
tight capital position of Anchorage Homes, Inc., resulting from the 
expenditure of an estimated one million dollars for a new factory, 
was a major factor in its failure. 

It is unnecessary to adduce further examples. As has already been 
pointed out, even those companies which fabricated the entire shell 
did not begin to manufacture everything in the complete house 


package. There was no prefabricator who manufactured his own 
water closet or heating unit, for instance. There were a few steps 
in the direction of corporate integration, and there seemed to be an 
interest in housing on the part of some of the largest steel companies 
to parallel their general integrated expansion in the production of 
consumer goods. At the time of the survey, however, no housing 
analogue to the Ford Motor Company had appeared. 


Part JL JL 

Chapter S 


I. Plant Facilities 

This chapter describes and analyzes the production operations of 
the industry, taking into consideration the physical plant capacity, the 
labor force employed, and other factors related to the amount of total 
output. A description of some of the aspects of factory production 
follows: the processes and equipment used, the plant layouts, the 
scheduling, etc. Since the production aspects of particular kinds of 
prefabrication have been well treated elsewhere, 1 the chapter de 
scribes only the general patterns of the industry's production opera 
tions, discussing the reasons for some of the different patterns ob 
served. A brief economic analysis explores such questions as the 
quantity of manufacturing done by the prefabricator, the relationship 
between costs and volume, the increase in productivity resulting from 
prefabrication, and the cost structures typical of various groups in the 

One sign of the stature of the industry is its growth in productive 
capacity. In early 1948 this was estimated by PHMI as 120,000 
houses per year, or more than three times the actual production. 
For the bulk of the industry, however, it is known that estimates 
of physical capacity at any time are not too significant because the 
tooling-up costs are not high. The creation of capacity for the 
early war housing and for the 30,000 houses which were to have been 
produced under lend-lease in 1945 are examples of rapid expansion 
under stimulus. It should also be noted that this estimate of 120,000 
excluded many of those companies which had adopted unconven 
tional approaches and were committed to highly mechanized opera 
tions involving large investments in plant and equipment. In the 
spring of 1948 the National Association of Housing Manufacturers, 
representing these firms, estimated that if the potential capacity of 
its membership were realized, it would exceed the then existing 
capacity of the rest of the industry. 

The value of plant and equipment of 40 member companies sur 
veyed by PHMI in 1947 was $11,008,467, and the total assets of 
these companies were more than $24,000,000. Although this was 

1 Particularly in the Manual on Wood Construction for Prefabricated Houses. 
See also N. S. Perkins, Construction Manual for Douglas Fir Plywood Dri-Bilt 
Houses (Tacoma: Douglas Fir Plywood Association, 1940). 


less than half of the $60,000,000 estimated total capitalization of the 
industry, most of the balance was represented by the giant Lustron 
Corporation. It is interesting to note, by way of comparison, that 
by June 1948 Lustron alone had already contracted for some $12,- 
000,000 worth of plant and equipment, an investment greater than 
the 1947 total of the 40 firms mentioned above. 

During the Bemis Foundation survey, the average size of plants 
larger than 100,000 sq. ft., of which there were 16, was 223,000 sq. 
ft. This does not include the Lustron plant, of which the floor area 
was more than 1,000,000 sq. ft. The survey also revealed that 29 
companies had completed new plant facilities since the war, and that 
at least 22 more were planning or actually building new plants. 

On the other hand, there were numerous companies, a great 
many of which were not visited, which operated with quite primitive 
equipment: a small shop or shed, some crude wooden jigs, and a few 
power saws. Though they would have to be classified as prefabri- 
cators, these firms were probably operating on a capital investment 
about the same as that of a conventional builder with the same out 

There were 19 companies which had more than one plant facility. 
In most of these cases, one or more of the plants was a materials 
preparation or cutting organization near the source of supply. Sev 
eral eastern firms had a lumber-producing and precutting plant in 
the South and an assembly plant in the eastern seaboard area, for 
example, Johnson Quality Homes, Inc. 

II. Location of the Industry 

The map (see Figure 34) shows the location of the plants of 82 
firms reported to be in operation on January 1, 1948. It can be 
seen that the industry was well represented throughout the eastern 
half of the country and on the Pacific Coast. Relatively few firms 
were found in the plains and mountain areas where the population 
is widely scattered. The largest number of prefabricators were lo 
cated on the Pacific Coast and in the Midwest. 

Some of the reasons for this pattern of industrial location are 
immediately obvious, but it may be worth while to explore the pos- 



sible effects of a number of factors: access to raw materials, access 
to markets, access to labor supply, environmental hostility, and "ac 
cident." Regarding the first of these, there is no overall pattern of 
proximity to raw materials. It is true, as pointed out previously, 
that there were 19 companies with two or more production facilities, 
one of these being, in most cases, a raw materials processing point 
near the source, but a very large number of firms were located at 
considerable distances from their respective sources, whether these 
were of lumber, plywood, steel, or aluminum. This may be explained 
by the fact that the prefabricated operations did not, as a rule, 
significantly reduce the weight of the materials going into his prod 
uct (although his product was often significantly lighter than the 
conventional) and, in most cases, did increase the total bulk. There 
is an advantage, therefore, in being closer to the market than to raw 

The weight and bulk of the house package make the transporta 
tion problem such that the location of the plant relative to the market 
was of primary concern. Although house packages have been shipped 
as far as 1,000 miles and beyond, the vast majority were not trans 
ported more than 300 miles for reasons of cost. 2 We might thus 
expect that prefabricators were serving local or regional markets 
rather than national ones and that they were located close to where 
houses were being erected; therefore they would be generally dis 
tributed according to population over the country. In view of the 
ease of entry into the industry and its fluidity at the time, we might 
further expect that they were concentrated in areas where the build 
ing activity was greatest, and to a large degree this was the pattern 

If the concentration of plants is compared with the 1946 volume 
of new private construction, 3 the results show surprising agreement in 
all but three regions. The concentration of prefabricators in the 
Pacific Coast area and in the middle western states of Wisconsin, 
Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio appreciably exceeded the rela 
tive volume of new private construction, whereas in the eastern states 
of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania the reverse was true. 
Tending to favor prefabrication on the Pacific Coast were the strong 
expectation of future markets based upon trends in population migra 
tion, the rapid rate of growth of the metropolitan areas within which 
substantially all the plants were located, and the predominantly 

2 See Chapter 6, Marketing. 

3 Construction and Construction Materials, Industry Report, Statistical Supple 
ment, U. S. Department of Commerce (June 1948), p. 6. 


single-family, open type of development which characterized the 
area. The middle western states offered a mass market distributed 
in urban concentrations of various sizes throughout the population 
heart of the country, and a somewhat more receptive environment 
than in most of the eastern states. Possibly the Middle West was 
more receptive because some of the earliest ventures happened to 
start there and have since proved themselves and demonstrated the 
case for prefabrication; for those companies which came later, the 
struggle with external obstacles was progressively easier and the num 
ber of economic and other aids 4 progressively greater. In the eastern 
states the expectation of future growth could not be compared with 
that of the Pacific Coast, and furthermore, the population was largely 
concentrated in a few highly developed metropolitan areas where a 
smaller proportion of new private construction was in single-family 
houses. General consumer resistance to the idea of prefabrication 
in houses appeared to increase in the far eastern states, so that per 
haps the greatest effort to conceal the prefabricated nature of their 
houses was made by companies which had plants located in New 

The consideration of character of labor supply did not seem in 
many cases to be an important one in fixing the plant location, 
although several companies avoided highly unionized urban areas. 
One reason for this is the relatively low proportion of the total house 
package cost that was represented by direct labor cost. Another is 
the fact that few special skills are needed in the average prefabrica 
tion plant. Neither can plant location be explained exclusively as 
the result of rational calculus. Personal preferences have been the 
determining factor in more than one case. 

Although there were some companies with two or more plants, 
no company had a series of branch assembly plants. Serious interest, 
however, was expressed by 11 manufacturers in the idea of branch 
plants, not to carry on the full range of operations typical of a single 
prefabrication plant, but to assemble components fabricated in one 
or more main factories and left unassembled there for the sake of 
economical shipping, and to act as warehouses for house parts com 
prising a variety of designs. The principal difficulty was that an 
investment in a chain of final assembly and warehouse facilities in 
order to achieve wider and more economic distribution would require 
more capital than any company had been willing, or than most had 
been able, to risk thus far. 

4 For example, a concern specializing in transporting prefabricated houses. 


III. Labor Force 

Statistics concerning the labor force must be interpreted with the 
seasonal variations of the industry in mind. Even after prefabricators 
have moved a considerable portion of the building process into a 
factory, they are not completely independent of the weather. The 
site has to be improved; foundations must be prepared; and some 
time is required to shell in the housealmost always at least a day 
and sometimes several days. As a consequence of factors such as 
these, the prefabricators have been only partially successful in over 
coming seasonal fluctuations, although there is reason to believe that 
if dealers are trained and well enough capitalized to do more work 
in advance, and if the proportion of site work decreases, these fluctua 
tions will become smaller and smaller. It was the experience of 
Gunnison Homes, for instance, that the active building season had 
been extended by one and one-half months at each end, and it was 
this firm's belief that it would be extended further. It should be 
pointed out in this connection that Gunnison and a good many other 
firms in the eastern and middle western states were attempting to 
stabilize their factory operations by shipping house packages to 
dealers in the southern states during winter months. 

If one bears in mind the seasonal influence and the fact that many 
of the plant visits were made during winter months, some idea of 
the size of the labor force can be obtained. For the industry as a 
whole, this was in the neighborhood of 10,000 at the time of the 
survey. 5 In those plants actually in production when visited, there 
was an average employment of 79 workers. Similarly, the 1947 
PHMI survey found a total of 2,810 factory workers employed by 40 
companies in January 1947, an average of 70 workers per company; 

5 The labor force at various times was reported as follows: 




of Firms 


September 1946 



November 1946 



January 1947 



Source: U. S. Department of Labor, U. S. Employment Service, Labor Market Infor 
mation, Industry Series No. 24-33, Current Supplements for October and December 1946 
and February 1947. 


and the Department of Labor found an average employment figure 
ranging from 63 to 114 at various times during 1946-1947. 6 It is 
interesting, and perhaps significant, that the average number of fac 
tory employees per firm, as reported by PHMI, went from 70 in 
January 1947 to 83 in July, to 98 in January 1948, and to 103 in 
July 1948. 7 

Average capacity employment of 300 workers on a single-shift basis 
was indicated by 24 companies; some of the estimates given may 
have been overoptimistic. Only one company reported more than 
1,000 as its capacity employment with present plant facilities. Again, 
none of these figures included Lustron, whose projected output of 
30,000-40,000 houses per year might call for a factory labor force of 
4,000 spread over three shifts. 

IV. Factory Processes and Equipment 

This section describes the degree of industrialization found among 
prefabricators and the factory techniques in use. Because the mate 
rials used tend to be the most important factor in governing the 
choice of the actual production techniques and tools, they serve 
as the basis of organization of the discussion. 

A. Wood 

Wood is a material which has several advantages and a good 
many disadvantages over other materials in its adaptability to indus 
trial production. Perhaps its best quality is the ease with which it 
can be cut, machined, and pieced together. Woodworking machinery 
is inexpensive, at least by comparison with metalworking machinery. 
It is therefore not necessary to reach such a high volume of produc 
tion in order to put an investment in woodworking machinery on an 
economic basis. A further advantage is that the production engineer 
ing for most prefabricating in wood is relatively simple and does not 

6 Loc. cit. 

7 The 1947 figures are for 40 companies; the 1948 figures, for 50 companies, 


require the collective effort of a staff of highly trained technicians. 
On the other hand, compared to steel, wood offers a few distinct 
handicaps to industrial production. It is, by nature, not so homo 
geneous; it is dimensionally less stable; it is not so well suited to such 
a process as the forced drying of a paint coat; and it cannot so easily 
be shaped. Because of these qualities the production man dealing 
with wood finds it more difficult to achieve good quality control, to 
obtain close tolerances in dimensions, to benefit from the wide variety 
of industrial finishes that have been developed, and to use high 
speed material-forming equipment. For these and other reasons 
there has long been a school of thought which holds that when real 
housing industrialization does come, the basic material used will not 
be wood. 

1. Preparation and Handling of Materials 

Many companies began the fabrication process with the manufac- 
facture of lumber out of timber taken from their own tracts. There 
were at least 38 companies which owned remanufacturing equipment 
and were capable of creating finished lumber from large timbers. 

Prefabricated house manufacture requires a fair degree of preci 
sion in order to make the prefabricated components fit together 
readily at the site. When wood is used as the basic material this 
precision is not always easy to obtain, and it becomes important to 
control moisture content in prefabricated house manufacture where 
it might not be essential in conventional house construction. For 
this reason at least 20 companies used their own dry kilns to bring 
lumber to the desired moisture content before it entered the fabrica 
tion process. A number of other companies used systematic air- 
drying operations for the same purpose. The bowing out of plywood 
panels is a possible consequence of changes in the moisture content 
of the plywood after it has been glued into a panel, taking place when 
interior and exterior plies of the panel expand or contract with re 
spect to one another to produce a curvature. One way of counter 
acting this tendency is to store plywood in such a way that its sur 
faces are free to come to moisture equilibrium with a controlled 
environment. 8 Although plywood was almost always stored in an 

8 It should be noted that, since the interior and exterior surfaces of a wall are 
exposed to different environments, they will tend to attain different moisture con 
tents in the course of time; consequently, if a stressed skin panel is built true at 


inside heated space, only a few companies were known to be 
following the practice of "sticking," which involves putting wood 
strips between the sheets when piling them. Those that did had 
less difficulty with panel bowing. 

Only a few companies were found to be thoroughly inspecting 
their plywood, and indeed there was no really good test for the 
soundness of the glue lines. However, at least 13 companies were 
dipping some or all of their framing members into a toxic preserva 
tive in order to protect the wood from fungi or harmful insects. In 
certain sections of the country, of course, this is more or less standard 

The preparation of other materials was usually quite minor in 
extent. Insulation and wallboards usually were purchased ready 
to use, except for necessary cutting. Homasote, however, was wet 
down to cause it to expand before being used for the surface of a 
panel. It shrinks on drying, thus making the skin of the panel taut 
and in effect prestressing it. 

Only a few mechanized conveyer lines were seen in use to convey 
lumber from storage to preparation points; this was being done by 
forked lift trucks in at least 16 cases, by high-bodied carrier trucks 
in at least six, and by gravity roller lines in two, but mostly by carts or 
by hand. 

2. Cutting and Machining 

Prefabricates using wood usually required high-grade lumber and 
great precision in their cutting and machining operations, particu 
larly in the manufacture of plywood panels. In manufacturing these 
the framing member had to be square with the plywood surface in 
order to achieve a good glue bond. Additional precision was neces 
sary at the perimeters of the panels where very accurate millwork 
was often called for by the construction system. Furthermore, fram 
ing members had to be quite straight, in order that they would fit 
into the jig positioners properly. Thus, in a good many plants, 
use was being made of large, high-speed, precision woodworking 
machinery such as circular saws of various types, single and double 

a time when the interior and exterior sheets of plywood have the same moisture 
content, the panel may bow later on. The U. S. Forest Products Laboratory has 
recently been conducting research to discover the optimum initial moisture con 
tents for plywood sheets to be used in stressed skin construction. 


planers, molders, and double-end tenoners. Other tools that were 
sometimes found in use were multiple boring machines and multiple 
dado machines. Molders, for instance, which are rather specialized 
machines for the rapid production of framing or other stock cut to a 
specified pattern, were known to be in use in at least 39 plants. The 
design of plywood-cutting machinery showed great ingenuity, some 
of the ideas having been developed during the war when production 
often depended on the ability to improvise the required tools and 
equipment. A few prefabricators were using automatic cutting ma 
chinery designed and produced for that purpose by saw equipment 
manufacturers, but the majority of those who were doing any extensive 
plywood cutting had devised schemes of their own, using such ele 
ments as traveling circular saws or moving tables. In many cases it 
was desirable to give the plywood extremely accurate edge surfaces 
and square dimensions, particularly when plywood sheets were used 
to make up the inside wall and ceiling surfaces. To do this a double- 
end tenoner was often used. This machine, which sizes sheets and 
panels to precise dimensions, grooves panel edges for splines, cuts 
stock to accurate length, and does many similar operations, is one of 
the most versatile and one of the most expensive pieces of woodwork 
ing machinery used by prefabricators in wood. At the time of the 
survey double-end tenoners cost about $15,000-$20,000, and at least 
14 companies were known to be using them. Another machine used 
for accurate edging was the equalizer, and improvised machinery for 
the same purpose was used in 12 cases. However, not all companies 
using plywood as a surface material were sizing their panels or their 
plywood in any way; some were content to rely on the accuracy of ply 
wood mill fabrication to achieve reasonably good joints. 

3. Subassembly 

Where panels of room or wall size were being manufactured, it 
was common practice to subassemble the framing members for 
standard details such as door and window openings whose location 
within the wall panel was not standardized. At least 19 of the 
large companies utilized special jigs and tools to make up framing 
subassemblies for standard openings, and thereby simplified assembly 
operations when these were incorporated into large panels. In 
fact, this manner of assembly usually made it possible to use fewer 
jigs in the manufacture of a greater variety of wall panels. 


This method was employed by Precision-Built Homes. All de 
sign and production were based on the 4" Bemis module. Framing 
subassemblies for windows, doors, and floor-wall plates were made 
up on a set of standardized jigs. Job-lot orders based on almost 
any modularized design could be rapidly manufactured in panels of 
room size by the use of an adjustable "master" jig and the inter 
changeable framing members and subassemblies which were already 
in stock. 

Several companies were carrying on an operation which might be 
termed the subassembly of plywood. Accurately edged 4' X 8' ply 
wood sheets were joined into room-size sheets by butting them over 
a thin backing strip of plywood which presented a common gluing 
surface for the contiguous sheets atop it. A strong glue line without 
nails was achieved through the use of a fairly simple hot plate press 
only a few inches wide which was operated on a fast cycle over one 
joint at a time. The room-size sheets were then mounted on the 
framing members of their panels with good assurance that joints 
would not open. This made it possible to paper directly over the 
joints without fear of cracks appearing later. 

4. Assembly 

Two principal means of fastening wood pieces together were being 
used: glue and nails, frequently both. Hand nailing, of course, is 
hardly an industrialized operation, even when done under a factory 
roof, and it was most extensively used in those plants which pro 
duced a panelized, but otherwise conventional, wood frame house. 
There were, however, numerous attempts to simplify and speed up 
the operation. A good many companies were using spring devices 
which deliver a staple or nail into a sheet of plywood or wallboard 
and into the framing underneath when struck on top with a sharp 
hammer blow. A few factories used corrugated clips to assemble 
their framing members, driving these in from above as the lumber 
lay in the jig, instead of driving nails into the peripheral edges. 
This made it possible to run the panel through some type of edging 
machine without the danger of nails interfering with the process. 
One pneumatic hammer was seen in use, and also one crate-nailing 
machine, the latter for applying subflooring to 24' long panels. Sev 
eral other companies were developing various sorts of automatic 


nailing devices capable of either a sequence of operations or a num 
ber of simultaneous ones. 

On the other hand, a number of companies using nails to obtain 
pressure for their gluing operations expressed the intention of in 
stalling glue presses to replace nailing altogether. When nails are 
used instead of a glue press, the bond is seldom so good, and conse 
quently certain design advantages, such as the use of lighter framing, 
may be lost. Other reasons for installing a press were the elimina 
tion of nailing labor and material costs, 9 and, if heat were used, 
especially high-frequency induction, a decrease in the time required 
for the glue to set. In order that these advantages be decisive, how 
ever, they must outweigh the cost of an expensive piece of equip 
ment. Only six companies were, in fact, known to be using hot 
presses for gluing plywood to framing in the production of panels. 
Heat was applied in four of these cases by high-frequency induction, 
and in two by heated platens, one using steam for this purpose and 
the other electricity. The largest hot press known to have been in 
actual use was Prenco's, which had a 32' X 9' bed. 

Being the newest of the developments, the high-frequency induc 
tion technique was the one which had aroused most interest. Its 
most frequently cited advantage over other types was the speed 
and accuracy with which heat could be concentrated at the glue 
lines. It could do this because the high-frequency electric field is 
able to focus heat at a point well within the mass in which it is 
oscillating, whereas the hot platen press depends on conduction of 
heat inwards from the contact surfaces. One of the electronic presses 
being used in the Midwest was bonding panels in about a minute, 
whereas the steam-heated press required a three-minute cycle. Such 
a comparison, however, is not particularly significant, because the 
curing time depends very much on the glue used. Generally, with 
either high-frequency or hot platen presses, the time required for 
curing can be kept to a few minutes. 10 A further device for speeding 
up the gluing operation was the use of a multiple opening press, 
such as the steam-heated one which was handling 10 panels every five 
minutes, including loading and unloading. Such a press cost about 
$35,000 in 1946, so that a fairly high production volume is necessary 
if it is to be used economically. In this case planned production 
was 16 houses per day. Other presses were designed for volumes of 
40 houses per day, 35-40 per day, five per day, and in one case, 

9 A not insignificant reason was the acute shortage of nails during the period of 
the survey. 

10 Manual on Wood Construction for Prefabricated Houses, p. 179. 


only three per day. In the last two cases high-frequency machines 
were employed, indicating possibly that for small, single opening 
presses these gave greater initial or operating economy, or both, than 
steam or electrically heated platen presses. 11 Rapid curing was 
also effected in a few cases by the use of heated chambers in which 
glued assemblies were placed after clamping or nailing. Only one 
company was known to be using a cold press in the production of 
plywood panels. This technique, which saw some use during the 
war, seems to have been too slow, and to have been generally aban 
doned in favor of either hot-press or glue and nail techniques. 

Most factories were using hand-operated glue guns to spread glue 
onto framing members, although a few used glue-spreading ma 
chines which applied the glue to both sides of a frame assembly 
as it was fed between a pair of rollers. When panels had their 
surface sheets bonded on simultaneously in a press, the use of such a 
glue-spreading machine simplified operations considerably. 

A distinguishing feature of almost every factory producing wood 
panels was the use of jigs. Horizontal assembly jigs determine the 
overall dimensions of panels without need of measurement, leveling, 
or plumbing, and usually also determine the locations of members 
or subassemblies within panels. The simplest jigs were crude wooden 
tables utilizing rough wood blocks to position the framing members. 
The more accurate and refined ones had steel tops and carefully 
machined stops which provided for the easy entry of framing mem 
bers, their precise alignment, and the quick removal of the as 
sembled unit. Devices used to apply pressure to framing members 
in order to hold them exactly in assembly position were stops acti 
vated by compressed air, cams of various sorts, wedges, and screw 
clamps. In designs where a high degree of precision was necessary, 
as when both surfaces of a wall section were to be factory applied, it 
was essential that the dimensions of the jig be very accurate and that 
the members be squarely aligned. This could best be assured with 
metal-based jigs, since the wooden ones had to be checked regu 
larly for precision. At least 18 companies were known to be using 
metal-based jigs. In some cases rather elaborate "master" jigs were 
seen in use, these having a number of movable guides containing 
notches or comb-like teeth to position the framing members within 
the larger assembly. Such jigs were used where wall-size panels or 
varied designs were being produced, as contrasted with the use of 

11 It was possible to rent the electronic equipment and avoid a large cash out 
lay. This may also have been a factor. 


simpler jigs in the production of a rather limited number of types 
of standard modular panels. 

5. Finishing 

The great majority of prefabricators in wood did not apply the 
final finish to the main elements in the shell of the house in their 
factories. Cabinets, trim, windows, and doors were usually sent 
to the site already painted or stained, but the floor, wall, ceiling, and 
roof were in most cases finished at the site. There were several 
reasons for this practice. As was pointed out previously, some manu 
facturers left most of the actual fabrication of the floor, ceiling, and 
roof to be done at the site. Many companies planned to disguise the 
panelized structure of their house by applying siding or shingles on 
the exterior and by taping joints, hanging wallpaper, or even plaster 
ing the interior. These operations were almost always done at the 
site, although a few firms applied shingles and siding to panels in 
the shop; therefore final finish coats were generally site applied. 

In those cases where the wall or floor panels were completely 
fabricated in the factory and where nothing but painting remained 
to be done, it might seem at first glance most economical to do this 
work in the shop. A big reason in favor of doing so is the large ele 
ment of labor cost in a site-applied paint job from two to five times 
as much as the materials cost. However, there are at least two im 
portant technical reasons for not doing the final finish job in the fac 
tory. First is the danger of damage to the finished surface during 
handling and transport and the expense of trying to prevent such 
damage. (A partial solution to this problem would be to apply all 
but the last coat in the factory.) The second reason is that a slow- 
drying paint job means either a low production rate or else the use 
of a large area in the factory in which to do the drying. These 
problems might be avoided by the use of a fast-drying finish and a 
method of forced drying. Unfortunately, however, there were not 
available many fast-drying finishes suitable for exterior woodwork, 
and a subsequent site application of such finishes for maintenance 
purposes would be most difficult. In the forced drying of paint, 
the shortcomings of wood for industrialized production are again 
apparent: the high temperatures needed to speed the drying would 
have to be limited by considerations of damage to the wood through 


charring or excessive loss of moisture, and of damage to the paint 
film by the expansion of air in the pores of the wood beneath the 

Notwithstanding all these difficulties, final finish coats were being 
applied to both exterior and interior surfaces in some factories. 
In many more plants the woodwork received only a sealer or priming 
coat, or both, on either one or both surfaces. And in a number of 
other factories, no finishing of any kind was being done. Where 
finishes were applied in the factory, the surfaces, usually of plywood, 
were in many cases first machine sanded with drum or belt sanders, 
then inspected and touched up where necessary, and sent to spray 
booths. A few plants were equipped with automatic spray set-ups, 
but most of those which did any spraying used manual equipment. 
It was customary to use a conveyer line in conjunction with spraying 
and drying operations. Other means of applying coatings at the time 
of our survey included dipping, especially for sealers and water re 
pellents, and brushes. Forced drying was sometimes done with 
banks of infrared lamps; more often, by warm air. 

6. Quality Control 

One aspect of factory production which should not be overlooked 
is inspection for quality control. Not only is this more readily done 
in a factory than in the field, but it is also more essential to con 
tinued business success for a prefabricator than for the average 
conventional builder. Because of the infrequency with which houses 
are bought, and because of the short-term interest of the average 
builder and contractor in their product, the great bulk of home- 
building has traditionally been carried on without the use of brand 
names, quality guarantees, advertising, or servicing. Along with 
the evolution of large operative builders and prefabricators there 
has been a corresponding increase in the importance of establishing 
a name and maintaining a reputation. Quality control is an essen 
tial element in this process, and without it even the most extensive 
advertising efforts may fail. Systematic attempts at some sort of 
quality control were observed in almost every plant, and in a few 
these were quite elaborate, ranging from the inspection of raw mate 
rials through manufacturing inspection of dimensions, glue joints, 
and machined surfaces to the final inspection of finishes. 


B. Metal 

Probably the best testimony to the admirable suitability of metal 
for industrial production is its widespread industrial use. The rea 
sons are not obscure: metal is abundant; it can be made homogeneous 
to a high degree; its physical properties can be intentionally altered 
over a wide range; it has good dimensional stability; it can easily 
be formed by casting, forging, extruding, stamping, or bending; it 
can be welded, soldered, brazed, riveted, or bolted together; and it 
can be made to take a vast variety of finishes vitreous enamel, paint, 
lacquer, plating, and many others. Metal can be fabricated in a 
great variety of ways at high speed and with excellent precision. Its 
prime disadvantage from the standpoint of production engineering 
is that metal-working machinery is generally expensive and often re 
quires a skilled engineering force for its proper set-up, control, and 
maintenance. Ordinarily plant fabrication of metal structures re 
quires a larger plant investment than for wooden structures, and 
production volumes must be accordingly higher before economies 
are apparent. 

The production of metal houses is described in less detail than that 
of wood houses chiefly because there were many fewer firms pro 
ducing them, and there was but little evidence of a general pattern of 
factory operations. One other general remark is pertinent: most of 
the metal house packages do not leave the factory in the form of 
wall, roof, and floor panels as do wood houses. Only two firms 
were known to be shipping fully assembled wall panels. Most of 
the packages consisted essentially of separate frames and cladding, 
the houses being primarily of frame assembly design. 

1. Material Forming 

Practically all the metal systems known to have been in production 
utilized some sort of sheet steel or aluminum as the primary material, 
both for framing members and for claddings. Even the most com 
plete production systems began with the purchase of rolled sheet 
metal. Flat sheets were punched and sheared as required, and then 
sent into forming operations. The Byrne Organization and Harman 
Corporation bought structural shapes already fabricated by other 
companies; and load-bearing wall pans were being bought by Metal 


Homes Company and The Steelcraft Manufacturing Company from 
the American Rolling Mills Company. 

In the prefabricators' plants, materials were made into structural 
members, wall pans, and claddings of various sorts by the means 
conventionally used for cold-forming sheet metal roll corrugating, 
press breaking, die rolling, die pressing, etc. Such operations gen 
erally involve high tool costs and must, therefore, be undertaken 
at a high production rate if unit costs are to be kept low. Lustron, 
for instance, had installed about 100 pieces of press equipment which 
cost roughly $3,000,000, but it predicated this investment on an an 
nual production of as many as 40,000 houses. Since there are many 
repetitive elements in the design of this house, some of these presses 
were to be working at very high volume (see Figure 41). 

2. Assembly 

In addition to their forming processes, some plants carried on as 
sembly operations, but these were usually of a minor and simple 
nature. Fox Metal, for example, bolted together channels to form 
I sections, and then attached connector angles to these. Stran-Steel 
spot-welded sections together to form rib sections. General Homes, 
which was one company that planned to make a complete wall 
panel, bonded an aluminum skin to fiberboard sheathing and then 
fastened this to a corrugated aluminum core. Lustron gang-welded 
its structural shapes into roof trusses and panelized frames, and 
assembled most of the elements for its bay window unit in the plant. 
An exception to these essentially minor assembly operations was the 
plan of Reliance Homes, Inc. (see Figure 42). Its scheme called 
for assembly in the plant of complete house sections. Plant opera 
tions included welding a basket frame of steel C channels, fastening 
to it the interior surface of Homasote and exterior surface of alumi 
num bonded to Homasote, and installing and finishing the floor and 
mechanical equipment. Such a pattern is comparable in many ways 
to that used in the production of the British AIROH house, and 
together these two offer the best examples of the sectional house 
worked out in metal. 


3. Finish 

Components of metal houses generally received at least a priming 
coat in the factory, and often were completely finished there. With 
steel, rust prevention is of course a major problem, and consequently 
parts were primed with zinc chromate or some other paint as soon 
as possible. The Harman house was of steel construction to which 
only the zinc chromate priming coat was factory applied. Subse 
quent coats of oil paint were sprayed on in the field, along with 
mineral granules to give a stucco-like texture and somewhat improved 

Complete factory finishing was more common than with wood 
houses since the use of metals permitted accelerated drying and 
baking of very hard finishes. The Lustron house was one of the best 
examples of a completely factory-finished job, and it depended 
heavily on the toughness of its porcelain enamel finish to prevent 
damage to the surface during handling, transport, and erection. The 
permanence of porcelain enamel is perhaps its greatest advantage, but 
its application is confined to a factory where the necessary pulverizers, 
dipping tanks, conveyer lines, and large gas or electrically heated 
ovens can be located. 

The Lustron porcelain enamel process was one of the important 
influences in the development of the Lustron Corporation. During 
the war, a method was developed for the low-temperature firing of 
porcelain enamel. This was a "one-coat one-fire" process which 
eliminated the base-coat operation. The process also permitted the 
use of ordinary steel backing rather than the more expensive enamel 
ing iron, since the lower temperature eliminated objectionable warp 
ing that would result from conventional enameling of ordinary steel. 

Structural members for the Lustron house were cold formed in the 
plant from strip steel. These shapes were welded into wall panels 
and roof trusses, and each assembly was given a protective coat of 
enamel. The 2' by 2' exterior wall panels were stamped from light- 
gauge cold-rolled strip steel, enameled, and insulated with Fiber glas. 
All surfaces exposed to weathering action were given a special coat of 
finish enamel in addition to the basic layer. The wall panels were 
interlocking, and the joints between panels were sealed with a Koro- 
seal gasket. In erection, the wall frame sections and roof trusses were 
bolted together and then the cladding panels applied. 


35 Ford house 

36 Butler house 


37 LeTourneau system 

basic carrier of the Tournalayer 
detail of inner form ready for pouring 
outer form lowered over inner form 
concrete pouring gun 
pouring the concrete into forms 
dropping the completed house at its site 
finished LeTourneau houses 


1 placing wall forms on floor slab 

38 Ibec system 

pouring concrete into wall forms 

3 lifting wall forms from walls 


4 constructing roof slabs in stack 

5 placing roof slab on Ibec house 

6 completed house Norfolk project 

39 Gunnison plant operations 

cutting plywood 
cutting framing members 

3 assembling panels for Gunnison house 

4 trimming panels 

5 bonding panels in multiple press 

6 finishing Gunnison panels 

40 National Homes plant operations 

basic wall panel line, showing from front to 
back: assembly of framing members in jig, 
spreading glue on framing members, place 
ment and stapling of interior wallboard, ap 
plication of insulation, placement and nailing 
of plywood exterior surface, insertion of win 
dows and doors, and, finally, the completed 

2 floor panel line 

3 roof panel line 

4 gable-end panel line 

5 special 16' double end tenoner 

41 Lustron plant operations 

1 fully automatic exterior wall panel press 

* tf 

2 grinding the frit 

4 rolling Lustron frame members 

3 mixing the enamel 

5 baking enamel on Lustron roof panels 

6 welding watt frame assemblies 

7 loading wall panels on special trailer (note the extent of manual labor 

8 loading frame assemblies (here plumbing watt panel) on special 











42 Reliance plant operations 







43 Crawford Corporation example of specialized woodworking machiner 
used by large prefabricators for multiple cutting 

44 Texas Housing Co. 


standard house 

C. Concrete 

1. General Qualities for Production 

The theoretical advantage of concrete from the production point of 
view is one which exists for casting processes in general: ease of 
forming to the desired shape. Because of the inherent simplicity of 
casting, inventors have always hoped to develop materials or ma 
chinery which, using this fundamental technique, would produce a 
really economical house. If such a house is to be built out of pre 
cast concrete units, however, the handicaps of long curing time, 
frangibility, and weight must be overcome. 

2. Preparation and Handling of Materials 

The factory production of precast concrete units observed during 
the survey was characterized by the extensive mechanization of proc 
esses which were generally done by cruder methods in the field. 
The bulky materials used were handled primarily by mechanical 
batching equipment fed from rail-side hoppers or other types of load 
ing machinery. Materials were mixed in various types of stationary 
mixers. Since the use of a lower water/cement ratio results in a 
higher strength, it was not uncommon for factory producers to mix 
for longer periods than would usually be encountered in field prac 
tice and to use less water, relying on mechanical equipment and 
better-controlled factory conditions to vibrate thoroughly and to 
handle a stiff mix with ease. Another preparatory operation handled 
in the plant, and an important subassembly process in some instances, 
was the cutting and assembling of the reinforcing mat. Further, the 
use of special mix concretes, foaming or air-entraining agents, aggre 
gates, or methods of mixing is ordinarily more feasible in the plant 
than at the site. 

3. Casting 

From the mixer the concrete was poured into forms, which were 
usually of steel. Some sort of vibrating table was generally placed 


beneath the steel form in order, by vibrating the concrete, to achieve 
more uniform densities and more precise dimensions. To put a 
troweled surface on the top side of the casting, some type of machine 
was used in almost every case. 

4. Curing 

In order to speed up the production cycle three methods for attain 
ing early strength were seen in practice. Simplest, perhaps, was the 
use of high early strength cement, a material which becomes strong 
enough to withstand quite severe treatment in about one-fifth the 
time required by ordinary Portland cement. A second method was 
to pass the casting through a bath of steam under pressure. In the 
manufacture of the Pfeifer concrete units, for example, slabs were 
cured in a 36' long autoclave while still in their steel molds. A 12- 
hour exposure to steam at 40 Ib. per sq. in. accelerated the curing 
sufficiently to permit use of the molds on a one-day production cycle. 

The third method, the Vacuum Concrete process, was based on the 
utilization of atmospheric pressure and was significant not only be 
cause of its high early strength, but also because it was helpful in 
dealing with several other problems of precast concrete construction. 
Until quite recently Vacuum Concrete had been used almost exclu 
sively for heavy cast-in-place construction. At the time of the 
survey, however, it had been used for housing of precast panel con 
struction, primarily in projects of 100 or more dwellings. Casting was 
usually carried out on or near the site, and although the necessary 
equipment could be installed in a plant under cover, it was funda 
mentally the same in all cases. The casting bed was of smooth con 
crete, so equipped that air could be exhausted from a number of 
grooves in its surface. When vertical side forms were placed over 
these grooves and the suction turned on, atmospheric pressure held 
the forms firmly in position. Hence they could be set and broken 
away simply by opening or closing air valve connections to the large 
vacuum pump that was the heart of the system. (Similarly, in the 
field, joints between precast panels were formed with the aid of flat 
or corner-shaped vacuum molds held in place by atmospheric pres 
sure. ) After the forms were in place the concrete was poured into 
the mold and was vibrated with a portable vibrator. Then one or 
more vacuum mats were placed on the surface of the concrete, the 
suction turned on, and water removed for 12-25 minutes. By lower- 


ing the water/cement ratio in this way an unusually high early 
strength was achieved and walls cast late in the afternoon could be 
lifted into place the following morning. At the surface of the panel 
the pressure of the vacuum mat and the extraction of much of the 
water served to produce a particularly strong and dense concrete, 
thereby increasing the resistance to moisture penetration. After the 
mats were removed, the surface was troweled off to a smooth finish. 

