Why Can't a House Be Built as Well as a Car?

©. Historic Preservation Education Foundation

Ten years ago I heard Stephen Kieran of Kieran Timberlake Architects complain that you can drive the cheapest Hyundai into a thunderstorm at 70 MPH and it won't leak a drop of water inside, with its double gaskets and internal drainage channels at the doors and windows. He challenged the housing industry to do as good a job.

Now Martin Holladay at the Green Building Advisor asks Do Cars Perform Better Than Houses? In many ways they do; they have so much technology, safety devices, electronic systems, are subject to all kinds of serious stresses of movement and weather changes and just keep going with generally very little maintenance. As Holladay points out, they are off-grid; when Toronto got knocked off grid by a huge storm two weeks ago, our Mayor Rob Ford was able to ride it out in his air conditioned Escalade.

Holladay says it is all about economies of scale:

So why can’t these same economies of scale be applied to manufactured housing? That’s a good question....The answer is complicated. It’s certainly true that many entrepreneurs have tried (and are still trying) to make affordable high-tech manufactured housing. Even though the world lacks good successful examples of this approach, it’s not for lack of trying.

This is where I think Martin's comparison of cars and houses goes awry. Most North American prefabricated houses are built using the same technology as in a conventional house, the same wood framing and drywall and vinyl. They are not particularly high tech; the factories just have better tools and working conditions. They are not built like cars; they are built like houses in transportable pieces. They are not really mass produced; almost every one is customized.

Assembly Wichita House

Assembly Wichita House/ WP/CC BY 2.0

The Wichita House

There have in fact been very few attempts to really build a house the way a car or an airplane might be built, to really look at the materials and the design in terms of design and manufacturing efficiency. Buckminster Fuller tried it with the Wichita House, which was based on his earlier Dymaxion house, using the Beech Aircraft factory in Wichita. He was going to sell them for 50 cents per pound, a novel but sensible way of selling houses.

Interior, Wichita House

© Henry Ford museum/ Interior, Wichita House

It was a hit; Barry Bergdoll and Peter Christensen write:

The critical reaction to a full-scale prototype was significantly more positive than it had been to the Dymaxion. The gentle curves created a more satisfying interior flow: the palette of finishes on the inside were more refined and better constructed. Like the Dymaxion, the Wichita was intended to be a "dwelling machine," and Fuller pursued this notion in lectures and writing, suggesting that industrial design and architecture had never been more compatible. In the end, the Beech Company decided not to produce the Wichita House, convinced that, despite its reception and improvements, the public was still not prepared to inhabit a machinelike object.
maintenance on Luistron

All the maintenance you ever need to do to a Lustron Home/Promo image

The Lustron

Then there was the Lustron House, also built in an airplane factory out of porcelain enamelled steel. It was designed to"defy weather, wear, and time,"

Their sturdy steel frame was constructed on-site by a team of local workers who assembled the house piece-by-piece from a special Lustron Corporation delivery truck. The assembly team, who worked for the local Lustron builder-dealer followed a special manual from Lustron, and were supposed to complete a house in 360 man-hours.
Lustron Living Room

Lustron Living Room/Promo image

The interiors were designed with an eye toward the modern age, space-saving, and ease of cleaning. All Lustrons had metal-panelled interior walls that were most often gray. To maximize space, all interior rooms and closets featured pocket doors. All models featured metal cabinetry, a service and storage area, and metal ceiling tiles.

60 years later, homeowners report that many Lustrons have never needed repainting or new roofing. Nonetheless, the company went bankrupt in 1950; it couldn't compete with the stickbuilders.

Lustron parts

Things organized neatly: The parts of a Lustron/via

The problem is one of scale, as Martin suggests, but not the scale of production numbers; the problem is size, the scale of square footage. Cars are small; the Lustron houses were by today's standards, tiny. American houses are designed to be as big as possible, surrounded by as little material as possible and built as cheaply as possible, with as few expensive tools as possible, the two major ones being a nail gun and an F150 pickup truck. Most of them won't last as long as my '89 Miata. Until Americans are willing to trade quantity for quality, this is what they will get.