Monday, October 06, 2008

I Just Read A Comic Book So I Think We Should All Live In A Railroad Freightcar With A Lot Of Windows

My friend the Instapundit is interested in interesting things. But he's got a blind spot:

I remember reading a Robert Heinlein essay from the 1940s on how absurd it would be to have your car hand-built in your driveway by a collection of artisans, and how homebuilding as practiced was equally absurd. I think he was right.I suppose that's better than the script-kiddies who think Gene Roddenberry is John the Baptist for our generation; but just.He's linked to the most tired old trope in architecture: Let's build houses in a factory! You know, instead of letting cavemen make it out in the landscape! It will be all gadgety and glittery and you'll be able to plug your iPod into the toilet or the wallpaper or the driveway without a dongle!

Me and Donald Fagen have heard all this crap before:

I've taken issue with what passes for architectural analysis at Wired before, and I'm not going to stop now.

Prefab is "modernism's oldest dream," curator Barry Bergdoll says. Since the industrial revolution, architects have been in thrall of the idea that houses could be built in factories, like any kind of widget. But reality hasn't been extremely cooperative. Whether because of conservative public tastes, unachievable economies of scale, or designers' less-than-stellar business acumen, their utopian visions have mostly remained fantasies.

Don't you just hate it when reality is uncooperative? Their "utopian visions" have remained fantasies because that's exactly what they are. Unmoored from the real world in real-time or the future, they identify a problem that does not exist, suggest solutions that are worse than the imaginary problem and have internal inconsistencies that make them null anyway, and then try to ram their goofy ideas into the public sphere over and over. Normal people don't want to live in an expensive, desolate, cramped, bleak, lifeless terrarium. Film at eleven.

Mass production of houses is an ancient idea, and has already been accomplished to death:

Levitt was able to offer these houses so cheaply because he was applying construction methods perfected in the deployment of prefab housing in the armed services during World War II. Bill Levitt had served as a Seabee during the war, and he learned the techniques of rapid construction using standardized parts, tightly controlled suppliers of goods and services, and a workforce with highly specialized skills. Like the Army's builders, like the Seabees, Levitt took the mass-production assembly line and converted it so that workers moved from site to site doing their specific targeted tasks. Life, Newsweek, Time, and many other magazines delighted in the story of the painter whose sole job was to paint the window sills of each house; but the example was an apt one, for by moving crews of workers sequentially from house to house, Levitt avoided the necessity of craft workers, unions, and the rest. In addition, his program could tolerate high labor turnover, a dreaded feature of the new prosperity after the end of the war. If one worker left, another could be quickly hired and trained as a replacement.

Economies of scale for cookie-cutter housing were roped and branded the better part of a century ago. There is no more mechanized, technologically astute, nimble, large-project process in America than single-family home building. Why don't you call up Apple and tell them you want a big black rotary knob on your iPod? You tell your general contractor you want to move bearing walls in your house when it's half built. Who would take longer and charge more money to accomplish your request? Only Bill Gates can afford to order an iPod with a rotary dial. I see pregnant women in flip-flops moving bearing walls in their own homes on HGTV every night.

The Levittown houses are the very houses that the factory housing apparatchiks sneer at while they try one more time to round us all up and force us to live, alternately roasting and freezing, in the terrarium daytime and fluorescently lit darkness of their glorified stackable FEMA trailers.

Look at the video linked to the article.

At least Lawrence Sass from MIT knew enough to choose a New Orleans Shotgun House to make, which is an essentially humane place to live. But where's the value added? He plops a CNC router at the jobsite and routs the panels. Whoopty. That house could be made by a framing foreman and a handful of willing grunts in less time and for less money than any prefab deal. The spindlework on a shotgun house was pre-fabbed in factories and shipped to the job way back in the 1800s. Where's the value added, Lawrence? You're not bringing much.

The rest of the video is just have the same tired old the house is a machine nonsense we've been hearing since 1910, and it ends up looking like the galley kitchen in a 747. Please note that the houses these people make never have anything that looks like humans or their possessions about. I'm sick of people with Martin Bormann accents talking about how ve mussht maik howsays dat ahr masheens fvar livink und the yoomans musht be made to leev in tem fuhr zehr own gut!

People watch high-school dropouts portray businessmen in Wall Street and think that's how the economy is run. People join PETA because they saw Bambi and think animals can do long division. People read glorified comic books like Heinlein's and think it would be good public policy if you were required to kill big alien bugs before you could vote, and we should make a 124,000 pound thing in a factory and then drag it to your houselot.

