Page D1.1 . 03 October 2012   
ArchitectureWeek - Design Department
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A Brief History of Prefab

by Peter Gössel, Arnt Cobbers, Oliver Jahn

After the Second World War there was a regular prefabricated housing boom in the United States. Some 70 companies were active in this market segment in the post-war era, ultimately leading to the construction of roughly 200,000 prefabricated houses.

However, companies such as Vultee, Lustron, and the Spartan Aircraft Company, which offered buildings built on the basis of steel frames or clad in sheet metal, were still not able to survive.

Companies that limited themselves to more conventional forms and materials were more successful, and correspondingly, most of the prefabricated houses were clad in shingles and had pitched roofs.

When Gropius's student Carl Koch developed his first prefabricated house in 1948, he equipped it in the best Bauhaus tradition with a flat roof. When it failed to sell, he developed his Techbuilt House, this time of course with a pitched roof — and he was soon successful.

Prefab in Postwar Europe

The situation in Europe was more difficult: although millions of people had no place to live on the Old Continent due to the destruction of the Second World War, people were reluctant to accept prefabricated construction.

In Germany, which had not only lost 25 percent of its entire housing stock to bombing, but also had to integrate 12 million refugees from former German territories in Eastern Europe, one form of prefabricated housing was used extensively: the Nissen Hut (similar to the Quonset hut).

An attempt was also made in post-war France to combat housing shortages with the help of prefabricated houses. In 1944, Jean Prouvé was already commissioned by the Ministry of Reconstruction and Urban Planning to build 800 houses as emergency shelters that could be easily disassembled.

However, only 400 of these "Maisons àportique", which were equipped with an axial steel frame, were ever erected. Again commissioned by the government, Prouvé developed a series of aluminum-clad lightweight steel houses based on the same principle, but only a few were ever erected because they were more expensive than expected. Prouvé's Alba houses, developed for the Abbey Pierre's homeless organization in 1956, were also not a success.

The Prefabulous 60s

The 1960s were a period of social transition in which attitudes towards prefabricated housing also changed. During this era — which was marked by space travel, the moon landing, and even children's books that predicted weekend trips to distant galaxies — prefabricated construction was discovered both as a form of artistic expression and as a technical means of creating houses to provide a basis for new lifestyles, which seemed to be imminent in a society characterized by an extremely optimistic view of progress.   >>>

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This article is excerpted from the outstanding book PreFab Houses by Peter Gˆssel, Arnt Cobbers, Oliver Jahn, copyright © 2010, with permission of the publisher, Taschen.

ArchWeek Image

Walter Gropius, Robert Krafft, and Friedrich Förster designed various of the copper-clad Kupferhaus prefabricated homes. Pictured are the Juwel, Kupfermarchen, and Maienmorgen models, in Eberswalde, Germany, in 1931, with the city watertower in the background.
Photo: Museum Eberswalde Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

The Vultee House (1947), in San Diego, California, was designed for Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation by Edward Larrabee Barnes and Henry Dreyfuss.
Photo: Julius Shulman/ J. Paul Getty Trust/ Courtesy Taschen Extra Large Image


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