The same basic techniques were used for the floors, roofs, and 
partitions. In some cases walls were cast in a sandwich manner: 
2%" of aerated concrete would be poured first and allowed to con 
solidate; an equal thickness of ordinary concrete would then be 
poured and a slight amount of reinforcing embedded in this; finally, 
the top surface would be troweled with either a pigment or a %" 
layer of white cement grout to form an exterior finish. Such a 5" wall 
had ample strength and good insulation properties. 

The large slabs were lifted from the casting bed by means of 
vacuum lifting mats which supported the weight of the slabs over 
their entire surface and minimized any concentration of stress such as 
would occur with ordinary sling lifting methods. The mats were 
used in conjunction with crane equipment in much the same way 
that an electromagnet is used to lift steel. 

In precast systems in general, while it is true that special methods 
were seen in use for breaking slabs out of their molds as soon as 
possible after casting, it was nonetheless usually impossible to utilize 
these slabs in construction right away; sufficient time had to be al 
lowed for them to gain the strength required in handling and trans 
portation and in carrying the designed loads in the structure. Hence, 
a good deal of storage space in which the precast units could rest 
while aging was generally required. 

5. Tournalayer 

Another type of concrete construction utilized the Tournalayer, a 
huge machine developed in 1946 by R. G. LeTourneau. The Tourna 
layer was used first as an outer form in pouring a monolithic concrete 
house, and subsequently as a means of carrying the house to its final 
site. If prefabrication is defined in its broadest sense as involving 
the transfer to an off-site factory of a part of the construction process, 
the Tournalayer falls under this classification, since the work of fabri- 


eating and placing the forms has been almost completely moved away 
from the site. 

Because of the capital cost of the equipment involved and the ex 
pense of transporting it over long distances, the Tournalayer has been 
used only in large projects. In such projects a central operating site 
was selected at the same time as the housing area. Here the steel 
inner form, consisting of two chambered shells, was located. Pre 
fabricated reinforcing steel, window and door bucks, electrical boxes 
and conduits, and separators for wall endings were placed against 
this inner form, and the four-sided outer form carried by the Tourna 
layer was then lowered around the prepared core, usually leaving a 
space of 5" for the casting of walls and roof. The assembly was then 
ready for the concrete pour. If a high early strength concrete was 
used, the house could be removed from the mold within 16 hours. 
While still enclosed in the outside form the house was released from 
the core by a lever mechanism which pulled in the sides of the core 
about 2" all around. Outer form and house then were raised over the 
top of the core by the Tournalayer and carried off. At the near-by 
site, slightly excavated to receive the bottom edge of the wall slab 
(which had been tapered outwards to serve as a foundation wall), 
the Tournalayer lowered the house into its permanent position. The 
outer form was then expanded, raised, and carried back to the casting 
site by the Tournalayer, leaving the house ready for finishing details. 
The typical house produced by the Tournalayer used 45 tons of con 
crete and one ton of reinforced steel. Special concrete mixing and 
pouring machinery was used at the casting site, and special cranes 
assembled the interior forms. For obvious reasons, this equipment 
has usually been rented, and not sold, by LeTourneau. 

A number of projects have been built in the Southwest using the 
methods described above. In such a climate, it is not necessary to 
take many measures to improve the insulating properties of concrete, 
and for this reason, as well as the very important one that the Tourna 
layer requires a minimum of skilled on-site labor, it has been of con 
siderable interest to builders in such parts of the world as South 
America and the Middle East. It has aroused interest also because 
of the surprising fact that it offers a good deal of diversity, being 
able to make very different structures by simple rearrangement of the 
forms, and even to cast two-story structures. 


D. Honeycomb Core Sandwich Materials 

Perhaps the most promising aspect of the various honeycomb core 
sandwich materials 12 is that, through their use, prefabrication of the 
house shell becomes very largely the production of one particular ma 
terial. Designs embracing these new materials utilize the stressed 
skin principle so extensively that there is a bare minimum of frame 
assembly work to be done, either in factory or in field. There are still 
such problems as window and door openings, and joints between 
panels and at the floor and roof, but with the exception of a few sys 
tems of concrete construction, most of which involved but little pre 
fabrication, the development of the sandwich materials represented the 
most direct attempt to change the building of the shell from a bits and 
pieces assembly job to an automatic continuous material manufactur 
ing process. Such processes had already been developed for certain 
building products such as sheet metals and wallboards, but the manu 
facture by similar methods of a composite material that would serve 
at once as structure, insulation, enclosure, and finish still waits to be 
achieved. The honeycomb core materials were not the only ones 
using the sandwich principle. Cemesto, for instance, is a mass-pro 
duced composite material consisting of a cane fiber insulation board 
surfaced on both sides with a %" cement asbestos sheet, and combines 
good insulation and surface qualities. It has been used only as a 
curtain wall, however, not as a bearing wall. A related line of de 
velopment has been pursued for a number of years by William B. 

Of the various types of core materials, plastic-impregnated paper 
has thus far received the most attention. 13 It is possible that such 
paper cores may eventually be manufactured as separate materials to 
which can be bonded surfacings of metal, plywood, paper-overlaid 
veneer, or other types of laminates having the properties required 
for stressed skin panels. At the time of the survey there had been no 
mass production of these cores for use in housing, although processes 
had been developed for similar materials in other uses, floors in air 
craft, for instance. A good deal of development work had been 

12 See "Physical Properties and Fabrication Details of Experimental Honey 
comb-Core Sandwich House Panels," HHFA Technical Paper, no. 7 (February 

13 Other materials which have been tried include plastic-impregnated fabrics, 
foamed slag, foamed rubber, and glass. 


done, however, and one factory was reported to be fully equipped for 
the production of house panels of this material. 14 

Because it has not yet been worth while for the paper manu 
facturers to produce a plastic-impregnated paper especially for the 
purpose, the production of the core on a small scale, for development 
work, began by treating a kraft paper with a phenolic resin solution. 
The purpose of this treatment was to enable the paper to retain its 
strength when exposed to moisture and to resist attack by decay or 

Fabrication of the core from the resin-impregnated paper then 
could proceed by several different methods and could result in a 
number of different types of core. One of the simplest processes be 
gan by passing the paper, which was received from the mill in rolls, 
through a corrugating machine and then through an oven to cure the 
resin. After this the paper was cut into squares, or strips, and 
passed through a glue spreader which applied glue to the nodes of the 
corrugations. The sheets were then stacked in either of two ways: 
with the flutes of adjacent sheets at right angles to one another or 
with the flutes of adjacent sheets parallel and the nodes of adjacent 
sheets in contact with each other, depending on the balance desired 
between insulation and strength. The stacks were then put into a 
press, after which they were sliced into portions of the proper thick 
ness for a panel core. 

Another method for making the core omitted the corrugating opera 
tion. Sheets of plastic-impregnated and cured paper were striped 
with glue lines spaced at about %" and were stacked and pressed 
together with the glue lines of adjacent sheets parallel to each other 
and staggered. After the glue had dried, the stack was simply ex 
panded in the manner of a Christmas bell, and it was then ready to 
have surface skins bonded to it. There had also been some develop 
ment work on automatic core-making machinery, but none of the 
methods in use at the time of the survey could produce in continu 
ous strip. 

14 The following are known to have been interested at one time or another in 
honeycomb core sandwich materials: 

( 1 ) Acorn Houses, Inc. ( 6 ) Kimberly-Clark Corp. 

(2) Consolidated Water Power and (7) John D. Lincoln Furniture Co. 
Paper Co. (8) St. Regis Paper Co. 

(3) Chrysler Corp. (9) Southern California Homes, Inc. 

(4) Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Cor- (10) United States Plywood Corp. 
poration (11) Utley-Lincoln System, Inc. 

(5) Forest Products Laboratory 


The first method described was considered by many to be slightly 
preferable from the viewpoint of production, because of its relative 
simplicity and of the avoidance of any heavy investment in machinery. 
It also afforded somewhat better insulative value. 

Two types of equipment, roll and press, were used for bonding the 
skin to the core, both of which were still being developed. The 
Chrysler Cycleweld process utilized rolls and high-frequency induc 
tion heating to produce a quick bond between core and skin, both 
of which were preheated on their way to the machine. Should the 
skin material come in continuous sheet form and should some method 
be devised for making up cores continuously or as a continuous chain 
of blocks, this process offered the possibility of the automatically 
controlled manufacture of a standardized product walls, floors, and 
roofs "by the mile." On the other hand, the use of a large hot press 
seemed somewhat more compatible with the production of panels 
having various openings, edge fittings, and other specialized features 
such as would be necessary at least in the production of walls. The 
firm which had most closely approached commercial production of 
houses made from this material was set up to use such a large hot 
platen press. 

V. Some Particular Aspects of Production 

Prefabrication plants had several characteristics in common, re 
gardless of the materials with which they were working, and these 
are described briefly in the following section. 

A . Factory Storage Facilities 

One of the comments most frequently made by executives was that 
if they had another plant to design they would certainly increase the 
amount of space devoted to storage. At the time of the survey there 
were at least two important factors contributing to the inadequacy of 
storage facilities for raw materials. First, the building situation was 


characterized by shortages, difficulties in procurement, and delays in 
shipping. This often made it necessary for factories to carry unbal 
anced inventories and to take materials as they could get them. Sec 
ondly, production was seldom stable for a variety of reasons inability 
to obtain one or two items needed for the package, seasonal fluctua 
tions which the distribution system had not been able to iron out, 
and, most important, the failure of the marketing arrangements to 
provide a steady flow of orders. In short, the materials-in-transit 
concept of mass production had not been realized except by a very 
few companies. 

Storage space for manufactured goods was required for two prin 
cipal reasons, to permit a relatively constant production volume with 
a fluctuating rate of sales and to allow time for certain curing processes. 
In the manufacture of plywood panels, for instance, recommended 
practice was to allow a period of at least a few days in which the 
glue could attain full strength and in which the water added to the 
wood by the glue could be distributed uniformly. Precast concrete 
units also required a curing period before they attained sufficient 
strength for use. Of the 84 companies whose storage practices 
could be ascertained, 40 stored panels according to type and made up 
packages as orders came in; 24 stored their finished goods as house 
packages; five stored them both ways, first according to type, then 
according to house package; and 15 indicated that they kept no finished 
inventory to speak of. 

B. Plant Layout 

Plant layout is an important aspect of production because it gives 
an indication of the stage to which manufacturing methods have ad 
vanced. Mass production involves two primary concepts: quantity 
and standardization. The extent to which these concepts are realized 
in prefabrication plants largely determines whether plant layout will 
more closely approach line production or repetitive station production. 

Line production may be defined as a method of manufacture or an 
arrangement of work areas in which the material moves continuously 
and at a uniform rate past a series of work stations and through a 
sequence of balanced operations, thus progressing towards comple 
tion along a reasonably direct path. In repetitive station production, 
on the other hand, all the materials are brought to a number of work 


stations at each of which one crew performs a complete sequence of 

Thus, line production is characterized by a thin stream of material 
which proceeds from the receiving department through fabrication, 
assembly, and finishing to shipping along one line, or at most a few; 
it involves a breakdown of operations into the simplest possible ele 
ments and an extensive division of labor. Its advantages are many: 
expensive high-volume production machinery can be effectively used; 
there is a reduction in materials handling; more efficient utilization 
of labor is made possible by greater specialization; supervision is fa 
cilitated because delays are quickly detected and workers are paced 
by the line; there is less congestion in the work areas; and the enforced 
study of operations before the line is set up frequently results in in 
creased efficiency. Against these advantages must be balanced a num 
ber of limitations. A standardized output of reasonably large quantity 
is required if labor and machinery are to be utilized economically; a 
delay in the flow of materials to any point or in operations at that 
point may force workers further down the line to remain idle; and 
workers may be opposed to working on lines, especially if they are 
accustomed to craft jobs; even if they are not opposed their productiv 
ity and enjoyment of the work may be less. 

For these and other reasons, many companies expressed a belief 
in the economy of repetitive station production at the time of the 
survey. In some cases their manufacturing process involved little 
standardization of either house or components, with many types of 
panels being produced, each at its own jig table. In other cases fluc 
tuations in volume were severe, and more economical production 
could be achieved by minimizing the investment in tools and allow 
ing the labor force to vary with volume the number of similar work 
stations being increased or decreased as the occasion required. Occa 
sionally the general scale on which production was carried out did 
not warrant investment in conveyers, high-speed equipment, and 
tools. These were some of the factors underlying the planning of 
repetitive station layouts, several of them in plants producing at rela 
tively high volumes : The Green Lumber Company, Hamill and Jones, 
American Houses, and Pre-Bilt Homes Co., Inc. 

It should be pointed out, however, that while these considerations 
may have been applicable to some companies making use of wood 
frame and plywood construction, the nature of the fabrication pro 
cesses with other materials, notably metals, was such that it would 
generally not be feasible to establish a repetitive station layout. 


Some 53 out of the 103 prefabrication plants whose layouts could 
be analyzed had more of the characteristics of line production than of 
repetitive station. At least 37 companies were using conveyer lines, 
and several were considering a type of layout in which jigs would 
move past a series of work stations, rather than having the material 
in process move down a line of jigs. Harnischfeger 1B was beginning 
to use this scheme, and some of Lustron's assembly operations were 
set up in a similar way (see Figure 45). Furthermore, many of the 
companies which had turned to line production systems had previously 
had several years' experience with less elaborate layouts more like 
the repetitive station plan, for instance, Crawford, Green's Ready- 
Built, Gunnison, Harnischfeger, National Homes, and Pease. Their 
preference for the line production process may have been a sign of 
some maturity in the industry and was certainly an indication that 
many prefabricators had done a good bit more than just move a tradi 
tional set of operations from the field into a factory. 

C. Production Scheduling 

Prefabrication factories were further distinguishable with respect 
to their methods of scheduling production. On the one hand, there 
were those plants which used what might be called a "job-lot" system 
of timing, producing only after a definite order had been placed for a 
specific job. On the other, there were those firms whose production 
was scheduled on a more or less "steady-flow" basis, and which manu 
factured standardized units somewhat in advance of specific orders, 
maintaining a finished inventory of varying size. The job-lot schedul 
ing system was widely utilized by those firms which produced a va 
riety of designs, sometimes even individualized designs. For ex 
ample, Precision-Built could take almost any floor plan, modularize it, 
and produce it on what was essentially a line production set-up. 
American Houses was also producing on a job-lot basis, but with an 
assembly technique more like a repetitive station scheme, and with a 
good deal of precutting and preassembly of standard parts. This 
company's orders were usually for large projects, so that once a de 
sign entered production, the firm could get some of the benefits of a 
steady-flow basis. Another example of a compromise type of schedul- 

15 An important reason for the Harnischfeger scheme was to increase the ca 
pacity of a given size of plant. 


ing was that offered by Better Living, Inc., which produced framing 
subassemblies and floor, ceiling, and roof panels ahead of orders and 
stocked them as standard parts, but which made up room-size wall 
panels of varying dimensions only as actually ordered. Perhaps the 
best examples of steady-flow scheduling were those plants which pro 
duced modular panels somewhat ahead of sales so that an order for a 
particular house could be filled from stock and shipped immediately, 
as did Gunnison and Green's Ready-Built. At the time of the survey, 
however, the overall demand was such and the materials shortages 
were so great that these distinctions were often rather academic. 

It is obvious that, for optimum production efficiency, materials 
should be in continuous transit from receiving to shipping depart 
ments, and that there should be an order outstanding for each piece 
that comes off the line. This can probably best be realized if the 
house is standardized, or if the components of a number of different 
houses are all standardized. Not only does this facilitate efficient pro 
duction, but the concept of interchangeability of packaged compon 
ents is important also in shipping, for if a dealer is not ready to take 
a house on a certain day because of weather, financing difficulties or 
other delays, the same components, or almost all of them, can be used 
somewhere else. Advantageous as it might be, however, steady-flow 
production could not be carried on by pref abricators for more than a 
limited period. Daily and weekly production economies were achieved 
through steady-flow scheduling, but the leveling out of larger fluctu 
ations arising from marketing difficulties, financing problems, and bad 
weather could not easily be managed, and virtually no firm was in a 
position to carry on full production in the face of seasonal changes 
in building. To stabilize plant operations completely while being 
subject to these and other disturbances in distribution would have 
required far more capital than was available in most of the prefabri- 
cation industry, and probably more capital than it would have been 
economical to tie up for the advantages gained, even if it had been 

In making a broad comparison between the plants visited, it was 
found, as might well have been expected, that there was some corre 
lation between line production and steady-flow timing, and between 
repetitive station production and job-lot timing. The correlation is 
not so strong as one might expect, and yet it does serve to bring out 
the fact that there are interrelationships among such factors as quan 
tity, degree of standardization, extent of breakdown of operations, 
division of labor, rates of material flow and of processing, and the 
usefulness of specialized production equipment. It is because of the 


interaction of all these factors that a prefabrication system becomes 
as much a matter of industrial design as it is of architecture. 

Number of 

Layout Scheduling Companies 

Line production Steady flow 38 

Repetitive station Job lot 29 

Repetitive station Steady flow 21 

Line production Job lot 15 

VI. Analysis 

A. The Amount of Manufacture by the Prefabricator 

An important fact in analyzing the contribution of the prefabricator 
is the generally small proportion of the house which he actually pro 
duces in his factory. This is a clue on the one hand to his inability 
to achieve radical economies thus far, and on the other hand an 
indication of some of the difficulties he faces in the field. There was, 
indeed, wide variation among prefabricators in the extent to which 
they carried prefabrication. This variation is a result of differences 
in design, local building codes, local labor and building practices, the 
size of projects, and other factors. 16 Even so, a general statistic 
will convey some useful information about the cost structure of the 
industry. The average house package offered by 53 companies f.o.b. 
factory represented 48% of the retail price of the erected house, ready 
for occupancy, but exclusive of land cost. An analysis by the Office 
of the Housing Expediter of cost breakdowns submitted by 12 appli 
cants for guaranteed market contracts revealed a somewhat larger 
percentage, 58%. 17 Figures ranged from 37% to 77%, and in considera 
tion of the inadequacies of data of this sort, it is necessary to generalize 
that the average prefabricator was selling a package representing 
roughly half the dollar value of the finished house, less lot. 

16 Chapter 7 contains discussion of what is and what is not prefabricated under 
various systems. 

17 This cost breakdown is reproduced in Table 3. The information is also 
summarized on p. 149 of High Cost of Housing. 


Next, it may be asked what part of the value of the package is 
"created by" the prefabricate! as a producer and what part is con 
tributed by the materials used. Probably the most satisfactory meas 
ure of this is the "value added by manufacture/' that is, the increase 
in the total value of the commodities passing through the prefabri- 
cator's plant as represented by the difference between the cost of the 
materials consumed and the value of the products made from them. 
The survey indicated that for the average prefabricator the value 
added by manufacture amounted to about 35% of the house package 
price. The figures of the Office of the Housing Expediter came to 
roughly 40%. Again, in both cases, there was a wide range in the 
data, from 25% to 45%, due largely to differences in design and in the 
relative amounts of jobbed materials and processed materials going 
into the package. As the package was composed more of materials 
which the prefabricator simply bought, stored, and packaged, and less 
of materials which he actually processed in his plant, the prefabri 
cator became a synthesizer and distributor rather than a producer, 
and the lower was the percentage of value added by manufacture. 

Noting that the house package represented about 50% of the value 
of the finished house and that only about 35% of the package was 
"created by" the prefabricator, we can deduce that his contribution, 
as measured by the value added in manufacture, is only about 18% 
of the retail price of the house. When we compare this figure with 
the percentage of value added by manufacture in several other indus 
tries, we see that it is quite small: automobiles, 32%; furniture, 49%; 
lumber and basic timber products, 56%; machine tools, 70%. 18 This 
puts the prefabricator in a difficult position for, supposing that by 
some means he is able to cut his production costs in half no mean 
feat he will have reduced the cost of the finished house by only 10% 
(setting the percentage of value added at an even 20%). In fact, his 
contribution is so small that his production position, from a cost point 
of view, might be termed precarious. Although this situation may not 
have been too well understood by some of the more enthusiastic pro 
ponents of prefabrication during recent years, it was pretty generally 
appreciated by members of the industry. 

Prefabricators are attempting to do a job in the factory that has tradition 
ally been done in the field. When that job is moved from the field to the 
factory, overhead zooms upward. The small builder has practically no 

18 Census of Manufacturers, 1939, Vol. II, Part 1, pp. 509, 549; Part 2, pp. 
431, 522. Values cover the period from 1931-1939. The comparison is some 
what unfair because these figures represent per cent of wholesale price. 


overhead by comparison. In the factory we have, or should have, low 
labor rates, but overhead compared to that in the field is multiplied many 
times. That means we must do the same job more cheaply in the factory 
after accounting for a greatly increased overhead. Of course, we should 
be able to furnish materials more cheaply than the builder can buy them 
himself, but it is also desirable that we do the work on the materials more 
cheaply than the builder can do it. Put it this way: the value added to 
the materials by the manufacturer is a small part of the total value of a 
house. Since it is a small part of the total, the savings on this segment 
of building cost must be decisive and must be demonstrated. 19 

The desire to increase their contribution to the total value of the 
house, and to achieve the potential economies therefrom, was a major 
factor in causing many prefabricators to manufacture items which 
were subsidiary to the main structure, doors, cabinets, closets, etc. 
There were other reasons, too: to assure a steady supply in a period 
of shortages; to obtain the exact dimensions and specifications neces 
sary for a certain design; and to utilize scrap pieces, for instance by 
gluing them together to make counter tops for kitchen cabinets. There 
were, on the other hand, manufacturers who maintained that it was 
more economical to buy such items from specialty houses, or that it 
would soon be more economical to do so because of the production 
efficiency that went with such specialization. In any case, the follow 
ing numbers of companies were found to be manufacturing various 
subsidiary items: 

Number of 

Item Companies 

Window sash 38 

Trim 37 

Doors 36 

Kitchen cabinets 31 

Plumbing assemblies 27 

Wardrobes, closets, or storagewalls 17 

Sheet-metal ductwork 13 

Flooring (softwood) 3 

Whether through production or purchase there seemed to be a 
trend towards supplying a more and more completely prefabricated 
house. This was not a trend which could be positively ascertained, 
since the survey was, by its nature, a look at the industry at a definite 
time. Yet the expressed expectations and intentions of many prefabri- 

19 From a talk entitled "Uniform Cost Accounting for Prefabricators," by Wil 
liam A. Tucker, Statistician, PHMI, at 5th Annual PHMI Meeting, March 31, 
1948. This statement points up production problems, but perhaps minimizes the 
savings possible in overall integration of the housebuilding process, from pro 
curement to final financing and erection. 

cators lay in this direction. The reasons given related primarily to 
the economies which they hoped to realize through greater efficiency 
in procuring various components and materials and in production, 
through less site wastage, fewer setbacks due to weather, and less 
time lost by having one crew wait for another to finish its work. 

It was not demonstrated, nevertheless, that the greater the degree 
of prefabrication, the lower the costs; the optimum degree of pre- 
fabrication was not established. Certain designs were largely de 
pendent on the use of factory processes, while others were quite as 
easily fabricated in the field as in the shop. In the latter case, a 
question such as whether roofs should be panelized or precut, or per 
haps not furnished at all, was one which hinged to a great extent on 
conditions at the site: the cost of field labor relative to factory labor, 
the skill of crews available for erecting the house in the field, the 
conditions of weather and land at the site, the cost of supplementary 
materials in the field, the transportation costs from plant to site, the 
number of houses being erected in one group, etc. 

For wood frame designs there seemed to be an inverse relationship 
between the amount of fabrication economically performed in the 
plant and the number of houses to be erected in one group. Ameri 
can Houses, for instance, was fabricating oply about 40-45% of its 
structure in the factory, but seldom sold house packages for erection 
in groups of less than 100. The Byrne Organization's 1,200-unit 
Harundale project (not a wood frame design) utilized careful cost- 
accounting methods to divide the work between site and shop; 
roughly one-fifth of the total man-hours per house were performed 
in the shop, the balance at the site. 20 The abandonment by Kaiser 
Community Homes of the prefabrication of wall panels in favor of 
precutting 21 is a further indication of this point. Other large opera 
tive builders such as Levitt, Bohannon, and Ponty seemed to find that 
some combination of precutting the main structure and prefabricating 
minor components gave the most economical results, and much of the 
war experience with large projects pointed to similar conclusions. The 
major reason was, of course, that in such projects many aspects of 
mass production could be achieved without entailing the overhead 
and distribution expense that burdens the prefabricator. There could 
be mass purchasing, use of jigs and high-speed cutting equipment, 
and an extensive division of labor among crews that move from 

20 High Cost of Housing, p. 168. Actual figures given, 207 man-hours in the 
shop and 797 at the site, were proved low by later accounting. Final figures were 
not available. 

21 This change in pattern of operations occurred after the survey was completed. 


house to house, rather than having the houses move past them on an 
assembly line. 

On the other hand, single-house or small group erections did not 
offer these opportunities, and it was argued that for such projects 
much more fabrication should be done in an off-site factory where 
mass-production techniques could be used. Whereas one firm which 
precut and erected its own house reported that it cost $1,200 less per 
house to build in groups of 10 or more than to build a single house, 
the cost differential which could be obtained from erecting a highly 
prefabricated house, such as a sectional type, in groups rather than 
singly was probably quite small. Certainly, in such a case as the TVA 
sectional house, where shipping and field assembly accounted for 
only 12% of the total costs, or the British AIROH house, where these 
items were estimated to comprise only 9% of the total, the economies 
of large projects could not be too important. 22 This argument cannot 
be carried too far, however, for the costs of grading, installing utilities, 
and constructing the foundation could be appreciably lowered in large 
projects. And if, as in some sectional house systems, heavy equipment 
such as a boom crane was required at the site, further economies could 
be realized through large group projects. Finally, it goes without 
saying that the larger developments improved lots more cheaply. Not 
withstanding these qualifications, it seemed a reasonable hypothesis 
in general that the larger the number of houses to be erected in one 
group, the less the optimum degree of prefabrication. 

Probably as important a factor in governing the amount of prefabri 
cation as any of the above was the existence of many problems of a 
"political" rather than a technical nature, including such practices as 
local purchasing to appease local distributors, and the elimination of 
certain items because of the wide diversity in codes. The solution of 
these problems will require much time and effort; undoubtedly the 
attention which they have recently received has been helpful. When 
consideration is given to this factor and to the steady, if slow, prog 
ress in materials and structure through research and development, 
there was evidence of a trend towards more complete prefabrication, 
at least of major components. This trend seemed most noticeable, 
and most logical, where the newest materials and structural systems 
were involved. 

22 "Total cost" here excludes cost of land, grading, utilities, and foundation. 
The last three of these items for the average AIROH house totaled twice as much 
as the shipping and site assembly costs. For TVA cost breakdown, see Table 5. 
For AIROH figures, see Table 6. 

B. Production Volume and Production Costs 

Before turning to an examination of actual production costs it 
would be useful to know how costs varied with volume and to what 
degree prefabricators were successful in achieving one of the pre 
requisites for mass-production economy: high volume. 

The volume at which major production economies began to be 
possible was not easy to specify. It depended largely on the nature 
of the house, the materials of which it was made, and the extent to 
which it was composed of repetitive elements. Thus, one manufac 
turer of a panelized but otherwise quite conventional wood frame 
design reported that he would make no profit if he produced one house 
per day, $18,000 per month if he produced two houses per day, and 
$45,000 per month if he produced three houses per day. On the 
other hand, one of the manufacturers of stressed skin panel houses 
was operating with a break-even point of four to five houses per day. 
The break-even point for a venture such as Lustron was probably be 
tween 30 and 50 houses a day, compared with its capacity of 100 
houses per day, on which figure its pattern of operations was predi 
cated. Furthermore, it was difficult to untangle such factors as the 
importance of other manufacturing operations where prefabrication 
was only a subsidiary one. It was clear, for instance, that a lumber 
and millwork company which carried on a subsidiary prefabricating 
operation would have a different cost picture from that of a company 
whose sole work was prefabrication. The former might achieve 
economies through bulk purchasing of raw materials and through in 
tensive utilization of production equipment simply because of the 
large-scale manufacture of millwork, and not at all because of its 
prefabrication volume, which might be quite insignificant by com 

In the light of such wide variations there was no single volume at 
which mass-production economies began. It is a fundamental char 
acteristic of industrial production in general that as volume increases, 
up to a point, unit costs decrease. No company reported that it was 
operating in the range where increasing outputs would no longer 
yield decreasing unit costs. The question might better be put, what 
volume was necessary to attain an important share of the economies 
deriving from mass production? 

Houston Ready-Cut felt that it did not begin to achieve maximum 
economies at less than 2,500 units per year. W. W. Rausch, then of 


Anchorage Homes, said that he believed an annual production of at 
least 10,000 houses per year was necessary for full production econo 
mies with wood. C. W. Farrier, a former Technical Director of NHA 
who served as Housing Research Director for Gunnison, reported 
that "some of the prefabricators whom I have talked to indicate that 
the volume of houses that they will have to turn out in the plant in 
order to have sufficient ordering power to get reduced prices on 
materials amounts to somewhere between 20 and 25 houses a day" 28 
(5,000-6,250 units a year). A British writer, D. Dex Harrison, said, 
"It seems likely that the specialized designs will require a minimum 
of 5-10,000 [units per year] before the economy of mass production 
is achieved in the house as a whole and before variations on the one 
design can be contemplated." 24 

These estimates, all but one of which are explicitly based on wood 
as a material, average about 5,000. No company, in either 1946 or 
1947, produced this many houses; the largest annual volumes reported 
were between 1,500 and 2,500. 25 

As for the industry as a whole, it was operating at somewhat less 
than half its estimated capacity in 1946 and 1947. Between October 
1946 and June 1947, 87 plants were visited which were actually in 
production. Of these, 27 gave no estimate of capacity, and the re 
maining 60 reported that they were producing at an average of 38% 
of stated capacity. 26 This, of course, must be evaluated with the sea 
sonal pattern of building in mind. A winter slump is customary, 
even in prefabrication. In 1946 the industry produced 37,200 houses, 
and in 1947, 37,400. 27 At an average package price of $3,500, this 
would mean a gross dollar volume of about $130,000,000. The 1947 
total, however, represents the output of considerably fewer firms, so 

23 Proceedings, American-Soviet Building Conference, p. 50. 

24 Harrison, "An Outline of Prefabrication/' in Tomorrow's Houses, p. 132. 

25 1947: American Houses, 1,600; National Homes, 2,500; Kaiser Community 
Homes, 2,500. 

26 Breakdown of 60 companies according to reported capacity: 

Over 200 houses per month 5 

100-199 9 

50-99 13 

25-49 11 

Less than 25 22 


27 1946 total by the Office of the Housing Expediter, 1947 total by PHMI, 
PHMI News Release, May 3, 1948. 


that average production per firm rose substantially. 28 Even so, at the 
beginning of 1948 PHMI estimated the industry's existing capacity 
at 120,000 houses per year, 29 so that, based on this figure, the produc 
tion for the previous year was at less than one-third of capacity. 30 
It is therefore safe to generalize that the industry as a whole was not 
utilizing its plant facilities to the optimum extent and that there were 
potential production economies which had not been achieved. 

C. Productivity 

One way of measuring the potential effectiveness of prefabrication 
in reducing costs is to find out how much it increases the productivity 
of labor or, put another way, decreases the number of man-hours re 
quired to build a house. For this purpose two statistics can be used: 
the number of man-hours of direct factory labor per house, and the 
number of man-hours of direct site labor per house. These should be 
qualified, however, by differences in the size and quality of the house, 
by differences in what is included in the prefabricated package, and 
by differences in the amount of the package which the prefabricator 
procures rather than produces himself. 

For 29 producers of wood houses there were required an average 
of 226 man-hours in the factory. Figures ranged from 100 to over 600. 
Other studies of prefabricators working in wood have yielded results 
of the same order of magnitude. The 1947 PHMI survey of 40 mem 
ber companies gave an average of 268 factory man-hours per house, 
and a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics 31 of 14 prefabricated 
war housing projects found an average of 242. 

At the site, 26 companies were found to require an average of 238 
man-hours to erect and complete the house, exclusive of subcontracted 
work such as grading, foundation, heating, wiring, plumbing, and 
sheet-metal work. PHMI found in its 1947 survey that an average of 
182 man-hours was consumed in erecting the house and an average 

28 OHE figures for 1946 include shipments by 198 producers. The 1947 figures 
are based on shipments of approximately 80 companies. 

29 Statement of Harry H. Steidle, Manager, PHMI, before the Joint Committee 
of Congress on Housing, January 14, 1948. 

ao Actual production in 1948 was 30,000 units (PHMI News Release, June 4, 

31 Alexander C. Findlay, "Construction of Prefabricated and Conventional War 
Housing Projects," Monthly Labor Review, 63 (November 1946), 723, 727. See 
below, pp. 342-4. 


of 276 in finishing it, making a total site time, exclusive of work on 
the lot and foundation, of 458 man-hours per house. The BLS study, 
based on large projects where many economies at the site were pos 
sible, found an average of 440 site man-hours per house, but this 
figure included work on grading, utilities, and foundation. All the 
above figures were for wood houses of various designs, except that 
no sectional types were included. There were some well-publicized 
demonstrations in which a house was erected in less than half a day 
by a few men, but when these were examined more closely it could 
be seen that a good bit of preparatory work had been done in im 
proving the site, building the foundation, and, often, in having special 
pieces of equipment ready to do their special jobs. With the sectional 
house, the time required for erection was at a minimum. The Reli 
ance house, for instance, was completely erected in a demonstration 
during a snowstorm in less than 20 man-hours. 32 The Prenco and 
TVA houses generally were erected, complete with all connections 
made, in one day or less, using a crew of six to eight men. The 
AIROH house, a British sectional type of which more than 69,000 
were built since the war, required less than 50 man-hours 3S to erect, 
whereas other prefabricated houses built under the British Temporary 
Housing Program which arrived at the site as collections of panels, 
cabinets, subassemblies, and loose material required an average of 
300-400 man-hours 34 of site labor. Again, these figures do not include 
the work of preparing the site and foundation and of installing utili 
ties. A cost analysis of the AIROH house, for instance, shows that 
these three items may total over four times as much in cost as the 
erection itself. 35 

If allowance is made for these differences in basis of figuring among 
the companies, then for the "typical" 24' X 32' house of panelized 
wood construction roughly 250 man-hours were required at the fac 
tory and 450 at the site (not including grading, utilities, and founda 
tion). It would be interesting to compare these figures with com 
parable figures for convential construction, but it is difficult to obtain 
productivity data for conventional building which would permit a 
fair comparative analysis. Not only should such data be classified 
according to the size and quality of the house, but also according to 
the number of houses built in any one project, the conditions of 

32 Near Philadelphia, Winter 1948. 

83 Unpublished paper by Carroll A. Towne, Prefabrication Advisor, HHFA, 
May 1948, in the files of the Bemis Foundation. 

84 Loc. cit. 
35 Loc. cit. 


weather, materials supply, and so forth. Estimates range from 1,000 
to 2,500 man-hours as the labor time required in building one house 
by conventional methods, but the exact basis of these estimates is not 
clear. In the absence of results of controlled experiments, it will 
have to suffice to use what would seem a reliable figure and a fair 
one for purposes of comparison: the estimate developed by the Small 
Homes Council of the University of Illinois in its time-study analysis 
of the construction of the "industry-engineered house." 36 This was 
a two-bedroom, single-story, 768 sq. ft. dwelling with basement. The 
total requirement by conventional methods averaged 2,091 man- 
hours, 37 and, according to the report, "Records indicate that savings up 
to 20% of total labor can be made by the use of engineered con 
struction methods and organized operations at the site." 38 Figures 
included all work from excavation for the basement to finishing de 
tails. They were, furthermore, based on the construction of one 
house at a time. 

When housing is built in large group projects, however, productiv 
ity comparisons are apt to yield quite different results. Probably the 
best study of this sort was one made by the Bureau of Labor Statistics 
based on 24 war housing projects, two-thirds of which were prefabri 
cated. 89 It was found that the average saving in total man-hours at 
the prefabricated projects was only about 8% (p. 343). All the projects 
studied used wood as their basic material, but the prefabricated group 
was further classified into three different types: stressed skin, frame 
panel, and incomplete prefabrication (the last subgroup included two 
frame assembly and two frame panel with conventional floors and 
roofs). Man-hour requirements for these three classifications were 
found to differ significantly: for the first they were nearly one-quarter 
less than for conventional construction, for the second about 2% less, 
and for the third about one-sixth more. The comparisons were for 
corresponding operations the customary site work at the conven 
tional projects and the site work, plus factory work, plus related oper 
ations such as transportation at the prefabricated projects. As the 
study was careful to point out, however, the data used were insuffi 
cient for general comparisons between prefabricated and conventional 
construction. For one thing there were differences in weather, in 

36 Research Report on Construction Methods. 

87 Of this total, excavation, footings, foundation, basement, floor, floor joist and 
subfloor accounted for 257 man-hours. 

38 Research Report on Construction Methods, p. 16. 

39 Findlay, op. tit., pp. 721-32. 


the "natural" efficiency of labor, 40 and in materials supply conditions 
in different regions. Furthermore, the data applied to housing built 
in large group projects so that, in effect, the word "conventional" had 
a rather special meaning. Lastly, it would be unfair to judge present 
prefabrication by the wartime product. 

Unit Man-hour Requirements on War Housing Projects (by type of 


Requirements as a Percentage of 
Conventional Requirements 

i ype or 

Per Dwell 
ing Unit 

Per 1,000 
Sq. Ft. 

Per Dwell 
ing Unit 

Per 1,000 
Sq. Ft. 














Stressed skin 






Standard panel * 






Incomplete 2 






1 Frame panel according to our classification. 

2 Includes two frame assembly and two frame panel with conventional floor and roof. 
Source: Alexander C. Findlay, "Construction of Prefabricated and Conventional War 

Housing Projects," Monthly Labor Review, 63 (November 1946), 721-32. 

