VAF 2010: “Housing Washington”

The 2010 Vernacular Architecture Forum conference, “Housing Washington,” has sadly drawn to a close. I’ve heard from many in the architectural history and preservation fields that VAF conferences are their favorite, and now I understand why. A great balance of bus tours, walking tours, and sessions of three 20-minute presentations grouped by theme keeps things moving and interesting.

As for me, I somehow managed to get through my presentation, “Postwar Prefabs in the Washington, D.C., Suburbs: The Mass-Production Success of Vernacular Prefab Homes,” without dry heaves or hyperventilating. Many thanks to session moderator Janet Foster, of Columbia University, and the other session presenters, Nancy Holst and Erin Cunningham, for providing a supportive, collegiate atmosphere.

I was pleasantly surprised at the interest the audience showed in my topic — more historians have begun to take interest in the prefab homes in their own postwar suburbs. The advent of the study of vernacular prefab homes was really in the 1990s, when the first wave of postwar prefabs hit the 50-year mark. Some great scholarship can be found in the Kentucky Heritage Council‘s “Homes in a Box” regional survey, several states’ multiple property nominations for Lustron Homes, the historic context of Cemesto homes in the Oak Ridge, Tennessee historic district nomination, research on Gunnison Homes by Randy Shipp, and research on Alside Homes by John Schlinke.

I’m hoping to add my voice to the chorus to help make a “glass-is-half-full” argument that despite the failures of many prefab companies, quite a few found mass-production success during the postwar period. After my presentation, a member of the audience made a legitimate challenge to the way I framed my argument, and I hope to further refine my definition of “success.”

During the mid-1950s peak, prefab production constituted almost 10% of total housing construction. If that seems more like a “blip” than a peak, consider the fact that the output (and company longevity into the 1980s) of National Homes Corporation, the largest postwar prefab manufacturer, rivaled or exceeded that of leading postwar conventional builder, Levitt & Sons. Looking at examples like National Homes, instead of high-design-but-low-output projects like Gropius & Wachsmann’s General Panel Homes, paints a very different picture of the so-called “failure” of prefab homes.

2 thoughts on “VAF 2010: “Housing Washington”

  1. Jennifer, Your paper was great and I really liked seeing the period advertisements for the homes. I am beginning to see these resources with new eyes! I am intersted in following the conversation about the demise-continuation-transformation of what is “prefab” today.

  2. Thanks so much, Debra! With prefab industry history in mind, I’ve enjoyed following the contemporary prefab design debate. Dwell magazine has been a big proponent of prefab, and their editors/writers don’t disregard pragmatic concerns. This is a good essay looking back on “The Prefab Decade” (the 2000s!):
    http://www.dwell.com/articles/the-prefab-decade.html
    And on the reasons for the recent demise of Michelle Kaufmann’s modern, and moderately successful, Glidehouse prefab:
    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/05/michelle-kaufmann-packs-it-in.php
    and
    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/11/glidehouse-at-end-of-road-for-modern-prefab.php
    The articles and readers’ comments illustrate the complexity of factors contributing to the success or failure of the prefab industry.

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