History of Pre-fab Housing



            Corrugated iron was a key innovation in metalwork that came about in the early 1800s.  Although prefabrication of frames was already a well-established concept, panel and spanning material were underdeveloped.  Canvas or wood planking on top of iron trusses had been the traditional approach to roofing in most prefabricated buildings, including the Manning Cottage.  The replacement of this system with corrugated metals, notably iron, and later the carbon and iron alloy, steel, meant that these buildings could be more quickly constructed, affordable and structurally sound. Corrosion presented problems until 1837, when many companies began to hot-dip galvanize metals for protection.  

Corrugated metal run through rollers at the T-Rib Quonset hut factory, Davisville, RI (1941) 

            Corrugated iron in portable buildings offered great potential, as the sheets could be nested in multiple layers (economical for transit) and could be cut into 3 ft x 2 ft panels easily carried by one person [1].  This was especially important for building large numbers of these buildings, by relatively few labourers, without the aid of additional machinery.  

            Corrugated iron used in housing kits was first widely used in the San Francisco Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, when all the people who came in search of their fortunes needed housing.  Entrepreneurs publicly advertised these new housing kits to customers, who could then order and build themselves the shelter of their choice.  These mass-produced corrugated iron buildings had a significant impact on the design of the Quonset Hut in WWII, which continued to use the large (easily handled) proliferated panels, though they were made of steel.  The corrugated metal siding of the hut exterior was a very important production detail.  The team wanted to orient the ribs of the corrugation parallel to the radius of the building in order to easily shed water.  This unfortunately posed a huge problem for the production level, where the technologies of the time could only bend sheet metal in one direction, and bending the metal a second time, at an angle perpendicular to the first proved difficult. The problem was finally solved by a Fuller subcontractor, the Anderson Sheet Metal Company of Providence, which created a system of passing the sheet metal through large rollers multiple times [2]. Corrugated iron and steel was an important invention, which not only greatly impacted the design of the US Navy Quonset Hut, but also fulfilled a need in economical, transportable, quickly-erected architecture.   

[1] Ryan E. Smith, Prefab Architecture: A Guide to Modular Design and Construction. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010.
[2]  "Quonset Hut." Washington State DAHP, accessed December 1, 2012. http://www.dahp.wa.gov/styles/quonset-hut.


Manning Colonial Cottages were often tranformed into schools, hospitals, stores etc. [1]

            Prefabrication in the West ultimately begins in the 16th and 17th centuries, with Great Britain's colonization of what is now India, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.  Building components were manufactured in England and shipped to various colonies worldwide, where it was not known exactly what/how much raw materials would be available to new settlers upon arrival in unfamiliar territory.

Map of the British Empire at its height in 1922 [2]

             The earliest of these prefabricated houses were sent to the fishing village of Cape Anne (Massachusetts) in 1624. During the period of Australian settlement in the late 1700s, prefabricated hospitals, storehouses and cottages were shipped to Sydney - all of these were simple timber-framed structures with timber panel roofs, floors and walls.  During colonization of South Africa in 1820, shed-like wooden cottages were sent with relief missions of settlers.  They consisted of pre-cut timber frames, with board-battered siding trimmed on-site, and completed window and door components[3].  

           The Manning Portable Colonial Cottage was the next stage in this evolution of the prefabricated home, developed by London carpenter and builder, H. John Manning.  This design was an improvement on earlier frame and infill designs because it offered ease of construction.  He set out to create a confortable, easily constructed cottage for his son who was immigrating to Australia in 1830.  This prototype became the first documented completely prefabricated house.  It was a timber and panel infill prefabricated system made up of grooved posts, floor plates and triangulated trusses which became the pitched roof.  The system was standardized and interchangeable, with panels that fit between grooved posts.  These posts would be bolted into a continuous floor plate on bearers.  The posts carried a wall plate with supported triangulated trusses, with wood panel cladding.  The cottage was designed to be mobile and easily shipped.  Manning explained, "As none of the pieces are heavier than a man or boy could easily carry for several miles, it might be taken even to a distance without the aid of any beast of burthen"[4]. The lack of transportation infrastructure in new colonies makes this point particularly important.  The entire building could go together with a standard wrench, without any joints, cutting, or even nails, which was feasible for unskilled emigrants with limited tools available. 

             The cottage was a commercial success, and Manning ended up developing several models of different sizes and cost.  The Manning Portable Colonial Cottage immediately became a solution for the rapidly expanding British colonies throughout the 19th century.


[1] "Manning Colonial Cottage for Emigrants 1833-1840." Housing.com LLC, accessed Novemeber 18, 2012, http://www.housing  
[2] "Why is English the Dominant World Language." Jobs.au.uk, accessed December 5, 2012. http://www.jobs.ac.uk/tefl-
[3] Ryan E. Smith, Prefab Architecture: A Guide to Modular Design and Construction. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 
[1] "Manning Colonial Cottage for Emigrants 1833-1840."