In spite of all these variables, however, mention should be made of 
some of the conclusions of this study: 

(1) Of the total man-hours required for site work, from a fifth to 
three-fifths could be transferred from the site, to be carried on in 
the prefabricating plants and in related operations such as transpor 
tation. In no case, however, was the site work reduced to a negligible 
figure, the lowest being 261 man-hours. 

(2) As for skills, the prefabricated projects required a larger per 
centage of laborers' and foremen's man-hours than conventional oper 
ations. However, it was found that the prefabricated and conven 
tional operations were not so dissimilar in percentage distribution of 
skilled workers and foremen by trades. 

40 For instance, differences in standards and in the "natural" efficiency of labor 
made the data biased in favor of stressed skin and against incompletely prefabri 
cated houses. 


(3) The comparatively few instances in which non-structural work, 
such as plumbing and electrical work, was performed in the prefabri 
cating plants demonstrated that a net man-hour saving could be ex 
pected from such plant operations only under certain circumstances: 
when there were a minimum number of connections to be made 
between panels; when work could be concentrated in a small portion 
of the house, for instance within one or two adjoining panels; and 
when excessive protection or care was not required to prevent damage 
during transport. 

D. Production Costs 

Turning now to a consideration of costs, probably the single cri 
terion by which prefabrication has most often been judged, the final 
production cost of a prefabricated house should, ideally, be compared 
with that of a conventionally built house of the same size and quality 
in the same location. Further, a determination by accurate account 
ing of the optimum degree of prefabrication, qualified according to 
the type of market, the design, the number of houses being built in 
one group, and many other factors, would be desirable. But the main 
interest of the consumer is the price of the house, and price involves 
many factors in addition to production costs factors such as market 
size and location, dealer organization, transportation, and financing, 
which are covered in the next chapter. 

Unfortunately, reliable cost breakdowns are difficult to develop. 
For one thing, manufacturers were understandably reluctant to re 
lease the information. For another, cost-accounting systems were not 
uniform, the same item being counted in a number of ways by differ 
ent prefabricators. (Recently there had been an effort, led by PHMI, 
to standardize cost-accounting practices so that prefabricators could 
compare cost figures and learn from each other.) And third, com 
panies varied greatly in the extent to which they acted as jobbers, in 
the amount of production which they did themselves, and in the com 
pleteness of their package. For these and other reasons outlined be 
low, such cost breakdowns as can be presented in a publication of 
this sort are of somewhat limited value. 


1. Cost Figures Submitted to the Office of the Housing Expediter 

Tables 2 and 3 summarize data submitted to the Office of the 
Housing Expediter during late 1946 and the first half of 1947. This 
information should be interpreted with the following facts in mind: 
the sample was a very small one; the figures do not reflect today's 
prices; and the data were really estimates of cost made by firms which, 
for the most part, had done little or no previous work in prefabrica- 
tion therefore some of the figures might better be regarded as decla 
rations of intent than as records of performance. A digest of these 
figures appears in High Cost of Housing along with a commentary 
written chiefly by the staff of the Housing and Home Finance Agency. 
We quote: 

The direct factory labor costs range from a low of 1.13 percent to a 
high of 14.10 percent. The low percentage is found in a plant which sub 
contracts virtually all of its fabrication, and therefore a fair median per 
centage would be closer to 12 percent than the average of 7.48 percent 
shown in table 2. 

... It is obvious that prospects of securing cost reductions through 
elimination of direct and indirect labor in plants are definitely limited. For 
example, cutting the direct factory labor cost in half would reduce the 
total cost of the erected house by 3 to 6 percent. Reduction of field labor 
costs, which range from a low at 7.81 percent to a high of 26.17 percent, 
perhaps holds more promise. 

On the other hand, the direct materials cost in the house package is, in 
every case, the highest single factory cost item. In most cases, this is 
true in the field as well. The prospect of savings here, both by develop 
ment of designs which eliminate unnecessary material, and by reductions 
in unit materials prices through elimination of wholesale mark-ups are 

Indirect and administrative costs generally represent such small per 
centages as to offer little promise of cost reduction. It should be noted 
that allowances for factory sales expense are abnormally low in every case. 
Informed judgment on this subject has concluded that a factory sales 
allowance of 5 percent is essential to successful merchandising in this field. 

Considered either separately or combined, the factory and field allow 
ances for profit in this tabulation cannot be regarded as excessive. . . . 
Actually, the average field profit of 8.84 percent is somewhat below that 
which is customary in the field of conventional building. 41 

It may be interesting to note, by way of comparison, that the evi 
dence presented to the Joint Committee on Housing of the 80th Con 
gress 42 indicated that, for conventional residential construction, labor 

41 High Cost of Housing, p. 151. 

42 High Cost of Housing, pp. 76-9. Sources quoted: Housing and Home 
Finance Agency, Bureau of Labor Statistics, New York City Housing Authority, 
The Econometric Institute, Inc., New York. Much of the testimony is conflicting. 


Table 2 

Summary of Unit Costs of Prefabrication Price Ranges 



Element of Total Cost 







Package, total 







Erection, total 







Total cost, less land 








Direct material 







Direct labor 







Indirect labor 







Other indirect 














Sales expense 















Direct material 







Direct labor 







Freight and delivery 







Indirect labor 

Other indirect 








Sales expense 








Total, package and 


Direct material 







Direct labor 







Total direct costs 







Freight and delivery 







Indirect labor 







Other indirect 














Sales expense 














Source: Office of the Housing Expediter figures. 


Table 2 (Continued) 

Summary of Unit Costs of Prefabrication Price Ranges 



Element of Total Cost 







Package, total 







Erection, total 







Total cost, less land 








Direct material 







Direct labor 







Indirect labor 



65.36 * 




Other indirect 



1 16.30 l 











Sales expense 















Direct material 







Direct labor 







Freight and delivery 







Indirect labor 

Other indirect 








Sales expense 








Total, package and 


Direct material 







Direct labor 







Total direct costs 







Freight and delivery 







Indirect labor 



65.36 ' 




Other indirect 



191.30 1 











Sales expense 














1 Information on one firm only; therefore not an average figure. 
Source: Office of the Housing Expediter figures. 


Table 3 

Breakdown of Cost to Consumer of Erected House without Lot 

Total (%) 

Plywood (%) 

Element of Total Cost 







Package, total 







Erection, total 







Total cost, less land 








Direct material 







Direct labor 







Indirect labor 







Other indirect 














Sales expense 















Direct material 







Direct labor 







Freight and delivery 







Indirect labor 

Other indirect 








Sales expense 








Total, package and erection 

Direct material 







Direct labor 







Total direct costs 







Freight and delivery 







Indirect labor 







Other indirect 














Sales expense 














Source: Office of the Housing Expediter figures. 


Table 3 (Continued) 

Breakdown of Cost to Consumer of Erected House without Lot 


tfood (% 



Ketal (%' 

I ' 

T?1 L f T* *. 1 /"* - 

Element of Total Cost 







Package, total 







Erection, total 







Total cost, less land 








Direct material 







Direct labor 







Indirect labor 



1.07 1 




Other indirect 



1.91 1 











Sales expense 















Direct material 







Direct labor 







Freight and delivery 







Indirect labor 

Other indirect 








Sales expense 








Total, package and erection 

Direct material 







Direct labor 







Total direct costs 







Freight and delivery 







Indirect labor 



1.07 1 




Other indirect 



3.14 1 











Sales expense 














1 Information on one firm only; therefore not an average figure. 
Source: Office of the Housing Expediter figures. 


costs range from 35% to 45% of final price, less lot. This was a sub 
stantially greater proportion than that shown by Table 3, in which 
total direct labor costs accounted for 14-27% of the final price, less 
lot, and total indirect labor costs accounted for 1-8%. The lower pro 
portion of labor costs in prefabrication has been explained not only 
by greater productivity, but also by lower hourly wage rates stem 
ming from the lower skill requirements, better working conditions, 
and steadier employment. 

In considering the percentage allocated to sales expense, it should 
be remembered that the data represented mostly new firms which 
did not have established distribution systems. An unfortunately large 
number of prefabricators during this period thought that, because of 
the acute housing shortage, all that had to be done was to get the 
production line moving that somehow the process of getting the 
houses from the end of the line to the customer's lot, financed and 
ready for occupancy, was not a problem. Experience has proved 
otherwise, and if similar estimates were to be submitted today, they 
would probably include a much more substantial item to cover the 
costs of establishing an organization able continuously to sell, finance, 
erect, and service houses as they are produced. Once such an organi 
zation was established and growing at a small but steady rate, how 
ever, its percentage cost might well be reduced. 

Another item that deserves attention is the sum of indirect and ad 
ministrative costs. It may be true that these, as the above quotation 
points out, "represent such small percentages as to offer little promise 
of cost reduction." But to stop here would be to overlook at least two 
important points. For one thing, while these costs may be a small 
percentage of the total at high volumes, they may skyrocket as volumes 
fall. During the past few years overhead costs have been the down 
fall of more than a few newly established prefabricators who re 
quired some time to smooth out their operations and who, by the time 
they had overcome the problems of marketing, found that their 
working capital had been consumed in such expenses. 

More important is the relationship between the overhead encount 
ered when the building process is moved into a factory and the sav 
ings in labor cost thus achieved. Clearly, from the production stand 
point, if the additional indirect expenses outweigh the savings in di 
rect costs, it is uneconomical to shift an operation from the field to a 
plant removed from the site. This point has been very well sum 
marized by Robert W. McLaughlin, a veteran prefabricator: 

Criticize the so-called construction industry as you will, it has demon 
strated its ability to operate in the field at an extremely low overhead. 


Exclusive of insurance and social security charges, overhead on construc 
tion labor is of the nature of 5-10%. In any factory, on the other hand, 
overhead on direct labor will vary from 100% to 300% or even more. 
My own experience with wood fabrication was that factory overhead ran 
something over 100%. That is factory overhead only, without adminis 
tration or sales expense. I am told that a plant of average mechanization, 
such as a vacuum cleaner plant, will have an overhead ratio to direct labor 
of about 150%, and that in more highly mechanized straight line produc 
tion the rate will be of the nature of 200% or even higher. What does 
this mean with respect to the factory processing of wood? Assume a field 
labor operation costing $100. With 10% overhead the operation per 
formed in the field will appear on the cost sheet at $110. Along comes 
the prefabrication enthusiast who assures you that he can save 40% of the 
direct labor cost by doing it in the factory that he can do the $100 opera 
tion in the factory for $60 worth of labor. 40% is quite a saving. But 
immediately he has to add at least 100% factory overhead, and his true 
cost becomes at least $120 as against a field cost of $110. Also we have 
to think about additional transportation and handling. It is apparent 
that removal of a labor operation from the field can be justified only if the 
direct labor saving is really great of the nature of 75% or 80%. This 
substantiates our earlier statement that if we are to change the locale of the 
process at all we have to change the overall process radically. We also 
categorically state that the nature of wood does not present enough oppor 
tunity for mechanization to warrant a shift in the process from field to 
large, central factories. 43 

This telling comment by one who has spent more than 15 years 
prefabricating in wood, metal, and other materials is not to be 
brushed lightly aside. McLaughlin's estimate that factory overhead 
costs amount to about 100% of direct labor costs is substantiated by 
the figures in Table 4. In this breakdown it can be seen that direct 
factory labor and factory overhead are roughly equal. In very few 
circumstances have prefabricators yet achieved savings in direct labor 
of 75-80%, and, in the light of the above reasoning, this may offer at 
least a partial explanation for the somewhat disappointing results of 
prefabrication in cutting the cost of building to date. 

2. Budget Cost Figures of a Large Producer of Stressed Skin Plywood 

Table 4 presents the percentage breakdown of unit costs for the 
package only. The figures indicate allocations of cost expected in 
order to break even on an annual production of 1,500 units, with the 

43 Talk delivered at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, February 26, 1948. 


indicated net income serving merely as a safety margin. At least 10% 
profit would be required for a continuing operation. Production of 
more than 1,500 units would lower percentages for plant expenses 
and for sales, general, and administrative expenses. As these were 
lowered through increased volume, the gross profit and net income 
would increase accordingly. The house in question was of stressed 
skin plywood construction and was being produced in one of the best- 
equipped plants in the industry. 

Table 4 

Budget Cost Figures Based on 1,500 Houses per Year 

A Large Manufacturer of Stressed Skin Plywood Houses l (January 1, 1948) 

Item Per Cent 

Total house package (f.o.b.) 100 . 00 

Direct materials 

Processed materials 52.91 

Jobbed materials 24.75 

Total 77.66 

Total labor 

Direct manufacturing 3 . 82 

Rework and repair 0.36 

Materials handling and shipping 1 . 96 

Service and maintenance 0.72 

Wage premiums 0.06 

Total 6.92 

Margin above materials and labor 14.43 

Indirect plant expense (materials and service) 2.24 

Plant overhead and administrative expense 3 . 89 

Total plant cost 91.70 

Gross profit 8.30 

Sales, general and administrative expense 

Selling expense 2.02 

General administrative expense 2.63 

Total 4.65 

Operating profit 3.65 

Other income and deductions (net) 1 . 48 

Grand total all costs 94.87 

Net income before taxes 5. 13 

1 These figures are for a 24' X 28' house. Package price, f.o.b., $4,100. The average 
price of this house, erected but less lot, would be about $7,000. 


Table 5 

Cost Breakdown for TVA Sectional House (1943) x 


Item Per Cent per House 

Gross sales 100.00 2,673 

Materials 43.96 1,175 

Labor 18.71 500 
Plant burden 

Rent 0.94 25 

Heat 0.56 15 

Light 0.56 15 

Power 0.56 15 

Insurance 0.56 15 

Maintenance 0.56 15 

Supervision 2.24 60 

Cost of manufactured goods 68 . 65 1 , 835 

Manufacturing profit 31.35 838 


Selling 2.43 65 

Loading 0.56 15 

Weather protection 0.56 15 

Trucking 5.16 138 

Permits 0.37 10 

Unloading 1.31 35 
Field assembly 

Labor and materials 2.24 60 

Supervision and overhead 1.88 50 

Advertising 0.37 10 

Administration 2.62 70 

Social security and taxes (except income) 1.68 45 

Total expenses 19.18 513 

Operating profit or profit before depreciation 12. 17 325 

Depreciation 1.88 50 

Net profit before federal taxes 10.29 275 

Federal taxes 5.61 150 

Balance 4.68 125 

Interest on invested capital 0.94 25 

Net profit on sales 3.74 100 

1 Erected house less furniture and equipment (range, refrigerator, water heater, and 

space heater), and excluding land, foundation, and site utilities. Two-bedroom house, 
24' X 24', three sections. 

Source: Estimates by TVA which were reconciled with the experience of several firms 
having contracts for production of these houses. 


On Table 4 it will be noted that factory labor costs were a very 
small part of the total package cost and that materials represented by 
far the biggest item. This is partly due to the fact that the materials 
as they were received had been largely cut and milled to size, and 
the factory operations were chiefly assembly and finishing. It can also 
be seen that factory overhead was somewhat greater than direct labor 
costs, but it is necessary to consider that in this case some of the fac 
tory overhead was expended on the storage and handling of finished 
materials and equipments which were included in the package sent 
to the dealer and should, for this reason, have been allocated to the 
dealer's cost sheets rather than to those for the manufacturing opera 
tion. The sales expense represented only the prefabricator's costs in 
this breakdown and did not include expenditures by dealers. 

Table 6 

Cost Breakdown for AIROH House 

British Temporary Housing Program (1947 Estimates) 

Item Per Cent Pounds () 


Materials, fixtures, and fittings 51.8 847 

Factory fabrication and assembly 17.0 278 

Other production costs 2.7 44 

Factory plant and equipment 2.6 43 

Expenditure on vehicles, spares, and repairs 1.5 25 

Haulage 2.6 43 

Grading, utilities, and foundation 14.6 238 

Erection 3.3 53 

Contingencies 1.7 28 

Overhead costs 2.2 36 

Total 100.0 

Less net residual value of productive assets 


Table 5 is a cost breakdown for a TVA sectional house. The house 
measured 24' X 24', had two bedrooms, and arrived at the site in 
three sections. The figures are for 1943 and are based on estimates 
by TVA which were reconciled with the experience of several firms 
having contracts for the production of these houses. The principal 
point of interest here is the extent to which the manufacture of the 
house had been transferred to the factory. The motive behind this 
was probably more the desire to reduce site labor requirements than 
it was economy. Site labor had to be kept to a minimum because of 


the wartime shortage of construction labor, because of the desire to 
reduce the number of people and the confusion at the site, and be 
cause of security reasons, since about 5,000 of these sectional houses 
were built at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Wash., two of the 
atomic energy production centers. The relatively large shipping costs, 
about 8%, were due to the fact that transporting the sectional house 
involved careful handling of a finished product, which included much 
empty space, over relatively large distances in some cases. 

Table 6 is a breakdown for the British AIROH house, a sectional 
aluminum structure which was produced in large quantities in aircraft 
plants after the war. The figures are estimated rather than official, but 
they serve as an informative basis of comparison with the figures for 
the sectional wood TVA house. It will be noted at once that, because 
this house is sponsored by the government, advertising and selling are 
not items of cost. 






I. Introduction 

The marketing aspects of any industry are properly defined as in 
cluding "all business activities involved in the flow of goods and serv 
ices from physical production to consumption/' * For the pref abrica- 
tion industry, this includes the determination of markets, prices, chan 
nels of distribution, and methods of sale; and the procedures used in 
financing, site selection, transportation, erection, and servicing. Many 
of these subjects have been discussed in earlier chapters, for market 
ing considerations have an obvious influence on decisions regarding 
production, procurement, design, and management, although the ex 
tent of this influence has not always been recognized in the industry. 

In the period immediately following the war, the breadth and im 
portance of marketing problems were not generally appreciated. Pro 
curement and production problems were far more pressing, and, with 
the demand for housing running at the highest level in recent history, 
it was easy to visualize an eager line of customers, checkbooks in hand, 
waiting to claim the houses as they came from the plant. Few of the 
companies in the field had had any experience selling prefabricated 
houses; many had never sold houses of any sort. Furthermore the 
industry was young, the war had been won, and it was not hard to 
dismiss as gloomy conservatism the warnings of those who had learned 
about marketing the hard way during the depression. 

During the period of the survey, the marketing lessons were gradu 
ally being learned. Government contracts terminated, and bidding 
for large projects began to mean cutting costs and profits to the bone. 
High hopes engendered in the days of the Veterans' Emergency Hous 
ing Program began to dissolve, and slowly the real bottleneck was lo 
catedat the end of the assembly line. Foster Gunnison, who had 
always placed marketing first in order of importance, had warned 
the industry in 1944: 

It is obvious that orders must flow into the plant, each day, at the same 
continuous rate the houses flow off the conveyors. . . . The investment in 
a mass-production plant is so great that it will only pay-out by keeping the 
plant going to capacity every day. To provide a continuous flow of orders, 
therefore, becomes the most important problem of all. Thus, upon the 

1 Harold H. Maynard and Theodore N. Beckman, Principles of Marketing ( 4th 
ed., New York: Ronald Press, 1946), p. 3. 


method of distribution and sales used, depends the ultimate success or 
failure of the industry as a whole and each company within it. 2 

Nearly ten years earlier, John Burchard had been even more precise: 

The focus of efforts so far has been on the redesign of the structure of 
parts of the house, often very ingeniously. But the trouble with these ef 
forts has been that they run squarely against the stone wall of the amount 
of capital required to bring an old un-mass-produced product into mass 
production almost over night, and the economies proposed are available 
only if the mass production is achieved. A sounder approach, it would 
seem to me, might be made by regarding the problem at the outset as one 
of marketing. After marketing success with a semi-orthodox product, the 
economies and advantages of new structures might be incorporated. 3 

Marketing patterns were being formed at the time of the survey, 
in many cases very elementary, in a few cases more advanced, and 
the rest of this chapter is devoted to describing these patterns. 

II. Markets 

A. Market Areas 

The prefabricated choice of market areas was greatly influenced 
by the type of product he wished to offer and by the manner in which 
he wished to offer it. If he decided to make a complete and distinc 
tive house, bearing his trade name, he would usually plan to sell it 
either in large urban centers in direct competition with the operative 
builder, or in rural areas where there were fewer problems with codes, 
labor unions, and competitors. If he preferred to make a factory 
package, to be put into the final house without identification of the 
maker, he would usually plan to sell it either to large speculative 
builders in the cities or to small contractors and individuals spread 
over a wide area. The preference of the prefabricators with refer 
ence to a few simple classifications of market areas, and the reasons 
which they gave for their choice, are summarized below. 

2 Foster Gunnison, "The Economics of Mass-Distribution and Mass-Sales of 
Prefabricated Homes," Prefabricated Homes, 2 (February 1944), 23. 

3 Burchard, "Prefabricated Housing and Its Marketing Problems," p. 154. 


T. Metropolitan Areas 

An almost exclusive interest in the metropolitan areas, roughly de 
fined as those having populations of 100,000 and upwards, was ex 
pressed by 25 companies. On statistical grounds alone this would 
have been a good choice, since census figures indicate a continuing 
trend in the United States for the population to move into such areas 
(and, within them, to move outwards from the built-up centers of 
cities ) . Despite the fact that the metropolitan areas had a somewhat 
smaller proportion of single-family houses than the rest of the country, 
they probably contained almost as large a total number of such 
houses. While the built-up centers were characterized by high land 
costs and stringent building restrictions, even there certain prefabri- 
cators felt they might have advantages to offer. For example, the 
fireproof house built by Fabcrete of America, Inc., could be erected 
in districts from which wood frame houses were excluded in the 
interests of fire prevention. 

Most of these 25 companies, however, were interested in the sub 
urban fringe, which offered such attractive features as wide selection 
of building land at suitable price relatively close to a concentrated 
demand, relatively broad range of demand, convenience of transporta 
tion, likelihood of many vacant lots already provided with streets and 
utilities, and the best general prospects for large projects, whether to 
be built for sale or for rental investment. Particularly for those who 
produced unconventional houses, the concentration within metropoli 
tan areas of young business and professional families and of families 
of relatively high incomes was a decided advantage. 

2. Smaller Urban Areas 

More desirable to the average prefabricator, despite the advantages 
of metropolitan areas, were the smaller urban areas, where the popu 
lations ranged from 2,500 (the smallest urban area in census compu 
tations) to 100,000. In all, 52 companies expressed a preference for 
such market areas, with the major interest in the more populous areas 
within this range. The prefabricators mentioned several special ad 
vantages in such areas. They were generally considered to have 
lower wage scales and other operating costs; this made them low-cost 
plant locations, and low cost meant broad marketing advantages. 
While the overall demand was not so large as in a metropolitan area, 


it was nevertheless adequate in view of the scale of operations of 
the average prefabricator, as was the available supply of building 
sites. The costs of improving the land were not so great in smaller 
cities, where standards were usually lower, development less inten 
sive, and wages and costs lower. Taxes almost always were lower in 
smaller cities than in metropolitan centers, although metropolitan 
suburbs might compete on this score. It was usually considered 
easier to establish friendly relations with trade unions, with the vari 
ous municipal departments, with bankers, and with potential cus 
tomers in the smaller cities. The advantages of speed and efficiency 
offered by a dealer in prefabricated houses were found to be rela 
tively more apparent in the smaller cities where large-scale builders 
were rare and therefore the dealer had a relatively better risk in the 
use of his capital. And, finally, the aggregate of orders flowing in 
from a diversified selection of smaller cities where these favorable 
conditions might be found was considered to yield a steadier rate of 
production than would be the case with orders flowing from any one 
metropolitan area. 

In the very small urban areas these arguments lost some of their 
force. The tendency of the population to move towards the cities 
meant that demand for houses was often less in the smaller towns; the 
inhabitants were noticeably more conservative in their tastes and in 
their manner of doing business; and because the prefabrication plant 
was itself likely to be located near a somewhat larger city, transporta 
tion costs were often higher. 

3. Rural Non-Farm Areas 

A preference for the rural non-farm area, defined as including com 
munities of less than 2,500 population which contain little land in 
farm uses, was expressed by 22 companies. From census figures this 
would seem to be by far the best market for prefabricators, since 
almost as many total single-family dwelling units are being erected in 
rural non-farm areas as in urban areas. 4 There was a very real feel 
ing on the part of many of the prefabricators that this constituted 
their best market. John Richardson, whose experience lies in financ 
ing and sales, told those attending the December 1947 PHMI Winter 
Meeting that in his opinion the "market is 75% in rural areas and small 

* Construction, U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (January 1948), p. 4. 


towns," and C. W. Farrier, formerly head of the Technical Division 
of NHA and more recently research director for Gunnison Homes, 
earlier had said almost precisely the same thing. 5 The advantages 
of such areas lay in the possibility of erecting a good-quality house 
with very reduced site labor requirements on a site far removed from 
the nearest skilled conventional builder. Frequently houses designed 
for these areas would have less costly finish and equipment, although 
the prefabricator might well attempt to include within his package 
as much as possible of the necessary materials and equipment. Fre 
quently, also, the houses were to be designed for minimum site im 
provement ( probably without a basement ) , and for erection processes 
involving as little special equipment and skilled labor as possible. 
The design of the house itself could be highly standardized since it 
would not be frequently reproduced within the area. And perhaps 
the largest single factor favoring the rural non-farm areas was the 
fact that conventional builders in such areas were at the very end 
of the normal materials distribution channels. This gave the prefab 
ricator, with his greater buying power and speed, a very decided ad 
vantage. Admittedly, the establishment of suitable sales methods and 
distribution forces to reach so scattered a market offered a difficult 
problem, and it was one which no prefabricator had fully solved at 
the time of the survey, although many were keenly interested in the 
possibilities offered by so broad and stable a potential market. 

4. Rural Areas 

Eleven companies indicated a preference for rural areas as a 
market for their houses, such areas being defined as those devoted 
primarily to farming. Most of the companies featured houses which 
could be erected by the farmer himself, who represented one of the 
few groups in the consumer population generally capable of doing an 
efficient job of erection. Many of these farm cottages are highly 
standardized in design, the usual theories about the need of apparent 
variation being dispensed with in view of the wide scattering of pur 
chasers. Frequently companies operating in rural areas also prefab 
ricated farm utility buildings; indeed many entered upon the prefab- 
rication of houses from that field, for example, Pre-Fab Industries 
Corporation and Economy Portable Housing Company. 

5 C. W. Farrier, "Prefabrication in Post-War Housebuilding," Prefabricated 
Homes, 2 (February 1944), 11. 


A specialized form of the rural market was the market for recrea 
tional cottages, sought after by an increasing number of prefabricators 
after the lifting of the restrictions of the Veterans' Emergency Hous 
ing Program. Hodgson, probably the oldest continuing prefabricator 
in the business, had been making a large share of its sales in this 
market since 1892. Here designs commonly varied widely with de 
mand, and houses could be greatly simplified by the temporary and 
usually warm-weather nature of their intended use. Structurally, the 
houses were generally panelized into sections capable of being easily 
manhandled, and the erection system was usually simple enough to 
permit the use of unskilled labor on rather rough and isolated sites. 

B. Special Market Types 

Prefabricators had varying preferences with regard to channels of 
distribution; in the selection of these channels, they were often also 
making a choice between two broad types of market: that in which 
distinctive houses, given a sort of "brand name" by advertising and 
promotional efforts, were sold to the public; and that in which special 
ized house packages, varying according to the circumstances involved 
in the order, were sold to the dealer or builder who offered them to 
the public without announcement of the identity of the fabricator 
of the basic package. Of the former, Lustron was a good example, 
and of the latter, American Houses. In addition to this basic distinc 
tion in market approach, several special types of market deserve 
further discussion. 

1. Industrial Markets 

At least 15 companies concentrated a major part of their efforts 
on selling large groups of houses to industries building for their em 
ployees. This was a natural outgrowth of the war period, during 
which sales had been made to government agencies in large quantities, 
and of the period of boom construction immediately following the 
war, when new housing was needed near new plant facilities. It 
was easy for the prefabricators to shift over from large government 
orders to large industrial orders. American Houses sold units to the 


builders of several such projects, among them one for 250 families 
in Manville, N. J., to house employees of a Johns-Manville plant. 
U. S. Homes developed special low-cost designs adapted to the needs 
of southward-migrating textile companies. Nygaard Builders, Inc., 
developed for a Pittsburgh contractor a unit designed for housing in 
coal-mining communities. With the decline in postwar industrial ex 
pansion and the general leveling-off of business activity, this market 
was showing signs of shrinking, but during the period of the survey 
it still was a significant factor in the plans of these prefabricators. 

2. Export Markets 

Among the companies interviewed, six indicated that they had 
shipped houses outside the continental limits of the United States, 
and seven more said that they were making definite plans in that 
direction. Other companies expressed interest, but had no plans at 
that time. Aside from the lend-lease program, 6 however, actual sales 
in foreign markets had been small, and such sales as there were came 
about as the result of special circumstances rather than any serious 
demand on the part of foreign consumers. 7 This was, of course, 
partly the result of the dollar shortages in most of the potential con 
sumer countries, but partly also it reflected the difficulties and costs 
inherent in purchasing houses in the United States and shipping them 
abroad for erection and use under what often were very unfamiliar 
conditions. Companies seriously interested in the export market soon 
realized that special models, involving a considerable degree of re 
design and the changing of dies and jigs, would be required, and that 
in most cases the redesign would have to be in the direction of simpli 

Transportation costs, when added to the high costs of production 
in the United States, constituted a serious difficulty. Unless extra 
handling and shipping costs were to be incurred, furthermore, units 
would have to be designed so as to permit their being broken down 
for shipment into relatively light and small packages. 

For a time, during the worst of the materials shortages, government 
quotas were a further limitation on the export business. Quotas under 
the Second Decontrol Act, for instance, lumped prefabricated wooden 

6 Chapter 2, p. 60. 

7 Office of International Inquiries, HHFA, in an interview June 4, 1948. 


houses with other wood mill products, and the unit limits were set as 

Year Quota 

1946 Closed. Each applicant examined individually. 

1947 1,150 

1948 3,440 

However, such were the general difficulties that even these limited 
quotas were never filled. For example, during 1948 the quota was 
3,440 houses, export licenses were issued for only 1,697, and only 330 
were actually shipped abroad. These quotas were more recently 
entirely lifted, and it would have been possible to develop a good 
export business under certain conditions if more foreign countries 
had favorable dollar balances. As it was, the new country of Israel 
was nearly the only one able to devote dollars to housing, and Israel 
could not afford to spend its dollars on prefabricated houses designed 
and equipped for living patterns in the United States. 

More likely to be shipped abroad have been machinery, materials, 
techniques, and skilled technicians. Six of the companies interviewed 
had exported their "pattern of operations" in whole or in part. This 
was particularly true of the sponsors of systems for the production 
of concrete houses. Wallace Neff, for example, reported for Airform 
Construction a Mexican licensee building schools in Mexico City and 
houses in Acapulco, a Brazilian licensee with houses under construc 
tion, and contracts or negotiations for contracts under way in Vene 
zuela, South Africa, India, Egypt, Morocco, Spain, and Portugal. 8 
Others also were involved in this way: Precision-Built Homes had a 
licensee in Canada and was considering arrangements for others in 
South America; Soule Steel had developed a special house for the 
Hawaiian market, only the steel parts of which it planned to export. 

It seemed likely at the time of the survey that the major purchasers 
of actual houses exported from the country were likely to continue 
to be United States companies operating abroad. For example, in 
1947, all the 275 wood prefabricated houses exported had such desti 
nations: 180 went to a United States business firm in the Dominican 
Republic, 40 to the Saudi Arabia Oil Company, and 55 to other identi 
fiable commercial customers. 

8 Interview in Los Angeles, Calif., April 16, 1948. 


III. Pricing Policies 

* Some honest confusion has usually attended any discussion of the 
selling price of prefabricated homes, for prefabricators offered many 
different kinds of prices. The lowest possible quotation was for a 
house package f.o.b. factory, but some quoted the cost of the house 
package plus transportation to the site. More commonly it was the 
erected price, less the cost of the land, although in a few cases the 
price included the land upon which the house was erected. In nearly 
all cases, some extra features were included in the price, such as 
built-in furniture, completely installed bathrooms, or kitchen ap 

The pricing structure can conveniently be examined in terms of the 
experiences of 12 companies that were studied in 1947 by the 
Flanders Committee. 9 Cost data from the report of that Committee 
were given in detail in the chapter on production; selected data are 
reproduced here, with the prices of all the companies averaged to 
gether to give a representative picture. Using the total cost of the 
erected house, less cost of land, as 100%, the following relationships 
were significant: 

Average house package $3 , 460 .67 58 . 34% 

Average cost of erecting the house 2 , 448 .27 41 . 66% 

Total cost, less land $5,908.94 100.00% 

Looking further into the erection costs, it is found that $162.63, or 
2.78%, was made up of freight and delivery costs. A combined profit 
was taken on the package and erection of $865.55, or 14.40% of the 
selling price. However, $350.70, or 5.92% of the selling price, repre 
sented profit attached to the house package, and thus went to the 

Obviously, the price to the ultimate consumer was far more than 
just the house package cost. That, nevertheless, represented a feas 
ible starting point for an examination of prices during the survey 
conducted by the Bemis Foundation. In the winter and spring of 
1946-1947, 54 companies offered house packages at an average price 
of $4.02 per square foot. The average erected price of these houses, 
usually as quoted by them, was $8.45 per square foot, exclusive of 

9 High Cost of Housing, p. 150. 


the cost of land, and the average size was 762 sq. ft. The average 
selling price which resulted, $6,439, was probably lower than the 
typical selling price for the industry, because many of the 54 com 
panies surveyed tended to have lower than average prices, and geo 
graphic variations in costs and in quality standards made a difference. 
The period studied was one of advancing prices, so that figures more 
recent than these would be considerably higher for comparable 

Further information on selling prices is furnished by a PHMI sur 
vey of its membership made in 1947. The median price for prefabri 
cated houses was then found to be $7,000, exclusive of land, with 
prices ranging from $5,100 to $8,000. The most common size of 
house was 24' X 32', or 768 sq. ft. 

By way of comparison, the average construction cost per unit of 
all single-family dwelling units started in the country was $5,525 in 
1946, $6,750 in 1947, and $7,850 in 1948. 10 It should be emphasized 
that these figures, while including an allowance for builder's profit, 
do not include the cost of land; they represent only construction costs 
and not selling prices. 

In general the price policy of a house manufacturer seems to have 
been determined by applying to his production costs an average 
markup selected to yield a reasonable profit for him. There was very 
little tendency on the part of the manufacturer to charge a price out 
of line with a fair return; the realization of the need for mass sales 
in order to maintain steady production seems to have served as a 
curb on his desire for immediate profits. 

The price policy of dealers generally was a somewhat different 
matter. Dealers followed no single pattern, but a large number were 
inclined to take full advantage of the seller's market then prevailing, 
with little thought to future sales volume. During the period when 
price control was in effect, the OPA allowed a 10% dealer's markup 
on the cost of the house package. Prefabricated Homes magazine, 
stating the case for a higher markup, estimated that overhead ex 
penses would amount to 7% of the selling price. 11 If a 7-10% net profit 
to the dealer were added to this, the resulting markup would be 
around 15%. Those companies which attempted to limit the dealer's 
profit usually allowed a markup of 15-20% of the sales price. Most 
franchises, however, gave the dealer the authority to set his own sell 
ing price; in most cases they had to, if for no other reason than varia- 

10 Housing Statistics, Housing and Home Finance Agency (May 1949), p. 4. 
Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. 

" Prefabricated Homes, 6 (May 1946), 9. 


tion in local land and improvement costs and wage rates. Many 
companies felt that better control of dealer prices in the future was 
essential to the industry, since one of the purposes of prefabrication 
was to provide the ultimate consumer with housing as good as or 
better than conventionally built structures, at a lower price. 

The nature of the competition offered by conventional builders and 
other prefabricators determined to some degree the dealer's price 
policy, especially when dealers were located in areas where competi 
tion for the housing customer was becoming more severe. In par 
ticular, those dealers handling a fairly conventional house seemed to 
follow the price leadership of the operative builders in the area. 

An exception to the general price averages was found in the case 
of 14 companies which concentrated on the higher price and more or 
less custom-design market, and commonly made use of modular panels 
or job-lot order modular component production systems. Sometimes 
the theory of such prefabricators, as presented by George Fred Keck, 
designer of Green's Ready-Built solar house, was to build for a quality 
market, relying on the fact that the factory can put on better finish 
and detailing than can be reproduced by a local building contractor 
at anything like comparable cost. A greater value, rather than a lower 
delivered cost, was the object, and it was hoped that, when this 
market was established and production costs cut, still more equipment 
and better value would be added instead of reducing prices for the 
consumer. Presumably, such houses would be particularly well de 
signed to appeal to the income group which might ordinarily hope to 
have a very small house hand-tailored by an architect. With this 
quality market established, such a company might then consider 
bringing out a lower-priced model for a broader market, relying on 
the advertising appeal gained by its more expensive models. 

On the other hand, a few companies were interested in producing 
austere shelter in the very low price ranges. For example, the Texas 
Housing Co. was selling its "Homette," a 16' X 16' plywood cabin, 
for $463.24, knocked down, early in 1947 (see Figure 44). The 
Wingfoot house, an expandable trailer with an area of 256 sq. ft., 
was being sold for as little as $3,000, ready for occupancy. Somewhat 
above this level, many prefabricators were starting to manufacture 
houses of standard size and equipment priced at $6,000 or less, erected, 
but excluding the price of the land. These structures had no base 
ments, but standards of design, material, and construction were at 
least as good as those of similarly priced conventional houses. In 
1948 National Homes Corporation brought out a two-bedroom house 
to sell for $2,089 f.o.b. the plant. With added costs of erection, wir- 


ing, plumbing, etc., the two-bedroom model sold complete with lot 
for only $5,750, and could be purchased with a $300 down payment 
and monthly payments of $34.87. There was also a three-bedroom 
model priced with lot at $6,150 (see Figure 46). 

