Taking Care of Business

By Michael Sylvester / Published by Dwell
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A look back through the history of prefab reveals a few failures that proved to be great opportunities for learning and improvement.

The history of prefab has offered us some ingenious architecture and engineering. The Dymaxion House by Buckminster Fuller was made of aluminum and featured an efficient heating and passive air-conditioning system based on the physical properties of the round structure. From 1948 to 1950, Lustron Corporation made steel houses with porcelain-enamel-coated panels that could be cleaned with a garden hose. The kitchen featured an unusual combination dishwasher–kitchen sink–washing machine appliance. The Packaged House, devised in the 1940s by Walter Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann for General Panel Corporation, could be erected or dismantled in a single day.

Consumer interest in these design innovations was high, with over 60,000 people touring a Lustron show home in New York City in 1948, and a single advertisement in Life magazine gen-erating more than 150,000 inquiries. The problem was that none of them suc-ceeded commercially. This is prefab at its worst: a host of engineering marvels and a litany of business failures.

There are several recurring flaws of failed prefab companies. Financial problems often include inadequate or unsuitable business capitalization. Lustron Homes, for example, although very well funded, was saddled with debt payments before any significant income was achieved. Common management problems include over-optimism about sales figures and fundamental strategic errors, such as assuming that the incumbent forces of the construction industry would reorganize to allow a new idea to succeed.

From the home buyer’s perspective, too many architects and engineers have assumed that the self-evident genius of a construction system will compel buyers to purchase the product. The truth is that home buyers are more interested in the features of the finished home, its durability, and its resale value than in the building system that delivered the house.

The prevalence of unrealized ideas is even greater today given that architects can quickly conjure up a photo-realistic image of a concept using CAD software and post it online for millions of people to see. Configuring an efficient fabrication and fulfillment system is not as much fun as designing eye candy, but it’s necessary if an idea is to avoid the prefab scrap heap.


Michael Sylvester


Michael Sylvester is a writer who lives in both Los Angeles and an aisle seat, preferably in the exit row. On his pilgrimage to Dan Rockhill's Studio 804 in Lawrence, Kansas, to see its fabled prefab projects, he was feeling a bit self conscious being a Left Coast vegetarian in steak country. "In addition to their cool prefabs, there was a great vegan restaurant downtown. Who doesn't enjoy mixing good architecture with good food?" he says.

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