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February 16, 2005


Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

Whores, ugly buildings and politicians are supposed to get respectable with age.

Here's a politician and an ugly building from a 1949 Life magazine: Nelson Rockefeller promoting manufactured housing as the next big thing.


Nelson passed away in the arms of a young woman who was not his wife, though she was not as I know paid for her services and therefore we have no prostitute respectability issue to ponder. The circumstances surrounding his demise did, however, put a bit of a dent in Nelson's respectability. But it's been a couple of decades since his passing, and I think he is once again quite respectable.

Which leaves that house.

Sorry, but in my view that is just one plug-ugly building that is just going to stay that way. It looks as though the exterior of the building is not yet finished, but, in light of Rockefeller's architectural tastes, I am not so sure. Compare the 1949 house to the mid-60s campus of SUNY-Albany, designed by Edward Durrell Stone. The university building looks like the 1949 house on steroids. Just the thing for Nelson!


But once again I digress (as Archie once said of Jughead: his mind wanders but it never gets very far).

I wanted to write about manufactured housing. Its time is always just about to come, but it never quite seems to arrive. Why is that? Residual snob appeal problems of the art crown with trailer trash? Or that good design simply cannot enter into an amicable three-way marriage with manufacturing processes and housing product? Or that technical issues have not yet developed to the point where the marriage can be arranged?

The future seldom arrives on time, since the schedule of its arrival is typically posted by zealous and breathless enthusiasts who forget that technology is embedded in a complex social network, and that systems have a conservative bias. Consequently, many then conclude that the predicted change will never happen. But often the problem is not permanent, but only that the rate of change has been temporarily oversold. In time, the future arrives.

So: is there a point at which conditions will shift to favor manufactured housing, in terms of design, affordability and appeal to living human beings?

Hard to say. I think it is getting interesting, though.

Some recent examples of interesting manufactured housing can be found here, here and here.

I was particulary intrigued by the first website, put up by a small outfit called architecture + hygiene. That firm employs surplus shipping containers, putting them together in various tinkertoy arrangements. Its basic model is called the quik house.

what is the quik house? The QUIK HOUSE is a prefabricated kit house designed by Adam Kalkin from recycled shipping containers. It has three bedrooms and two and one-half baths in its 2,000 square foot plan. The basic kit costs $76,000 plus shipping. The shell assembles by the end of the week, you will have a fully enclosed building. From start to finish, it should take no longer than three months to complete your house.

Double that cost for the finished version.


I'm not ready to move in yet, except as a vacation home (which I cannot afford anyway). But things are to my mind looking up since Nelson's project.



posted by Fenster at February 16, 2005


The Quik House looks like garage-door chic to my eyes. Although as you note, maybe it'd make sense as a cheapo way to have a place in the country.

There are all those innovations that are perpetually just around the corner. I wonder what a comprehensive list of them would look like. I nominate solar power, which as of my undergrad years (mid-'70s) was about to transform life as we knew it. And I guess it still is just about to transform life as we know it. Wasn't gene therapy about to provide cures for all major diseases about 10 years ago? The GNXP crowd, some of whom work in the gene biz, often claim that serious gene therapies are finally, really about to arrive, and maybe that's true. But if not, maybe gene therapy deserves a place on the list.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 16, 2005 2:15 PM


For your list of things that will tranform the world: add nuclear power, which has the added virtue of claiming to fix the world not once but twice--the 1970s and now (see:, while threatening it with mayhem and destruction in the interim.

Posted by: fenster on February 16, 2005 2:21 PM

Things that are about to transform the world but somehow are yet to arrive?

1. Ethanol
2. Hover crafts
3. The "paperless" society--no one was supposed to ever write another check again about ten years ago.
4. Celebrex and vioxx
5. Every food was supposed to be great-tasting and low-cal by now.
6. four-day work weeks
7. Making the world safe for democracy
8. Electric cars
9. wind power

Those items which have arrived and changed the world?

1. Blowdryers
2. Pantyhose
3. Microwave ovens
4. cell phones
5. the pill
6. Nutra sweet

Posted by: annette on February 16, 2005 3:11 PM

I wrote a paper on this industry at MBA school back in 1982, and my conclusions have held up well: Manufactured housing doesn't ever get much off the ground because it's not cheaper to build than tract housing. A big tract of new houses going up all at once is like a factory itself, right on the spot, with economies of scale available similar to what can be achieved in a factory. And it's easier to ship raw building materials to a tract, than to ship huge panels from a house factory to a tract.

A factory built house, however, can be substantially cheaper for in-fill on a vacant lot between existing houses, because of the poor economies of scale of building just one house at a time out in the field. However, the neighbors generally don't like a factory built house going up on an otherwise mature street, so there are social constraints.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on February 16, 2005 3:30 PM

I guess it's fairly impossible to get away from the stark Lego look in pre-fab housing, eh? It sure seems like some genius could come up with some rounding and softening and stick-on geegaws like dormer windows or pitched roofs. Then they might be sellable to people who would use them as a residence and not as a conversation piece.

PS I can honestly say that I write about one check a month, for the lawn guys. That's as close to paperless as I've gotten.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on February 16, 2005 3:33 PM

"So: is there a point at which conditions will shift to favor manufactured housing, in terms of design, affordability and appeal to living human beings?"

Yes. When IKEA starts selling them.

Posted by: Steven K. on February 16, 2005 3:50 PM

Annette - That's a list worthy of Spy magazine at its best!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 16, 2005 10:51 PM

i still want a jetpack...

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