Each model had a living room, a bath, a utility room, and a kitchen 
equipped with built-in cabinets, counter sink, and a laundry tray. 
Included with the house were an oil heater in the living room and an 
automatic water heater in the utility room. Plywood was used for 
the exterior finish, and inside walls were of waterproof, crackproof, 
room-size Upson board, used in natural finish, painted, or papered. 
The houses were erected on an insulated concrete floor with no base 
ment and with no doors on the bedroom closets. 12 

After the initiation of the Economy House Program by the Hous 
ing and Home Finance Agency in cooperation with the building in 
dustry, most of the other companies announced special low-price 
models (see Figure 47). One, for example, designed by General 
Industries, Inc., to sell in the $6,000 bracket, was described by PHMI 
as follows: , 

This economy home is a ... one story model with two bedrooms, liv 
ing room with dining area, kitchen, bath and a utility room, with additional 
storage room in the attic space. It is 24' 3" square, of stressed-skin plywood 
construction and is erected on a concrete slab. The inside walls are finished 
with wall paper or may be painted. . . . The buyer is offered several 
choices of exterior finish. 

Approved by the FHA for mortgage insurance, the houses are being 
financed under the new provision of the Housing Act of 1948 authorizing 
government-insured 95% mortgages on owner-occupant homes where such 
loans do not exceed $6,000. 18 

On the whole, however, it is fair to say that the prefabricated hous 
ing industry was only beginning to produce houses at a low cost for 
the mass market. Indeed, many prefabricators did not feel it should 
try to do so. One writer stated even before the postwar rise in prices 
that new houses should be priced from $6,000 to $8,000 rather than 
from $2,000 to $4,000, because the effective buying power resided 
in the seven or eight million families who represented the upper 20- 

12 National Homes estimated that 90% of the 25 houses per day produced 
throughout most of 1949 were these "thrift homes." Many features of equipment 
and finish have been added to recent models without increase in price. 

13 PHMI Washington News Letter, September 24, 1948, p. 3. By the time of 
the PHMI Fall Meeting at Winnipeg, October 1949, practically all member com 
panies had come out with "economy" or "thrift" homes, and such homes repre 
sented 75-80% of total production in several cases. 


25% of the income group. 14 And the $6,000 house of 1946 would cost 
close to $8,000 in 1948. Many outside the field felt that undue concen 
tration on cost was producing houses of dangerously low space stand 

A few shared the feeling, best expressed by Carl Strandlund of 
Lustron, that it could not be expected that a family in the low-income 
group would be happy to invest all its resources in what was loudly 
proclaimed as a bare minimum house; it would prefer to pay a little 
more and get some extras some genuine "quality" features that 
would give a real pride of ownership. This feeling led Strandlund 
to invest money in top-notch architectural services for the overall 
improvement of the Lustron house in future models, and it also was 
behind the production, in 1950, of a three-bedroom model containing 
1,209 sq. ft., and of garages, for one or two cars, which could be con 
nected to the houses by breeze ways. 

On the other hand, the market pressure was such that Lustron, too, 
was prepared just before its failure to bring out an economy line. 
The Lustron Newport homes took full advantage of standard parts, 
running the regular roof trusses across the long dimension of the 
house to avoid the production of new structural members. There was 
to be a two-bedroom model containing 713 sq. ft. and a three-bed 
room model containing 961 sq. ft. at prices competitive with the 
economy lines which made up almost the entire output of Lustron's 

Another point of view was expressed by William K. Wittausch: 

Even though families move in order to improve their housing condi 
tions, they need by no means move into new houses as evidenced by many 
millions of families who today live in houses which were not newly built 
for them but which are better than the houses they left. That is why the 
housing needs of millions of families, especially in the low-income group, 
do not necessarily represent a vast potential market for new, low-price, 
mass-produced houses. 

. . . Whether new or old, the quality of housing a family is able to 
occupy depends almost exclusively on its income. ... it is only natural 
that the higher income families move into newer and more desirable houses 
first, with the families that cannot afford the pleasure of moving into a 
fresh, new house moving into the older and less attractive existing dwell 
ings left by those who move out. New prefabricated houses like other 
new houses automatically command the same premium for freshness re 
gardless of the price group in which they are offered. It would appear, 
therefore, to be more advantageous to prefabrication if the current em- 

14 Neal MacGiehan, "The House for the Mass Market," Prefabricated Homes, 
5 (February 1945), 16-7. 


phasis on producing low-cost houses rather than on putting higher value 
into houses relative to other new houses were to be reversed. 15 

Other prefabricators have been frank to state that the industry 
cannot produce new homes for the lowest-income group, 16 and that it 
should recognize the need of public housing for that group and the 
related possibility of a firm government housing policy to which pre 
fabricators might adjust intelligent plans for operation under settled 
conditions over a long period. 17 

It is not the province of this discussion to attempt to find a method 
of meeting the need for really low-cost housing for the low-income 
groups. The survey indicated that as yet the prefabricated housing 
industry had not come up with the solution to this problem. But the 
problem was recognized, and efforts were being made by most pre 
fabricators to lower costs. In the back of their minds seemed to be 
the hope of capturing the mass market with a house that cost no more 
than present secondhand houses, and yet was superior to them in most 

IV. Channels of Distribution 

The pattern of handling goods between production and consump 
tion, the channel of distribution, is determined by the system of hand 
ling and storing the components, the method chosen for moving the 

15 William K. Wittausch, "Marketing Prefabricated Houses," Harvard Business 
Review, XXVI (November 1948), 696-7. 

16 It should be added that several prefabricators believed, with Fred Gentieu 
of Plainfield Lumber & Supply Co., that they could reach the lower price ranges 
only in units other than single-family detached houses, that is, in row house or 
apartment units. 

17 While the industry has been officially opposed to individual public housing 
bills in the past, such views as this have been expressed by some of its most 
thoughtful members. In his address to the PHMI membership in December 
1947, John C. Taylor, Jr., President, American Houses, Inc., said: "The people 
in this country are going to be adequately housed, and if private industry does 
not supply this housing, it is going to be supplied through Government subsidy. 
. . . The majority of you do not like subsidized housing any more than I do, 
but yet, if we are really true to ourselves and will bring our innermost convic 
tions to the surface, we know that that statement is true/' 


goods at low cost, and the middlemen selected. No single system of 
distributing houses was common to all prefabricators, and several 
companies employed more than one channel. 

A. Factory Direct to Consumer 

From factory to consumer is the most direct method of distribution. 
In some cases manufacturers employing this channel made the erec 
tion of the house the consumer's responsibility, while in others the 
manufacturer himself took care of the erection. 

1. Erection by Purchaser 

Only one company sold all its houses for erection by the purchaser 
himself, but 19 companies sold part of their output for such erection. 
The simplicity of this distribution scheme appealed most often to the 
newer companies, especially those on the West Coast. However, 
while it is true that such a scheme was simple, it often involved the 
drawback of a specialized or limited market. Financing requirements, 
and the small number of customers willing to be responsible for erect 
ing a full-size house, were the chief limiting factors. The FHA was 
reluctant to approve loans based on purchaser erection, and so this 
scheme usually was limited to companies offering non-FHA minimal 
units. Allied Building Credits was willing for a while to grant loans at 
high interest rates on such unpredictable risks, but this specialized 
financing firm soon became inactive in this field. 

Immediately after World War II a large number of such units 
were produced as prefabricated garages. These garages, usually 
two-car size, were purchased by veterans in desperate need of hous 
ing. Nicoll and Co. sold 20' X 24' panelized cottage shells for $792. 
The John L. Hudson Co. produced as many as 80 garages a day, 
probably 50% of them used as dwellings. 

While only a small percentage of the total housing market was will 
ing to take the responsibility for erection in return for potential sav 
ings in cost, it seemed likely that there would always be some who 
would prefer this method. These purchasers liked the convenience 
of buying most of the materials for a house in one package, and were 
glad of the chance to jeduce cash outlay by contributing their own 


labor. Most of these purchasers were farmers, veterans, and build 
ing tradesmen, often operating within the framework of a coopera 
tive. Some, however, like the purchasers of vacation cottages, were 
interested more in the convenience of getting delivery of a unit of 
known quality at a remote site, and in shortening construction time, 
and they were not likely to realize substantial cost savings. 

Within the industry, it was generally considered risky to sell units 
direct to private owners for erection, and there was a growing senti 
ment that the prefabricator should assume the responsibility for see 
ing that the agent of erection performed the building operation in a 
satisfactory manner. Unless the house were so designed that erection 
became nearly as simple as connecting up a trailer, many prefabri- 
cators felt that savings inherent in good organization of site work 
might well be lost by purchaser erection. One prefabricator stated: 

The prefabricator who will stay in business will furnish a complete 
house, key in door, at a fixed price, and will be responsible for erection 
and finishing. The days of shanty jobs are over; the days of shell building 
are drawing to a close. 18 

1 In two different patterns, however, this channel of distribution was 
well established. The precut house, as produced by Aladdin and 
many others, 19 typically was distributed in this manner, and had 
been for 40 years. Indeed, Aladdin had tried a system of dealer- 
erectors some 12 years before the survey and had decided that the 
direct mail-order business, with individuals acting as their own build 
ing contractors, mostly in rural non-farm areas, was better suited to its 

On the other hand, factory sales organizations frequently sold large 
groups of houses to a contractor, a municipality, or an equity in 
vestor. This middleman then went on to erect or to make the arrange 
ments for erection by a contractor. Dealers were ordinarily not so 
well able to handle such sales, and some companies reserved the right 
even in exclusive dealer franchises to make sales of this sort them- 

18 C. F. Dally, President, Prefabricated Products Co., Inc., interviewed January 
21, 1947. 

19 Sears, Roebuck and Co., which had sold precut houses from 1911 through 
1942, brought out its Homart house in 1947. This was designed as a ready-to- 
erect house, partially precut, partially prefabricated, and partially of random- 
length materials to be cut to fit in the field. Sales were made through mail 
order catalogues in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and Kansas City (mostly to 
rural customers) and through the company's retail stores (mostly to customers 
living in nearby urban areas). 


selves. At least 20 companies made part of their sales, and seven 
made all of them, in this way. American Houses was a good example 
of a company with a skilled central sales staff on the lookout for 
large project business; and the producers of precast concrete houses, 
for example, Vacuum Concrete, almost had to sell to large projects 
because their system of construction only then became economical. 
Most prefabricators, however, felt that distribution of this sort tended 
to be spasmodic and made it difficult to achieve the steady and pre 
dictable flow of production which they needed for greatest efficiency 
throughout the whole pattern of operations. 

2. Erection by Manufacturer 

Twenty-seven companies sold all their houses directly to the con 
sumer and then erected the unit for him, while 30 additional com 
panies handled part of their distribution in this way. 

Ordinarily, distribution of this type was localized, with erection 
in the immediate areas surrounding the factory. It was found not 
profitable to send erection crews several hundred miles in order to 
erect one house or a small group of houses, 20 and labor unions tended 
to look with disfavor upon the arrival in the community of erection 
crews who were not members of the union local. 

An important trend during this period of boom housing was the 
entrance into the prefabrication field of many large lumber dealers, 
who preferred to do this work themselves rather than continue to 
finance and supply builders as had been done before the war. Of the 
companies interviewed, six were lumber companies which decided 
to prefabricate and erect their own production. There undoubtedly 
were many other lumber dealers not included in this survey who pre 
fabricated and erected houses on a local scale. 

A more dramatic performance was the erection by factory crews 
of large site projects. Maximum economies could be obtained through 
a combination of centralized factory production with mass erection 
on a well-organized schedule on a large tract of land in the vicinity 

20 At least part of the reason for the failure of Anchorage Homes lay in its 
attempt to market its entire output (goal: 16 houses per day) direct to pur 
chasers and to erect the houses above foundation with its own erection crews, 
who often commuted to and from scattered sites several hundreds of miles from 
the plant and were always hard to supervise. 


of the plant. 21 Well-publicized examples of the combination of plant 
and site organization were the Byrne Organization and Kaiser Com 
munity Homes, where whole neighborhoods were involved and site 
location and planning became an obviously important factor in the 
success or failure. 

A few companies put up their own houses in group projects before 
sales had been made to the ultimate purchasers. One reason for this 
was to insure steady production at the plant; this channel of distribu 
tion sometimes became, therefore, an adjunct to the more orthodox 
methods of sales. If the prefabricator had not sold as many house 
packages as were necessary to maintain a steady production rate, he 
would build a group on speculation. Hamill and Jones had 100 such 
houses under erection when interviewed. The California Prefab 
Corp. was putting out four houses a day for its own erection, but 
expected to sell only about two houses a week in response to orders 
from outside customers. Naturally, operations of this sort depended 
upon a continuing demand for housing in the price range offered, and 
they were found only in areas of great housing shortage. 

Where houses were largely plant fabricated, as were the Prenco, 
Prefabricated Products, and Acorn houses, companies expressed a 
preference for carrying out a good part of the erection of nearby 
houses themselves, feeling that the combination of familiarity with 
their product and ability to shorten an already brief site labor require 
ment would be to their benefit. 

B. Factory to Dealer to Consumer 

* Most prefabricators considered a middleman between the factory 
and the consumer a distributive advantage. The middlemen chosen 
were usually independent dealers whose job was to relieve the manu 
facturer of most of the marketing task, and to make prefabricated 
houses readily available to more people than could the manufacturer 

Certainly, in the eyes of the prefabricator, the principal function of 
dealers was to enlarge the market for his houses. The prefabricator 

21 Perhaps the clearest, although hardly a typical, example was that of the 
Parsons Construction Company, in Canada, which set up a demountable wood 
fabricating plant at each final project site, complete with movable tracks on which 
to roll finished panels to the section of the site in which the proper part of the 
erection process was in progress. 


was limited in his ability to cover intensively what he regarded as 
his market area, but strategically located dealers could be on the spot 
all the time. By combining the orders from all these dealers the 
prefabricator could maintain steady production and concentrate his 
efforts on improving factory techniques. 

Another advantage of the independent dealer was his familiarity 
with the local market. He was better able to know when a member 
of the community might become an active prospect for a house, and, 
in addition, his community tended to regard him as "one of them" 
and sales resistance therefore was likely to be less. He was also likely 
to be of great assistance to the purchaser in dealing with local build 
ing codes, tax regulations, finance problems, and site selection. 
Furthermore, he provided the prefabricator with much-needed finan 
cial aid. When the prefabricator delivered a house package, he was 
paid by the dealer. Thus, the manufacturer had less money tied up 
in the distribution process, and could devote more of his working 
capital to production purposes. 

There were many different types of dealers, whose function with 
regard to the erection of their houses varied widely; they might them 
selves undertake the erection, or it might be done by the producer 
or even by the purchaser. 

1. Erection by Manufacturer 

Department stores occasionally were used as dealers for prefabri 
cated houses. In such cases the house, a section of it, or a large-scale 
model of it was erected in the store, thus offering to the store's large 
clientele the opportunity of a detailed personal inspection with a 
minimum of effort. A sales representative was almost always present 
to describe the features of the house, arrange the sale, assist in financ 
ing, and perhaps suggest tie-in package sales through the store for 
furnishing the house. The factory delivered the house and erected it 
on the site. Precision-Built Homes planned to sell in this way, utiliz 
ing a "Precision Builder" who operated within a 50-mile radius, erect 
ing all houses sold by the store in that area. 

Only a few members of the industry believed that department stores 
were likely to become important dealers in houses. Most felt that the 
high unit value and low turnover rate of houses were not in char 
acter with most other items for sale in such stores, and that customer 


buying motives would not be likely to lead them there to buy houses. 
Furthermore, it was pointed out that the many facilitating and fol 
low-up activities connected with the sale of a house would be unduly 
burdensome for high-volume fast-turnover department stores to as 
sume. In short, prefabricators tended to feel that the most valuable 
service the department store could offer would be to display the house 
to a large number of people, and to design related furniture and 
furnishing package sales which would ease the effort and expense of 
furnishing the house. Thus, Adirondack Log Cabin and Anchorage 
Homes, among others, made use of department stores only to display 
their house models; the store did not enter into the sales transaction. 

Use was made by 24 companies of general dealers in prefabricated 
homes, with the understanding that the company would perform the 
erection of all houses sold by these dealers. By and large, the pre 
fabricators felt that more sales were made through these dealers than 
through department stores, since their primary business was to sell 
houses and they would be able to seek out prospective customers 
more actively and to pay more careful attention to their needs. 

In some cases the general dealers also provided, or arranged for, the 
land on which the houses were to be erected by factory crews. The 
Brice Realty Company, acting as an agent for Prenco, on one occasion 
sold both a group of 230 houses and the land on which Prenco was 
to place them. Of the companies using general dealers, seven dis 
tributed almost exclusively in this fashion. 

2. Erection by Dealer 

More prefabricators elected to sell through dealer-erectors than 
through any other distribution channel; 45 companies used dealer- 
erectors in part, and 25 companies used them exclusively. For 27 
companies from which detailed information was obtained, the average 
number of dealer-erectors was 43. 22 The PHMI in 1945 gave the 
dealer-erector almost official standing as the preferred type of dealer 
outlet in a resolution which recognized "the basic concept of selling 
standardized, brand name homes, mass-produced, nationally adver 
tised and mass-distributed to the mass market through dealers whose 
functions will include sales, erection, servicing, and mortgage financ- 

22 Of these, one claimed to have 400, two to have 100, and the rest fewer. 
Five had fewer than five. 


ing." 23 Many of the companies were willing to indicate the fields 
from which they drew their dealer-erectors, and this information is 
presented briefly here: 

35 Contractors or operative builders exclusively 

19 Mostly contractors 

15 Mostly operative builders 

10 Real estate brokers or subdividers 

7 "Financially responsible parties" 

6 Lumber yards 

3 Primarily selling organizations 

As might be expected, the large majority had a background of some 
kind of building. 

The reasons for the popularity of dealer-erectors are worth investi 
gating. First of all, as dealers, they enlarged the market area which 
had to be larger than the immediate area of the factory in order to 
maintain steady production. In fact it has been pointed out that 
many experienced prefabricators felt they would have to produce sev 
eral thousand houses regularly each year in order to attain the full 
economies of industrialization. A well-organized chain of dealer- 
erectors was believed to be the most likely way to reach such sales 
volumes, and it could smooth out the irregularities in orders by cover 
ing a variety of areas which the prefabricator otherwise might have 
to neglect. The manufacturer was also relieved of the responsibility 
of handling the mass of essentially local problems faced in erecting 
the house, once the package had been sold. With a well-trained 
dealer organization putting sales on an efficient basis, the manufac 
turer could concentrate on production. 

Dealer-erectors, while collectively enlarging the market area, were 
able individually to concentrate efforts within their own relatively 
limited market areas. Crews did not need to travel far to the sites; 
factory-method advantages and erection economies could be mastered; 
site expenses could be held down. Furthermore, dealer-erectors used 
local labor, which induced greater local cooperation than would the 
importation of factory erection crews. 

To the ultimate consumer, the dealer-erector was a means of avoid 
ing burdensome problems. Almost the only action needed on the 
part of the prospective buyer was to sign his name to the sales con 
tract and furnish evidence of being a reliable credit risk to the financ 
ing agency. The major part of the prefabricated housing industry 

23 Prefabricated Homes, 6 (December 1945), 12, reporting the winter meet 
ing of the PHMI in Tulsa, Oklahoma, held December 3 and 4, 1945. Of course, 
not all members of PHMI distribute in this way. 


felt that this was the best way to get houses to customers at the 
lowest cost, and many indicated that they had evidence that it was 
cheaper than direct distribution from factory to consumer. 

If a manufacturer distributed directly to the consumer, he had to 
keep a sizable sales force in the field for high sales volume, and then 
sales expense and commissions rapidly built up his operating expense. 
In addition, a great deal of additional capital was needed to carry the 
house packages from the time they left the assembly line until they 
finally were taken over by the consumer. If the consumer was to erect 
his house, the house package had to sell at a very low price; if the 
factory handled the erection, further operating expense was incurred. 
Well-trained dealer-erectors, making use of efficient selling techniques, 
cut overall selling costs and were eminently qualified to handle the 
sizable site-construction job involved in the average prefabricated 
house. Planning ahead, they could pour foundations in warm weather 
and thus continue to build houses in the winter season; this would 
have the obviously beneficial effect of smoothing out the seasonal 
variations in factory production. 24 

There were, however, some difficulties with dealer-erectors. Most 
of them had previously been builders, used to working according to 
local conventions and with local men. As a rule, they were rugged 
individualists and good builders; they sometimes regarded new erec 
tion techniques with disfavor. It was often difficult to persuade 
dealer-erectors to take a limited profit per unit, on the theory that 
they would sell many more units, in a seller's market and a period of 
shortages when many prefabricators found it difficult to deliver the 
promised volume. Some dealer-erectors were reluctant to tie up their 
capital in foundations laid in anticipation of inclement weather. 
Others, not wishing to displease local associates of long standing, 
tended to buy less than the whole house package, omitting the parts 
they would prefer to purchase locally. There was at the time of the 
survey little real stimulus for the dealer-erector to build the sort of 
alert service organization which prefabricators considered important 
as a device to take care of minor difficulties once the house has been 

It was expected that most of these difficulties would be resolved in 
a stabilized market, but nevertheless many of the large prefabricators 

24 A good example was offered by National Homes, which even in the shortage 
winter of 1946-1947 was making binding commitments with its more than 100 
dealers for three months in advance, and which produced and shipped at a 
steady rate of never fewer than 2^ units per day. So predictable a volume made 
possible obvious procurement and production economies. 


felt that they would have to develop a new, young, and flexible type 
of dealer-erector. 25 It was conceded that this scheme would be likely 
to succeed in the degree that the conventional site work required in 
the erection of prefabricated houses could be reduced. 

Another very common middleman was the lumber dealer who, al 
though not quite like the dealer-erector, yet fitted more closely into 
this category than any other since he was a dealer who often pro 
vided erection service. At least six companies used lumber dealers 
to handle their house packages. Such dealers were willing to sell 
the house either directly to the ultimate consumer or to the con 
tractor. If the sale was made to the consumer, the dealer would 
sometimes arrange to have a contractor with whom he had a work 
ing agreement erect the house. In other cases he would erect the 
house himself, in the manner of the typical dealer-erector. Some 
times, however, the lumber dealer would sell house packages in 
groups to contractors who intended to erect houses as a speculative 
investment on land they controlled. In such instances, the lumber 
dealer was in effect a distributor. 

In some cases, for example General Houses (at one stage) or Pre 
cision Homes, the preference for lumber dealers reflected the inten 
tion of the prefabricator to market modular panels almost in the 
manner of stock building materials. In other cases, for example 
Peerless Housing Company, the prefabrication system was in a sense 
a lumber-selling scheme; and in still others lumber dealers were used 
in an effort to stay in the good graces of conventional builders. 
HomeOla, on the other hand, used them because the company 
marketed by carload lots of five houses, and lumber dealers were 
able to handle this quantity on a single order. 

Whether serving as dealer-erectors or as distributors, the lumber 
dealers tended to handle houses simply as a side line, and they tended 
not to make much of a sales effort. Furthermore, they usually were 
not well equipped to provide many of the specialized services which 
should accompany the sale of houses. HomeOla estimated that "re 
tail lumber dealers accounted for the sale of only 2,000 out of the 
known total of 37,400 prefabricated houses sold in 1946," 20 and the 
company eventually decided to concentrate on other channels of 

25 Both American Houses and National Homes, for example, were planning 
to take well-trained college graduates into their organization for grooming, and 
then to finance their debuts as dealer-erectors. 

26 The HomeOla Dealer Info-Service, Bulletin M-18 (June 9, 1947), p. 3. 


3. Erection by Purchaser 

The quantity of sales made by dealers under the terms of which 
erection was left as the responsibility of the consumer was relatively 
unimportant. Department stores made a few sales in this manner, 
but without great success. General dealers operating in rural areas 
probably sold the most houses to be consumer erected, although 
Hamill and Jones, which had previously sold direct to consumers, 
was an example of a company building up a dealer organization but 
still making sales in some areas for purchaser erection. Pre-Fab In 
dustries had rural dealers scattered over the states of Indiana, Illi 
nois, Ohio, Michigan, and southern Wisconsin who made sales pri 
marily to hatcheries and other "barnyard operators" which in turn 
distributed panelized houses and utility buildings to their rural cus 
tomers, and made some of the erections. In a few instances lumber 
dealers sold house packages to purchasers who assumed the responsi 
bility for erection. 

No companies used this system exclusively, and only 14 used it in 
part. The complications of construction, erection, and financing 
were so great even for the average well-made unit that this sort of 
sale was steadily declining. A dealer who took over so little of the 
burden of marketing from the prefabricator hardly seemed worth the 
extra markup in price. 

C. Factory to Distributor to Dealer to Consumer 

A third and major type of distribution system used the services of 
two middlemen, the distributor and the dealer. In effect, distributors 
were overgrown dealers who sold to the dealers. They sometimes 
had a large organization with both a regional and district network, 
headed by a single main sales force, and sometimes were more local 
ized individuals or companies. There were eight companies using 
distributors exclusively, and 17 more who used distributors to handle 
some part of their sales volume. 

Distributors added an extra markup to the final selling price of 
the house, but in many cases they could establish contact with sound 
dealers more easily than could the prefabricators. Also, individual 
dealers sometimes sold such a small volume of houses that the pre 
fabricator found the expense and effort of coordinating sales pro- 


grams too great. In such a case, one, or a few, distributors would be 
given the entire marketing job, and it was left to the distributors to 
see that dealers were supplied. In the case of Texas Housing Co. 
and HomeOla the prefabricator gave the distributor a 20% discount 
from the retail selling price of the house package, and distributor and 
dealer worked out between them what part of the 20% each was to 
get. It was not uncommon for each middleman to take 10%. 

Distributors in other industries frequently have been used to gain 
nation-wide market coverage, but few prefabricators had seriously 
attempted nation-wide distribution by this device; rather, it was used 
to help manufacturers sell in selected markets otherwise inaccessible 
to the factory. Beyond a 200- to 300-mile radius from the plant 
some prefabricators felt that distributors could increase sales volume 
without significantly increasing direct sales expense. For example, 
West Coast prefabricators found it profitable to use distributors in 
order to sell in the Rocky Mountain states. This market had not been 
large enough to support a company sales office or even a salesman, 
but sales resulting from the efforts of distributors there increased 
sales volume with few added costs. Such distributors were sometimes 
manufacturers' agents, selling prefabricated houses as one part of 
their product line. 

The HomeOla Corporation, with a home office in Chicago, used 
distributors to enlarge its market coverage, making it one of the few 
companies to reach anything like nation-wide coverage. In seeking 
this wide distribution HomeOla was greatly assisted by its shipping 
arrangements, under which all the wood parts for five houses made 
up a carload from the West Coast and the steel and other parts for 
five houses made up a carload from Chicago, to be sent by rail to 
any part of the country. The Texas Housing Co. sold Homettes 
through 40 distributor organizations, with size of territories ranging 
from one county to three states per distributor and with minimum 
sales quotas established accordingly. Dealers were appointed by 
each distributor, and included lumber dealers, real estate agents, 
and even filling station operators. Distributors also sold directly to 
large organizations such as colleges and universities which bought 
temporary housing units in quantity. 

It has been pointed out that lumber yards often acted as distribu 
tors, selling the house package to a contractor rather than to the 
ultimate consumer, and leaving it to the contractor to erect the 
house and sell it. However, most lumber yards were considered by 
the prefabricators to be a type of dealer-erector, emphasizing sales 


to ultimate consumers and, when they did not erect the house, ar 
ranging with a contractor to have the erection performed. 

Several prefabricators expected the distributor to become important 
in the sales plan for modular building components. In order to 
market such components more directly, however, and to comply with 
early postwar regulations governing allocation of materials and 
financing, prefabricators producing them at the time of our survey 
generally were forced to offer a few standard models in house pack 
ages. This was true, for example, of General Panel and of General 
Houses. With restrictions lifted, a firm financial position attained, 
and a demand for modular components established, these companies 
hoped to market the components as such, leaving it to the purchaser 
to assemble them as he might wish. Since a large inventory of dif 
ferent modular components would have to be carried to meet the 
varying demands, distributors of strength and size would be needed 
to relieve the manufacturer of the functions of assembly, storage, 
financing, and possibly of subsequent resale for secondhand use. 
Sales would tend to be to contractors and builders, or through estab 
lished materials outlets which could be expected to stock the com 
ponents in the manner of standard building materials. Such distribu 
tion schemes would, in fact, take the marketing emphasis entirely off 
the house as such. No such schemes were in full operation at the 
time of our survey. 27 

The prefabricators were aware of some disadvantages in using 
distributors, however. As non-builders they added an extra step to 
the channel of distribution and extra cost to the ultimate consumer, 
and so the prefabricator had to be sure the distributor could in fact 
enlarge his market area, reach more dealers, provide cash payments 
for house packages, and in general relieve him of the expense of a 
broad marketing program. The prefabricator had to calculate the 
risks of becoming further removed from the ultimate consumer, of 
losing close control over his product, and of having his production 
team grow less responsive to consumer opinion. Furthermore, the 
distributor might not give as much promotional "push" to the house 
as the prefabricator himself would give, and he might let the dealer 
organization become lax and unresponsive to the prefabricated 
wishes, since dealers would no longer be directly responsible to him. 

27 Several companies did sell their panels as such in a limited way, however, 
and many more were perfectly willing to get this additional type of business. 
As an example of how well the principle can be used, a house by architect Gor 
don Drake made excellent and efficient use of HomeOla 4' x 8' panels ( The Archi 
tectural Forum, 87 [September 19471, 110). 


To summarize, prefabricators found distributors a useful mech 
anism in specialized cases. In general, however, this channel was not 
considered the most efficient means of distributing prefabricated 

V. Sales Methods 

The functions to be performed by dealers in prefabricated houses 
were many and varied. The dealer had to originate the sale, buy the 
house package from the prefabricator, pay the transportation charges, 
erect the house, aid the customer in permanent financing, and pro 
vide continuing service once the house was occupied. In addition, 
he had to deal with local labor problems, subcontracting require 
ments, local building codes, local FHA requirements, and the nature 
of local prejudice towards prefabricated houses. 28 The manufacturer 
often found it far from easy to persuade a responsible and cautious 
prospective dealer that he should take over a franchise. 

The manufacturer also had to be careful. Picking the right man 
to serve as a dealer was not an easy task. Hart Anderson, speaking 
before a PHMI convention, stated that replies received in response to 
advertisements from people who want to be dealers are analyzed. 

Some are eliminated at once by the type of letter they write; others are 
eliminated when they learn the qualifications for dealership, the amount 
of capital needed and other requirements; credit reports are used to good 
advantage; and the fourth method is that of going right into the man's 
home town and finding out all about him. 29 

Manufacturers realized they must use this sort of care in selecting 
dealers, or it might prove to be better to have no dealer at all. 

Some companies had devised rating blanks for this purpose. Gun- 
nison Homes used such a blank, and Anderson presented a form of 

28 In Milwaukee the situation with regard to available land for large projects 
was such that, in practice, the dealer often was required to find suitable land 
just outside the city and to wait through annexation proceedings before he 
could begin his regular work. 

29 Hart Anderson, President of PHMI for 1949, Report of the Fall Meeting, 
PHMI, Grand Rapids, Mich., November 16, 1948. 


rating blank to the PHMI, 30 which is given here to illustrate the ap 
proach which manufacturers might wish to take in evaluating a pros 
pective dealer. 

A reputation for honesty and fair dealing is the first and foremost prereq 
uisite for any dealer-erector of prefabricated homes. In addition the 
individual or organization should score 80% or more of the following 

A. Bank Reference and Credit Standing 40% 

Does he maintain a satisfactory bank account? (20) 

Has he a good credit standing with the local bank? (10) 

Has he a reputation for prompt payment of accounts? (10) 

B. Business History 15% 

Has he a local reputation as a successful businessman? (15) 

C. Experience and Ability 20% 

Is he capable and experienced in home building? (10) 
Has he experience in land development? (5) 

Has he good taste in colors and proportions? (5) 

D. Personality 15% 

Has he a good disposition and lots of friends? (4) 

Is he aggressive and dynamic ? (4) 

Is he amenable to suggestions? (4) 

Has he business vision? (3) 

E. Outside Connections and Interests 10% 

Is he a director or otherwise interested in local bank or savings 

and loan associations? (4) 

Does he belong to Kiwanis, Lions, or other service clubs? (3) 

Is he active in church or other community work? (3) 

Total 100% 

Prefabricators were careful because they had a good deal of cap 
ital invested in their dealers. It was estimated that PHMI repre 
sented about $60,000,000 of capital, and its dealers another $36,- 
000,000. 31 One manufacturer had 150 dealers, each one of whom he 
estimated to represent an investment on his part of $3,500, giving a 
total investment of $525,000 tied up in the dealer organization; by 
way of comparison, plant and equipment represented about 

In fact, although the prefabricators generally seemed to spend 
nearly 50c on dealer organization for each $1 invested in plant and 
equipment, a smoothly functioning system of dealer organizations 
had rarely been set up by the industry. The Flanders Committee 
reported in 1947, "The typical manufacturer today is set up to pro- 

so Hart Anderson, PHMI Fall Meeting, 1948. 
31 High Cost of Housing, pp. 145-6. 


duce less than 1,000 houses a year, which he sells to small builders 
with practically no sales organization." 32 

The manufacturing companies naturally believed that the best 
type of dealer should combine strength in the fields of sales, erec 
tion, and finance, and that he should have strong local approval and 
support. A sound construction background and a good local credit 
rating were most helpful to a dealer when his bank evaluated the 
risk of making construction loans, and left the manufacturer free to 
make full use of his capital for further production. The problem, 
however, was to find otherwise suitable dealers who were able to 
put up the amount of working capital deemed necessary to carry on 
a successful dealership. Gunnison Homes, Inc., estimated that the 
dealer in the average market area should be able to supply $15,000 
in working capital not invested in fixed assets. Hart Anderson gave 
even higher figures: "It is thought that the average dealer should 
have about $30,000 with which to build a demonstration house and 
for regular operating expense/' 33 Other estimates ran even higher. 
Regardless of the exact amount, the objective of the prefabricators 
was the same to find dealers with enough capital to permit rapid 
turnover and volume sales. Then the dealer could make a satis 
factory net profit, and the manufacturer could maintain steady pro 

Once a dealer had been selected it was usually considered profit 
able to have him attend a training school located at the factory. At 
least 15 companies had special training courses. Such a school ac 
complished several purposes: the dealer saw firsthand how the house 
packages were manufactured and thereby gained a better under 
standing of the product; more important, he was given training in 
erection techniques and suggestions on the best methods of selling 
the manufacturer's product. The Gunnison school presented in 
detail a high-speed selling technique designed to help the dealer sell 
a house in a very short interview, provided the husband and wife 
had first read the Gunnison folder. Lustron dealers were also given 
an extensive training school course which placed a good deal of 
emphasis on proper erection methods. 

After completing a period of training, the dealer was expected to 

32 Wittausch, op. cit., p. 709. Although Mr. Wittausch does not dwell on what 
constitutes a typical manufacturer, he undoubtedly describes accurately the situ 
ation of many of the prefabricators. His remarks do not apply to the few pre 
fabricators who did have good dealer organizations and who manufactured a 
large part of the total production. 

33 Statement by Hart Anderson, PHMI Fall Meeting, 1948. 


establish himself initially through the use of general sales-promotion 
techniques. Cooperative newspaper advertising featuring the brand 
name of the prefabricated house and the name of the local dealer 
was one device used. Usually, the larger part of the advertising 
burden was gradually shifted over to the dealer, although a few com 
panies such as Gunnison continued to bear 50% of the cost of the 
advertising in order to maintain better control over the quality of 
the promotion, prepared mats for newspaper advertising, and sent 
them out to the dealers. 34 In this connection might be mentioned 
the program of the PHMI to publicize and encourage the use of its 
insignia by member companies in their advertising, where it would 
serve to distinguish in the public mind "the progressive companies 
dedicated to the production of Modern Homes by Modern 
Methods." 35 

Another good promotional device was the erection of a model 
house. Demonstration of the product has, of course, been proved 
to be one of the best ways of selling, and often orders were placed 
on the spot after interested persons had examined the house. The 
house often served afterwards as a sales office for the dealer. Some 
prefabricators formed the practice of charging an admission fee to 
go through the model house, in order to discourage miscellaneous 
and half-interested crowds and to encourage those with a higher 
degree of interest to look carefully and get their money's worth. It 
was considered good public relations to turn over all such proceeds to 
local charity. 

One of the first and most difficult tasks facing the dealer was that 
of finding a way around local building codes and other restrictions, 
many of which were completely outdated. Interpreted to favor local 
building groups, and supported by the resistance on the part of many 
citizen groups to any variety of small houses on the ground that they 
provide insufficient tax return in exchange for municipal services, the 
effect of such restrictions had been practically to exclude prefabri 
cated houses from many cities. 

The prefabricators as a group reported reasonable success in clear 
ing away restrictions on the sale and erection of their houses, and 
better success in medium and small urban areas than in large metro 
politan centers. Many cities were willing to give prefabrication a 
fair chance in order to reduce the critical housing shortage. One 

34 Statement by Foster Gunnison, PHMI Convention, Grand Rapids, Mich., 
November 16, 1948. 

35 Prefabricated Homes, 6 (December 1945), 26. 


large manufacturer concentrated on small residential communities in 
large metropolitan areas, finding that these small communities usually 
had newer building codes as well as a more open point of view re 
garding new types of housing. It was considered especially helpful 
if the first house could be sold to a person of importance in the com 
munity, or placed on a very desirable site. The house then had a 
greater acceptance value in the eyes of the other residents of the 
city. It was also found effective to document one's case with refer 
ences to other comparable cities which had changed their codes to 
permit prefabricated houses. Gunnison, for example, made good use 
of carefully assembled portfolios containing detailed engineering in 
formation, examples of favorable code treatment, and references to 
legal decisions involving appeals on similar points. 