 Interior view of the Crystal Palace (1851)

              The same British colonial movement that brought about the Manning Portable Cottage also introduced iron manufacturing in building construction.  Building components, such as windows, lintels, trusses, beams and columns could now all be manufactured at a foundry, fabricated in a work shop, and immediately assembled in structural systems on the job site.  The roots of the steel structural movement in the US can be traced back to this first prefabrication with iron construction. 

The world's first cast iron bridge, crossing the River Severn in Shropshire, England (1779)

             In Britain, iron construction was first used in the building of bridges, and it was the streamlining of this production and erection process that showed promise.  The first ever prefabricated cast iron bridge (above) was almost entirely made of prefabricated pieces, and erected onsite over a two year period. The bridge was designed by British Architect, Thomas Pritchard, as a semicircular arch spanning 30.6 m (containing 5 arch ribs, each cast in two halves) and built by iron-founder Abraham Darby III [1].  Pieces became standardized (they could be cast repeatedly), and shipped to the site with fewer and less skilled labourers needed to put them together.  This saved time and money compared with traditional wood of masonry construction.  

The first British cast iron lighthouse built in Swansea, Wales (1803)

              Soon the benefits of this system could be applied to shipbuilding, where heavy plates riveted together to form units could be assembled, disassembled and reassembled.  In the mid 1800s, lighthouses and other building types were constructed using the same technology.  Before contemporary structural steel, cast iron construction used mass-produced and interchangeable components that served a wide variety of uses within a number of applications.  Standardizing the manufacturing aspect of production translated into time and money saved through economy of scale.  The technology became a frame, upon which one could mould any number of stylistic expressions (Gothic, Baroque, etc.)[2].

Exterior view of the Crystal Palace (1851)

             This idea of building easily erected designs led to pursuing prefabricated design, especially at the onset of the Industrial Revolution.  The single most extensive use of this material was in the standardized structure and infill enclosure of the Crystal Palace during the Great Exhibition of 1851 in England.  British engineers produced the Crystal Palace around the concept of prefabricated and demountable modules.  These modules pioneered a new ease of construction, which not only allowed all 19 acres of the original building to be built in an unprecedented 9 month span, but also allowed the entire building to be relocated from the site in Central London to Kent in 1854. While incorporating most of the parts of the original building, the re-invention formed a very different Beaux-arts structure. The main gallery was redesigned and covered with a new barrel-vaulted roof, the central transept was heightened and greatly enlarged and two new transepts were added at either end of the main gallery.  It stayed in Sydenham Hill until it burned down in 1936.  It was constructed of new cast-iron structure, prefabricated units, and a glass curtain wall.  Though it was not the first, or last, in cast iron architecture, the Crystal Palace linked the Manning Cottage pre-cut timber framing with the new material of the day. The Crystal Palace is also important because it represents a shift in the modern architect's understanding of what is beautiful, suggesting that beauty may be as simple as the functional means of production. Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace has been called “proto-modern architecture” and was widely imitated in Europe and the US [3]. 


[1] "Building the Iron Bridge." Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, accessed November 15, 2012, http://www.ironbridge.org.uk/collections/the-iron-bridge/building-the-iron-bridge.
[2] Ryan E. Smith, Prefab Architecture: A Guide to Modular Design and Construction. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010.
[3] "The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace." Victorian Station, accessed November 15, 2012, http://www. victorianstation.com/palace.html.


            The principles of standardization, mass production, and streamlined productivity that is integral to manufacturing today can be traced to Henry Ford's invention of the Model T assembly line. This new process produced higher quality automobiles at a lower cost.  As well, a  more precise product was created with a decreased labour force, and with less time per unit output. 

            The developments made in pre-cut light-frame systems took advantage of this new process and technologies of production.  By 1910, many companies had begun to offer prefabricated housing kits of varying scales and quality. Standardization is the limitation to the variety in product produced so that machines may be able to output set lengths, widths, and assemblies. This removes the waste associated with variability options and the margin of error in end products. Mass production operates on the idea of the economy of scale, where with higher production levels of something, the cheaper and higher quality that product can become. Ford also became extremely involved with interchangeability of automobile parts - where parts are created to be used in a number of different end products [1]. A prime example of this way of thinking that was transferred into the housing industry is the 2 × 4. Houses may all be different, but all are built from this standardized, mass-produced part. In the Ford factory, threading for bolts became standardized allowing for easier and faster connections. Flow is the assembly line concept where complex and specialized machinery shape products which are driven on a line, where labourers perform a limited number of tasks in the operation. This repetition of task reduces time as well as the level of training required for these employees, who now instead of needing to learn a complex art of construction, they learn and become specialized at performing one very straight-forward and repeated task.  This kind of rapid production became reflected in the nature of products produced via this method, as the assembly process removed much of the ornament (curvature, intricate decoration, etc.).  However, with the decline of a traditional, hand-crafted appearance,  a new aesthetic took its place; one which became involved with efficiency.   

