Prefab houses now offer some variety

NEW YORK --- Prefabricated houses don't have to be ticky-tacky.


Contemporary prefab houses now possess all the flair and durability of traditional housing. Computerized designs and innovative materials are behind this architectural revolution, replacing cookie-cutter forms and flimsy materials from prefab's heyday after World War II.

That's the message of Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, an engrossing survey of the prefab movement at the Museum of Modern Art. It lasts through Oct. 26.

Visitors can stroll through five model homes built outside the museum to experience major architectural advances in prefabrication. Distinctive profiles, open floor plans, energy efficiency and off-the-shelf components are shared objectives.

Built in a black-topped lot next to the museum, the model homes form a kind of urban village in the heart of Manhattan.

Cellophane House is a five-story, steel-frame townhouse from Philadelphia. Burst 008 is an Australian beachhouse of laser-cut plywood. Micro compact houses are designed and built in Britain and Germany, with all the comforts in just 76 square feet of living space. System 3 is a modular home prototype from Austria in the shape of shipping containers. The fifth model is a digitally fabricated, one-room "shotgun house" designed for flood-ravaged New Orleans.

An accompanying exhibit inside MoMA traces the history of prefab housing dating to 1833, when H. Manning of London began selling portable colonial cottages for emigrants to Australia, boasting that the homes could be assembled in a day.

Scale models, photos and architectural sketches range over the prefab work of modernist innovators such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Jean Prouve in Europe and Thomas Edison, Frank Lloyd Wright and R. Buckminster Fuller in the U.S.

It includes a two-bedroom Lustron house of porcelain-enameled steel, one of 2,500 produced in the United States (1948-50); photos of World War II-era quonset huts; a model of Fuller's Dymaxion Dwelling Machine (1944-46); sketches of Wright's American System-Built Houses for the Richards Co. (1911-17); and an illustration of Edison's single-pour concrete buildings (1906-1919).

Other highlights: Le Courbusier's path-breaking Maison Domino construction sketch (1914), photos of the Gropius-designed Copper Houses exported to Palestine in the early 1930s and Prouve's models of prefab houses from the early 1950s, a trove assembled by curator Barry Bergdoll.

Pioneers of prefab shared the notion that dwellings assembled on site from mass-produced factory components could overcome housing shortages from world wars and urban expansion. But the reality was often alienating: rows of look-alike houses in suburban tracts and grim apartment blocks in cities.

Architects specializing in prefab now use mass customization of basic designs developed with sophisticated software programs. Prefab houses can be modified with input from customers to match their individual needs, according to the exhibition catalog.

The most elaborate and striking of the five prefab houses, Cellophane House's structural steel frame, nearly 50 feet high, mirrors the surrounding skyline. The glass-walled building rises from a street-level garage to rooftop patio with a solar-panel canopy.

Photovoltaic cells integrated into the plastic membrane in the walls and roof materials gather energy during the day and channel it to a set of batteries in a mechanical room. Water is heated by the solar panels and flows through a convection loop to a holding tank.

A double wall system, transparent on three sides of the house, anticipates internal climate needs and, using built-in dampers and fans, eliminates unwanted heat gains and losses, according to designers Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake, of Philadelphia.

Two bathrooms and bedrooms, a spacious kitchen-dining area, laundry room and a balcony totaling 1,880 square feet of living space spreads over four floors, each measuring 20 feet by 28 feet. The anticipated cost is $300,000 and up, according to architects.


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