The largest prefabricators were optimistic on this subject. Most of 
them believed that building requirements in codes would soon be 
expressed, or at least interpreted, in terms of physical performance 
rather than specification. Equally important in their eyes, however, 
was the need for uniformity of code provisions and interpretations 
over a broad sales area. Many would have been willing to abide by 
an outdated construction specification if they could have been sure 
of facing the same specification in every area. They were, therefore, 
interested and active in the growing movement for uniform codes 
and for state-wide codes, typified in the work of the federal govern 
ment, the building officials' organizations, and such states as New 
York, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin. 36 

Once the prefabricated house had obtained clearance from the 
municipal government, the dealer organization should be ready to 
employ mass sales techniques. 37 In order to heighten sales appeal 

36 It should be noted that a state-wide minimum code, permitting greater local 
restrictions where desired, was of little use to prefabricators. They were working 
particularly for some means of setting a state-wide maximum as well, so that pro 
duction could be planned on a house which was sure to comply with all regula 
tions of all communities. At the time of the survey only Massachusetts had 
set up the legal basis for state-wide provisions of this sort. The Massachusetts 
law (Chapter 631, Acts 1947) was greatly complicated by subsequent well- 
intended amendments. Local confusion became so great that in 1950 the legis 
lature repealed the provisions establishing state-wide maxima. 

37 An interesting development in the field of marketing prefabricated houses, 
which occurred after the time of the survey, was the organization of the Pennur- 
ban Housing Corporation. This organization did not attempt to become regular 
dealers, but urged that the way to achieve mass distribution of prefabricated 
houses was to start out in major marketing areas with the construction of well- 
planned, well-located introductory developments. The firm had built three de 
velopments, using different kinds of houses, to illustrate its ideas. The pattern 


many manufacturers included extra merchandising features in their 
houses. For example, Lustron included in its regular package such 
built-in features as a completely furnished bathroom, combination 
dishwasher-clotheswasher, automatic water heater, furnace, kitchen 
cabinets, recessed bookshelves, china cabinet, vanity table and mirror, 
and many cabinets, shelves, and closets for storage. A general trend 
towards more built-in features was revealed by the survey; most pre- 
fabricators, in varying degrees, emphasized them because market 
surveys revealed them as strong sales points, making the purchaser 
feel that he was getting more than "just the conventional house" when 
he bought a prefabricated house. This competitive edge was con 
sidered to more than offset the cost of supplying these features. 

The sales psychology necessary to sell prefabricated houses in com 
petitive markets had not taken any characteristic pattern at the time 
of our survey, but manufacturers were paying attention to the meth 
ods of the operative builders. For example, Levitt stressed the need 
of color in the bathroom, efficiency in the kitchen, and flowers near 
the front door. Kaiser Community Homes dealers encouraged the 
occupant to beautify the site with shrubs, picket fences, and flowers, 
and assisted him in such a program. The purchaser was encouraged 
to build up a "psychological equity" in the house, to assure good up 
keep, and to stimulate a feeling of community. 

Most prefabricators felt that there was an important merchandising 
advantage in having a wide variety of models and styles that could 
be made available to the ultimate consumer. They considered this 
necessary to avoid the creation of a monotonous group and consumer 
resistance, or else they believed that the bankers and the dealers con 
sidered it necessary. Kaiser Community Homes, using only five basic 
floor plans, could construct over 5,000 different variations by chang 
ing the location of such features as the garage, breezeway, and en- 

of operations consisted of the development of a series of pilot projects of modest 
size (25-50 houses) in the key areas, with the manufacturer providing the re 
quired working capital. In establishing a market the outlay of such capital, 
which should represent a reimbursable investment, was supposed to replace the 
use of national advertising, which might not give tangible results. Pennurban's 
developmental work included such tilings as getting building code and FHA 
approval for the prefabricated house, handling the site plan and land improve 
ment for the project, and selling a house unfamiliar in the locality. It was con 
sidered that this developmental work had to be done only once in any com 
munity for any particular prefabricated house, and that competing houses might 
also benefit from it. Pennurban's operations did not eliminate any of the chan 
nels of distribution previously discussed, therefore, but rather aimed at simplify 
ing the initial sales of prefabricated houses. 


trances. Gunnison Homes, Inc., offered nine sizes of DeLuxe homes, 
ranging from one to four bedrooms, with both right and left floor 
plans, plus garages, breezeways, and such possible extra "architectural 
treatments" as pilasters, window boxes, and shutters. 

One of the most difficult problems in determining sales methods in 
any new field is to establish the price/quality relationship for the 
product. This was especially true in the field of prefabricated hous 
ing; it was hard to find any kind of agreement among manufacturers 
as to just how much house should be supplied, and at what cost. In 
the automotive field, to the argument that the big companies should 
bring out a car priced to sell for less than $1,000, the president of 
General Motors has replied that "the trouble with making a car two- 
thirds the size of a Ford, Chevrolet or Plymouth is that you take 
out value faster than you can take out cost." 38 The exact point at 
which manufacturers would begin taking out value faster than cost 
was hard to determine in the field of housing, especially when the 
reaction of the ultimate consumer was considered. It has been pointed 
out that Lustron was taking steps to get a reputation for quality in 
order to develop genuine consumer demand. Gunnison Homes offered 
its quality line in the "Buick class" of housing. Many in the industry 
believed that in the long run the best market was in the middle-income 
group, in which purchasers would be pleased to find more space and 
equipment, better construction, better finish, and more built-in fea 
tures than they otherwise could buy in a conventional house. For 
the immediate future, however, there were many indications that the 
price/quality problem could be most profitably solved by concentrat 
ing on making and marketing minimum houses at minimum price. 
The so-called "economy house" was making good money for many a 

VI. Financing the Prefabricated Home 

During the immediate postwar period procurement and production 
often were the most pressing problems confronting the prefabricated 

38 Charles E. Wilson, President of General Motors Corporation, Time, LIII 
(January 24, 1949), 78. 


housing industry, but the emphasis later shifted. With marketing the 
most critical problem of the industry, that phase of it which dealt with 
financing houses seemed the most critical of all. President John Pease 
of the PHMI warned his members: 

During the past seven months we have seen completion of the transi 
tion from a sellers' market to a buyers' market in practically all areas. 
Many materials, scarce the earlier part of this year, are now available in 
plentiful supply and at going carload prices. 39 

He went on to say that adequate financing was the problem then 
needing emphasis. 

Difficulties in connection with mortgage financing of homes was most 
frequently given as the No. 1 factor limiting sales of prefabricated homes 
at present in our recent survey of leading housing manufacturers. 40 

A. Financing the Dealer 


One reason for the use of dealers was the fact that they freed the 
manufacturer's working capital for further production. However, 
many dealers were themselves very hard pressed to raise sufficient 
working capital to pay for the package at the time of delivery, and, 
to complicate the picture, they generally did not receive payment 
from the ultimate consumer until mortgage was secured on the house 
from a home loan institution. It became apparent soon after the war 
that some source of credit would have to be established which would 
permit house packages to be acquired, sold, erected, and turned over 
to the customer by the dealer. The production methods of prefabri- 
cation appeared to have moved ahead faster than the methods of 
finance upon which the industry would depend for existence. 

The shortage of working capital was made more acute by the high 
unit price of the product. For example, a typical house package might 
cost the dealer about $4,000 and sell erected, without land, for about 
$8,000. With ten houses under construction, the dealer would have 
$40,000 of his working capital tied up in inventory, and he would 
need additional money for construction. If operations were per 
formed on a smaller scale in order to minimize capital requirements, 

39 John W. Pease, President, PHMI, Fall Meeting, November 15, 1948. 

40 PHMI Washington News Letter, October 8, 1948, p. 1. 

41 The financing problems of the manufacturer have been discussed in detail 
in Chapter 6. 


one of the greatest advantages of dealing in prefabricated houses 
would have disappeared that of speed in erection, leading to con 
struction of more houses with the same capital, and so resulting in 
higher profits. 42 

Dealers profited from certain measures which promoted a readier 
extension of consumer credit, such as FHA approval of mortgages, 
special arrangements with lending institutions to speed up loans, the 
construction of model homes for approval by FHA and banks so that 
similar homes built later could obtain ready approval, and, to a minor 
degree, the use of acceptance corporations. The Harman Corpora 
tion had a somewhat novel plan of financing, making use of a series of 
sales representatives who were mortgage initiators and thereby in a 
position to give financial assistance to the contractors to whom they 
sold and to service these mortgages during the period of the mortgage. 
The mortgages were usually refinanced in accordance with customary 
practices through insurance companies or other large financial insti 
tutions. Later the company had a wholly owned subsidiary, the Small 
Homes Development Corporation, which financed builders in housing 
projects. This program definitely aided sales, but the failure of the 
parent organization made it impossible to evaluate the subsidiary en 

Construction loans were the most usual method of interim financing. 
But whereas conventional builders customarily had been able to get 
a line of credit from the materials supplier, we have seen that very 
few house manufacturers were in a position to grant a line of credit 
to their dealers. Furthermore, conventional builders could defer 
many purchases and make them as the building progressed, but the 
prefabricated housing dealer had to buy an entire house package at 
one time. And even if a construction loan had been arranged, 43 no 
payment would be made until the house was shelled in. Most state 
laws regarded house packages as chattels until they were physically 
attached to the land and became real estate. The Flanders Committee 
report summed up: 

The outstanding hindrance to factory sales is the dealer's difficulty in 
paying for a house package in advance. The usual practice on the part 
of a local bank in extending a loan to a dealer is to advance him the 
amount required to cover the cost of the house package after it has been 

42 Pease claimed its dealers could erect four times as many houses as could a 
conventional builder with the same operating capital. (Interview with Sales 
Manager, April 7, 1947.) 

43 And many banks were in no hurry to lend money to newly established deal 
ers for distant and, to the bankers, dubious prefabricators. 


erected, not before. The period required by the dealer to erect the house 
package roughly measures the length of time he must tie up his own work 
ing capital. 44 

It can be seen, then, that such loans to the dealer had not relieved 
him entirely of working capital problems. 

During most of the period of the survey, loans to manufacturers of 
prefabricated houses under Section 609 of the National Housing Act 
had been made on the basis of "binding purchase contracts." This 
required the dealer to have cash in hand and to have arranged perma 
nent financing for the purchaser two most difficult requirements. 
The revised Section 609 45 offered more hope. As summarized for the 
industry in the PHMI Washington News Letter, 

The amended 609 program authorizes insurance of loans by FHA for 
the manufacture of prefabricated housing as before. Previously, the dealer 
purchasing packaged houses was required to pay cash upon delivery. Now, 
payment may be made up to 30 days after the delivery of the houses. Or, 
the dealer may pay 20% of the purchase price upon delivery and have the 
unpaid balance covered by his promissory notes, which are issued to the 
lending institutions making the 609 loan and which are payable within 
180 days from the date of delivery of the house. 46 

In short, interim financing was provided for the dealer. Either plan 
was a boon, allowing him to expand operations and make fuller use 
of his working capital; obviously, this was also a boon to the manu 
facturer. Furthermore, construction loans would more readily be 
forthcoming, since the banks could be sure of the dealer's credit posi 
tion. Largely as a result of the careful study of the Flanders Com 
mittee, a continuous flow of credit from the manufacturer through to 
the consumer had been facilitated. This was a significant contribu 
tion to the goal of mass distribution, although its full effect on the 
industry had not yet been felt. 

B. Financing the Purchaser 

One of the regular functions of dealers in prefabricated houses was 
to help the purchaser obtain mortgage or other credit so that he could 
pay for the house. In most cases, it was of the utmost urgency to get 

44 High Cost of Housing, p. 158. 

45 Public Law 901, approved August 10, 1948. 

46 PHMI Washington News Letter, August 13, 1948, p. 2. See also discussion 
in Chapter 6, pp. 166-8. 


approval of the house by the various offices of the Federal Housing 
Administration, so that FHA insurance could promptly be issued to 
cover the private mortgage loan. Increasing numbers of lending 
institutions preferred not to grant mortgages on houses lacking FHA 
approval, for several reasons: FHA insurance offered security in case 
the owner of the house should default in his payments; the FHA had 
firm rules regarding plan, specifications, and location which served to 
protect the lender; and FHA-insured mortgages enjoyed a resale 
market to insurance companies and other large financial institutions. 
Of the companies surveyed, 76 produced houses which were approved 
for FHA insurance, and seven more expected approval in the near 

Another step taken by many dealers was the effort to speed up the 
financing process. Speedy erections were a sales advantage, as well 
as the means of achieving a high rate of turnover and a good profit 
for the dealer on his working capital, but they required speedy 
financing, too. To this end, the dealer, or prefabricator, frequently 
negotiated an arrangement with a particular lending institution, or 
group or chain of lending institutions, to handle all mortgages on his 
homes. Much the same procedure was used as in seeking FHA ap 
proval; the entire manufacturing operation was explained to the offi 
cials concerned, and detailed plans were submitted for careful study. 
At this time the commitment value and percentage of total values were 
usually agreed upon, and full advantage was taken of the fact that 
prefabricated housing meant the standardization of plans, both for 
manufacture and for erection; it was usually necessary to approve 
only one house to get automatic approval for all others of that type, 
provided, of course, the prospective homeowner fulfilled the necessary 

At least 35 companies or their dealers followed the practice of chan 
neling mortgages through lending agencies on this prearranged basis. 
For example, the Scott Lumber Company spent a great deal of time 
making preliminary arrangements for FHA mortgage financing terms 
with certain banks in each sales area, feeling that this was more than 
justified by accelerated subsequent individual financing arrange 
ments. Johnson Quality Homes had made similar arrangements with 
the large Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn. 

A device frequently suggested as a means of stimulating the flow 
of credit is the use of the acceptance corporation. This device is 
common in the automobile field, where it helped to make mass pro 
duction possible. However, the situation was different for prefabri 
cated housing, where a much larger sum of money was needed, where 


there was almost no established trade in "secondhand models" by the 
dealer-erector, and where valuation, depreciation, and resale values 
were far more difficult to establish. Most important of all, prefabri- 
cators were confronted with far and away the most conservative 
branch of the law that dealing with real estate and the home. Re 
possessing a home in which a family is living is a problem quite dif 
ferent from repossessing an automobile. The acceptance corporation 
operating in the housing field has special problems to solve. 

Yet the need of investment capital to move the product from the 
manufacturer to the ultimate consumer was much greater in the hous 
ing industry than in the automobile industry, and so the acceptance 
corporation had been considered carefully by many prefabricators. 
National Homes, in order to assure a steady distribution for its houses, 
went on to set up in 1947 a financing subsidiary called National Homes 
Acceptance Corporation for the purpose of providing long-term FHA- 
insured mortgage loans to the ultimate consumer and short-term con 
struction loans to National Homes Corporation dealers, making them 
more independent of local lenders than ever before. The procedure 
was described as follows: 

When a house is delivered to a dealer, National Homes Acceptance Cor 
poration pays National Homes Corp. for the house. At the same time, 
the Acceptance Corp. gives the dealer the first of three construction ad 
vances. The second advance is made after the second FHA inspection. 
The third is made upon completion of the house. By this time the dealer 
will have received credit and advances totaling 90% of the price of the 
house. The Acceptance Corp. worked out its plan for dealer advances with 
the help of the American Bank and Trust Co. of Chicago. 47 

The ready secondary market for FHA-insured mortgages now offered by 
insurance companies makes possible National's one-stop mortgage service 
for buyers. National is the first prefaber [sic] to capitalize on this sure 
secondary market by making its dealers mortgage correspondents as well 
as builders. VA-guaranteed home loans are also offered by the Accept 
ance Corp. 48 

National Homes Corporation pioneered in this field, but there was 
no evidence to indicate whether this practice would spread elsewhere 
in the industry. It was evident that it would be difficult to raise 
money in the large sums required to bring acceptance corporations 
into general use. 

Many of the difficulties faced by the final purchaser in negotiating 
for permanent financing have been general in the housing field, and 

47 American Bank and Trust Co. also made a loan to cover initial operations. 
The National Homes Acceptance Corporation was later financed by RFC loans. 
**The Architectural Forum, 87 (August 1947), 12. 


not limited to prefabrication. For a while there was, for example, a 
general feeling that actual construction costs had outrun the true value 
of the completed house. One Savings and Loan official stated that 
properties were being appraised at 20-30% less than construction costs 
because this was felt to be a realistic long-range viewpoint. R. F. 
Talbert, President of the Pittsburgh Home Savings and Loan Asso 
ciation, said in 1948: 

We don't even invite anyone to sit down and discuss a loan unless he 
has 40% of the purchase price for a downpayment. . . . He must also be 
a young man and have a good earnings record; and the property he is buy 
ing must not be too old or too ultra-modern. 49 

In addition to the need for increased percentages of down pay 
ment, another obstacle faced the housebuyer that of rising interest 
rates. Claude L. Benner, addressing the Mortgage Bankers Associa 
tion, stated that an increase to 4%% was necessary to attract in 
vestors, and predicted that the rate would be lifted "late" in 1948. 50 

Lending institutions however, were considered by many companies 
to take an unduly conservative attitude towards granting mortgages 
on prefabricated houses. Part of this attitude was perhaps fostered 
by the youth of the house manufacturing industry; bankers had looked 
askance at some of the earlier examples where the houses were not 
of conventional design, where the erection was poorly performed, or 
where the manufacturer suffered financial failure. Possibly banks 
also felt a responsibility towards conventional builders with whom 
they had had working agreements over a period of years. It was 
natural that they should desire to maintain the value of the mort 
gages held on conventional houses, and therefore prefabricated houses 
would be resisted if it was felt that they might offer a threat to exist 
ing values. This suspicion of prefabrication tended to fade as time 
went on, but there remained a complaint from many prefabricated 
housing dealers that the valuation placed on prefabricated houses was 
too low; and a lower mortgage valuation meant a smaller loan and 
a larger down payment. Some dealers stated baldly that there was 
unfair discrimination against prefabricated houses. From the bank 
ers' point of view, there was usually little more involved than the 
extra caution resulting from unfortunate previous experience. 

The valuation problem was everywhere intensified by fears of an 
inflated price structure in the housing field. Should a recession set in, 

49 PHMI Washington News Letter, October 8, 1948, p. 3. 
60 The New York Times, September 24, 1948, p. 44. 


customers who had overburdened themselves with a mortgage would 
not be able to keep up the payments. The equity would then have 
to be surrendered and the mortgage foreclosed. Furthermore, it was 
the feeling of lending institutions that to ease the financial require 
ments for mortgages would be merely inflationary, and would add 
little or nothing to the quantity or quality of housing, but only in 
crease the price. 

VII. Choosing the Site 

Many prefabricators felt that one of their big advantages was the 
freedom offered their purchasers in the location of the house. They 
pointed out that the large-scale operative builder was highly restricted 
in this respect, because his site had to be large, relatively low in price, 
and reasonably near a large urban center with a high demand for 
housing. And many believed that a certain amount of consumer re 
sistance sprang from a reluctance to become a part of a 'large housing 
project"; that very large developments of necessity involved a certain 
amount of monotony, even though variations of style and floor plans 
had been used. 

These prefabricators also felt, moreover, that they had an advantage 
over the conventional builder, who could not take on jobs at a dis 
tance because of the nature of his operations. For a man doing all 
his work at the site, they argued, the time required to construct a 
house was appreciable, varying according to the type of house, the 
labor force, the availability of materials, and the state of the 
weather, to mention just a few factors; and for the conventional 
builder to extend his radius of operations would mean that travel 
time might soon run up labor costs enough to make the building non- 
competitive in price. 

By contrast, these men claimed, the purchaser of a prefabricated 
house was able to pick any site that could be reached by truck and 
to expect to have a completed dwelling erected on that site. More 
than with other types of construction, the ultimate consumer was 
thus free to decide upon the type of community he preferred, whether 
large or small; since erection time required was much shorter than 


for a conventional house, the dealer's small labor force could readily 
be moved over a wide area. 

In many such cases, the prefabricators reported, the purchaser al 
ready owned the lot, probably obtained because of its preferred loca 
tion, and, unwilling to wait for the conventional builder, bought a 
prefabricated house because it could be erected sooner. In other 
cases purchasers came in to buy a prefabricated house before they 
had formulated an opinion about land; in such cases the dealer was 
in a position to render valuable advice concerning property values, 
zoning regulations, land improvements, and community character. 
When the dealer built houses on speculation, of course, house and 
land were sold at the same time. Often the dealer purchased land, 
laid foundations, and shelled in houses during the autumn months, 
and then finished off and sold the houses during the winter months 
when operations otherwise would have been restricted. Occasionally, 
the purchaser was buying to replace a house that had been destroyed, 
or he had some other reason to erect another house on his existing lot. 
Speed of erection often was the consideration in such a case which 
brought him into the market for a prefabricated house. 

As was true for all housing, conversion of raw land to a building 
site for a prefabricated house often required a great deal of time 
and trouble, and in many cases the building site had to be fully im 
proved before loans could be made, lots sold, or erections started. 
Leveling or terracing, excavating or blasting, stripping and replacing 
top soil, moving or protecting trees all these things involved costs 
and work for the dealer-erector. Furthermore, during the period of 
the survey, dealer-erectors frequently found it difficult to obtain 
utilities for their houses. Operating under conditions of severe short 
ages, the public utility companies often were unable to supply new 
homeowners with service by the time the house was ready for occu 
pancy. The waiting periods tended to be longest in rural or resort 
areas where lines had not yet been built, but in almost every type of 
area the shortages were acute in the early postwar period. 

Later, as shortages disappeared, more and more dealer-erectors 
undertook to develop groups or whole neighborhoods of houses at a 
time, combining the savings thus afforded in land development costs 
and in the mass production of houses. The selection of suitable sites 
for projects of this sort involved a good understanding of local hous 
ing demand and of the nature of community development. 

In the judgment of some of the largest companies, an important part 
of choosing such a site involved the possibilities of integrating the 
project with the surrounding community. In general, local zoning 


ordinances had to be studied, building codes considered, taxes on real 
estate investigated, and private covenants and other restrictive pro 
visions sought out and studied with care. (Many prefabricators had 
more difficulty with deed restrictions than with building codes.) 
Local community planning also had to be investigated; the school 
system and fire protection, police protection, and transportation facili 
ties all had their bearing upon the choice of site for the prospective 
purchaser's home. Since the average purchaser was not easily able 
to consider all the items which are important in the choice of a build 
ing site, the trained dealer in prefabricated houses could offer valu 
able services along these lines. 

Considerations of this sort were understood by many of the prefab 
ricators, and several indicated that they intended to pay careful at 
tention to site selection principles. Not very many seemed to realize 
how much good site planning practices, particularly for the first of 
their houses to be erected in any community, would have to do with 
the local reputation of the house. For the most part, production 
problems were so pressing and financial problems so immediate that 
time could not be found for the creation of favorable local opinion, 
long-term good will, and the stimulation of better sales in the future. 

VIII. Transportation to the Site 

The prefabrication industry viewed the transportation problem as 
a mixed blessing. The fact that his houses could readily be trans 
ported made it possible for the prefabricator to use factory produc 
tion techniques, but, as his volume increased, the cost of transporta 
tion itself became a limiting factor. Under the pressure of competi 
tive selling, the manufacturers tended to give closer attention to de 
vising better and cheaper methods of transporting their product to 
more distant markets. 

The operation of transporting house packages was difficult, for the 
product was large and heavy and the package had to be assembled 
in the factory to a point beyond which erection crews, using local 
labor, could easily and quickly complete the job at the site. At least 
one factor in determining the degree of prefabrication in any system 
was the desire to avoid having to transport unnecessarily bulky and 


awkward packages. The transportation operation was further com 
plicated by the necessity of careful handling to avoid scratched finish, 
broken or damaged panels, and confusion and loss of the various parts 
in the erection process. Constant watchfulness was required if the 
final selling price was not to be pushed too high because of all the 
elements of transportation cost. 

The radius of operations of house manufacturers largely determined 
the method and cost of transportation, and to a large degree the con 
verse was also true. The survey revealed that 51 companies limited 
their shipments to an average distance of 302 miles from factory to 
the site, or approximately the length of an overnight haul by tractor- 
trailer. Considerations of efficiency led to the common pattern of 
loading trailers during the day, driving them over the road during 
the night, and having them ready at the site for the erection crew 
early in the morning. Another 29 companies relied upon purely local 
distribution. Although a few companies had hopes of one day attain 
ing national distribution, at the time of the survey no company ac 
curately could be said to have a national market coverage. To quote 
a writer in the field, 

There are in the industry today less than ten manufacturers who aspire 
to national dominance. The balance rather conceive their marketing goal 
to be domination of the territory within a 300-mile radius of their plant, 
in which they feel they can compete successfully, despite transportation 
costs, with conventional builders operating locally. 51 

Undoubtedly most of the improvements in transportation methods, 
which seem necessary if mass distribution is to become a reality, could 
be expected to come from the companies seeking sales of their houses 
on a nation-wide scale. 

Regarding the cost of transporting a house package, most of the 
data which follow are based on information supplied by Roy Rober- 
son, of the Pre-Fab. Transit Co., a company which gained consider 
able experience in doing contract hauling by truck for 15 midwestern 
prefabricating companies. The data apply primarily to panelized 
wood houses, although companies producing other types were also 
among those served. 

The first cost consideration involved the number of trailers needed 
to move a single house package. "The majority of houses are shipped 
on one truck load. Where the manufacturer ships several accessories, 
it sometimes takes three trucks for two houses." 52 Much ingenuity 

51 Wittausch, op. cit., p. 709. 

52 Roy R. Roberson, Pre-Fab. Transit Co., Farmer City, 111., in a letter to the 
Bemis Foundation, November 30, 1948. 


was devoted to fitting the bulky house packages into the various car 
riers and deciding which items it would be more economical to send 
knocked down than assembled. The package had to be loaded with 
due attention to minimum bulk, proper distribution of weight, and 
protection of fragile items and damageable surfaces. In addition, the 
method of loading had to be designed in such a way as to facilitate 
unloading and erection at the site. Of 55 companies surveyed, 30 
were able to get complete house packages on one trailer load; 25 
companies had to use more than one trailer load. ( For the 17 which 
distributed beyond local areas, this was an obvious disadvantage.) 
Although cost per mile decreased 53 with added distance, truck 
transportation became increasingly costly as the mileage increased; 
Mr. Roberson felt that it was uneconomical to truck a house package 
more than 1,000 miles. The Pre-Fab. Transit Co/s longest haul up 
to that time was 1,240 miles from Columbus, O., to Miami, Fla., but 
its most frequent hauls were approximately 350 miles. Its average 
haul was a little longer than the 302-mile average brought out by 
the survey. 54 

53 Cost of transportation per mile was an important fact, but a difficult one to 
calculate. Roberson described the process as follows: "The average cost per 
mile is based from our tariff MF-ICC#2 governed by mileage guide #4, House 
hold Goods Carrier Bureau, Inc., Agent MF-ICC#27, supplement thereto or 
successive issues thereof, as to mileages and distance. (Some use the Triple A 
Mileage Guide.) These guides give you the exact mileage between all points 
and places. When drawing up a tariff to be approved by the Interstate Com 
merce Commission, you must prorate the figures per hundred weight per mile. 
Our average haul is 300 miles. Our tariff is based on 18,000 Ibs. minimum load. 


300 miles at $.75 (rate per 100 Ibs.) 

18000 Ibs. minimum load] 
.75 (per 100 Ibs.) 




4.05 Fed. Trans. Tax (3%) 

$139.05 per truck load or $.46 per loaded mile. 

This varies with total distance. For example, on a 600 mile haul the rate 
breaks back to approximately $.38 per mile." 

54 Pre-Fab. Transit Co. was frequently used by companies in interstate hauling, 
because it had the necessary experience to avoid the need for transfer shipping. 
Many companies used local carriers on interstate hauling. The 300-mile figure 
used in Roberson's letter was undoubtedly a rough estimate. 


The majority of house packages were shipped by truck, rather 
than by railroad, at least partly because trucks were usually loaded 
and unloaded more simply than railroad box cars. At least 13 com 
panies used an overhead crane or some type of lifting mechanism 
in loading; 17 were known to load by hand labor. In either event, 
open-topped, high-sidewall trailers were easier to load than side- 
opening box cars, and truckloading did not require the careful pro 
tective measures of blocking and stripping required for rail shipments. 
The most important factor in the use of trucks, however, was their 
greater flexibility in moving the house package directly from the fac 
tory to the site. Estimates of the cost of simply loading and unload 
ing a plywood house for a freight car ranged from $30 up to $100. 
Roberson, himself a trucker, added, "The increase of rail rates is 
making it much easier for the trucker to talk cost in the transportation 
of houses. The railroads are not a definite threat in delivering pre 
fabricated homes. The time element involved proves trucks can 
make more rapid delivery. As to handling panels, when shipped by 
rail panels have to be handled three times, and with truck only once. 
The railroads do not go to the erection sites, so the house must be 
unloaded onto a truck and delivered from the railroad to the site." 
Where a long haul is involved, or where the bulk would require sev 
eral trailers to be used, however, Roberson would admit that the 
railroad has a better case to present. "At distances of 1,000 miles 
or more, trucks are offered serious competition by the railroads." 

Comparative freight rates were a factor to consider in connection 
with the railroads, and many companies complained of the high dif 
ferential between freight on prefabricated houses and freight rates 
on lumber. Also, freight rates varied by area. There was consider 
able differential between rates north of the Ohio and east of the 
Mississippi and rates south of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi, for 
example. Partly because it was thus favored, the Crawford Corpora 
tion of Baton Rouge, La., shipped more than half of its house packages 
by rail. 

For companies with a policy of transporting houses by truck, it be 
came necessary to decide whether to purchase trailers and tractors 
or to engage contract trucking companies. Many companies found 
it practical to own their equipment if it could be in fairly constant 
use. In some cases they found it was good scheduling to load a 
trailer several days before shipment; if there was a delay, the trailer 
could be shunted aside rather than unloaded, and the tractor used 
for other deliveries. A further advantage of ownership was the 
opportunity of keeping the trailer at the site for use as a storage shed 


during the "shelling in" process, thus minimizing the amount of mate 
rial handling. Since, as Roberson pointed out, trucking companies 
make their money on volume of miles, contract truckers had to charge 
demurrage fees for time the trailer remained at the site. The tariff 
schedule used by Pre-Fab. Transit Co. allowed demurrage claims of 
$3.50 per hour after four free hours of loading and unloading time. 
An exception was made in the case of the Lustron Corporation, whose 
erection crews were allowed 96 hours free unloading time. After 96 
hours they were charged $24.00 per day or any part thereof. The 
Lustron house cost $0.64 per loaded mile for delivery because Lustron 
used an extremely specialized trailer, designed for this house only. 

In deciding whether to buy his own truck and trailer equipment, a 
prefabricator had to compare purchase price with the cost of con 
tracting for the trucking, including the demurrage charges; and speed 
of erection and the ability to work out an even flow in production 
and in the pattern of sales became important factors to be evaluated. 
At the time of the survey, there was no evidence of a general trend 
towards either ownership or contracting of trucking; the choice de 
pended on conditions existing within each company. 

A matter of concern to prefabricators was the variety of legal re 
strictions placed by the states on the use, overall dimensions, and 
weights of trucks and trailers. A house which, in the West, might 
have been economical to ship long distances in a single large trailer, 
would require the use of two tractors and trailers in the East, thus 
making it cheaper to ship by rail. Roberson suggested: "The Inter 
state Commerce Commission should make all prefabricated house 
haulers specialized common carriers, such carriers permitted to haul 
only prefabricated houses. Thus each carrier would have specially 
trained drivers for this operation only." At the time of our survey, 
however, the ICC had made no specialized provisions for carriers 
of prefabricated houses. The average shipping weights of house pack 
ages of those companies which reported this information were as 

Com- Weight 

panics Type of House (tons) 

12 Wood frame panel or assembly 13.4 

10 Stressed skin plywood 8.3 

Metal 7.3 

1 Paper-cored metal-skinned 2.0 

3 Precast concrete 41.0 

Many companies had given thorough consideration to their sys 
tems of shipment. An ingenious scheme was that of U. S. Homes, 


which used large shipping containers made up of steel angles welded 
together to form cages with a removable side and end, and fitted 
with swivel casters. Each cage, large enough to contain half of 
the complete house package, was rolled to the storage bins where 
panels were loaded into it with hoists and other parts fitted into and 
onto the load. The panels never left their vertical position from the 
time of painting until time of erection. When the cage was fully 
loaded the sides were bolted on, and it was rolled out to the load 
ing platform where two tracks guided it onto tracks on the flatbed 
of the trailer. A flat charge of $50 was made for delivery of the 
house within 150 miles of the plant, and deliveries had been made 
as far as 500 miles from the plant. 

Mention has already been made of the distribution scheme used 
by HomeOla, in accordance with which wooden parts were shipped 
by rail from the West Coast and steel parts from the Midwest, with 
these combined freight rates tending to equalize over the nation. 
Many of the bulkiest parts were eliminated through use of steel 
beams in the floor systems, and the design was worked out to per 
mit the loading of all the wooden panels or steel parts for five houses 
in a single railroad car. Dealers were thus able to order in carload 
lots and so to effect shipping economies. 

The Harnischfeger Corporation, needing 1% truckloads to trans 
port one house package, devised a system of sending on the first 
load the floor system, structural panels, and all materials necessary 
to close in the structure, leaving the trim items, kitchen cabinet, and 
other finish pieces for the next half load. This led to a policy of 
trying to sell houses in pairs in order to use only three truckloads 
to transport two houses. In such cases, the floor system of the second 
house could be sent along with the first load, and the trim and cabi 
net items for both houses on the second load, with those for the 
second house temporarily stored in the first house. The panels of 
the second house could readily be erected since the floor would 
already be in place when they arrived in the third load. 

Comment has already been made on the influence on the industry 
of the Tennessee Valley Authority's experience in providing mobile 
housing for construction crews at the sites of its large dams, which 
required only two or three years each to build and were planned 
partly in sequence. Some of the TVA houses, after use at one site, 
had been divided again into their component sections and moved 
by truck to as many as two subsequent locations in the relatively 
short time this system was in use. The first TVA houses were built 
in Sheffield, Ala., in January 1941 and were transported a distance of 

60 miles by truck trailer to Pickwick Park. The houses remained 
in place for two years until a more urgent need caused them to be 
moved 125 miles to Camden, Tenn. In November 1943 they were 
moved to Parsons, Tenn. At the end of their usefulness in this loca 
tion, if not needed elsewhere, they will presumably be moved back 
to Pickwick Park. 

In many ways, prefabricators pointed out, the method worked out 
for transporting the house had an effect on design. An unusually 
clear illustration of this interdependency was the house package un 
der development by Acorn Houses, which was hinged and folded 
into a compact unit for transportation purposes and then simply 
unfolded at the site with a minimum of erection labor. Another 
example was the even more specialized unit developed in the Stout 
house. This was a three-room home on wheels, readily convertible 
into a trailer, rather than the conventional trailer made into a house. 
When folded for the road, dimensions were 18' 9" in length and 7' 
in width. Unfolded, the inside length was IT and the width 18' 8". 
One person could easily fold or unfold the house in less than five 
minutes, thus providing mobility while retaining many of the attri 
butes of a regular residence. Although the Stout house was not a 
satisfactory permanent residence for most families, it served as a 
useful innovation, and had a definite appeal to a highly specialized 
segment of the housing market. Wingfoot Homes also produced a 
mobile house, although it did not move on its own wheels like the 
Stout Folding House. Basically a trailer 8' wide by 26' long, it was 
designed to be expanded at the bedroom end to a width of 15', giving 
an overall floor area of 256 sq. ft. Thus, from the point of view of 
transportation, there were two general types of house package: the 
house package which was shipped largely knocked down into com 
ponent parts, and the house package which was largely assembled in 
the factory and came in several sections on trucks or was telescoped 
or folded to reduce overall dimensions sufficiently to permit it to be 
handled on the road. 

As for the role of transportation in shaping the overall develop 
ment of the prefabricated housing industry, there was insufficient 
evidence to point to the existence of any dominant trend. American 
Houses in 1943 expressed the attitude of a part of the industry: 

A plant manufacturing a thousand standard houses per day can un 
doubtedly manufacture a house for many dollars less than a small plant 
which produces only ten or twelve houses per day. Yet this large plant 
would have to ship over an area much greater in radius than would be the 


case with a small plant, and all evidence at hand today points to the fact 
that the increase in delivery charges for the large plant would actually 
run its delivered costs per unit beyond those of the small plant. . . . 
There should be no "Detroit" of the housing industry. 55 

There was in the industry a great deal of agreement with this 
point of view, particularly, of course, among the manufacturers of 
wood houses. Those using metal tended to disagree. It was argued 
by theorists in the field that such companies might well be unable 
to decentralize to this degree, but would very likely develop special 
shipping techniques, designing a compact package of small cube, 
and shipping the special trailer by train or truck over wide market 
areas; and further, that companies using concrete might develop a 
portable assembly plant to be set up temporarily at the site of a 
project involving a large enough number of units to warrant its in 
stallation. 56 Whatever the future may hold, at the time of the sur 
vey most prefabricators were operating in a market area within a radius 
of 300 miles, and they did not feel that they had realized true mass 
production as yet. 

IX. Erection of Prefabricated Houses 

The marketing of prefabricated houses was greatly simplified if the 
design, construction, and transportation plans had been worked out 
from the start in such a way that each house could be erected 
soundly and yet swiftly. Indeed, in large projects, many of the 
same techniques and the same order of efficiency were required as 
for large operative builders, if the prefabricators were to compete. 
Timing and coordination between the dealer and manufacturer were 
therefore essential. ' This timing usually was the function of the 
sales department, which maintained close liaison with the dealer, the 
trucker, and the shipping department, and worked for the ideal situa 
tion when dealer's crew and house package both would arrive at 
the site when the morning whistle blew. 