            The mass-production process transformed the order and sensibilities of society; what was produced became secondary to the actual method of production. The industrialized world understands these principles because they have become accepted standards used by manufacturers of products in many industries, including the building industry.


[1] Ryan E. Smith, Prefab Architecture: A Guide to Modular Design and Construction. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010.


          During the industrial revolution at the turn of the 20th century, ordering kit houses constructed with light-frame balloon framing and pre-cut timber became common.  The East and West Coasts of the US had been connected through the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, and the American population was rapidly expanding into the West, where there were very few established settlements.  There was an urgent need for prefabricated, affordable, and easily constructed housing. One of the first mail-order kit home systems was Aladdin Homes, founded in 1906  by two brothers, W.J. and O.E. Sovereign.  The brothers formed their system by adapting previously established mail-order systems used to purchase boats, which buyers purchased to assemble themselves.  They used the popularized mass production concepts of the time, and applied these systems to create mass housing, and they marketed a "Readi-Cut" system[1].  In this system, all the lumber necessary to create a specified house was pre-cut in a factory and delivered to the housing site, and all the customer needed were basic tools to put the house together.  This process was designed to streamline the construction process by decreasing the time needed to erect the house, and by removing the wasted materials caused by miscalculations onsite.

Sears Roebuck and Co. catalogue

           Chicago-based Sears Roebuck and Company followed the first mail-order mass housing systems, like that of Aladdin Homes, and was able to sustain pre-fab housing efforts due to an increased use of marketing.  Sears Roebuck and Co.'s main success was the fact that they could offer a wide variety of housing and financing.  Over their 32 years in business, a large team of designers and architects produced 445 different models, which ranged from one room structures to multifamily units[2].  From 1908 to 1940 Sears Roebuck and Co. was the world's leader in prefabricated residential design and manufacturing.

           Sears, Aladdin, and other kit home manufacturers never claimed to change architectural design, but rather provide a more efficient system of production and construction, while offering a standardized and affordable product to the consumer.  Ultimately, both Sears and Aladdin failed during the housing crisis of the Great Depression and they pulled their catalogs.

[1] Ryan E. Smith, Prefab Architecture: A Guide to Modular Design and Construction. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010.
[2] "Sears Catalogue Homes." MoMA Org., accessed December 5, 2012. http://www.momahomedelivery.org/.


                While researching the Quonset hut, we stumbled across a reference to the Dymaxion House, which another group is doing a case study of.

Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House

              The Dymaxion House, designed in 1927 by Richard Buckminster Fuller, is hexagonal –shaped metal structure suspended from a central mast that housed all the equipment for kitchen, laundry and servicing[1]. It is designed to be adaptable to any site or environment, and was to be mass produced for the low cost of $1 200/unit[2]. Later in 1942, Buckminster Fuller collaborated with Emmanuel Norquist of Butler Manufacturing Company, the largest general metal sheet fabricator experienced with the use of corrugated metal sheets in the U.S, to design the Dymaxion Deployment Unit (DDU) to provide wartime housing during WWII[3].

              “Corrugated metal structure”, “mass-produced”, “wartime housing during WWII”, sound familiar?  Unfortunately, the DDU did not gain the same popularity as the Quonset Huts despite three plants planned to produce 1000 units per day[4]. Only a few hundred units were built to house Signal Corps and for operating rooms in the U.S Army before steel shortage ensued which resulted in the eventual cancellation of DDU production[5].

However, “Fuller’s ideas challenged the concept of a frame structure by articulating an option in which the shape of the building and the use of standardized curved corrugated metal sheets created an envelope that also served as the structure”[6] which can be reflected by the design of the Quonset Hut.

[1] Brian Carter, War, Design and Weapons, (NJ, Princeton Architectural Press, 2005)
[2] Carter 53
[3] “Corrugated. Material,” Cornell University Intypes. Accessed Dec 7, 2012. http://intypes.cornell.edu/expanded.cfm?erID=110
[4] Carter 52
[5] Carter 53
[6] Carter 54


Good Housekeeping Stan-Steel House 1933-4 [1]

            In conjunction with Good Housekeeping Magazine and the Detroit-based architecture partnership of H. August O'Dell and Wirt C. Rowland, the Stran-Steel Corporation created the Good Housekeeping Stran-Steel House for the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exhibition's Houses of Tomorrow display.  The house featured a steel frame sheathed with iron enamel modular panels, a previously unknown housing construction technique.  

