Extruding Architecture

This journal is devoted to a quest that I began in 1969, the object of which was to create the built environment with construction robots rather than people. It has been a lifelong quest for me.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Making Buildings

For most of human history the making of buildings has been an exercise in the coordination of teams of craftsmen. To a large extent, it still is. At various times down through history, though, the commonality of certain types of buildings and especially certain features of building has resulted in brighter craftsmen mass-producing those buildings or features.

Nearly a millennium ago Chinese civil servants were designing public buildings using standard plans and parts from manuals and drawing pre-cut wood columns and beams from government warehouses to build them.

The notion of palletized building parts that are transported to a building site and assembled there in a brief time by a team of artisans has been reinvented dozens of times before and since then. Probably the best example known to Americans were the kit houses marketed by the Sears and Roebuck company over a century ago.

Most people credit the factory production line to Henry Ford and his Model T production plant at Highland Park. Lewis Mumford dispelled that notion in his book, The City in History, in 1961. {the following description was largely taken from a now defunct website, copies of The City in History being very difficult to acquire}

In it Mumford credits the Venetians with the invention of "a new type of city, based on the differentiation and zoning of urban functions, separated by traffic ways and open spaces", and cites the island of Murano and the Arsenale as Europe's first examples of industrial planning. Of these two, the Arsenale most closely resembled a modern factory complex. Construction techniques in the Arsenale were the most sophisticated of their time: by the fifteenth century the Venetians had perfected a production-line process for equipping their warships, in which the vessels were towed past a succession of windows, to collect ropes, sails, armaments, oars and all their other supplies (ending with barrels of hard biscuits), so that by the time they reached the lagoon the vessels were fully prepared for battle. The productivity of the wharves was legendary: at the height of the conflict with the Turks in the sixteenth century, one ship a day was being added to the Venetian fleet. On the occasion of the visit of Henry III of France in 1574, the Arsenale workers put on a bravura performance - in the time it took the king and his hosts to work their way through a state banquet in the Palazzo Ducale, the Arsenalotti assembled and made sea-worthy a ship sturdy enough to bear a crew plus a cannon weighing 16,000 pounds.

In the USA, shortly after Richard Nixon's election as President in 1968, he appointed George Romney as the head of the Housing and Urban Development department. Romney, a highly successful former CEO of the the American Motors Corporation declared that housing would never be truly affordable until we made homes in factories just like we made cars.

The concept of factory housing dates from this period. There were two major obstacles to the realisation of Romney's dream. Both had to do, ironically, with transportation.

  • houses were not costly enough per unit volume to justify long distance transportation in finished form from a factory
  • existing modes of transportation simply could not economically accomodate an object as big as a house.
Housing factories, to an extent, worked in more densely populated countries. In the US, however, the economic production capacity of a housing factory was simply too large to be workable near any but the very largest metropolitan areas.


At 7:22 PM, Blogger Lorianne_W said...

Hi Plaas-
Wow, this is somthing that I've thought a great deal about as well. My interests are in affordable housing but from a different angle ... self-build housing, co-housing communities, etc.

It seems to me some of the most useful and durable domestic architecture over the centuries have been self assembled, or at least assembled in small groups, not hired out from construction industry as in the US today.

It also seems to me that they whole invention of a "construction industry" put people in a unilateral position of being only a consumer of a finished product ... apperel has become and like food is becoming.

I'm interested in the idea of a component system (panelized housing") much like Legos that could be assembled mostly by lay people with perhaps some oversight by structureal engineers. One could buy a "kit" house that was pre-designed, or have the option of buying components a la carte and building as one has the money, time and energy to do so.

Or, for example, a small group of people could pool resources to buy components and build a small neighborhood or common house for themselves.

Ultimately, in my opinion, the issue of "affordable housing" is not an architectural one, but rather one of who has control of the means of construction (and the laws and permits).

It seems to me a marketable component system would blow a hole in the whole concept of "construction industry" ... including those who market finished products like factory-built whole houses.

What do you think?

At 1:19 AM, Blogger plaasjaapie said...

I thought we might be on the same wave length on this from some of the things I've seen you post.

Brett was talking about starting a home with a basement and then building up over the years. That was a very common way of doing things a few decades back. Sadly, as you note, the permits and legal structure has evolved to pretty much freeze this sort of thing out in recent times.

I will be publishing a few more essays in this blog that I think will give you an idea of where I'm going with this. Stay tuned.

You might also find what we're doing, Brett as well, over at...


would be of interest.

Thanks for dropping by. Please come back. :-)


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