55 Prefabrication Explained, issued by American Houses, Inc. (New York, 

56 Wittausch, op. cit., p. 710. 


As for the erection itself, at least one responsible member of the 
crew usually had been through the training school at the manufac 
turer's plant. Where this was not the case, the manufacturer sent a 
trained specialist out to the dealer to teach the local crew the erection 
methods; some prefabricators utilized both methods of training crews. 
At least 24 companies provided training for erection crews, while 53 
companies provided field superintendents to oversee erection and to 
train the dealers' crews on the site in proper erection methods. The 
field superintendent was found to be extremely valuable during the 
first few erections performed in the field by a crew. 

In several cases companies sent crews out from the factory to each 
site to perform the erection, theorizing that if company labor could 
create the house package more cheaply than local labor, it could also 
erect it more economically. Anchorage Homes tried this technique 
with its relatively conventional house, and many believed that it 
contributed to the company's failure. Problems of coordination, 
transportation, and remote control were too great to permit factory 
handling of unspecialized erection work. 

Most companies placed great emphasis on proper sequence of un 
loading and erection, usually calculating carefully the manner of 
loading the package which would most simplify the final erection. 
It was necessary to make everything absolutely clear, in order to 
reduce the chance that local crews might haphazardly pull the com 
ponents off the trailer with no attention to order, and thus bring 
about costly delays, aimless substitution of parts, and consequent 
wastage of some materials and shortages of others. When shortages 
had to be replaced, especially from local sources, the price of the 
finished house tended to rise quickly. The Pease Woodwork Com 
pany made a practice of sending a field superintendent to the site 
to train dealer crews during the erection of the first three houses. As 
an example of the degree to which the process was organized, nails 
of proper size and quantity were supplied, along with a nailing 
schedule, and much importance was attached to correct nailing tech 
nique. The field superintendent subsequently made periodic spot 
checks on the dealer organizations to make sure that erections con 
tinued to meet company standards. 

As for the size of the crew required, there was wide variation. 
The objective generally was to have enough manpower at the site to 
"shell in" the house completely in one or two days, and crew size 
therefore depended upon the number of man-hours needed for the 
erection of a particular type of house. The entire erection crew was 
not usually made up of specially trained, highly skilled men, al- 


though certain complexities did require special training. Prefabri- 
cators therefore found it good business to supply accurate figures 
and plans for erections, and at least 32 companies also provided 
architectural consultation of some sort in the case of sales of groups 
of houses, having in mind the importance to the reputation of the 
house of good site selection and planning. A few even extended 
this aid to single-house sales. 

The time required to erect a house package was significant; every 
reduction in time cut labor costs and demurrage charges, and in 
creased sales volume. At the time of the survey, the average time for 
"shelling in" wood frame panel houses was 67 man-hours, in 15 cases; 
for stressed skin plywood houses 67% man-hours, in 10 cases; for 
precast concrete houses 60 man-hours, in two cases; and for metal 
frame houses 174 man-hours, in five cases. 57 An average of 238 man- 
hours was required to erect and complete the houses of varying 
design made by 26 companies. This did not include, however, the 
work required by subcontractors for grading, foundation, heating, 
wiring, plumbing, and sheet-metal work, the total of which was gen 
erally found to be about the same both in cost and in time as in 
conventional buildings. The percentage relationship between sub 
contracted and regular erection work may be illustrated most easily 
by cost figures. Pease Woodwork Company found that the cost of 
subcontracting had about the following relationship to the total cost 
of its house: 

Plumbing 10.0% 

Heating 10.4% 

Decorating 5.9% 

Wiring 3.0% 

Total Approximately 30% of 

cost of house 

It further found that 82 man-hours were required to shell in the 
house, using a crew of three laborers, three carpenters, and one super 
intendent, and 86 additional man-hours to complete the carpentry 
work on the house with the same crew. 

Erection time was one of the problems that beset the Lustron 
Corporation. There were some 4,000 pieces in the Lustron package, 
and the assembly procedure had to be carefully organized. It had 
originally been hoped that the erection could be accomplished with 
150 man-hours of site labor, but the best time that had been achieved 

57 One of the obvious advantages of the truckable houses of the type of TVA, 
Wingfoot, and Acorn was that they came to the site substantially "shelled in." 


was around 250 man-hours. Site labor on initial houses ran as high 
as 1,000 man-hours, but as standardized procedures were developed 
a green crew of three men working under a trained foreman could 
erect the house in 350 hours. In the new models planned by Lustron, 
considerable attention was being given to reducing the site labor 
requirements by increasing the size of various components and fur 
ther simplifying erection techniques. 

Another problem in erecting prefabricated houses was that of 
accumulation of error in dimension through failure to close panels 
firmly and accurately. Because of this, many manufacturers found it 
wise to work to negative tolerances in panel dimensions. It was 
found to be much easier to correct in the erection process for a panel 
% 6 " too small than to correct for one % 6 " too large. 

The field equipment necessary to erect a prefabricated house was 
an important consideration, since much of the economic advantage 
claimed for prefabrication could easily be lost if a great deal of 
heavy machinery were needed to erect a single house. An obvious 
exception would be in the case of large projects, where repetitive 
operations could justify the costs and difficulties of heavy machinery. 
Most erection processes required no specialized mechanical equip 
ment to handle house components, although quite a few made use of 
special hand tools. At least 19 companies did require some sort of 
crane or engine-powered hoisting equipment at the site, however, and 
truck cranes for lifting panels were found very useful. In general, 
many wall and roof panels of wood frame or stressed skin plywood 
and most panels of concrete required mechanized lifting apparatus. 
In addition, 10 companies used non-motorized apparatus, such as 
gin poles, hoisting frames, or roller tracks in moving units, particu 
larly for bulky yet fairly light truckable sections. Any vertical panels 
over 4' in width were likely to present a problem in a high or gusty 
wind, especially when the panel construction and material were very 
light in weight. 

The houses produced by 29 companies, because of the heavy 
specialized equipment and the erection procedure required, were 
adaptable only to large group erections. An interesting exception, 
possibly due to conditions of locale, was Normack, Inc. This com 
pany manufactured precast concrete houses, normally adaptable only 
to large group erections, and in local areas; yet it was able to erect 
houses in small groups up to a distance of 250 miles from the plant, 
even though the house package weighed from 75 to 100 tons and 
transportation to the site required five trucks. The concrete panels 


were erected by a five-man crew using a large truck crane. Another 
variant was found in the TVA design, which ordinarily would require 
heavy site equipment. Here a special hand-powered lifting device 
and transfer technique had been devised which obviated the neces 
sity for heavy equipment at the site, and made possible erection by 
single units or small groups. The great majority of companies, how 
ever, had designed houses which were easily adaptable to individual 
erections, and at least 90 companies supplied house packages which 
required no specialized heavy handling. 

X. Service to Customers after Erection 

In order to offset doubts on the part of consumers and lending in 
stitutions regarding new production and construction methods, and 
to take advantage of a large, well-trained, and continuing organi 
zation, some prefabricators arranged to provide service to the house 
for a period of six months to a year after occupancy. Several com 
panies even guaranteed their houses for such a period of time, pro 
viding service free of charge during the time of the guarantee and 
at a low cost after that. Among conventional builders, a guarantee 
was common, but few could back it with comparable resources. 
Such a plan proved very worth while as a means of instilling confi 
dence among the dealers, and also helped establish the brand name 
and reliable reputation of the prefabricator. Other companies found 
it profitable to keep a small number of men on the payroll with the 
responsibility of servicing all complaints on the houses. In this way 
the manufacturer gained valuable knowledge both of the technical 
"bugs" in his design, and of the general consumer reaction, whether 
favorable or critical. 

' Precision-Built planned to set up a special fund towards which the 
purchasers would contribute as a part of the original price of the 
house. The house would be guaranteed for one year, during which 
time all services would be provided free. All the service deposit 
which was not actually used up in making service calls would eventu 
ally be rebated to the dealer in the form of a bonus, thereby giving 
him an incentive to do a careful job of original erection. 


Gunnison offered a good illustration of a company providing con 
tinuing services for the homeowner, much like the services provided 
by automobile dealers to car owners. Services included painting, 
joint checking, furnace checking, and roofing. Each house was sold 
with a registered number, and a continuous record was maintained 
for each; not only the original owner, but subsequent owners also, 
stood to benefit from this type of control over the service performed. 
In a speech at the PHMI Fall Meeting, 1948, 

Mr. Gunnison said that in his opinion the most important thing is a satis 
fied customer. He emphasized three other important requirements for 
success namely, a good product, a dealer of integrity, . . . and continu 
ing service on the home. He said that Gunnison Home owners are en 
couraged to write to his company about their homes whenever some main 
tenance is needed. These letters are analyzed carefully and standard 
bulletins are prepared for dealers on how to service homes. He said when 
anything of a more serious nature goes wrong, . . . they contact the dealer 
and if he is unable to take care of it, they have one of their own field men 
go to visit the owner and personally inspect the house. . . . They have a 
one year warranty on their home and at any time during that period any 
replacements are made without charge. The dealers are required to grant 
six months of free service. This servicing, while costly to begin with, does 
more than anything else to inspire confidence of the owner in the product. 
. . . Buford Bracy of Bralei Homes, Inc. [addressing the same PHMI 
meeting] stated that they . . . show the home owner how to operate all 
the utilities, point out to him ways of improving the appearance of the 
house, and give him an unconditional guarantee for 90 days. . . . They 
warn the new home owner of such things as a sticking door or a water 
faucet that leaks slightly and request him to make a note of such things 
and give them a list so that their field service man can attend to all of 
them at one time. As a result of this close cooperation with the home 
owners, Bralei Homes has received many repeat orders and other orders 
come as a result of the recommendations of satisfied owners. 58 

A service of a slightly different type was occasionally offered new 
homeowners by prefabricators: the new occupant could go to a 
department store and buy the complete furnishings for his home, 
all in one specially prepared package. Under this plan the store 
would collaborate with the manufacturer, using interior decorators 
in conjunction with architects and designers, to provide the ultimate 
consumer with furnishings which fit the home, and offering several 
types of decorative plans for any given house. Macy's, Gimbels, 
and Wanamaker's had cooperated in such schemes. This type of 
service cost the occupant of the house no more than if he had him- 

58 Report of the Fall Meeting, PHMI, Grand Rapids, Mich., November 16, 


self picked out all his furnishings, and usually offered him a far 
better value. Both the manufacturers and the department stores 
felt that this plan often was a sensible method of merchandising. 

The trend of the industry seemed definitely to be in the direction 
of giving the ultimate consumer a "turnkey" house, and to have the 
dealer relieve him of every possible care and bother, including con 
tinuing services to be provided by the dealer and the manufacturer 
after the house had been occupied. When competitive selling was 
more acute, all felt that these services would assume even greater 

XI. A Review of Failures 

Wide publicity has been given to the fact that of the several hun 
dred companies which were taking steps to get into the production of 
prefabricated houses in the first year or so after the end of the war, 
the large majority either never got into production or, having started 
to produce houses, failed. In Chapter 3 on the Postwar Period 
(p. 71) some estimates have been given of the actual numbers in 
volved in this sharp process of attrition. 

In order to examine somewhat more closely the nature of these 
failures and their relation to marketing, however, a special check of 
100 companies was made, including those generally considered to be 
among the soundest, in order to see what had happened to them dur 
ing the period of the survey. It was found that of these hundred, 
42 either had failed or were no longer engaged in the manufacture 
of prefabricated houses. It was not possible to specify in each case a 
single reason for failure, and in some cases not even general reasons 
could be clearly defined; it was possible, however, to draw certain 
broad conclusions and to underline a few simple truths. 

Of the 42 companies, at least 12 never got into production at all; 
most attributed this to lack of financing. It might seem that they, 
at least, never faced marketing problems. Actually, their financing 
problems were often tied in with contemplated marketing problems. 
For example, Fuller Houses, widely publicized as having a good 
chance to revolutionize the industry, built only two houses, and its 


failure was generally, and accurately, attributed to the lack of capi 
tal. 59 At the same time that Fuller was failing, however, millions 
of dollars of RFC money were being made available to Lustron. 
The difference between the two lay largely in the fact that FHA 
would not approve the Fuller house for mortgage insurance and, 
later on, that NHA would not approve a remodeled and simplified 
version of the house for RFC loan purposes. Doubts about market 
ability undoubtedly were responsible for these financial difficulties. 

Three of the companies which never got into production chose 
not to do so because of management decisions that marketing prob 
lems would be too great. Two companies producing a line of steel 
building components seriously considered making prefabricated 
houses, and decided that the costs and difficulties of marketing houses 
could not be justified by the probable profits; they decided to re 
main in the simpler and more profitable components business. Vaux 
Wilson, of Precision-Built, had announced publicly that in his opin 
ion the costs of labor and materials were too high and the quality 
too low to permit him to produce a house in the required price range. 
Two other companies had never intended to produce houses them 
selves, but only to license their schemes for production by others; 
licensees proved not to be forthcoming. 

Many of the failures were clearly not attributable to marketing 
problems, however, and many more were bound up with considera 
tions other than marketing alone. In at least three cases, the com 
panies were reported to have had very inexperienced and unintelli 
gent management. Four others tied up a large part of their capital 
in development and in plant costs, only to fail for lack of funds with 
which to operate. Four companies found materials shortages too 
difficult to overcome. And at least one simply failed to reopen after 
a fire had wiped out a major part of the production plant. 

In at least 12 cases, however, marketing was flatly given either as 
a sole reason or as a large contributing reason for failure. (These 
included some of the cases mentioned above as never having got 
into production.) One of the most publicized failures, excluding 
those of Lustron and Fuller, was that of Harman, which, in its volun 
tary petition in bankruptcy filed on November 30, 1948, stated: "We 
attribute the Company's failure to its inability to overcome the com 
plexities of distribution and the difficulties of financing sales and 
erection. Production and consumer acceptance of our houses has 
never presented a serious problem." General Plywood, in abandon- 

69 "What became of the Fuller house," Fortune, XXXVII (May 1948), 168. 


ing its small postwar house, felt that it had a product with poor sales 
appeal, and also that it had made a serious mistake in committing 
itself publicly to a selling price which could not be realized as the 
house went into actual production. 60 

In most cases, there were several inter-related reasons for failure. 
The Green's Ready-Built house, one of the better designed and more 
carefully finished houses, appeared not to have broad sales appeal, 
and further than that, in a candid appraisal of its difficulties, the 
company admitted that it had not made an adequate allowance for 
expense of selling to dealers. To set up dealer organizations, and to 
get the houses moving to these dealers and through them to the 
ultimate consumers, required well-trained men able to devote a good 
deal of time to the work, and the cost of these men had not been 
allowed for. 61 In the case of Anchorage Homes, a number of reasons 
were given for failure. There was a wide feeling that the manage 
ment had changed too often and many of those involved had been 
too inexperienced. Certainly, the investment of at least half a mil 
lion dollars in a new plant had consumed capital badly needed for 
inventory and for marketing expenses. And the original Anchorage 
theory of handling erection with special crews sent out from the 
factory had proved inefficient and costly. 

Of the companies still in operation at the time of this special 
check, there were several which were faced with marketing problems 
of very large proportions. Admiral Homes, Inc., had found it too 
difficult to sell stressed skin panelized houses and had turned to 
partial precutting and conventional framing. 62 Dealers for two of 
the hopeful new companies had protested that management was far 
too unconcerned about the problems of marketing, and likely to find 
itself in difficulties. And the most publicized of the prefabricators, 
Lustron, had been refused additional loans from RFC 63 and was 

60 Estimated selling prices for new prefabricated houses were always of great 
interest to the reporters of the newspapers and magazines. Prefabricators soon 
learned to refuse to authorize the release of any price estimates whatsoever, and 
those whose early estimates were published had reason in every case to regret it, 
in a period of general inflation. 

61 It was estimated that in the early stages these wholesale selling costs would 
run over $500 per house. This may be compared with the figures in Tables 2, 3, 
and 4 at the end of Chapter 9. It was expected that, as the company became 
successful, these selling costs would decline. 

62 With this partial change in design and with a new emphasis on sales, Ad 
miral later substantially increased both production and profit. 

63 Lustron had been lent $37,500,000 in all, and some officers of the RFC had 
indicated a willingness to increase the loan to as much as $50,000,000 in order 


ordered sold at auction, the object of a number of investigations and 
of complex legal wranglings which included a battle for jurisdiction 
between the federal courts of Columbus and Chicago. 

Many reasons have been advanced for the failure of Lustron, some 
of which have been suggested in other parts of this study. There can 
be no doubt, however, that a major contributing factor was the failure 
of the company to establish an efficient marketing organization. The 
company always proclaimed that the house would sell itself, but many 
a former dealer has complained that, with a well-designed product 
to sell and a long list of customers willing and able to pay, it was not 
possible to get firm commitments on delivery, or to schedule deliveries 
in such a way that local erection teams could be trained in the new 
techniques involved. The serious attention of the company seems not 
to have been turned to the initial difficulties and the many practical 
suggestions of the men who were most important to its success its 

From the failures among the prefabricators at least one ray of 
hope could be derived, however. One midwestern dealer spoke 
for many of his kind when he reported to us that he preferred to do 
business only with companies which had gone through bankruptcy. 
They were the only ones, he said, which understood very clearly the 
facts of life in the prefabrication business, and with them he felt 
the chances of success looked good. 

to get the marketing mechanism in operation and to realize a return on the federal 
investment. This proved not to be possible, however, and it will never be known 
whether more capital would have saved the day. It is interesting to note, how 
ever, that the original estimate of minimum capital requirements made by Strand- 
lund in planning the organization of Lustron was $54,000,000. 


46 National Homes thrift model 

47 Two other economy models 



&: N 

48 National Homes house being erected 
foundation prepared 
floor laid and panels 

wall panels erected 
ceiling panels holding 
walls and partitions in 

preparing for roof panels 
erecting roof panels 
placing gable-end panels 
finishing the house 

49 Lustron house en route 

50 National Homes house en route 


1 the site in March, 1949 

51 The development of a National Homes project, Indianapolis 

2 construction under way, May, 1949 

3 project finished, October, 1949 

52 Lustron house being erected 

placing frame panels on foundation slab 

bolting frame panels in place 

3 putting roof trusses in place 

4 putting, plumbing wall panel in place 

5 applying exterior panel cladding and finishing details on 
Lustron house 

6 view of interior with ceiling plenum chamber unfinished 
and no interior wall panel cladding applied 

Part JL A 


Chapter J. J_ 


As this book goes to press the prefabrication industry, though its 
problems are far from solved, is nevertheless generally optimistic. A 
PHMI survey of 31 member companies in 1949 reported that the fol 
lowing factors continue to limit the sale of prefabricated houses: 

Interim financing still remains the No. 1 problem, being listed 10 times; 
scarcity of mortgage money was listed 6 times; FHA delays were listed 6 
times; the attitude that prices will drop later was listed 4 times; the prob 
lem of distribution was listed 3 times; the education of builders was listed 
twice. 1 

Final reports for the year were encouraging. It was estimated on 
the basis of a survey conducted by PHMI that the industry shipped 
a total of 35,000 permanent dwellings during 1949, an increase of 
16%% over the figure for 1948. The estimate was based on reports 
from 89 companies, 85 of which produced houses made primarily of 
wood. The four metal-house companies were estimated to have pro 
duced 2,500 houses during the year. 

About one quarter of these companies shipped more than 300 houses 
during the year; some of these were among the country's largest pro 
ducers of houses, with four shipping more than 1,000 during the year. 
These large companies were rapidly expanding their distribution area 
beyond the normal 300-500 mile range, and nearly half of them were 
able to distribute on a regional basis. The typical house shipped had 
a floor area of 768 sq. ft. and was priced at $7,000 erected and finished, 
but less price of the lot. 

During the first half of 1950 the record was even more encouraging. 
Reports from member companies of PHMI showed that shipments 
had increased 215%, while production for the housing industry as a 
whole had increased in the neighborhood of 50%. It was estimated 
that 28,000 houses had been shipped by prefabricators during this 
period, as compared with 35,000 for the entire year in 1949. 

Although most of the companies in the industry made gains, the 
sharp rise in shipments stemmed largely from the tremendous gains 
made by a handful of companies. National reported shipment of 
3,565 houses during the first six months of 1950, as compared with 
4,435 in all of 1949. Gunnison reported sales up as much as 800%. 

The state of the industry is well reviewed by Joseph M. Guilfoyle 
in the Wall Street Journal, February 8, 1950: 

Whirring saws in prefabricated housing plants are humming a comeback 

1 PHMI Washington News Letter, November 4, 1949, p. 2. 


A year ago this industry's bright promise of cheap mass-produced houses 
seemed to be dimming fast. Output, which had slumped to an anemic 
30,000 units in 1948, was sinking even lower in the early months of 1949. 
But in mid-summer the trend reversed itself. By the end of the year, the 
85 firms active in the industry had shipped some 35,000 units, only 2,000 
fewer than the record number turned out in 1947. 

This year's goal: A minimum of 50,000 houses. 

What's sparking the industry's revival? 

Prefab men credit the introduction of the low-cost "thrift" or "economy" 
type house selling from $5,200 to $9,000 or so after figuring in the price 
of a lot to put it on. At least 75% of the industry's output this year will 
consist of these low-cost houses. The second big factor fanning the recovery 
flame is a changed attitude among conventional builders. Explains a pre 
fab manufacturer: 

"Small local builders are more receptive today to the idea of putting up 
prefabricated houses than ever before." 

Typical of the industry's resurgence is the experience of National Homes 
of Lafayette, Ind., largest producer of factory-made homes in the country. 
In January it made three times as many houses as in the similar month last 
year. It has orders for approximately 10,000 dwellings to be delivered in 
1950. During all 1949, the company sold 4,435 houses. 

American Houses, one of the oldest firms in the industry, expects to ship 
three times as many dwellings in the first quarter of this year as it did in 
the like period a year ago. American's goal for all 1950 is 7,000 units, 
4,000 more than it made last year. . . . 

To handle this increased business, a number of makers are launching 
expansion programs. American, for instance, which now has plants at 
Allentown, Pa., and Cookesville, Tenn., is putting up a new factory at 
Lumberton, N. C. It will go into production about March 1. ... Na 
tional Homes, which last year increased its capacity from 28 houses a day 
to 40, will put two new plants into operation in 1950, at Horseheads, N. Y., 
and Lafayette, boosting daily output to 120 units by next year. . . . 

There remain important segments of the industry well known firms and 
others of less fame that are having trouble. Most notable is Lustron Corp., 
which makes pastel-colored steel homes in a great Columbus, Ohio, gov 
ernment-owned plant. It is under threat of foreclosure from the R.F.C., 
to which it owes $37,500.000. Among the smaller firms now producing 
less than a year ago is Nichols & Cox, of Grand Rapids, Mich.; it blames 
its cutbacks on a disastrous fire last year. Capital Prefabricators, Inc., of 
Tyler, Texas, says it operated at a loss last year; it aims to hike output in 
1950. . . . 

Looking back over the past year, most prefabbers agree the industry's 
shift to the cheaper house gave it a new lease on life. Harnischfeger Corp., 
of Port Washington, Wis., for example, reports the upturn in its business 
last spring coincided with the introduction of an "economy" house which 
sells from $5,500 to $8,500 without land. (The price of a lot can of 
course vary widely, but prefabs usually land on lots costing under $1,000.) 
Previously, the company had been making Cape Cod type dwellings in the 
$10,000 to $15,000 price range. 


One of the first firms to hit the market with a low-cost dwelling was 
National Homes, which brought out its "thrift" house in November, 1948. 
According to James R. Price, president, 90% of National's output is in 
the $5,300 to $6,000 price bracket. Land, of course, is extra. 

To keep the sales ball rolling some manufacturers are developing even 
less expensive dwellings. American Houses, for example, which makes a 
two-bedroom house tagged at $6,000 to $7,500, will hit the market with a 
new low-cost unit this spring. This dwelling will have a steel frame, 
aluminum trim and walls of gypsum sheets. The roof will consist of a flat 
sheet of steel covered with asphalt. The new units, at the outset anyway, 
will be aimed at the rental market. 

"We've been working on this house for two and a half years," comments 
American's president, John Taylor. It is designed so several can be linked 
together into a one-story apartment building. "I'm convinced we can 
build good two-bedroom apartments to rent for less than $60 a month. A 
trial unit of 14 apartments to rent for $40 a month is under construction 
now in Richmond, Va." 

Next to the lower price factor, prefab men consider the most important 
development in their industry is the increasing interest conventional build 
ers are showing in their product. . . . 

American's Mr. Taylor explains: "Not long ago the average conventional 
builder took the view that his putting up a prefab house would be like the 
Waldorf-Astoria buying its groceries from the corner store. It simply 
wasn't done. But now there's a noticeable change of heart. The builder's 
in a competitive market and is beginning to realize the need for better 
designs and construction methods and reduced overhead. As a result, we 
have nearly twice as many builders using our product as a year ago." 

How does a prefab manufacturer win over a conventional hammer-and- 
saw builder? [E. E. Kurtz, general manager, Thyer Manufacturing Corp.] : 

"When selling a conventional builder we point out that with the same 
amount of effort he can supervise a greater number of units during the 
construction stage and thereby increase his profits. By completing our 
houses in a shorter time he can cut down his own investment, or if he is 
using funds obtained from a local financial institution, the interest will be 

[William B. F. Hall, president of General Industries, Inc., of Fort Wayne, 

"We prove to a local builder that he can build five times as many houses 
at the same margin of profit and on the same amount of invested capital 
and supervision that he is using now." 

What's the experience of builders who have succumbed to such sales 
talks? Mario Pizio of Pizio Bros., located in North Syracuse, N. Y., which 
took the plunge in 1948, gives this report: 

"In 1947 when we were building in the conventional manner we put up 
six houses. The next year, our first in the prefab field, we built 41 dwell 
ings. In 1949, we jumped that to 81 and this year we're planning at least 
125 units. By using prefab parts we found we could erect a house in less 
than 30 days, compared with the three or four months it took when we did 
the job the old way. Our capital is tied up only a third as long as pre- 


viously and our overhead has been reduced substantially. I think that in 
10 years 50% to 60% of all houses will be prefabricated." 

In the last 10 months, says Mr. Pizio, four major real estate firms in 
Syracuse have become prefab dealers. 

Builder Francis Marelli of the Marbro Construction Co. in Rockford, 111., 
makes this additional point: 

"One of the reasons we got into prefab building was because it was the 
only way we could control our costs. When we start a job now we know 
exactly what our costs are and more important we're sure they won't 
jump up on us midway through the job." 

Builders also report the elimination of material delivery headaches. 
Ludwig Bloch of the Duke Construction Co. in Richmond, Va., says: "We 
can work out a time table for shipment of the prefab package and know 
we'll get it on schedule. When we built conventionally we always ran 
the risk of having the material dumped on us before we were ready for it 
or getting it too late. Either way, it would cost us money." 

Many builders turned prefabbers don't advertise the fact they're now 
using factory-made parts. One manufacturer relates how a builder, when 
asked by a prospective customer if she was being shown a prefabricated 
house, replied: "Oh, no. This is a pre-assembled house." 

National's Mr. Price takes this slant: "We do not stress the word 'pre- 
fabrication' since we feel the term is unimportant. Our builders advertise 
they are dealers for National Homes Corp." . . . 

Codes and zoning regulations, though still a problem, are becoming less 
restrictive. "Most localities throughout the country," reports Harnischfeger, 
"either have changed or are in the process of changing their codes so as to 
benefit from technological improvements." 

The manufactured house, whether partly or almost wholly prefabri 
cated, is no longer merely experimental. It is a potent and still 
evolving factor in housing today. 





At the time this study was undertaken, the files of the Bemis 
Foundation, incorporating those of the earlier Bemis Industries, Inc., 
and kept up to date with care, probably represented as rich a source 
of material on the prefabrication industry in the United States as 
was readily available in one place. Nevertheless, it was obvious 
that much of the information which would be needed for a thorough 
going analysis of the industry could be gathered only by supplement 
ing this material with actual visits to the factories and offices in which 
the industry was taking shape. There was no acceptable substitute 
for an inspection of production facilities, an examination of the prod 
uct, and a discussion with the men charged with selling, financing, and 
erecting it. 

To carry out the field survey of the industry, the Foundation named 
Herbert S. Heavenrich, Jr., a structural engineer and student of pre 
fabricated housing on leave of absence from the Houses Division of 
the Harnischfeger Corporation. After two months of study Heaven- 
rich prepared a questionnaire form for use in conducting the inter 
views and in assembling related information with regard to the vari 
ous prefabricators. This form is reproduced here in full, incorporat 
ing a few minor changes which were made in the field. 



1. Staff 

(a) Positions and organization 

(b) Training and background of key men and history of the organization 

(c) Projected organization 

(d) Meetings of staff 

2. Capital structure of company and investment in plant l 

1 Information usually obtained by indirect sources. 


3. Projected plant expansion or new plants 

4. Resistance or encouragement encountered, and concessions made in order to operate 

(a) Public 

(b) Material dealers and producers 

(c) Real estate brokers 

(d) Finance organizations 

(e) Codes officials 

(f) Local, state, and federal government officials 

(g) Unions 

(h) Operative builders, contractors, homebuilders associations 

(i) Zoning laws 

(j) City planning commissions 

5. Activities in, or relations with 

(a) Public relations 

(b) Advertising 

(c) Code revisions 

(d) Civic committees 

(e) PHMI 

(f) Other professional or commercial groups 

(g) Market research 

(h) Government policy steering 

(i) Exchange of information with government agencies, other manufacturers, research 
groups, PHMI 

(j) Design research, scope, and objectives (including attitude towards design changes 
and basis of evolution, i.e., yearly changes, continuous changes, radical long- 
term changes, and their acceptance by the market) 

6. Opinion of competition and opinion as to size and nature of ultimately successful 



1. Classification of system 8 

2. Description of system 

(a) Architecture (including number of stories) 

(b) Basement or foundation system 

(c) Floor 4 

(d) Walls and partitions 4 

(e) Ceiling* 

(f) Roof 4 

(g) Mechanical equipment and method of installation 
(h) Heat, sound, light, and ventilation conditions 

2 Many of these questions were inspired by the questionnaire suggested by John E. 
Burchard in the survey described in The Evolving House, published in 1936. 

3 This usually referred to major structural material and structural system of exterior 

4 Under five categories: 

(i) Frame assembly 

(ii) Frame panel 
(iii) Stressed skin 
(iv) Solid panel 

(v) Cast in situ 


(i) Built-in furniture 
(j) Garage 

3. Planning present models 5 

(a) Kitchen-dining rooms 

(b) Size of sleeping rooms and relation to bathrooms 

(c) Storage arrangements 

(d) General economy of space 

4. Number of models or quality standards, or types of buildings offered on market 

simultaneously. How much design flexibility is achieved? 

5. Amount of labor and material to be provided by dealer, or at site, in addition to 

manufactured parts 

6. Extent of parts interchangeability with reference to repairs and installation of new 

developments 6 

7. Degree of materials reclamation ultimately practicable 7 

8. Adaptability to fit changing needs of occupants 

9. Weather resistivity and adaptability to all climatic conditions 

10. Efficiency of structural design with respect to load bearing 

11. Is insulation adequate? 

12. Moisture and condensation problems 

13. Innovations vs. complexity (i.e., does desire for patentable features or just "to be 

different" cause unnecessary complexity?) 


1. Description of flow of materials 

(a) Raw material sources. What savings are effected, if any, in distribution of these 

materials as compared to system of materials distribution to conventional 
builders ? 

(b) Raw material handling methods at factory 

(c) Fabricating processes 

(d) Number of rejects and cost of inspection 

(e) Finished goods handling and storage system. Storage space. 

2. Production control system 

3. Availability of materials used and price trends on them. What materials would be 

substituted if their price declined to level of present materials? 

4. Labor price reductions through lower hourly factory wages and higher efficiencies 

per man-hour 8 

5. Extent of mass production achieved. Is system all-inclusive enough, or will it soon 

be, to effect real savings ? 9 

(a) Centralization of production 

(b) Are factory production methods used in transferring fabrication of parts from 

site to factory, and are they more efficient? 

(c) Are utilities more cheaply installed than in conventional homes? 

(d) Do materials lend themselves to mass-production method in factory? 

B General discussion, if any; plans usually were available. So many floor plans were 
standardized that comment was unnecessary in numerous cases. 

6 Ordinarily not featured to any greater extent than in conventional housing. 

7 Not usually a consideration. 

8 Answer not usually directly available. Wage rates and man-hour figures usually 
obtained here. 

9 Ordinarily, this was a general discussion, or comment, on the amount of vertical 
integration achieved. 


6. Finished articles bought by the manufacturer and supplied with house and at what 

savings? (e.g., cabinets, bath and kitchen fixtures, siding, shingles, paint, wallpaper, 
and heating units) 

7. Costly equipment employed. General availability and cost of production equipment 

(e.g. hot presses) and plant. 

8. Months of year work proceeds, shipments made, and erection done 

9. Plant size 


1. Cost of product and of marketing same 

2. Marketing process 

(a) Dealer organization and relationship to manufacturer. Origin of dealers. 

(b) Dealer training and sales kits 

(c) Exclusive or general franchises given? Type of contract? 

(d) Anticipated changes, if any, in dealer organization as product changes. Amount 

of building done by prefabricator, if any. 

(e) Warehousing 

(f) Expansion of plant system 

(g) Coordination of sales, shipping, and production 
(h) Engineering and management aids to dealers 

3. Shipping 

(a) Weights and cubes 

(b) Packageability 

(c) Radius 

(d) Costs 

(e) Schemes (i.e., by rail or truck, what % of each). Special arrangements for mini 

mizing costs. 

4. Erection process 

(a) Training of crews, and skill required. Number in crew. 

(b) Field labor man-hours for shell erection 

(c) Field equipment necessary 

(d) Time required for erection, complete and ready for occupancy 

(e) Adaptable to group or individual erections? 

(f) Foundation preparation 

5. Type of market pursued 

(a) Price range 

(b) Rural, urban small, metropolitan large? 

(c) Sale or rental 

(d) Group, or individual mass sales? 

6. Service and maintenance provided by dealers or company 

7. Methods of financing dealer purchases 

8. Methods of financing consumer purchases 

(a) Dealer tie-ups with private finance agencies 

(b) Use of government aid 

(c) Innovations, "package mortgages," shortening of time required to process mort 


9. Market attitude towards acceptance of new models of unconventional appearance 

and plans for same. Methods of education for this purpose. 

10. Export plans 

11. Seasonability of sales 


The list of companies and offices to be visited was prepared from 
the files of the Foundation, supplemented by lists prepared by gov 
ernment agencies, trade publications, and periodicals. With only 
minor changes, this was the same as the list of companies actually 
visited, given in Appendix B. The geographical distribution of com 
panies indicated that the field survey would have to include most 
of the major cities in the United States, and plans were made accord 
ingly, with letters of introduction sent out in advance and definite 
appointments arranged wherever possible. Heavenrich spent seven 
months in nearly continuous travel during this phase of the survey, 
and he and other members of the Foundation staff later revisited 
many of the major companies and visited other companies which had 
not been in existence at the time of the first trip. 

The usual procedure in a company visit was to talk with the presi 
dent or general manager, and often with specialists in design, produc 
tion, or marketing, spending one day with each company. From 
notes filled in on the questionnaire form, extensive typewritten re 
ports were prepared on each company, with careful indication of in 
formation given to the Foundation in confidence. Heavenrich sup 
plemented the 165 reports which he made in this way on companies 
and public or private organizations with 130 reports on smaller com 
panies and dealer organizations which were based only upon tele 
phone interviews. 

Information gained in this way was not always complete for each 
company: some companies had not fully determined their pattern of 
operations or gathered statistical data of any value; other companies 
were not yet in actual production; occasionally it was not possible 
to obtain all the desired information in the time available. In most 
cases, the interview material was supplemented by company plans, 
specifications, and literature, and often photographs were taken of 
the production activities and of the houses. With only one exception, 
all companies and organizations willingly granted interviews and were 
most generous with their help. 

Upon completion of the field survey, the process of interpretation 
and analysis began, and it was supplemented by research into gen 
eral aspects of management, design, procurement, production, and 
marketing. Heavenrich prepared an extensive summary report of his 
field survey which served as the nucleus around which much of the 
later writing was done. At the same time, the data which he and 
others had collected were put into shape for tabulation. 


This involved the use of a specialized analysis form, the character 
of which was determined by a general study of the material available 
and the lines of reasoning to be followed. A number of student as 
sistants were put to work assembling this information from the sur 
vey reports and from other material available in the Foundation files. 
This analysis form is reproduced here in full. 

Analysis Form 


1. Staff of over 15 persons indicated? Yes No 

2. Company: number years in the business 

3. Key personnel (a) Number years in the business 

(b) Background 

4. Financing: public stock issue private capital other 

5. Name of parent, subsidiary, or affiliated organizations for: 
Producing or purchasing raw material 

Licensing (indkate relationship) (parent or subsid.)- 




Other (specify) 

6. Influence of public opinion on design 

A. Original design generally conventional? Yes No 

B. Later designs more conventional less conventional 

7. Extent of reliance on, or deference to, existing building material distribution methods: 

components not prefabricated for this reason: 
A. Floors C. Roofing 

B. Plumbing D. Other (specify) 

8. Influence of banking organizations: trouble help list 

9. Influence of government agencies: trouble help list 

10. Influence of building codes: design concessions, list 

11. Proof of soundness required: Yes No 

12. Having difficulty in pioneering new design: great some little 

13. Union organization: 

Closed shop Open shop Union shop 

AFL CIO Other 


14. Effect of union organization on company and product: 

As expected Good Bad 



15. Conventional builders in area interested in dealerships? Yes 

16. Public relations and/or advertising counseling hired? Yes 

17. Advertising done: none display other (specify) 

_ No . 

