written by:
March 9, 2010
Originally published in The Prefab Issue

Founding Dwell editor-in-chief Karrie Jacobs visited MoMA's Home Delivery exhibition and finds that prefab might not change our homes, but it could change our architects.

Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie
The boxes of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 were precast in concrete before being joined together onsite. Originally made for Montreal’s Expo in 1967, the apartment building is still very much in use.
1 / 5
Inventor Thomas Edison stands next to a model of a “single-pour” concrete home, a progenitor of today’s prefab.
Inventor Thomas Edison stands next to a model of a “single-pour” concrete home, a progenitor of today’s prefab.
2 / 5
The Micro Compact Home was one of five prefabs constructed in an empty lot adjacent to MoMA.
The Micro Compact Home was one of five prefabs constructed in an empty lot adjacent to MoMA.
3 / 5
KieranTimberlake’s Cellophane House was one of five prefabs that were fully constructed in an empty lot adjacent to MoMA.
KieranTimberlake’s Cellophane House was one of five prefabs that were fully constructed in an empty lot adjacent to MoMA.
4 / 5
Inside, on the exhibition floor, museum-goers check out a Lustron Home.
Inside, on the exhibition floor, museum-goers check out a Lustron Home.
5 / 5
Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie
The boxes of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 were precast in concrete before being joined together onsite. Originally made for Montreal’s Expo in 1967, the apartment building is still very much in use.

Back in 1999, I applied for a position as the editor of a new magazine. As part of the application process, I had to dream up the contents of a sample issue. “Let’s say the issue’s theme is Mass Production,” I wrote in my proposal. “The premise is that the notion of manufactured housing keeps coming back. It is the ultimate modernist fantasy. It’s an idea that has intrigued (and more or less defeated) Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, and other less illustrious characters.” I outlined a series of features that would open with a photo taken inside a mobile-home manufacturing facility or a shot of a double-wide rolling down the highway on the back of a truck. “We accompany that image with a brief essay that asks why the dream of mass-produced housing always turns into a nightmare,” I wrote. “Why don’t the factories that turn out Alessi products, or, for that matter, Airstream trailers, make good houses?”

Inventor Thomas Edison stands next to a model of a “single-pour” concrete home, a progenitor of today’s prefab.
Inventor Thomas Edison stands next to a model of a “single-pour” concrete home, a progenitor of today’s prefab.

The new magazine, of course, was Dwell. And in the fourth issue, dated April 2001, I executed the scheme I’d outlined. It was the first prefab issue, kicking off a long love affair between this magazine and one particular strategy for making good, modern architecture more accessible to the American home buyer.

That Dwell became the progenitor of a new American prefab movement (something that mostly happened after I left in 2002) can be attributed to an accident of timing. Shortly before the Dwell vetting process kicked into high gear, I’d had a conversation with a pair of New York architects, Sulan Kolatan and Bill MacDonald, who showed me a design for a house in Connecticut. Typical of the late 1990s, the form of the house was a weird, amorphous, computer-generated blob. The most unusual thing about it, though, was the architects’ theory about how it would be built: They planned to fabricate it from curvilinear fiberglass modules that would be supplied by a boat manufacturer. Cooler still, the architects’ goal was to use this house as a prototype, the first in a series of digitally designed, factory-made, affordable homes. It sounded great. But a year or so later, when I called the architects to find out how the house was coming along and whether Dwell could publish it, I learned that the project had never gotten off the ground. The idea of piecing together a house from boat hulls, as clever as it was, turned out to be wildly impractical.

The Micro Compact Home was one of five prefabs constructed in an empty lot adjacent to MoMA.
The Micro Compact Home was one of five prefabs constructed in an empty lot adjacent to MoMA.

This bedazzlement, the fairy dust that’s kicked up when architects dream of mass production, is the typical story of residential prefab in this country. It’s certainly the tale told by Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, a landmark exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last year. Home Delivery was a fascinating historical pageant, stretching from Thomas Edison’s early 20th-century scheme to build a “single pour” concrete house, to the little pitched-roof cottages Walter Gropius designed for    a German copper manufacturer, to the precast concrete boxes of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, built for Montreal’s Expo ’67, to the myriad contemporary experiments that will be familiar to regular readers of this magazine.

Most of the examples on display achieved, at best, limited success.Edison built 100 of his concrete houses in Union, New Jersey. Approximately 14 of the Gropius-inspired copper houses were erected in Palestine in the 1930s as homes for Jewish settlers. Safdie’s Habitat is a true landmark, still lived in today, but is also one-of-a-kind. On the museum walls, I kept reading variations on the same phrase: “Yet none of them were commercially successful.” “Despite numerous efforts, the system never took off.” “Just under 2,500 houses were produced before the company went bankrupt in 1951.”

