Striving to mass-produce houses the way Detroit makes cars has had at least two significant outcomes in the hundred years since it all began.
One is a heap of unrealized schemes, created by utopian intellectuals and architects (from Frank Lloyd Wright onward) who imagined using assembly-line technology to bring affordable, beautiful, distinctively modern houses to the millions. Again and again, these idealistic ventures have been scuppered by public indifference, or economic recession – or by the fact that excellent design and rock-solid construction never come cheap.
The other result I have in mind is North America's manufactured housing industry, which turns out mobile homes, prefabricated sheds and cottages, and other low-cost, transportable units. Once in a while, you hear about an enterprising architect bent on persuading the housing industrialists to push out a product that's not ordinary – but such efforts usually go nowhere. The artistic quality of mass-manufactured shelter has always been, and remains, very humdrum.
So does the century-old dream of a marriage of advanced design to the assembly line have any future at all?
Probably not, for the time being, at the low end of the residential market. At the high end, however, the prospects for such a union may be brighter. Toronto developer Gary Lands, managing director of Nexterra Green Homes Ltd., certainly thinks our town is ready for some deluxe prefab. In fact, it's already here: Nexterra's new, modern three-bedroom North York dwelling, which has been almost completely factory-built, comes with an important creative pedigree.
Manufactured at a plant in Indiana according to plans supplied by LivingHomes, a Los Angeles development and design firm, the basic components of the 2,132-square-foot, two-storey house – sub-floors and walls and ceilings, tubs and sinks, doors and fixtures, plumbing, even the pre-tiled bathroom – arrived on trucks in late January. (The two-car garage is one of the few elements that didn't come in the kit.) The modules were then put together, Mr. Lands said, in less than two days. The interiors and the exterior were still being outfitted for habitation when I visited the flat-roofed house a couple of weeks ago.
It stands on a picturesque half-acre site at the edge of a quiet post-war neighbourhood populated by old single-family homes and new faux-chateaux. The house's tall north-facing windows open toward a steep-sided ravine, while, at the rear, the property slopes down to the floor of a little valley. Nexterra once owned the ravine, but has deeded it over to the city. Though what happens next will obviously depend on market forces, the developer now intends to drop three more prefabs on the territory that's left.
With its stacked, box-upon-box geometry and floor-to-ceiling glass walls, the house that's nearing completion in Toronto speaks frankly about its modernist American parentage. On one side, the compact, attractive building is descended from an influential line of smartly tailored, glassy, history-free southern California homes. (The residences of Richard Neutra, Charles Eames and LivingHomes's own Ray Kappe are all in the family tree.)
On the other side, the house's roots lie in Henry Ford's revolutionary Model T factory. Much like that first affordable, enormously popular car, Nexterra's Toronto house is almost entirely composed of standardized parts fastened together on the plant floor into a few ready-to-ship packages. The severe, functional simplicity of the design, inside and out, is a reminder of the hard-hat spot, that Rust Belt factory, where the building was born.
Unlike the Model T, however, the North York residence is very green, and the list of its environmentally merciful, fuel-saving features is long. Heating and cooling, for example, are furnished by a geothermal energy exchanger. Recycled synthetic stone has been used in the double-height Scavolini kitchen, the high-performance building envelope has been strengthened to resist Canadian winter weather, and so on.
And again unlike Mr. Ford's Tin Lizzie – which was pitched to middle-class hourly wage-earners – Nexterra's prefab home is costly: The company will put it on the market, Mr. Lands said, for $1.7-million. This place is not, of course, an instance of the cheap avant-garde housing for the multitudes longed for by visionaries early in the 20th century. Nor should it be: I'm not suggesting that Mr. Lands, or any other developer, ought to defy market realities and attempt to create a modernist heaven on earth.
That said, Nexterra's house is interesting evidence of an old passion for prefab that has endured down to the present day among forward-thinking North American architects, designers and developers. With so much intelligence and skill being applied to the problem, it may be only a matter of time before someone figures out a practical way to mass-manufacture inexpensive homes with the trim, fresh, contemporary (and very California) styling that makes this small Nexterra/LivingHomes house appealing.