No _ 

18. Comments on PHMI: favorable 



19. Staff engaged in market research? Yes 


20. Research or development done by: special staff 

staff nobody 

21. Nature of research or development activity by company: 

part-time by regular 

22. Research or development projects suggested for Bemis or other 


23. New models regularly introduced? Yes 

24. Competition regarded as outstanding: name 

25. Competition regarded as not being "on the right track": name 

26. General attitude: confident 


Specify basis 




A. Chief materials employed in structure 

1. wood 2. steel 
Structural system 

1. frame assembly 

2. frame panels 

3. stressed skin panels 
Modular scheme 

3. concrete 

4. aluminum 5. other 

4. stressed skin panels preassembled into 

large units 

5. solid panels 6. monolithic 

2. module size 

D. Architecture 
1. number stories 

2. treatment 

good fair poor 
good fair poor 

3- comment: 

2. Foundation 
A. Basement: 1. yes 
B. Support: 1. piers 
3. Floors 
A. Structure 
1. frame assembly 
2. frame panels 

2. no 
2. continuous w 

3. stressed skin 
4. solid panels 

3. optional 
r al1s 3- othfr 

panels 5. monolithic 


B. Details 

Material Size and Spacing Application l Field or Shop 

1. frame members 

2. subfloor 

3. insulation 

4. vapor barrier 

5. finish floor 

C. Joint type 

1. butt 2. spline 3. m & f 4. interlocking 5. other 

D. Comment: 

4. Walls 

A. Structure 

1. frame assembly 2. frame panels 

3. stressed skin panels 4. solid panels 

5. monolithic 

B. Details walls 

Material Size and Spacing Application Field or Shop 

1. frame members 

2. exterior 

3. finish 

4. interior 

5. finish : 

6. insulation 

7. vapor barrier 

8. casings (opening) 

9. frames 

10. sash 

11. door 

12. trim 

C. Details partitions 

1. frame members 

2. surface elements 

3. finish 

D. Joint type 

1. butt 2. batten 3. spline 4. m & f 5. interlocking 6. other 

E. Comment: 

5. Ceiling 
A. Structure 

1. frame assembly 2. frame panels 3. stressed skin panels 4. solid panels 
5. monolithic 

1 Glue and nail, electronic gluing, hot-press gluing, cold-press gluing, welding, riveting, 
spraying, other. 


B. Details 

Material Size and Spacing Application Field or Shop 

1. frame members 

2. ceiling 

3. finish 

4. insulation 

5. vapor barrier 

6. cove molding 

C. Joint type 

1. butt 2. batten 3. spline 4. m & f 5. interlocking 6. other 

D. Comment: _ 


A. Structure 

1. frame assembly 2. frame panels 3. stressed skin panels 

4. solid panels . 5. monolithic 

(a) truss (b) number of sections in truss 

B. Details 

Material Size and Spacing Application Field or Shop 

1. frame members 

2. sheathing or sur 

3. insulation 

4. roofing 

5. ventilation 

C. Joint type 

1. butt 2. batten 3. spline 4. m & f 5. interlocking 6. other 

D. Comment: 

7. Gable-end panels 

A. Separate panel? B. Continuation of end walls? C. Ventilation 

1. wood louvers 

2. metal louvers 

8. Miscellaneous 

A. Acoustical property comments 

B. Rough window area 

C. Weatherstripping (or similar action) 

D. Ventilation in wall 

E. Forced ventilation through attic 

F. Lighting comments 

9. Plumbing 

A. Standard and specified layout? B. Back to back? 

C. Prefabrication 

1. precut? 

2. preassembled: 

(a) stacks and vents 

(b) supply lines 

(c) waste lines 


3. incorporated into panels? 4. fixtures connected? 

D. Size of hot-water heater? . furnished? 

E. Laundry tray furnished? 

10. Heating 

A. Standard and specified layout? 

B. Basic type heat 

1. gravity warm air 2. forced warm air 3. radiant (describe) 

4. other 

C. Preassembled 

1. ductwork 2. stack 

11. Wiring 

A. Standard and specified layout? 

B. Prefabrication 

1. precut 2. fish wires in panels 3. preinstalled in panels 4. lead wiring pre- 
assembled 5. wall outlets cut 6. wall outlets placed 

12. Built-in furniture 

A. Kitchen sink cabinet B. Other kitchen cabinets C. Dining tables 

D. Drawer space where E. Storagewalls where 

F. Other 

13. Garages 

A. Manufactured 

B. Part of package 

14. Space arrangement (sq. ft.) 




M Bedroom 

2 Bedroom 

3 Bedroom 


Storage (other) 


Covered porch 

15. Models and quality standards 

A. Number of quality standards _ 

B. Number basic design standards. 

C. Number of architectural styles . 

D. Number of basic floor plan variations 
lefts and rights? _ 

E. Number of different kinds of panels manufactured 

1. floor 2. wall and partition 3. ceiling 4. roof 

16. Flexibility 

A. Are panels interchangeable for expansion or repair after erection? 

1. readily 2. not easily 3. impossible 

B. Does literature emphasize possibility of adding rooms or wings? 

C. Does plan attempt movable interior partitions? 

17. Design developments by prefabricator, past 


18. Principles or theories governing design practices, as advanced by prefabricator 


1. Plant 

A. Number of plants 

B. Size of plant visited (sq. ft.) Built for the purpose 

Built Building No. 

C. Number of men employed at time of visit 

D. Number of men employed at capacity production 

E. Comment on warehouse space 

F. Ground acreage 

2. Materials (converted) procurement 
A. Lumber 

B. Plywood 

C. Sheetrock 

D. Insulation 

E. Other 

3. Fabrication process 

A. Materials preparation and handling 

1. cutoff (specify material) 

2. pickling or washing 

3. dipping 

4. sticking 

5. mixing 

6. stamping (specify parts) 

7. bending 

8. handling 

(a) hyster 

(b) carrier 

(c) roller lines 

(d) hand 

(e) carts 

(f) conveyer (overhead) 
B. Subassembly operations 
1. skin 

2. framing members 

3. sash and door into frames and casing 

4. steel reinforcement 

5. core laminating 

C. Assembly operations in plant: job-lot order: station to station: 

mass production: 
1. assembly tables 

(a) machinery 

(b) jigs type 

(c) molds type 


2. sizing operations on panels 

3. conveyer line used 

(a) monorail 

(b) rollers 

(c) dollies 

(d) carts 

(e) hand 

4. further assembly in plant 

5. warehouse assembly points 

D. Storage of manufactured items 

1. by type of panel 2. by houses 3. no storage 

E. Manufacture of other items 

Type Quantity Sold to Market as Well 




Other _ 

4. Finished articles jobbed with house (indicate savings represented, price, if given) (also, 

Regularly, "R", Optional, "O", supplied) 

Flooring Stoves 

Furnaces Refrigerator 

Screens Hot-water heater 

Storms Plumbing fixtures 

Roofing Plumbing 

Cabinets (kitchen sink) Wiring 

Cabinets (others) 

5. Estimates of manufacturing costs 


Material . 
Labor _ 
Others _ 

6. Output, as of Number produced, to date 

Number per week capacity Estimated production 

Number per week producing 

7. Production ideas contemplated 

1. Cost 

$ Sq. Ft. 

A. Package costs 


$ Sy. Ft. 

B. Estimated 

turnkey job 


C. Cost of selling 

1. company standard, dealer's profit 

2. dealer's profit, in practice 

3. cost of selling package to dealer _ 
2. Method of distribution 

A. Factory to consumer 

1. direct sale 

2. erect for consumer 

B. Factory to dealer to consumer 

C. Factory to dealer-erector to consumer 

D. Factory to lumber yard to contractor to consumer 

E. Factory to lumber yard to consumer 

F. Factory to distributor (i.e. manufacturer's agent) to contractors of lumber yards 

to consumer 

G. Factory to: other 

3. Origin of dealer 

A. Operative builders C. Lumber yards E. Real estate subdivider 

B. Contractors D. Real estate brokers F. A "financially responsible 

G. Other 

4. Other services provided by dealer: A. Furnishings C. Real estate 

B. Architectural 

5. Number of dealers 

6. Adding dealers ? 

7. Dealer training 

8. Franchises 

A. Contract? B. Exclusive? 

9. Size of area of first level of distribution 

10. Quotas indicated 

11. Engineering aid to dealers from prefabricator 

A. Field erection supt. B. Detailing for individual orders or group orders 

12. Shipping 

A. Cube 

1. houses per truck 2. houses per RR car 

B. Weight of package 

C. Cost of shipping (incl. packing) 

D. % of shipment 

1. truck 2. rail 

E. Radius 

F. Loading 

1. by hand 2. individual panels by hoist 

3. "package" by hoist 

13. Erection 

A. Man-hours to "shell-in" house 

B. Man-hours to complete house 

C. Field equipment or special mechanisms necessary 

D. Crew training done 

E. Complexity, and skill required of crew 


14. Adaptable to: 

A. Individual erections 

B. Group erections 1. large 2. medium 3. small 

15. Market 

A. Presently at: 

B. Aiming at: 

C. Areas of sales: 

1. rural 4. suburban 

2. rural non-farm 5. urban medium 

3. urban small 6. urban large 

D. Company sells by: 

1. groups 2. individual orders 

16. Servicing on house provided 

17. Guarantee given on house 

18. Comments on dealer purchase financing 

A. Problem B. Not a problem 

19. Dealer financing service provided 

A. Direct loans arranged from dealership 

B. Plans submitted to finance institutions for preapproval 

C. Indicate mortgage processing period cut down by dealer expediting methods 

20. Government help 

A. RFC loans 

B. FHA approval 

1. nationally 2. locally 3. comments 

C. Surplus war plant 

D. Market guarantee 

21. Export plans 

A. No interest C. Definite plans . 

B. Interested D. Have exported 

From the analysis form, the detailed data on the 125 companies 
which make up the substance of this study were inserted on a large 
chart (measuring 3' X 12'), by means of a system of code numbering 
which expressed in simple form many variables in the data. This 
large chart made it a simple matter to tabulate information regard 
ing any item in the analysis form or any company in the survey. 
Had the prefabrication industry been stabilized, it might have been 
valuable to reproduce such a chart, in simplified form, for general 
public use. Under the circumstances, however, it was not judged 
reasonable to do this. 


For the purposes of writing this study, information on a number 
of specific points was taken from the chart on specially prepared sum 
mary sheets. The tabular material appearing in Chapter 7 in the 
text was, in turn, prepared from these summary sheets. Data were 
also charted and tabulated on 190 points of general information bear 
ing on management, design, procurement, production, and marketing. 
Information on non-structural points was ordinarily not so complete 
as that on construction, and it often needed careful and subjective 
analysis before it could be recorded with any degree of accuracy. 

Some companies produced more than one design; others were 
merely patent-holders or promoters and not producers and marketers; 
still others produced houses but did not themselves do the marketing; 
such circumstances complicated statistical analysis. There were the 
further complications of changes made after the period of survey, of 
new designs introduced, and of companies going out of existence. In 
general, however, it was felt that reliance could be placed upon the 
tabular material used in the text since it was carefully checked and 
accurate in its general nature. 

Where specific information regarding individual companies was 
selected for discussion in the text, however, a further check was made, 
and unless there was corroboration in the form of published material 
or ready demonstration, each reference to an individual company was 
sent to that company for approval and comment. This was done even 
when the company had given general consent for the use of such 
material at the time of the original interview, and in many cases this 
later check was the source of useful later information. 





Acorn Houses, Inc., 53 State St., Boston 9, Mass. 

Adirondack Log Cabin Co., Inc., 143 E. 45th St., New York 17, N. Y. 

Admiral Homes, Inc., 149 Water St., West Newton, Pa. 

Aladdin Co., The, Bay City, Mich. 

Allied-Hodgson Housing Corp., Langhorne, Pa. 

American Fabricators, Inc., Pine Bluff, Ark. 

American Houses, Inc., 165 W. 46th St., New York 19, N. Y. 

American Lumber Co., Inc., 25-47 Borden Ave., Long Island City 1, N. Y. 

American Type Founders, 108 E. 25th St., New York, N. Y. 

Anchorage Homes, Inc., Westfield, Mass. 

Arlington Homes Mfg. Corporation, 500 N. Stanwood Rd., Columbus, O. 

Barrett & Hilp, 918 Harrison St., San Francisco, Calif. 

Benton Building Company (The Housemart, Inc.), 18320 Lanken Ave., Cleve 
land 19, O. 

Better Living, Inc., 1659 De Kalb, Atlanta, Ga. 

Birdsall, Gregg, & Assoc. (Adequate Housing, Inc.), 62 William St., New York, 
N. Y. 

Brady Construction Co., 707 Spokane St., Seattle, Wash. 

Brennan & Harrington, Lower Huntington Rd., Ft. Wayne, Ind. 

Brown, Keith, Building Supply, 1450 Tile Rd., Salem, Ore. 

Bruscino Builders and Prefabricators, 17309 Madison Ave., Lakewood, O. 

Buffelen Lumber and Manufacturing Co., Tacoma, Wash. 

Burns, Fritz B., Research Division of Housing, Los Angeles, Calif. 

Butler Manufacturing Company, 1283 Eastern Ave., Kansas City 3, Mo. 

Byrne Organization, Inc., 2607 Connecticut Ave., Washington 6, D. C. 

California Prefab Corp., 5301 Valley Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. 

Capital Prefabricators, Inc., P. O. Box 821, Austin, Tex. 

Carleton Lumber Co., 2008 N. Interstate, Portland, Ore. 

Celotex Corporation, The, 120 S. La Salle St., Chicago 3, 111. 

Centrifugal & Mechanical Industries, Inc., 3600 S. Second St., St. Louis 18, Mo. 

Chicago Chamber of Commerce, Chicago, 111. 

Chicago Vitreous Enamel Product Co., Cicero, 111. 

Clements Corporation, The, Southport, Conn. 


Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, Cleveland, O. 

Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation (Southern California Homes), San 

Diego, Calif. 

Crawford Corporation, 1901-2029 N. Third St., Baton Rouge, La. 
Currier Lumber Co., 17507 Van Dyke, Detroit, Mich. 

Dade Bros., Mineola, L. I., N. Y. 

Defoe Shipbuilding Co., Bay City, Mich. 

Dickinson, R, C., Co., Inc., Alviso Rd., Santa Clara, Calif. 

Douglas Aircraft Co., Inc., Santa Monica, Calif. 

Douglas Fir Plywood Association, Tacoma Bldg., Tacoma, Wash. 

Drycemble Corp., 700 Cathedral St., Baltimore, Md. 

Durabilt Homes Co., 520 Security Bldg., Denver, Colo. 

Eastern Fabricators, Inc., 123 S. Broad St., Philadelphia, Pa. 
Economy Portable Housing Company, West Chicago, 111. 
Eddy Shipbuilding Corporation, Bay City, Mich. 

FHA, Washington 25, D. C. 

Fabcrete of America, Inc., Bexley, O. 

Far West Sales & Engineering Co., Tacoma, Wash. 

Field Detroit Co., Birmingham, Mich. 

Ford, Ivon R., Inc., McDonough, N. Y. 

Forest City Material Co., The, 17903 St. Clair Ave., Cleveland 10, O. 

Fox Metal Products Corporation, 1620 Blake St., Denver 2, Colo. 

Fuller Houses, Inc., 420 West Douglas, Wichita 2, Kan. 

Camel, Inc., 174 Carroll St., Sunnyvale, Calif. 

Geiger, Ervin, Route 4, Albion, Ind. 

General Building Units, Dayton, O. 

General Homes, Inc., Columbus, O. 

General Houses, Inc., Chicago Daily News Bldg., Chicago 6, 111. 

General Industries, Inc., 3033 Wayne Trace, Fort Wayne 5, Ind. 

General Panel Corporation, Graybar Bldg., New York, N. Y. 

General Panel Corporation of California, Inc., 1101 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank, 


General Plywood Corporation, Louisville 12, Ky. 
Getzel Woodwork Co., 2712 S. 28th St., Milwaukee, Wis. 
Goldsmith Metal Lath Co., Chickering and B. & O. R. R. (Winton Pkce), 

Cincinnati, O. 

Gould Industries, Incorporated, 450 Sala Ave., Westwego, La. 
Green Lumber Company, The, Laurel, Miss. 
Green's Ready-Built Homes, 1221 Eighteenth Ave., Rockford, 111. 
Gunnison Homes, Inc., New Albany, Ind. 
Gunnison Institute, New Albany, Ind. 

HHFA (then NHA), Washington 25, D. C. 
Hamill and Jones, 3029 Exposition Place, Los Angeles 16, Calif. 
Harman, William H., Corporation, Wilmington 99, Del. 
Hamischfeger Corporation, 100 Lake St., Port Washington, Wis. 


Hayward Lumber and Investment Co., Los Angeles 53, Calif. 

Higgins Industries, Inc., New Orleans 19, La. 

Hodgson, E. F., Co., 393 Boylston St., Boston 16, Mass. 

Home Builders Corp., Atlanta, Ga. 

Home Corp. of America, Inc., DeKalb, 111. 

HomeOla Corporation, The, 9 S. Clinton St., Chicago 6, HI. 

Horsley Structures, Inc., Eugene, Ore. 

Housing Research Corporation, 651 Boylston St., Boston 16, Mass. 

Houston Ready-Cut House Co., Polk Ave., Houston, Tex. 

Hudson, John L., Co., 8401 S. E. 70th Ave., Portland 6, Ore. 

Huston Homes, 726 Beatie St., Oakland, Calif. 

Iffinger, H. W., 680 Fifth Ave., New York, N. Y. 

Independent Lumber Co., Nottingham Rd., Cleveland, O. 

Ingersoll Steel Division, Borg- Warner Corporation, 310 S. Mich. Ave., Chicago 4, 


Insulrock Homes Corp., 105 W. Verdugo Ave., Burbank, Calif. 
Interlocking Walls Corporation, 3974 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. 

Jaeger Housing System, 221 E. Walton Rd., Pontiac, Mich. 
Johnson Quality Homes, Inc., 270 41st St., Brooklyn 32, N. Y. 
Juul Steel Houses, Sheboygan, Wis. 

Kaiser Community Homes, 5555 W. Manchester Ave., Los Angeles, Calif. 

Kashner-Bender, Inc., Pasadena, Calif. 

Kolb Prefabricated Buildings, 250 W. 57th St., New York, N. Y. 

Lifetime Building, Inc., 220 N. Main St., Tulsa, Okla. 

Lincoln Houses Corporation, 1 E. 54th St., New York 22, N. Y. 

Lincoln Lumber Co., 9025 G St., Oakland 3, Calif. 

Lindsay, Claude T., Inc., Decoto, Calif. 

Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, Los Angeles, Calif. 

Lustron Corporation, 4200 E. 5th St., Columbus, O. 

Merriam & Twachtman, Fidelity Philadelphia Trust Bldg., Broad St., Philadel 
phia, Pa. 

Metal Homes Company, 4041 Goodwin Ave., Los Angeles 26, Calif. 

Mifflinburg Body Works (American Prebilt Homes Div.), 200 Madison Ave., 
New York, N. Y. 

Modelow Co., 3415 Carr Place, Seattle, Wash. 

Modern Standardized Buildings Co., 320 N. 4th St., St. Louis, Mo. 

NAHM, 1028 Connecticut Ave., N. W., Washington 6, D. C. 

NHA (now HHFA), Washington 25, D. C. 

National Homes Corporation, Lafayette, Ind. 

New Century Homes, Clinton, Ind. 

Nichols & Cox, Grand Rapids, Mich. 

Nicoll & Co., 1212 19th St., Oakland, Calif. 

Normack, Inc., 1007 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles 15, Calif. 

Northwest Fabricators, Inc., Albany, Ore. 

Northwest Syndicate, Inc., 711 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma, Wash. 

Nygaard Builders, Inc., Tacoma, Wash, 


PHMI, 908 20th St., N. W., Washington 6, D. C. 

Pacific Coast Building Officials Conference, 124 W. 4th St., Los Angeles, Calif. 

Pease Woodwork Company, Inc., Blue Rock and Turrill Sts., Cincinnati 23, O. 

Peerless Housing Company, Inc., 300 4th Ave., New York 10, N. Y. 

Plainfield Lumber & Supply Co., Plainfield, N. J. 

Ply-wel Industries, 4805 Tidewater Ave., Oakland, Calif. 

Porete Mfg. Co., Porete Ave., North Arlington, N. J. 

Prebilt Co., The, Revere Beach Parkway, Revere, Mass. 

Pre-Bilt Homes Co., Inc., 2901 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles 11, Cain. 

Precision Builders, 3116 S. Oakes St., Tacoma, Wash. 

Precision-Built Homes Corporation, Trenton, N. J. 

Precision Homes Company, 1101 East Channel St., Stockton, Calif. 

Precision Housing Corp., 6619 Pearl Rd., Parma Heights, O. 

Pre-Fab Industries Corporation, 160 S. Main St., South Bend, Ind. 

Prefabricated Home Builders, 4118 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles 43, Calif. 

Prefabricated Home Manufacturers and Dealers of California, 151 South Broad 
way, Los Angeles, Calif. 

Prefabricated Homes, Illuminating Publishing Co., Inc., 114 E. 32nd St., 
New York, N. Y. 

Prefabricated Products Co., Inc., West Marginal Way & Iowa, Seattle, Wash. 

Prefabrication Engineering Co. (now Robert F. Johnson and Associates), 734 
N. E. 55th Ave., Portland 13, Ore. 

Production Line Structures, 941 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles 46, Calif. 

Purdue Research Foundation, Lafayette, Ind. 

Red-E-Bilt Homes, 1947 Dennison Ave., Oakland, Calif. 

Reid, Maxwell, 959 33rd St., Oakland, Calif. 

Reliance Homes, Inc., Lester, Pa. 

Reynolds Metals Company, Alumi-drome Div., 2015 S. Ninth St., Louisville 

1, Ky. 
Rieger, H. R., Co., The, 4634 Parrish St., Philadelphia, Pa. 

Sanford, Inc., Avon Lake, O. 

Scott Lumber Company, 1112 Chapline St., Wheeling, W. Va. 
Seaboard Ready-Built Homes, 330 Walnut St., Philadelphia 6, Pa. 
Shelter Industries, Inc., 630 Fifth Ave., New York, N. Y. 
Soule Steel Company, 1750 Army St., San Francisco 24, Calif. 
Southern Mill & Manufacturing Co., 525 S. Troost Ave., Tulsa, Okla. 
Southwest American Homes, Inc., 2005 Canal St., Houston, Tex. 
Standard Fireproof Construction Co., 39 Lewis Wharf, Boston, Mass. 
Standard Prefabricating Co., Inc., 1702 Hoge Bldg., Seattle 4, Wash. 
Steelcraft Manufacturing Company, The, Rossmoyne (Cincinnati), O. 
Stout Houses, Inc., Stephenson Bldg., Detroit, Mich. 
Strathmoor Company, 14000 Grand River Blvd., Detroit, Mich. 
Structures, Inc., 128 N. Wells St., Chicago 6, 111. 

Tacoma Lumber Fabricating Co., Tacoma, Wash. 

Texas Housing Co., 9003 Denton Drive, Dallas 9, Tex. 

Timber Structures, Inc., N. W. Yeon Ave. at 29th, Portland 8, Ore. 

Tovell Construction Co., 403 W. Monument St., Baltimore, Md. 


Unicon of Ohio, Inc., 1783 E. llth St., Cleveland, O. 

U. S. Department of Commerce, Office of Technical Services, Washington, D. C. 
U. S. Forest Products Laboratory, Madison, Wis. 
U. S. Homes, Inc., Marietta, Ga. 

United States Housing Company, Sheboygan Falls, Wis. 

U. S. Housing Materials Corporation, The, 10815 Watertown Plank Rd., Mil 
waukee, Wis. 

U. S. Prefab Corporation, Division St., Patchogue, L. I., N. Y. 
Utley-Lincoln System, Inc., Royal Oak, Mich. 

Vacuum Concrete, Inc., 4210 Sansom St., Philadelphia 4, Pa. 

Wadsworth Building Company, Inc., 5630 W. 80th St., Overland Park, Kan. 
Western Wood Fabricating Co., Inc., Route #1, Box 294 A, Bellevue, Wash. 
Wickes Engineering and Construction Company, 12th St. and Ferry Ave., 

Camden, N. J. 

Winner Mfg. Co., Trenton 3, N. J. 
Wingfoot Homes, Inc., Akron 16, O. 


Airform Construction, 5927 Franklin Ave., Los Angeles 28, Calif. 
American Rolling Mills Company, Middletown, O. 

Bralei Homes, Inc., North Little Rock, Ark. 

Detroit Steel Products Company (Fenestra Building Panel Division), 1210 E. 
Ferry St., Buffalo 11, N. Y. 

General Fabricators, Inc., Attica, Ind. 

General Housing Corporation, Seattle, Wash. 

General Timber Service, Inc., First National Bank Bldg., St. Paul 1, Minn. 

Gordon- Van Tine Company, Davenport, la. 

Hauserman, E. F., Company, Cleveland 5, O. 

Hayes Econocrete Corporation of America, 112 W. 9th St., Los Angeles 15, Calif. 

Home Building Corp., P. O. Box 370, 303 North Park, Sedalia, Mo. 

Ibec Housing Corporation, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York 20, N. Y. 

LeTourneau, R. G., Inc., Longview, Tex. 

Lindsay Corporation, Melrose Park, 111. 

Lockwall Houses, Inc., 65 Broadway, New York, N. Y. 

Pacific Systems Homes, Inc., 5800 S. Boyle Ave., Los Angeles, Calif. 
Page and Hill Co., Plymouth Bldg., Minneapolis, Minn. 
Palace Corporation, Flint, Mich. 


Ratio Structures (Paul Lester Wiener), 33 W. 42nd St., New York 18, N. Y. 

Sears, Roebuck and Co., Newark, N. J. 
Solar Homes Co., 17 Elliott St., Brattleboro, Vt. 
Southern California Homes, Inc., 4900 Cecelia St., Bell, Calif. 
Standard Fabrication Inc., 721 N. Mich. Ave., Chicago, 111. 
Standard Houses Corp., Anderson, Ind. 

Stran-Steel Division, Great Lakes Steel Corporation, Penobscot Bldg., Detroit 26, 

United States Plywood Corp., 55 W. 44th St., New York, N. Y. 





May 23, 1938 

August 1938 

August 21, 1939 
September 1940 
February 3, 1942 

February 1942 
April 1943 
October 5, 1944 

April 1, 1945 

March 1, 1946 
May 27, 1946 


Bemis Industries, Inc., 
Modular Division 

U. S. Department of Com 
merce, Bureau of Foreign 
and Domestic Commerce, 
Forest Products Division 

U. S. Department of Com 
merce, National Bureau of 

Central Housing Committee 
on Economics and Statistics 

Central Housing Committee 
on Research, Design and 
Construction, Sub-Com 
mittee on Prefabrication 

The Architectural Forum 

The Architectural Forum 
Iron Age 

NHA, Office of the Adminis 
trator, Technical Division 

Fortune, April 1946 

Department of Commerce, 
Construction Division 



36 manufacturers or builders ready 
to quote prices on complete 

A partial list of firms (23) engaged 
in the manufacture of wood pre 
fabricated buildings. 

41 concerns interested in metal 
house construction. 

41 prefabricators, from a number 
of sources including catalogues 
and letters from the companies. 

204 manufacturers of prefabri 
cated houses, also systems of 

103 recognized prefabricators ac 
tive in 1941. 

Directory of 71 wartime pre 

43 major prefabricators using 
wood, plywood, gypsum board, 
and similar materials; 12 using 

95 manufacturers of prefabricated 
houses, also systems of pre 

74 prefabricators listed from the 
best sources available. 

215 concerns engaged in some 
phase of prefabrication at a time 
of great industrial changes. 

November 1, 1946 NHA 



January 1, 1947 

February 15, 1947 

May 1947 

January 1, 1948 

The Housing Institute, Inc. 

FHA Underwriting Division, 
Technical Circular, no. 1 1 

Department of Commerce, 
Construction Division, 
Office of Domestic Com 



195 prefabricators qualified by 
NHA for priorities assistance for 
at least one model. 

87 prefabricators and systems. 
280 prefabricators qualified by 
NHA for priorities. 

149 special structural systems of 
prefabrication and site tech 
niques for which FHA Engineer 
ing Bulletins have been issued. 
Revised July 1, 1948, to include 
191 companies. 

276 manufacturers of prefabricated 

82 prefabricators reported to be in 
operation as of January 1, 1948. 





I. Books and Pamphlets 

Anthony, Hugh. Houses; Permanence and Prefabrication. London: Pleiades 

Books, Ltd., 1945. 64 pp. 

Brief general discussion of housebuilding, and prefabrication in particular, as 
related to British postwar problems. Chiefly interested in the questions of 
permanence, standardization, and flexibility and how these affect cost. Well 
Architectural Forum, The. The Integrated House a new approach to cost 

reduction. [New York] : Time Inc., 1937. 

Argues against complete prefabrication by one producer and for integration 
in building as a whole which is said to involve three principles: modular de 
sign, interchangeable elements, and multipurpose parts. Discusses develop 
ments along these lines. Reprinted from The Architectural Forum, April 1937. 
Architectural Record. When Better Homes Are Built. . . . New York: F. W. 

Dodge Corporation, 1945 [?]. 36 pp. 

A number of wartime articles and editorials about postwar housing, especially 
prefabrication, reprinted from Architectural Record. Technical advances, dis 
tribution methods, and the potential market are discussed. List of prefabri- 

Bemis, Albert Farwell, and John Burchard, 2nd. The Evolving House. Cam 
bridge, Mass.: The Technology Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 
1936. 3 volumes. Vol. I, A History of the Home; Vol. II, The Economics 
of Shelter; Vol. Ill, Rational Design. 

A major work which provides a comprehensive survey of housing from several 
aspects. Volume III gives a detailed exposition of the theory and application 
of modular design. Descriptions, illustrations, and evaluations of some 100 
European and American prefabrication systems are included in an important 
supplement to this volume. Bibliography. 


Bruce, Alfred, and Harold Sandbank. A History of Prefabrication. Raritan, 

N. J.: The John B. Pierce Foundation, 1943. 80 pp. 

Very good review of American prefabrication experience since the turn of the 
century expressed more as a summary of trends than as analyses of particular 
systems. Based on extensive research by the Pierce Foundation. Well illus 
trated. Directory of 26 wartime prefabricators. Bibliography. Appeared, in 
main, as a series of articles in The Architectural Forum, beginning December 
Carr, A. L. A Practical Guide to Prefabricated Houses. New York: Harper & 

Brothers, 1947. Ill pp. 

Pictures, plans, prices, and brief descriptions of the houses of 21 prefabricators, 
giving also a short account of their backgrounds and methods of operation. 
Directory of 250 prefabricators. Checklist for the buyer of a prefabricated 
Fitch, James Marston. American Building; The Forces That Shape It. Boston: 

Houghton Mifflin Co., 1948. 382 pp. 

An important study of the whole of American building in relation to the 
technical, political, social, and economic forces that have shaped it in the past 
and continue to do so today. Only a few pages are devoted specifically to 
prefabrication as such, but these provide an illuminating, if brief, commentary 
on relevant economic factors. 
Gloag, John, and Grey Wornum. House out of Factory. London: George Allen 

& Unwin, Ltd., 1946. 144 pp., and plates. 

Presents the case for prefabrication to the intelligent layman and technician. 
Brief survey of materials, structures, some 50 systems, and short discussion of 
standards, durability, and maintenance. Good illustrations. Main emphasis on 
British experience and problems. 

Graff, Raymond K., Rudolph A. Matern, and Henry Lionel Williams. The Pre 
fabricated House; A Practical Guide for the Prospective Buyer. Garden 
City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1947. 132 pp. 

General advice to the layman on what to expect in buying a prefabricated 
house, what to look for, how to select and adopt a site, how to go about the 
purchase, and who and where the manufacturers are (183 are listed). Poses a 
good many helpful questions. 

Great Britain, Committee for the Industrial and Scientific Provision of Housing. 
Housing Production, or the Application of Quantity Production Technique 
to Building; Its Social, Commercial and Technical Possibilities and Require 
ments. First Report of the Committee. London: 1943. 96 pp. 
Poses the social, economic, and esthetic problems accompanying the industriali 
zation of housing and suggests the form and functions of an organization to 
study them. 

Great Britain, Committee for the Industrial and Scientific Provision of Housing. 
Housing Production II, or the Application of Quantity Production Technique 
to Building; Some Technical History and Considerations. Second Report of 
the Committee. London: 1943. 159 pp., bibliography, and appendices. 
This extensive summary of American and European experience in prefabrica 
tion is an important study based on considerable research. No illustrations. 
Bibliography. Suggested research program. Tabular review of some 500 


Harrison, D. Dex, J. M. Albery, M. W. Whiting. A Survey of Prefabrication. 

[London]: Ministry of Works, 1945. 

Probably the best survey of prefabrication systems to date, from the design 
point of view. 300 case sheets present experience in 14 countries. Introduc 
tory text discusses history, methods of approach, materials, structures. Well 
illustrated and cross-indexed. Bibliography. A very valuable work. 
McKennee, O. W., and the Staff of The Housing Institute, Inc. Prefabs on 

Parade. New York: The Housing Institute, Inc., 1948. 110 pp. 
Pictures, plans, and brief descriptions of the houses of 57 prefabricators. List 
of 92 prefabricators and prefabricating systems. Directed primarily towards 
the prospective home owner. 
Madge, John, ed. Tomorrow's Houses; New Building Methods, Structures and 

Materials. London: Pilot Press Ltd., 1946. 336 pp. 

A collection of essays on various aspects of building which includes one on 
the AIROH house by Greville Collins and a good, but brief, outline of prefabri 
cation by D. Dex Harrison. The latter deals with the development of the 
movement, materials, standardization, and flexibility in design. Another article 
gives rather comprehensive descriptions of five British postwar prefabrication 
Owsley, Roy H. Municipal Regulation of Temporary Housing and Prefabricated 

Construction. Chicago: American Municipal Association, 1946. 33 pp. 
Outlines the problem and presents a number of representative code provisions 
to aid municipal officials in drafting ordinances and code amendments for 
their own localities. 
Sheppard, Richard. Prefabrication in Building. London: The Architectural Press, 

1946. 148pp. 

General statement of the aims, methods, and development of prefabrication. 
Some discussion of materials, structures, techniques. Very good descriptions 
of a number of British postwar systems. Well illustrated. 
Twentieth Century Fund, Housing Committee. American Housing; Problems 

and Prospects. The factual findings by Miles L. Colean. The program by 

the Housing Committee. New York: The Twentieth Century Fund, 1944. 

466 pp. 

Excellent, thorough analysis in which is given a very brief but good description 
of the prefabrication industry, its operations, problems, and prospects, from a 
primarily economic point of view. A wealth of factual and interpretive ma 
terial on the whole housebuilding industry. 

U. S. Congress. Joint Committee on Housing, 80th Congress. Hearings. Wash 
ington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1948. 

Part 5 of the Hearings includes interesting testimony by several prefabricators 
on their current operations and the problems they have encountered. Some 
good case material. 
U. S. Congress. Joint Committee on Housing, 80th Congress, Subcommittee on 

cost factors and cost reduction in housing. The High Cost of Housing. 

Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1948. 185 pp. 
The chapter on prefabrication gives a good picture of the industry's operations. 
The report also describes some large scale site operations and other cost reduc 
tion techniques. Contains much factual material. A useful study. 
U. S. Department of Commerce. Prefabricated Homes; Commercial Standard 


CS 125-47. 2nd ed. Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1947. 


Sets forth a set of standards voluntarily adopted by the industry. This project 
was initiated by the Prefabricated Home Manufacturers' Institute. 
U. S. Forest Products Laboratory, Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, in 

collaboration with the Technical Staff, Housing and Home Finance Agency. 

Manual on Wood Construction for Prefabricated Houses. Washington: U. S. 

Government Printing Office, 1947. 330 pp. 

Very good comprehensive guide and reference work on construction techniques 
for wood prefabrication. Covers the properties of materials, their prepara 
tion, storage, and protection; machining, gluing, painting; joints and other de 
sign problems. Helpful to architects, engineers, builders, and contractors. 
Yorke, F. R. S. The Modern House. London: The Architectural Press, 1934. 

199 pp. 

About two dozen prefabricated and experimental houses in a half-dozen coun 
tries are briefly described. A spotty survey of early experience. 
Zucker, Paul, ed. New Architecture and City Planning; A Symposium. New 

York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1944. 694 pp. 

In the section on new materials and construction methods there are several 
authoritative articles about or related to prefabrication. They are brief, how 
ever, and do little more than outline their subjects. 

II. Conference Proceedings 

American-Soviet Building Conference, Proceedings. New York: Architects Com 
mittee of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship in collabora 
tion with The Architectural Forum, 1945. 206 pp. (Auspices of the Archi 
tects Committee of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship in 
cooperation with the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Archi 
tects. Held in New York, May 5, 1945.) 

A panel of American and Russian authorities discuss prefabrication in the 
United States and U.S.S.R., dealing with structures, materials, production tech 
niques, transportation, costs, and other topics. Some facts, many opinions. An 
interesting symposium. 

Second Ann Arbor Conference on Architectural Design and Practice, Papers. Ann 
Arbor, Mich. : University of Michigan, 1945. 52 pp. ( Auspices of the College 
of Architecture and Design. Held at Ann Arbor, February 3 and 4, 1945.) 
"Prefabrication," by George B. Brigham, Jr., is a brief report on two prefabri 
cation research projects carried on at the University of Michigan, one on a sys 
tem of modular panels, the other on a sectional house system. 
Conference on Housing, Proceedings. Cambridge, Mass.: The Technology Re 
view, XXXIX (July 1937). (Sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of 
Technology. Held in Cambridge, June 7, 1937.) 