Ad for the Good Housekeeping Stran-Steel House (1933) [2]

             For this project, Stran-Steel Corp. revealed a framework of interlocking joints with new lightweight steel beams that were lighter, more flexible and twice as strong as wood.  Also highlighting the benefits of steel in residential design were specialty designed nails that penetrated the girders, holding the wallboard on both the inside and outside of the structure. The result was a sturdy and well insulated building that would withstand severe weather. 8 x 2 ft. sheets of 3 in. thick baked iron enamel were used to cover the outside of the structure, which not only provided a fire-proof surface but also gave an illusion of brick and helped as insulation[3].  The 1 300 sq. ft. house sold for roughly $110 000 US[4] today, and it was one of the few houses replicated for fabrication after the exhibition.  Stran-Steel's growing reputation for livable and innovative steel design, specifically around modular structures, and prefabrication, would draw the attention of George A. Fuller and Co. and the US Navy when an increase in production and redesign of the Quonset Hut became necessary. 


[1] "Good Housekeeping Stran Steel House." MoMA Org, accessed December 9, 2012. http://www.momahomedelivery.org/.
[2] "Good Housekeeping Stran-Steel House." Marshall.Edu.Org., accessed December 9 2012,http://users.marshall.edu/~brooks/stran-steel.htm.
[3] "Good Housekeeping Stran-Steel House." Marshall.Edu.Org.
[4] "Good Housekeeping Stran Steel House." MoMA Org.


          In the 1930’s the American government passed a series of acts that would prevent the U.S. participating in the war that was clearly on the horizon in both Europe and the Pacific. However, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the gears were set in motion of the most efficient war/production/manufacturing machine on the planet at the time. During World War II no other country out manufactured the Americans. Their gross domestic product jumped from 800 billion to 1.4 trillion between 1938 and 1945. They also built more jeeps, heavy trucks, merchant ships, aircraft carriers, battleships, bombers and fighter planes than any country participating in the war. Although the Soviets made more tanks and ammunition, no one came close to matching the American production level.

          How did they do it? Well laid out factories for easy mass production and the mastering of the prefab building technique. An example of their incredibly quick production time is the fleet of Liberty Ships that were built during the war. In 1936 the Merchant Marine Act was passed to rebuild America’s decrepit and dwindling merchant fleet. The Liberty Ship was to become the basic model for the fleet. In total from 1937-1945, 5500 were built with more than half that number built during the war. At it’s most productive period, the ship yards were turning out a liberty ship every forty-two days, with only a twenty-four day period from dry dock to being tied up at a dock. They managed to build them so quickly by prefabricating large sections of the ship. A liberty ship consisted of four large pieces: the bow, midship, stern and deck (including the wheelhouse, etc.). 

          The prefabrication model also applied to other items produced for the war effort. In Dearborn, Michigan, at the Ford plant, planes were being turned out at about the rate of one per hour. At the height of production, the assembly line extended a mile through the former car factory complex. Bombers, like the Liberty Ships, were built in smaller pieces (fuselage, wings, etc.) and then assembled at once into the large aircraft. Because of this efficiency in building technique they were able to produce over 90 000 planes between 1941-1945. 

          The factories that built all the machinery of the war were originally car, metal fabrication and even canning plants. The Americans easily converted them into war production machines after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This ‘multi-use’ ability of virtually everything that the Americans made or owned was one of the biggest reasons that they won the war. A Liberty Ship could be used to transport anything from troops to canned beans. Their jeeps and trucks were so versatile and easy to produce that they sold them to their Allies. They virtually kept the British alive during the Battle of Britain and throughout the subsequent years of the war. 

          It is not surprising then that the Quonset Hut was the standard issue building of the Navy. It preformed so well that it was used by other sections of the armed forces and even other countries. Like the ships and planes of WWII it was assembled in parts, speeding up the building process. It fit perfectly with the American sensibility of the time, being recycled, cheap, prefabricated, mass produced, easy to assemble and effective.


‘Henry Ford: Helped Lead American World War II Production Efforts’. Weider History Group. Accessed December 9 2012. 
‘Liberty Ships and Victory Ships, America’s Lifeline in War’. National Park Service. Accessed December 9 2012. 
‘Reading One: Liberty Ships’. National Park Services. Accessed December 9 2012. 
Harrison, Mark, "The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International Comparison", Cambridge University 
             Press (1998).


  1. Rheem prefab steel houses in Palm Springs, CA, 1960s. My father was set to be a salesman for when the whole project screeched to a halt--but there are still some houses in Palm Springs.

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