KieranTimberlake’s Cellophane House was one of five prefabs that were fully constructed in an empty lot adjacent to MoMA.
KieranTimberlake’s Cellophane House was one of five prefabs that were fully constructed in an empty lot adjacent to MoMA.

The story told by the MoMA exhibit is one of thrilling creativity and innovation that ultimately leads nowhere. A century of dead ends. And this sense that the prefab approach to housing is a recurring novelty is reinforced by curator Barry Bergdoll’s choice of contemporary projects. Adam Kalkin’s fetching little buildings made from shipping containers get a generous slice of wall space, as does Teddy Cruz’s admirable—and quite beautiful—Maquiladora structural system, intended to help residents of Tijuana better use waste materials in their building projects. Both are intriguing, but neither is likely to have much real impact on the ways that most Americans buy and build homes.

Outside, in the vacant lot next door to the museum, the most impressive of five full-size houses on display was the Cellophane House, by Philadelphia-based firm KieranTimberlake. It’s a transparent four-story stack of minimalist modules framed with an off-the-shelf aluminum scaffolding system by Bosch Rexroth and partially clad in a plastic film the architects call NextGen SmartWrap™. This is a project designed specifically for Home Delivery, not to be confused with the KieranTimberlake design that is now being marketed by the California-based modular home builder Living-Homes. Likewise, the stripped-down System3 house, a sleek shoe box of a house designed by Austrian firm Kaufmann/Ruf Architects, and Burst*008, the wildly complex and computer-generated beach house by Jeremy Edmiston and Douglas Gauthier, were designed and handcrafted specifically for the exhibition. By commissioning these houses, the exhibit’s curators ensured that MoMA would feature one-of-a-kind artifacts that could be seen nowhere else. But prefab isn’t about one-of-a-kind. On the contrary, the whole point is to generate multiples.

You could easily walk away from the MoMA show without realizing that there is a growing number of firms, mostly headed by architects, that are marketing prefabricated homes. None of these commercially available models was on display at MoMA. Of course, the prefab architects in this country are not exactly engaged in mass production. Mostly they build their houses under a roof, rather than outdoors, and they tend to sell their houses in relatively small quantities. But I’ve come to realize that the prefab movement is actually not about mass production. It may not even be about production. The most significant accomplishment of the prefab architects is not how many houses they’ve built, but how they’ve transformed the culture of architecture. Traditionally, architects are trained to think of each building as a one-off. Indeed, the American Institute of Architecture argues, “Society is best served by public building designs that meet the unique and specific requirements inherent in each individual project.” Though I understand the importance of site-specific design, this bias is one of the things that have alienated architects from the home-building industry. The prefab movement is a signal that a new generation of architects is comfortable with designs that can be used again and again.

Inside, on the exhibition floor, museum-goers check out a Lustron Home.
Inside, on the exhibition floor, museum-goers check out a Lustron Home.

If I were doing the same exercise now that I did in 1999, the theme of my proposed magazine issue wouldn’t be mass production, or even the trendier mass customization. Rather, it would be about the dissemination of architecture as pure information. The fascinating thing about the Cellophane House, for example, is that KieranTimberlake did an end run around an absence of manufacturing capability by sourcing off-the-shelf materials. It’s an exercise in transforming home building by developing not a factory but a sophisticated shopping list. The firm’s strategy is similar to what Brett Zamore of Zamore Homes in Houston is trying to accomplish: Instead of building his own factory, he has contracted with a network of home manufacturers and suppliers around the country who will execute his plans. Additionally, the same sorts of entrepreneurial spirits who embraced prefabrication are now looking closely at another, historically more successful, strategy: selling architecture in the form of stock plans. It’s another way of reducing the cost of a distinctive home by distributing the architect’s fee among many buyers.

Architects who have long operated like the bespoke tailors of Savile Row, enjoying complex one-on-one relationships with their clients, are lately becoming more like brands. It’s a trend you’ll see most clearly in ads for luxury condos. But maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. As the MoMA show demonstrates, high-overhead manufacturing schemes can easily go belly-up, but an architectural idea marketed and distributed as if it were Pinkberry might survive long enough to change the world.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