"How Better Houses Will be Built; The Question Mark of Prefabrication," 
by John E. Burchard, gives a concise review of prefabrication experience, its 
disappointments, lessons, and promise. 
House and Garden Symposium on Prefabrication. Reported in House and Garden, 

December 1935. (Sponsored by House and Garden Magazine. Held in 

New York, 1935.) 

Some of the pioneers in the field discuss a number of topics that are still of 

interest: optimum life of a house, financing, modern design, prefinishing versus 

site finishing. Gives the flavor of early thought on these and other questions. 

Yale-Life Conference on House Building Technics, Digest of Papers Presented. 

New York: Time Inc., 1939. Reported also in The Architectural Forum, 

March 1939. (Sponsored jointly by Yale University and Life Magazine. 

Held at Yale University, New Haven, Conn., January 31 and February 1, 


Summarizes 12 addresses on such subjects as standardization, materials, mobil 
ity, technical research. An unfortunately condensed presentation of some very 
good papers by leading men in the field. Of some value nonetheless. 

III. Trade Association Material 

Douglas Fir Plywood Association, Tacoma Building, Tacoma 2, Wash. : 

How to Build a House Fast? The Answer is Prefabrication. 1941. 

A booklet devoted to promoting prefabrication (with plywood). Well il 
lustrated with pictures of plants, the erection process, and finished houses. 

Construction Manual for Douglas Fir Plywood Dri-Bilt Houses. 1940. 

Gives construction details and procedures. Walls, ceilings, and partitions 
are prefabricated in large panels. 2" X 4" framing. Reprinted from Practical 
Builder, February 1940. 

Better Homes for More People through Prefabrication. 1946. 

Brief description of prefabrication principles, practices, and problems. Il 
lustrated with pictures of factory operations and finished houses. 
The Portland Cement Association, 33 W. Grand St., Chicago, 111. 

Report on Survey of Concrete House Construction Systems. 1934. 

A comprehensive and useful report giving brief written descriptions, to 
gether with photographs and drawings, of 84 systems of four basic types: 
precast unit; monolithic; stucco on steel or concrete frame; masonry. Gen 
eral introductory discussion and conclusion. 

Prefabricated Home Manufacturers' Institute, 908 20th St., N.W., Washington 6, 
D. C.: 

Modern Homes by Modern Methods, 1946. 

Promotional booklet which outlines the advantages of prefabrication. Il 


IV. Periodicals 

The material on prefabrication which has appeared in periodicals is so volumin 
ous that no attempt is made to list it here. For references, the following should 
be consulted: 

Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. 

The Industrial Arts Index. 

Art Index. 

(In all the above, see "Houses, Prefabricated," also "Houses, Fabricated" or 
"Houses, Portable.") 

Prefabricated Homes (Basic Information Sources). Washington: Office of 
Domestic Commerce, U. S. Department of Commerce, February 1948. 

Prefabricated Structures, 1940-1944; A List of References. Edward S. Evans 
Transportation Research and U. S. Department of Agriculture Library, Wash 
ington, February 1945. 
In addition, the following reference material may be obtained by written request: 

Prefabricated Housing; Bibliography and Briefed Articles from Business, Tech 
nical, and Consumer Publications, 1927-1942. Newell-Emmett Co., 40 E. 
34th St., New York, N. Y. 

Lists of articles on prefabrication that have appeared in 

The Architectural Forum (350 Fifth Ave., New York, N. Y.). 
Architectural Record (119 W. 40th St., New York, N. Y.). 
Progressive Architecture (330 W. 42nd St., New York, N. Y.). 
Prefabrication was the trade paper of the industry. It was published until Oc 
tober 1949 by the Illumination Publishing Co., Inc., 114 E. 32nd St., New 
York, N. Y. 

V. Other Sources 

The Industrial Research and Development Division of the Office of Technical 
Services, U. S. Department of Commerce, has contracted for a number of special 
research projects involving new building materials, modular coordination, and pre 
fabricated systems of construction. Reports of these projects are published from 
time to time and are available upon request from the Office of Technical Services, 
Department of Commerce, Washington, D. C. 

The National Bureau of Standards has published a series of Building Materials 
and Structures Reports (BMS series), which give technical information on the 
engineering properties of various materials, structural elements, construction sys- 


terns, and equipments used in housebuilding. Some of these Reports relate spe 
cifically to prefabrication. Reports may be obtained from the Superintendent of 
Documents, U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C. 

The Office of the Administrator, Housing and Home Finance Agency, publishes 
at frequent intervals a Technical Bulletin which contains articles on various house 
construction problems and reports of research projects sponsored by the HHFA. 
A number of Technical Papers relating to specific problems in housebuilding have 
also been published. Technical Bulletins and Technical Papers may be ob 
tained from the Office of the Administrator, Washington, D. C. 

The Federal Housing Administration, through its Underwriting Division, issues 
Bulletins which describe special systems of construction (most of them prefabri 
cated) that have been approved by the FHA and outline the limitations with 
which these systems may be used. Bulktins are issued primarily for the guid 
ance of local FHA offices in processing cases and are not available for general 
distribution from the FHA. They may be reproduced and distributed by the 
proponents of the system in question, however, as desired. Technical Circular, 
no. 11, July 1, 1948, gives a list of Bulletins and may be obtained from the 
Underwriting Division, Federal Housing Administration, Washington, D. C. 

Insured Mortgage Portfolio, published quarterly by the FHA, contains occa 
sional articles particularly related to prefabrication. 

The FHA also issues administrative rulings governing its special insuring opera 
tions in connection with the manufacture of prefabricated houses. 

The Prefabricated Home Manufacturers' Institute renders a very valuable 
service by gathering information about member companies, and, in so far as it 
is able, about non-member companies as well. It is the best source for statistical 
material concerning the industry, and its importance in this respect has increased 
as the amount of specialized government attention to prefabrication has decreased. 
It is now, for instance, the only source of production figures because the statistics 
on starts and completions compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics do not 
distinguish prefabricated from other houses. 

The Bemis Foundation files on the various prefabricates, and other reference 
material on prefabrication, are available at the offices of the Foundation, Room 
7-335, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass. 


Abrams, Charles, 37 

Acceptance corporation, 93, 395, 396 

Acorn Houses, Inc., 190, 191, 200, 201, 

235, 326, 376, 406, 409 
Acoustex, 21 

Acoustical treatment, 274 
Adams, Mark, 53 
Adirondack Log Cabin Co., Inc., 50, 

169, 378 

Admiral Homes, Inc., 415 
Advertising, 114, 115, 169, 364, 388 
Ahrens, Walter, 59 
Aircraft techniques, influence of, 17, 

182, 233, 269 
Airform Construction, 366 

see also Neff Airform house 
AIROH house, 38, 72, 190, 319, 337, 

341, 354, 355 
Aladdin Co., The, 11, 374 
Albery, J. M., 7 
Allied Building Credits, 373 
Allied-Hodgson Housing Corp., 11 
Allied Housing Associates, Inc., 11, 50, 


Aluminum, 182, 183 
future of, 107 
use of, in components, 107, 243, 244, 

in England, 183 

see also AIROH house 
in paper-core panels, 80, 233, 235 
American Bank and Trust Company of 

Chicago, 93, 396 

American Car and Foundry Co., 20, 38 
American Federation of Labor (AFL), 

59, 149-157 
American Houses, Inc., 41, 42, 50, 51, 

160, 170, 289, 329, 331, 336, 

339, 364, 372, 375, 381, 406, 

407, 420, 421 
American Institute of Architects, 3, 25, 


American Motohome, 32, 41, 42 
American Radiator & Standard Sanitary 

Corp., 38, 39, 41 

American Rolling Mills Company, 44, 

American-Soviet Building Conference, 

3, 339 
American Standards Association, 25, 83, 

Anchorage Homes, Inc., 159, 299, 339, 

375, 378, 408, 415 
Anderson, Hart, 385-387 
Apartments, prefabrication of, experi 
mental, 31, 421 
French, 18 
future, 125, 126 
German, 17 
Architecture of prefabricated houses, 

105, 147, 177-180, 194-196, 

see also Design of prefabricated 


Armostone, 20 
ASA Project A62, 25, 83 
Assembly plants, 307 

see also Organization of companies 
Atterbury, Grosvenor, 12, 13, 20 
Atwood, Leland, 26 
Automobile industry, comparison with, 

39, 40, 51-55, 67, 71, 100, 101, 

107, 120, 129, 391, 395, 396 
Automobile Manufacturers Association, 


Back, Kurt, 137 

Baldwin Locomotive, 160 

Balloon house, see Neff Airform house 

Banks, arrangements with, for mortgage 

financing, 394, 395 
attitude of, 48, 93, 94, 159, 393, 396- 


requirements of, 200 
Basements, 198-200 
Beckman, Theodore N., 359 
Beech Aircraft Corp., 69, 160 
Bemis, Albert Farwell, 7, 13, 14, 21, 

24, 25, 81, 83, 193 

Bemis, John, 26 

Bemis Industries, Inc., 21, 24, 25, 49 

Banner, Claude L., 397 

Bethlehem Steel Co., 39, 42 

Better Living, Inc., 332 

Blank, Wesley H., 208 

Bloch, Ludwig, 422 

Boeckh, E. H., and Associates, 72 

Bogardus, James, 8 

Bohannon, David D., Organization, 336 

Borg- Warner Corporation, 88, 149, 265- 

267, 292 

Bowman brothers, 26 
Bracy, Buford, 412 
Brady Construction Co., 292 
Bralei Homes, Inc., 412 
Brand names, use of, 113-115, 169, 364, 


Brice Realty Company, 378 
British Temporary Housing Program, 

72, 341 

Britton, Ralph R., 229 
Bruce, Alfred, 7, 12, 14, 21 
Buell, Temple H., 26 
Buffelen Lumber and Manufacturing 

Co., 292 

Building codes, see Codes, building 
Built-in features, 274, 275, 390 

see also Components, non-structural 
Burchard, John E., 7, 14, 21, 24, 46, 

51, 119, 120, 360 
Burns, Fritz B., 160 
Butler Homes, 159 
Butler Manufacturing Company, 79, 

159, 232 
Byrne Organization, Inc., 85, 208, 217, 

223, 257, 268, 270, 318, 336, 


California Prefab Corp., 292, 376 
Capital Prefabricators, Inc., 420 
Ceilings, 244-253 

frame assembly, 245-247 

frame panels, 247-249 

poured-at-site, 252, 253 

solid panels, 252 

stressed skin panels, 249-251 
Celotex, 241 
Celotex Cemesto House, 32, 211, 212, 


Celotex Corporation, The, 38 
Cemesto, 32, 80, 211, 212, 239, 241, 

252, 325 
Cemesto House, 32, 211, 212, 239 


Cemesto panel system, 211, 212 
Central Housing Committee on Re 
search, Design and Construction, 
Chicago Vitreous Enamel Product Co., 

159, 160, 292 
Christoph & Unmack, 9, 11 
Chrysler Corp., 233, 326 
Chrysler Cycleweld process, 233, 327 
Cities Fuel and Supply, 252 
Clay products, future of, 101, 102 

future procurement of, 107 
Codes, building, benefits of, 147 

reform of, 34, 83, 91, 95, 262, 389, 


restrictions of, 48, 77, 90, 91, 153, 
154, 200, 245, 262, 263, 388, 

Colean, Miles L., 50 
Color, trends in, 103, 104 
Committee for the Industrial and Scien 
tific Provision of Housing, 7 
Community, relation of house to, 128- 

Community planning, see Planning, 

Community services, effect upon house 

of, 123 
Components, manufacture of, by big 

business, 39, 44 
by operative builder, 84, 336 
by prefabricator, 100, 120, 121, 

297-300, 335-337 
from waste, 239 
modular, marketing of, 384 
non-structural, supplied by prefabri 
cator, 9, 80, 81, 118, 274, 275, 
335, 336, 389, 390 
purchase of, by prefabricator, 39, 

107, 293-300 

structural, description of, 196-262 
standardization of, 108, 109, 111, 


Concrete, 183, 184, 239, 321-324 
casting of, 321, 322 
characteristics of, 238, 321 
curing of, 322, 323 
early experimentation with, 12-14 
future of, 101 

preparation and handling of, 321 
procurement of, in future, 107 
use of, in America in 1920's, 20, 21 
in France, 18 
in Germany, 17 

Concrete, use of, in Great Britain, 15, 


see also Poured at site construction, 
Precast concrete, and Solid panel 

Concrete blocks, 21, 239, 322 

Condensation, problems of, in roofs, 255 
in steel systems, 213, 214 
in stressed skin walls, 229, 230 

Congress of Industrial Organizations 
(CIO), 59, 149, 152, 154, 155 

Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corpora 
tion, 69, 160, 233, 326 

Consolidated Water Power and Paper 
Co., 326 

Construction, commercial standards for, 


types of, see Frame and curtain wall, 
Frame assembly, Frame panel, 
Poured at site, Solid panel, 
Stressed skin panel, and Struc 
tural systems 

Container Corporation of America, 39 

Cores, cellular, 108 

plastic-impregnated paper, 80, 108, 
184, 185, 233-236, 244, 325-327 

Crawford Corporation, 50, 79, 170, 249, 
331, 403 

Credit, 163-168 
see also Financing 

Crystal Palace, 8 

Curtis Companies Incorporated, 39 

Curtis Publishing Co. opinion poll, 62 

Curtiss-Wright, 162 

Cycleweld process, 233, 327 

Cylindrical house, 58 

Dally, C. F., 374 

Davenport, Russell W., 128 

Davison, Robert L., 31, 47 

Dealer-erectors, 377-381 

Dealers, capital needed by, 387 
choice of, 385-387 
cost of, 386 
department stores as, 59, 295, 377, 

378, 382, 412, 413 
erection by, 377-381 
financing of, 113, 392-394 
functions of, 87-89, 376-390, 399 
lumber dealers as, 381, 383, 384 
pricing policies of, 88, 89, 112, 368, 

training of, 88, 89, 111, 387 

Defoe Shipbuilding Co., 221 

Demountable houses, 37, 56, 57, 124, 
125, 205, 285 

see also Houses, prefabricated, sec 
Department stores as dealers, 59, 295, 

377, 378, 382, 412, 413 
Design of prefabricated houses, 177- 

future of, 101-106 

trends in, 49-51 

variety in, 281-285, 390, 391 
Desky, Donald, 232 

Detroit Steel Products Company, 79 
Development organization, 389, 390 
Dietz, Albert G. H., 103 
Distribution costs, of finished materials, 

of raw materials, 290 
Distribution of prefabricated houses, 

channels of, 51, 58, 59, 89, 372-385 

see also Dealers and Marketing 
Distributors, regional, 112, 382-385 
Doors, fabrication of, 243, 244 

prehung, labor objections to, 295 
Dorlonco house, 16 
Douglas Aircraft Co., Inc., 69, 233 
Douglas Fir Plywood Association, 170, 

291, 303 

Drake, Gordon, 384 
Drewry, Austin, 148, 159 
Duke Construction Co., 422 
Durisol, 241 
Dymaxion house, 26-28 

Eccles, Marriner S., 73 
Econometric Institute, Inc., The, 345 
Economy house, 369-371, 391, 420, 421 
Economy House Program, HHFA, 370 
Economy Portable Housing Company, 


Edison, Thomas, 14 
Electrical wiring and fixtures, design of, 

273, 274 
preinstalled, opposition to, 154, 273, 

294, 295 

Equipment, factory, see Prefabrication 
plants, processes and equipment 

site, 12, 17, 410, 411 
Erection of prefabricated houses, 407- 


by contractor, 383 
by dealer, 377-381 
by manufacturer, 375-378 
by purchaser, 11, 19, 20, 373-375, 

377, 382 

Erection of prefabricated houses, equip 
ment necessary for, 12, 17, 410, 

future pattern of, 111 
Evolution vs. revolution, 119, 120, 161 
Exportation of prefabricated houses, 7- 
10, 365, 366 

Fabcrete of America, Inc., 361 
Factories, see Prefabrication plants 
Factory finishing, 230, 231, 316, 317, 


future of, 103, 108 
Fadling, J. E., 155 
Failures, reasons for, 413-416 
Farm Security Administration, 35, 36, 


Farrier, C. W., 339, 363 
Federal Housing Administration, im 
portance of approval by, 34, 35, 
90, 95, 147, 169 

mortgage insurance by, 34, 35, 43, 73, 

93, 134, 166-168, 370, 393-396 

restrictions of, 34, 35, 48, 94, 196, 

200, 208, 209, 254, 373, 414 
Federal Public Housing Authority, 58- 


Federal Works Agency, 38, 55 
Fenestra, 79 
Festinger, Leon, 137 
Fiberglas, 320 
Field Detroit Co., 271 
Financing, of the dealer (interim), 113, 

of the house, 92-94, 391-398 

future, 113 

of the prefabricator, 157-168 
of the purchaser, 394-398 
see also Banks and Mortgage financ 

Findlay, Alexander C., 340, 342, 343 
Finishes, see Factory finishing 
Fisher, Howard T., 3, 39, 47, 107 
Fitch, James Marston, 44, 102, 109 
Fixtures, electrical, design of, 273, 274 

objections to furnishing, 294 
Flanders Committee Report, see High 

Cost of Housing 

Flexicore Co., Inc., The, 208, 252 
Floors, 202-209 

frame assembly, 202, 203 
frame panels, 203-205 
poured at site, 208, 209 
solid panels, 207, 208 
stressed skin panels, 205-207 


Folding house, 26, 110, 111 

see also Acorn Houses, Inc., Palace 

Corporation, and Stout Folding 

Ford, Ivon R., Inc., 50, 160, 170, 231, 

232, 292 

Fortune poll on prefabrication, 63 
Fort Wayne Plan, 36, 37 
Fouilhoux, J. Andre, 49 
Foundations, 198-201 
Fox Metal Products Corporation, 214, 

Frame and curtain wall construction, 

103, 211-213 

Frame assembly construction, 185 
use of, in ceilings, 245-247 

in floors, 202, 203 

in metal houses, 318 

in roofs, 254-256 

in walls, 210-217 

Frame panel construction, 74-76, 187 
use of, in ceilings, 247-249 

in floors, 203-205 

in roofs, 257-259 

in walls, 217-227 
France, prefabrication in, 9, 18 
Fuller, Buckminster, 26-28, 58, 263 

265 / 

Fuller bathroom, 263, 264 
Fuller cylindrical house, 58 
Fuller Dymaxion house, 26-28 
Fuller hemispherical house, 26, 72, 

104, 161, 179, 187, 215, 259, 
281, 413, 414 

Fuller Houses, Inc., 72, 160, 254, 413 
Furnishings, see Built-in features 
Future of prefabrication, 99-138 
Future problems of prefabrication, 116- 

Gable-end walls, construction of, 261, 


expense of, 253 
ventilation in, 255 
Garages, prefabricated, 373 
Gary Structural Steel Corp., 25 
General Electric Company, 39-41 
General Fabricators, Inc., 56 
General Homes, Inc., 154, 155, 223, 

253, 319 
General Houses, Inc., 39, 40, 49, 50, 

56, 381, 384 
General Housing Corporation, 37, 38, 


General Industries, Inc., 370, 421 
General Motors Corporation, 391 

General Panel Corporation of Califor 
nia, Inc., 161, 162, 167, 191, 384 

General Panel Corporation of New York, 
58, 72, 159, 172, 191 

General Plywood Corporation, 292, 414 

General Timber Service, 160 

Gentieu, Fred, 372 

Germany, prefabrication in, 9, 17, 18 

Giedion, Sigfried, 8 

Glues, development and use of, 33, 77, 
108, 228, 313-315, 326 

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 159, 190 

Gordon- Van Tine Company, 11 

Government, Swedish municipal, role 

of, 19 
U. S., activity of, in prefabrication, 

see also Prefabrication, wartime, 

55-63, and Wyatt, Wilson 
financial aid from, 95, 133, 161- 

attitude of NAHM and PHMI 

towards, 133, 161, 171-173 
see also Mortgage insurance, fed 

future sales to, 114 
research by, 33, 34, 61 
role of, in housing, 20, 52, 53, 131- 

subsidies from, 52, 53, 131, 132, 


see also Central Housing Commit 
tee on Research, Design and 
Construction, Farm Security Ad 
ministration, Federal Housing 
Administration, Federal Public 
Housing Authority, Federal 
Works Agency, Housing and 
Home Finance Agency, Inter 
state Commerce Commission, 
Joint Committee on Housing, 
National Bureau of Standards, 
National Housing Agency, Na 
tional Research Council, Na 
tional Resources Planning Board, 
Office of Price Administration, 
Office of Production Research 
and Development, Office of 
Technical Services, Public Build 
ings Administration, Public 
Works Administration, Recon 
struction Finance Corporation, 
Resettlement Administration, 
Tennessee Valley Authority, 
U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 
U. S. Bureau of Standards, 

U. S. Department of Commerce, 
U. S. Department of Labor, U. S. 
Department of the Navy, U. S. 
Forest Products Laboratory, 
United States Housing Author 
ity, U. S. Maritime Commission, 
U. S. War Department, Veterans' 
Administration, War Assets Ad 
ministration, and Works Prog 
ress Administration 

Graham, John, Jr., 19 

Grandgent, Louis, 37 

Great Britain, prefabrication in, 7-9, 

15, 16 
see also AIROH house 

Great Lakes Steel Corporation, 38, 44, 
79, 159 

Green, John, 154 

Green, William, 152 

Green Lumber Company, The, 155, 
170, 329 

Green's Ready-Built Homes, 72, 331, 
332, 415 

Green's Ready-Built solar house, 178, 
231, 232, 271, 272, 274, 369, 415 

Gropius, Walter, 191 

Guilfoyle, Joseph M., 419 

Gunnison, Foster, 40-43, 58, 359, 360, 
388, 412 

Gunnison Homes, Inc., 42, 51, 79, 127, 
134, 149, 155, 159, 170, 230, 
308, 331, 332, 339, 363, 385, 
387-389, 391, 412, 419 

Gunnison Housing Corporation, 42, 43, 

Gunnison Magic Homes, Inc., 42 

Gunnison Village Plan, 43 

Hahn Concrete Lumber System, 14 

Hall, William B. F., 421 

Hamill and Jones, 257, 329, 376, 382 

Hamilton, Walton, 53 

Harman, William H., Corporation, 87, 

156, 159, 160, 187, 214, 215, 

299, 318, 320, 393, 414 
Harnischfeger Corporation, 50, 56, 79, 

156, 160, 170, 194, 218, 284, 

331, 405, 420, 422 
Harrison, D. Dex, 7, 8, 11, 15-17, 31, 


Hauserman, E. F., Company, 56 
Hayes, Hal B., 242 
Hayes Econocrete House, 242 
Hay ward Homes, 160 
Hayward Lumber and Investment Co., 



Heating, 268-272 
forced warm air, 269 
gravity warm air, 269 
radiant, 200, 270-272 
research in, 32, 34 
solar, 272 

Hemispherical house, see Fuller hemi 
spherical house, Igloo house, and 
Neff Airform house 
Higgins, A. J., 242 

Higgins Industries, Inc., 69, 159, 182 
High Cost of Housing, 95, 290, 333, 

336, 345, 367, 386, 393, 394 
Hodgson, E. F., Co., 11, 50, 364 
Hodgson, Ernest F., 11 
Homasote, 189, 231, 311, 319 
Homasote Co., 25, 56, 58, 83, 292 
Home Building Corp., 56 
HomeOla Corporation, The, 72, 191, 

203, 299, 381, 383, 384, 405 
Honeycomb cores, see Cores, plastic- 
impregnated paper 
House, integrated, 106, 265, 267 
House, the durability of, 54, 55, 126, 

mechanical independence of, 123, 


obsolescence of, 127, 129 
size of, 122, 123 
special nature of, 45, 54, 55, 116, 

128, 137, 396 
turnover of, 130 

see also Automobile industry, com 
parison with 

House and Garden Symposium, 46, 47 
Housemart, Inc., 166 
Houses, Inc., 40, 41 
Houses, prefabricated, character of, 53, 

54, 84, 85 
classification of, 180-196 

see also Components, structural, 

description of 
cost of, 56, 84, 85, 367-372, 391, 


see also Pricing policies 
flexibility in, 124, 125, 285 

see also Houses, prefabricated, 

size of, 275-280, 419 
types of, balloon, see Neff Airform 


cylindrical, 58 

demountable, 37, 56, 57, 124, 
125, 205, 285 

see also Houses, prefabri 
cated, sectional 


Houses, prefabricated, types of, exter 
nally suspended, 26 
folding, 26, 110, 111 

see also Acorn Houses, Inc., 
Palace Corporation, and 
Stout Folding House 
hemispherical, see Fuller hemi 
spherical house, Igloo house, 
and Neff Airform house 
igloo, 58 
portable, see demountable and 

radical, 26-28, 47, 48, 71, 72, 

104, 105, 179 

sectional, 26, 110, 189-191 
see also AIROH house, Pren- 
co, Reliance Homes, Inc., 
and TVA house 
suitcase, 58 

suspended from central mast, 26 
trailer, 26, 38 

see also Stout Folding House 

and Wingfoot Homes, Inc. 

see also Design of prefabricated 


weight of, 404 
see also Prefabrication 
Housing Act of 1948 ( Public Law 901 ), 

83, 91, 163, 370, 394 
Title VI, 73, 166, 167 
Housing and Home Finance Agency 
(HHFA), 29, 60, 72, 74, 83, 
91, 95, 137, 138, 181, 199, 200, 
208, 229, 255, 262, 325, 341, 
345, 365, 368, 370 
Housing Company, 21 
Housing market, seasonality of, 116 

secondhand, 127, 129, 130 
Housing problem, 13, 95, 96 
in Germany, 17 
in Great Britain, 15 
in Sweden, 19 
Houston Ready-Cut House Co., 50, 79, 

170, 203, 338 
Hudson, John L., Co., 373 

Ibec Housing Corporation, 14, 80, 160, 
242, 243, 252 

Igloo house, 58 

Illinois-Wisconsin Concrete Pipe Co., 

Indian Head, Md., 56 

Industrial Union of Marine and Ship 
building Workers of America, 
CIO, 149, 154 

"Industry-engineered house," 83, 211, 

294, 342 
Ingersoll Utility Unit, 88, 150, 265-267, 

Insulated Steel Construction Co., The, 

Insulation, use of, in floors, 203, 205, 


in foundations, 200 
in roofs, 255 

in walls, 19, 214, 230, 233, 238 
International Woodworkers of America, 

CIO, 155 
Interstate Commerce Commission, 402, 


Iron, cast, early prefabrication in, 8 
galvanized, English prefabrication 
in, 9 

Job-lot production scheduling, 331-333 
Johns-Manville Corporation, 38, 45, 365 
Johnson, C. D., Lumber Corporation, 

Johnson, John A., Contracting Corpora-^ 

tion, 160 

Johnson, Robert F., and Associates, 72 
Johnson Quality Homes, Inc., 160, 170, 

304, 395 
Joint Committee on Housing, 95, 148, 

167, 290 

Joints, ceiling, 247-249, 252 
floor, 205 

in concrete, 238, 252 
panel, 218-221, 231 
roof, 253, 254 
Junkers, Hugo, 17 

Kaiser, Henry J., 69, 159 

Kaiser Community Homes, 151, 159, 
160, 217, 221, 269, 280, 284, 
289, 336, 339, 376, 390 

Keck, George Fred, 26, 231, 369 

Kelvin, Lord, 122 

Kimberly-Clark Corp., 326 

Kitchen units, prefabricated, 267, 268 
see also Mechanical core 

Koch, Carl, 26, 235 

Koroseal, 222, 320 

Krooth, David L., 172 

Kurtz, E. E., 421 

Labor, local, attitude of, 77, 92, 294, 


see also Unions, labor 
Labor force, 308, 309 

Labor-Management Relations Act, 1947 
(Public Law 101), 156 

Labor relations, 148-157 

Labor requirement, in field, 38, 340-344 
in plant, 340-344 

Labor supply, effect upon location of 
industry of, 307 

Labor trouble, 153-157 
British, 16 

Lake, Simon, 14 

Lakeolith, 14 

Lanham Act, 60 

Legislation, proposed, see Wagner-El- 
lender-Taft bill 

Legislation affecting prefabrication, 95 
attitude of NAHM towards, 172 
attitude of PHMI towards, 171, 172 
see also Housing Act of 1948; Labor- 
Management Relations Act; Lan 
ham Act; Massachusetts building 
law, Chapter 631, Acts 1947; 
National Housing Act, Section 
609; and Veterans' Emergency 
Housing Act 

Lend-lease, prefabrication for, 60 

Lescaze, William, 196 

LeTourneau, R. G., Inc., 14, 80, 179, 
188, 241, 242, 252, 261, 323, 
see also Tournalayer 

Levitt, William J., 128, 290 

Levitt and Sons, 137, 289, 292, 296, 
336, 390 

Life Round Table on Housing, 128 

Lincoln, John D., Furniture Co., 326 

Lincoln Houses Corporation, 233 

Lindsay, Claude T., Inc., 292 

Lindsay Corporation, 187 

Line production, 328-333 

Loans, see Financing 

Lockheed, 162 

Lockwall Houses, Inc., 56 

Long, H. M., 290 

Lumber dealers, 9, 375, 381, 383, 384 

Lustron Corporation, 69, 70, 79, 80, 
103, 132-134, 137, 141, 149, 
150, 159, 161-163, 169, 172, 
177, 182, 222, 244, 247, 255, 
265, 268, 271, 292, 297, 304, 
309, 319, 320, 331, 338, 364, 
371, 387, 390, 391, 404, 409, 
410, 414-416, 420 

McClintic-Marshall Corporation, 25 

MacGiehan, Neal, 130, 371 
McKinney, Guy C., 292 
McKinney & Co., 292, 293 
McLaughlin, Robert W., 3, 42, 45, 350 
McSorley, William J., 156 
Madge, John, 16 
Management, 145-173 

future of, 100, 101 
Marbro Construction Co., 422 
Marelli, Francis, 422 
Market, housing, seasonality of, 116 
secondhand, 127, 129, 130 
see also Marketing 
Market analysis, 115 
Market areas, 360-364, 388, 389, 419 
effect upon location of industry of, 

306, 307 

Market guarantees, 164-166 
Marketing, 73, 74, 87-89, 359-416 

future, 110-116, 119, 120 
Markets, 360-366 
export, 365, 366 
industrial, 364, 365 
Massachusetts building law, Chapter 

631, Acts 1947, 389 
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 

45, 268, 351 

Materials, choice of, in 1930's, 49, 50 
classification of prefabricated houses 

by, 180-185 

composite, see Cemesto and Cores 
finished, cost of distributing, 296 
objections to furnishing, 294, 


procurement of, 293-297 
reasons for furnishing, 293, 294 
see also Components 
raw, cost of distributing, 289, 290 
effect of, upon location of plants, 


procurement of, 106, 107, 289-293 
sources of, 292, 293 
research in, 21, 24, 31, 34, 261 
see also Aluminum, Clay Products, 
Concrete, Cores, plastic-impreg 
nated paper, Iron, Metal, Metals, 
light, Paper, Plastics, Plywood, 
Steel, Wood 

Maynard, Harold H., 359 
Mechanical core, 32, 88, 265-268 

future of, 105, 106 
Mechanical equipment, effect upon 

housing of, 123, 124 
lack of, in early prefabricated houses, 


Merriam and Twachtman, 239 
Merrill System, 14 
Merton, Robert K., 137 
Metal, assembly of, 319 
characteristics of, 318 
finishing of, 320 
first use of, 8 
forming of, 318 
future of, 102 

future procurement of, 107 
see also Aluminum, Iron, Metals, 

light, and Steel 

Metal Homes Company, 318, 319 
Metal house, the, 79, 80 
Metal skin panels, 232, 233 
Metal walls, 213-215 
Metal windows, 243, 244 
Metals, light, future of, 102, 107, 108 
Microporite, 31 
Mobilcore, 267 
Modern Standardized Buildings Co., 

212, 271 

Modular components, marketing of, 384 
Modular coordination, 18, 24, 25, 58, 

81-83, 91, 100, 191-194 
Modular Service Association, 25, 83, 


Monocoque construction, see Neff Air- 
form house and Wagner, Martin 
Moore Unit, 20 
Mopin, Eugene, 18 
Mortgage financing, 73, 93, 94, 392 
arrangements with banks for, 394, 


see also Federal Housing Adminis 

Mortgage insurance, federal, 34, 35, 73, 
93, 113, 134, 162, 166-168, 370, 

Motohome, 32, 41, 42 
Mumford, Lewis, 27 

Nagin, Harry, 172 

National Association of Housing Manu 
facturers (NAHM), 59, 95, 161, 
167, 170, 172, 173, 303 

National Bureau of Standards, 34, 91, 
171, 262 

National Committee of American-Soviet 
Friendship, 3 

National Homes Acceptance Corpora 
tion, 93, 396 

National Homes Corporation, 50, 56, 
79, 93, 149, 169, 170, 203, 289, 
331, 339, 369, 370, 380, 381, 
396, 419-422 

National Houses, Inc., 41 

National Housing Act, Section 609, 93, 
166-168, 394 

National Housing Agency, 55, 71, 72, 
155, 172, 339, 363, 414 

National Lumber Manufacturers Associ 
ation, 203 

National Research Council, Building 
Research Advisory Board, 138 

National Resources Planning Board, 29 

National Retail Lumber Dealers Associ 
ation, 83, 211 

Neff, Wallace, 26, 58, 179, 366 

Neff Airform house, 58, 104, 187, 242, 
252, 261, 281 

Nelson, Paul, 26 

Neutra, Richard, 26 

New Albany Housing Authority, 43 

Newark Industries of Ohio, 241 

New York City Housing Authority, 345 

Nichols & Cox, 420 

Nicoll and Co., 373 

Normack, Inc., 410 

Nygaard Builders, Inc., 365 

Office of Price Administration, 69 
Office of Production Research and De 
velopment, 212, 239 
Office of Technical Services, Depart 
ment of Commerce, 83, 84 
Office of the Housing Expediter, 70, 
162-165, 172, 339, 340, 345-349 
see also Wyatt, Wilson 
Operative builders, 4, 72, 85 

fabrication of components by, 84, 336 
future sales to, 114, 115 
precutting by, 84, 336 
procurement advantages to, 289 
purchasing problems of, 296, 297 
size of, 289 

see also Site production 
Opposition to prefabrication, 48, 88 
from banks, 48, 93, 94, 159, 393, 


from building industry, 43-45 
from labor unions, 48, 92, 153-157, 

from local trade and labor, 48, 77, 

92, 294, 295 
from public, 62, 63, 77, 89, 90, 168, 


see also Codes, building, Electrical 
wiring and fixtures, preinstalled, 
Federal Housing Administration, 
and Plumbing, prefabricated 

Organization of companies, 45, 145- 

147, 292, 293, 300, 307 
future, 100, 101, 117 

P & H Homes, 160 
Pacific Systems Homes, Inc., 11 
Packing, see Transportation of prefabri 
cated houses 
Page & Hill Co., 170 
Palace Corporation, 58 
Panels, large, future use of, 102, 103 
size of, 194, 205, 217, 218, 230, 231 
see also Cores, Metal skin panels, 
Modular components, Plywood, 
Solid panel construction, Steel, 
Stressed skin panel construction, 
and Wood houses, panelized 
Paper, use of, in panel cores, see Cores, 

plastic-impregnated paper 
with wood veneers, 106, 107 
Parsons, Raymond V., 46 
Parsons Construction Company, 376 
Paxton, Joseph, 8 
Pease, John W., 392 
Pease Woodwork Company, Inc., 50, 
79, 149, 170, 331, 393, 408, 409 
Peerless Housing Company, Inc., 211, 

Pennurban Housing Corporation, 389, 


Perkins, N. S., 303 
Peterson, Charles E., 7 
Pfeifer Unit, 239, 322 
Pfisterer, Peter, 26 
Pierce, John B., 31 
Pierce Foundation, Housing Research 

Division, 31, 32, 41, 211 
Pizio, Mario, 421, 422 
Pizio Bros., 421 

Plainfield Lumber & Supply Co., 372 
Planning, community, effect of, upon 

site choice, 399, 400 
future need for, 105, 130, 131 
Planning, space, 275-281 

see also Architecture of prefabricated 

Plastics, 184 
future of, 102 
see also Cores, plastic-impregnated 


Plumbing, prefabricated, 153, 262-264 
opposition to, 153, 262, 263, 294, 


research in, 32, 34, 262 
Plywood, 180, 181, 309-317 
allocation of, by VEHP, 291 


Plywood, assembly of, 313-316 
consumption of, 291 
cutting and machining of, 311, 312 
finishing of, 230, 231, 316, 317 
future of, 101 
future processing of, 108 
preparation of, 310, 311 
procurement of, in future, 106, 107 
quality control of, 317 
subassembly of, 312, 313 
use of, in experimental panels, 32, 36 
in paper-core panels, 184, 185, 

235, 244 
in stressed skin panels, 33, 77-79, 


Ponty Built Homes, 336 
Porete Mfg. Co., 241 
Porex, 241 

Portable houses, see Houses, prefabri 
cated, demountable and sec 
Portland Cement Association, 14, 238, 


Poured at site construction, 80, 188 
in ceilings, 252, 253 
in floors, 207-209 
in foundations, 200 
in roofs, 261 
in walls, 241-243 
see also Concrete 
Pre-Bilt Homes Co., Inc., 329 
Precast concrete, in ceilings, 252 
in floors, 207, 208 
in foundations, 198-201 
in solid panel construction, 188 
in walls, 238, 239 
see also Concrete 

Precision-Built Homes Corporation, 25, 
59, 160, 292, 313, 331, 366, 377, 
411, 414 

Precision Homes Company, 381 
Precut house, 11, 12, 15, 50, 185, 210, 

211, 374 

see also Self-help house 
Pre-Fab Industries Corporation, 363, 


Prefabricated Hom