The History of Prefab Houses

Written by marjorie gilbert
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The History of Prefab Houses
This house can be a prefabricated home. (house image by Brett Bouwer from Fotolia.com)

Owning a house is something that seems tied into the history of many countries. In the United States, even before it was a country, some of the settlers established homesteads for themselves, building their homes literally from the sod or the trees around them. Another type of building style was developing along with the new country, namely, that of prefab houses. This history is surprisingly long and rich--as rich as the history of the country.

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The Tent

If a prefabricated house is one that is already made, then the tent is the first prefabricated home by its very nature. The tent is one of the first recorded structures made by man. They were in use by American Indians as well as the nomads of North Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Baffin Island

In the 1578, explorers from England under the reign of Elizabeth I, landed on the Baffin Island, bringing with them a wooden house that had been broken down into pieces for transport. Even though erecting the house failed due to some missing pieces, this house was one of the first prefab houses in North America.

Winslow's "Great House"

When Edward Winslow moved from England to Cape Ann (north of Boston) in 1624, he took his Great House with him. His house was broken down, shipped across the ocean, and put back together in his new country of residence. Parts of Winslow's house still exist, for it was merged with another house after being moved multiple more times, in Salem, Massachusetts.

Eighteenth Century

The practice of prefabricated houses continued during this century with two houses being broken down and shipped from Louisiana to the West Indies in 1727. Clarke and Hodgdon, builders in New Hampshire, framed and shipped houses to Grenada in 1772. In the 1790s, the Sierra Leone Company ordered prefabricated shops, dwellings, canvass buildings, hospitals, warehouses and other buildings to be shipped to West Africa. And, because the Revolutionary War was not working out as some Loyalist Mainers hoped, they broke down their houses for transport and put them back together again in Canada.

Balloon Framing

According to the Museum of Modern Art, balloon framing could be argued to be an important step in the long history of prefab homes. This is because balloon framing simplified the process of framing houses. Rather than fitting together the frame of the house through "elaborate joinery," balloon framing makes use of 2-by-4s and 2-by-6s placed in close proximity to each other and covered with a plywood sheath secured by pre-made iron nails. This process of home building required less skill than building with elaborate joints and it was also took less time. Balloon framing is attributed to Augustine Taylor in the 1830s.

The Nineteenth Century

L Manning, a London carpenter, created a portable cottage for emigrants in 1837, which was the first prefabricated kit home. Manning designed the cottage for his son who was emigrating from England to Australia. The construction of the cottage consisted of a continuous floor plate, grooved wooden posts, and wall plates and triangular roof trusses. To build the cottage, the owner had to bolt the posts into the floor plate which was supported by bearers, secure the wall plates to the posts, and secure the roof trusses to the top of the walls, then enclose the roof. Manning's company shipped over a dozen cottages to Australia, proving the popularity of the design and concept. The construction was influenced by balloon framing.

In Baltimore, John Hall built a panelized cottage that was portable that was influenced by Manning's design. The gold rush of the 1840s created a prefab housing boom, as companies in New York and even around the world sent prefab houses to California to house the prospectors. Some of the buildings that were sent from England were made of corrugated iron as well as cast iron, precursors of the Quonset Huts of World War II. D.N. Skillings and D.B. Flint built portable buildings in the 1860s; some of their best customers were the soldiers of the Union Army during the Civil War. These buildings consisted of panels that were easily broken down and reassembled. During the building of the railroads in the 1860s and 90s, companies built prefab, panelized buildings for the railroad workers. Colonel Lyman Bridges created prefab cottages and schoolhouses, as well as homes, to the settlers of the West. A cottage of his was exhibited in 1867 at the Paris Universal Exposition.

The Twentieth Century And Today

In the early 1900s, two kinds of prefab houses emerged: pre-cut and panelized. Panelized houses were light and considered portable because of the fact that they can be taken down and put back up so easily. Pre-cut houses were basically balloon-framed houses with the boards pre-cut to length. In the early 1900s, Ernest F Hodgson sold panelized cottages for summer use as well as houses for year-round use. Some of his houses continued to be sold from the Hodgson catalogue until the 1970s. The Gordon-Van Tine Company sold pre-cut prefab homes from the early 1900s until World War II. The Aladdin Company was one of the most successful companies that sold pre-cut prefab homes from the early 1900s to 1987, and sold more than 50,000 houses throughout its history. By 1940, when Sears stopped selling houses through their catalogues, they had sold between 100,000 and 150,000 houses. Montegomery Ward sold Wardway Homes. Customers could choose either panelized prefab homes or pre-cut ones. After World War II, another burst of prefab houses occurred with the return of the GIs. According to "A Brief History of Levittown," Bill Levitt and his sons began building 2,000 pre-cut prefab homes for them, creating Levittown. They built thousands more before switching their attention to prefab ranch houses in the late 1940s. Prefab building continues today, with catalogues that offer the prospective buyers choices in the details of their homes.

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