30degree pendants by wrong.london
The Danish design brand never disappoints.
May 02, 2016
practical magic brooklyn renocation kitchen caesarstone countertop stainless steel ikea cabinetes green vola faucet
A creative couple flips the script on their family home, a former workman’s cottage on the northern edge of Brooklyn.
May 02, 2016
history lesson kansas city outdoor backyard facade porch saarinen round table emeco navy chairs
An architect pushes the vernacular architecture of Missouri into the modern realm.
May 02, 2016
mission possible san francisco renovation facade exterior french doors cedar
A dilapidated lot in San Francisco gets a second chance.
May 02, 2016
Eames Demetrios of Kcymaerxthaere
The Eames scion and "geographer-at-large" traverses the globe on behalf of Kcymaerxthaere, a network of markers and monuments that tells fictional tales about real-life communities.
May 02, 2016
marcel breuer architect letter office kansas city snower house
See a glimpse into the office of a master architect.
May 01, 2016
Santa Monica living room with an Yves Klein coffee table
Dwell editor-in-chief Amanda Dameron talks us through Dwell's May 2016 issue.
May 01, 2016
house that sottsass built maui hawaii memphis group home renovation ettore facade colored volumes
In Maui, of all places.
May 01, 2016
two of a kind padua italy matching family homes facade green roof doors color
For Dwell's annual issue dedicated to dream homes , we visited homes from Haiti to Italy. Here, we introduce you to the photographers and writers who made it happen.
April 30, 2016
houseofweek
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
April 30, 2016
W House living room
Our best reader reactions this week.
April 29, 2016
Vineyard house illuminated at night
Rammed-earth construction fuses this Portuguese house to the environment.
April 29, 2016
vintage Scandinavian furniture Kathryn Tyler
In southwest England, interior designer Kathryn Tyler built her home around her ever-expanding furniture collection.
April 29, 2016
steel facade home Seattle
On the sandy shores of Fauntleroy Cove in Seattle, renowned firm Olson Kundig Architects crafts a subtle home with striking steel accents.
April 29, 2016
seperate piece renovated guesthouse eames storage unit cork floor tiles living room
An architect and an interior designer put the tools to the test for this impressive renovation.
April 29, 2016
Ceramics by WrenLab
Manhattan doesn’t get to have all the fun during NYCxDesign. Brooklyn is set for the return of BKLYN DESIGNS at the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint from May 6-8, 2016. Here are just a few exhibitors we are excited to see this year.
April 29, 2016
n0a6974 dxo
Architect Diego Revollo refreshes an apartment with a standout kitchen.
April 29, 2016
img 8652 1
The city of San Francisco has been eagerly awaiting the reopening of SFMOMA for years—and as the May 14th opening approaches closer everyday, the anticipation continues to build for art enthusiasts both near and far. This morning, we were given the opportunity to explore the newly expanded space before the crowds roll in. After a series of speeches, remarks, and tours, we left the grounds feeling thoroughly inspired and excited to share what we discovered.
April 28, 2016
intage Milo Baughman chairs, Darren Vigilant side table and B&B Italia sofa define the living room.
A family doesn’t have to travel far for a private oasis away from the busy city.
April 28, 2016
Renovation of 1967 Hamburg apartment with Vipp kitchen.
In our April issue, we showcased an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, with a striking, matte-black kitchen from Vipp. The 77-year-old company became famous for its iconic pedal trash can before venturing into kitchens and other tools for the home. This isn't the first time that the Danish company's products have graced our pages, and here we've gathered additional examples from our archive that show how the brand's minimalist black kitchens are always a win in modern interiors.
April 28, 2016
Zafra residence living room.
A man and his wife make an emotional return to an apartment building he loved as a kid.
April 28, 2016
the garden inside concrete dining pavilion indoor outdoor custom cabinets thermador dishwasher refrigerator
A skylit conservatory doubles as a verdant dining parlor in Sonoma County, California.
April 28, 2016
Details of the Calico collection.
Calico Wallpaper founders Nick and Rachel Cope showed us through their home in our March Issue, now step inside their studio.
April 28, 2016
william krisel pow 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
April 27, 2016
Dwell on Design and designjunction at ArtBeam
It's all part of Dwell on Design + designjunction's three-day event, featuring a program of talks chock-full of leading figures in design, architecture, urbanism, and beyond—coming up May 13-15 at ArtBeam in New York.
April 27, 2016
seattles mariners floating house prefab facade exterior fiber cement panels
A prefabricated floating home drops anchor in the Pacific Northwest.
April 27, 2016
royan treatment living room stone fireplace vintage new furnishings
French designer Florence Deau effortlessly mixes the old with the new.
April 27, 2016
modern netherlands 13 noordeinde schoolhouse parquet herringbone floors stove
Take a lesson from this school-turned-home.
April 27, 2016
The sidewalks of Copacabana in Rio De Janero, Brazil, designed by Roberto Burle Marx
The Jewish Museum in New York City takes it outside with a celebration of the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.
April 26, 2016
Waterfront home in Belvedere, California
A 1960s home infested with powderpost beetles had to be sacrificed before this this Zen-inspired house could happen.
April 26, 2016