New Building Methods

PrefabricationBuilding methods may also change a great deal after the war. Most houses are now built slowly and expensively, with the various parts and materials assembled on the site. And, until handwork is greatly reduced and more of the house is built in the factory, it is doubtful if prices can come down very much.

Many manufacturers are working on this problem and much progress has been made, particularly in building sections of houses in the factory and putting them together on the site. This method of construction is called “prefabrication.”

The early prefabricators worked chiefly with steel, but steel offers many problems because it is relatively expensive and hard to insulate. This does not mean, however, that steel and other metals, as well as plastics, will not find greater use in prefabricated homes after the war. Concrete, cast in slabs or other shapes, has also been tried in prefabrication, but though cheap enough to compete with other materials, its weight is a serious obstacle.

Wood was used in “precut” or sectional houses long before the term “prefabrication” came into common use. Prefabricated houses are now built mainly of wood. The chief novelty is the use of plywood (which consists of three or more layers of veneer joined with glue) instead of boards.

The sections of a prefabricated house are cut in the factory, and shipped, like packages, to the location. There they are put together by a crew of men hired by dealers or builders. Before the war, even mail-order firms sold prefabricated houses.

As a rule, prefabricators do not make complete houses. Some firms supply no more than floor boards and the wall panels. Some build sections which contain as much as half the house, others sell the finished walls, partitions, floors, and ceiling panels. Most prefabricators supply the heating unit and all or part of the kitchen equipment, except the range and refrigerator. Some furnish the plumbing fixtures.

The foundation and chimney, if made of masonry, are built on the site, and in some cases the builder or dealer who puts together the prefabricated panels has to buy separately rough lumber for the floor, ceiling, and roof, as well as the plumbing and wiring materials. As a rule, he also buys the land and puts in the improvements.

There are no accurate figures on the number of prefabricating companies now in existence or the volume of business they do. In 1940 only a, dozen firms were building and selling prefabricated homes, and probably less than 10,000 units were built: between 1935 and 1940.

The war, however, has given a great boost to this method of construction. Inexpensive and quickly built houses have been needed in war centers. In January 1942 the Federal Works Agency listed over 80 prefabricating firms with some claim to consideration. Many of them were temporary newcomers in the field. Between July 1, 1940 and January 1, 1942 over 14,500 prefabricated houses were built.

There is good evidence that the prefabricators can turn out houses of the $3,000 to $5,000 class at prices below those which comparable houses built by traditional methods cost. They can do this because their manufacturing and material costs are lower. As a manufacturer himself, the prefabricator deals directly with the manufacturer of materials and therefore gets better discounts. Also, work done in the shop or factory is often cheaper than work done on the site.

The new industry is still too young to have solved all its problems, one of the greatest of which is to find a satisfactory method of distribution. It will face its big test at the end of the war.

The prefabricated house is a standardized product—that is, the design and materials are standard or similar for every unit. Thus, the wall sections are usually 8 feet high and from 4 to 12 feet wide. The floor, ceiling and roof panels vary in width up to 8 feet and in length according to the design of the house, but these variations are slight compared with houses that are not prefabricated. In the latter the parts are of many sizes and shapes because the designs are unique for each project and often for each unit. That is, one builder prefers houses of colonial design, another English Tudor homes, a third Swiss chalets, a fourth Cape Cod cottages, and so on.