I know exactly how a house was built in the 1940s. I know exactly how a house is built now. Robert Heinlein had no idea what he was talking about then. He has absolutely nothing to offer about the topic now.

Ever read any Heinlein? I have. Here's a part of a plot synopsis from Wikipedia of one of his:

Their alien kidnapper is nicknamed "Wormface" by Kip, who refers to the species as "Wormfaces". They are horrible-looking, vaguely anthropomorphic creatures who do not recognize other species as equals, referring to all others as "animals". Wormface has two human flunkies who had assisted him in capturing the Mother Thing and Peewee, a preteen genius and the daughter of one of Earth's most eminent scientists. The Mother Thing speaks in what sounds to Kip like birdsong, with a few musical notations in the text giving a flavor of her language. However, Kip and Peewee have no trouble understanding her.

Kip, Peewee, and the Mother Thing try to escape to the human lunar base by hiking cross-country, but they are recaptured and taken to a more remote base on Pluto. Kip is thrown into a cell, later to be joined by the two human traitors, who have apparently outlived their usefulness. Before they later disappear, one mentions to Kip that his former employers eat humans.

You know, you read that, and think: that's the guy I want picking out tile with me and my wife.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, Heinlein envisioned a world that appealed to a 16-year-old boy: lots of action, faux higher ideals, and plenty of indiscriminate sex. In that kind of world, who cares what your house looks like?

Travis Clark said...

Remember who else was writing at the time...

A person who idealized 18th C. yeoman craftsmanship in the form of sturdy and comfortable Hobbit Holes.

Funny that these two "escapists" are still defining our internal struggle for the new and the old in our homes.

Janet said...

Hm. Pre-fab house companies are very successful in Canada. But the building techniques are pretty much the same as those used outside, so maybe that doesn't count.

They tend to be very well-built, as they have to be able to take the strains and stresses of being transported to the right spot. And they are pretty much indistinguishable from any other house on the block.

Our first house was a pre-fab (although we weren't the first to live in it) and it was a fine little house. With a beautiful wrap-around hardwood wall with diagonal planking, perfectly beveled at the corner. That wall was one of the things that sold me on the house.

Anwyn said...

Travis Clark, you and I should chat.

blake said...

Ooh, Sip's trollin' fer trouble.

I don't get the Heinlein worship, my own self.

But you know who wrote an incredible paean to mobile homes? John Steinbeck, in Travels With Charley. It's clear he thought the mobile part was the thing, and mobiles never really lived up to that.

Travis Clark said...

Blake's right. Heinlein fans are rabid. I should know, I am one.

I'd rather start a flame war over abortion than get into a Heinlein / Clarke / Asimov fight...

But there's a good reason he has so many fans.

His books are just much more fun to read than most of the pantheon of sci-fi writers.

I get the others, I enjoy Heinlein.

Not that I would take his advice on house-building, or sexual relationships for that matter, but I'll never surrender "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress"


Anonymous said...

Wow, I feel like a "Stranger in a Strange Land" here except for the Steinbeck reference.
Has anyone seen the prefabs made from shipping containers? CNN did a story.

Captain Fatty said...

Huf in Germany make very good pregab houses. As do Scandihus (or something) in Sweden.

blake said...

I also like "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress", but I'll take, oh, Van Vogt over Heinlein. And Ray Bradbury, though he's always been more of a fantasist.

Eric said...

Well, I think Lewis Mumford was talking about this in 1929. (I just happened to read his "The Brown Decades" recently) And even then, Mumford thought that the issue of housing for 'the masses' (for lack of a better word) was not going to be solved by the Stickleys or the Wrights. It seems to me that he didn't have a real answer--other than identifying some things that he thought all families would want in their dwelling--light, space and some nature. But like I said, Mumford didn't seem to have a solution.

I'd like to know why builders are not 'updating' (again, for lack of a better word) some of these older designs from the 1920's 30's and 40's, never mind the 50's or 60's.

I mean, go and google 'ranch house plans' or something similar and look at any contemporary house plan website and the houses they're advertising. THEY. ARE. UGLY. What is wrong with architects today?

Travis Clark said...

Two points...(well many really, but broadly categorized into two areas..hey, I didn't get the Ph.D. for nutin!)

1. Prefab. A lot of the reason that the prefab discussion is moot is that is already here. Trusses, manufactured joists, lumber, kitchen cabinets, etc. It's all pre-fab. And, it's mostly good. Our homes may not be modular utopian fantasies but our kitchens sure are, and we have far more choices than ever before. I can't afford hand-drawn plaster moldings, but the foam stuff is pretty impressive. All of this makes for richer more detailed homes.

The prefab age arrived, it just didn't arrive in the form the utopianist, Gropius, Mies and others imagined. In fact, it made homes more diverse, not more uniform. As always, there is the process, prefab, and the goal, which was utopian societies. We took the one, and not the other. And we only adapted it the way it made sense, aesthetically, practically, economically, logistically, etc.

For example, pre-fab kitchen cabinets are easy to ship. Pre-fab houses, not so much.

So Prefab is really here, just not in the way the modernists had hoped (Thank God)

2. We really need to do something about the developing world and pre-fab seems to be the only answer. So yeah, they're cargo boxes and railway cars, but they are vastly superior to mudhuts. And though Fathy tried to pioneer a native architecture, develop local skills, but it is just far too labor intensive. We shouldn't over-romanticize tradition and craftsmanship at the expense of actual humans and their standard of living. There's a reason frame housing replaced timber construction. It's faster, cheaper, easier etc. We need to bring that to everyone, or help them to figure it out themselves. (Not sure which is easier, giving them the pre-fab housing or giving them the skills and a few more Home Depots.)

So, there is a place for pre-fab, but as usual, we can take it without re-inventing man and nature. As Sipp, pointed out, a lot of those balusters and moldings of the 19th C. were the first era of pre-fab. Things will get slicker, quicker, better (and worse) but generally better if you give people the options, without having to remake the human animal, history or tradition.

Sam said...

Great article. Thanks.

SippicanCottage said...

Thanks, everyone for reading and commenting.

Eric-I think that there were more really good house designs in the interwar period than any other in America. I have a pile of planbooks from the twenties and they're loaded with excellent, livable, humane plans.

To answer your question "What's wrong with architects today":They are entirely disinterested in single family houses except as freak shows. All those designs you see aren't even generally done by architects. They are just "designers." No formal architectural training. There was one guy in Vegas, whose name escapes me, who was their demigod. Just sat there all day drawing snouthouse variations to stick on slab lots in the desert.

I went to architecture school, but quit -- mostly because absolutely nothing about single family homes, except freakshows and brutalist caves, was ever discussed or allowed. I told the story of it here: Are You The Verb

It's the reason I burst out laughing reading the article. They mention Buckminster Fuller.

Yeah! Let's live in domes! And wear silver jumpsuits! We'll shower with fog!

Travis- Really excellent comments.

Thud said...

sipp...I'm working on a wet room in a basement at the moment...this showering with fog...just exactly how does it work?

Daniel Newby said...

What Travis Clark said!

It would be neat to see injection-molded prefab wall panels. Use modular molds arranged by robots to provide a wide variety of options. Use flow-through injection to orient fiber strands in structural members. Plastic binders could be used that termites and ants choke on. Integral sheathing or gussets could keep the panels perfectly square. Post-It note glue could be applied to the inside surface to hold the vapor barrier during construction. Holes could be factory drilled for wiring. Etc, etc, etc.

"People read glorified comic books like Heinlein's and think it would be good public policy if you were required to kill big alien bugs before you could vote, ..."

Or hold elected office, and the public service jobs were not all military. I would not mind trying out a ruling class who had all willingly spent a couple of years, e.g., tending an obscure and unpleasant agricultural data station. As compared to our likely future president, who proposes mandatory volunteer service for all with a straight face ...

GeorgeH said...

A juvenile novel and an article both written over 50 years ago are not the best of Heinlein.

beewax said...

Excellent post. I agree with Travis "We really need to do something about the developing world and pre-fab seems to be the only answer". Prefab building is an extension of industrializing the construction industry which is ongoing and when robotic construction is utilized e.g.Discover: The Whole-House Machine or Contour Crafting, the "value added" at least for ASAP shelter is a great one.

Travis Clark said...

Sipp thinks my comments were "excellent?"


(Moment of fan-crush to follow)

I will dancing around the house all day now.

To Sipp (and everyone)

That was more positive encouragement than I received from my advisor in three years while writing the dissertation.

That made my day,



blake said...

Feel good, Travis: That was a truly fine exposition.

I recognize in Sipp's original post the pride of a craftsman, and agree with that on many levels. But a freight car beats nothing.

My mom is anti-Wal Mart. She doesn't like cheap crap. But as I point out to her, there are things that we don't care about, and having cheap crap available allows to save our money to buy quality where it matters (to us).

We once looked at a house just outside of Philadelphia that was going for 800K. This place was a mansion. We spent a lot of time admiring the hand-rails on the staircases and checking out similar fine point.

But out here, if you went to the equivalent house (necessarily on tiny property), besides it costing twice that, it would be poorly built, with lots of cut corners.

That ticks me off.