The dream of a home of one’s own is an enduring one; the image of a house powerful and iconic. For the upper crust, achieving this dream has rarely been a problem—for America’s working classes, it has always been a struggle. Toward this end, philanthropists, social reformers, public policy makers, builders, architects and engineers have also had a dream—a dream that affordable housing could be prefabricated by the efficient mass production methods found in factories.

Conventional home building is a labor-intensive, weather dependent undertaking. A detailed plan must be drawn and followed, all materials must be purchased and transported to the site, cut and shaped into the desired walls, floors, ceilings, openings and rooms. Proper wiring and plumbing need to be installed. The “mail order” homes of Sears and Roebuck and the Aladdin Company, with their standardized designs and packages of pre-cut, notched lumber, represent an early prefabrication of traditional wood framed homes. Benefits of the pre-cutting and assembly work that was done on a factory production line were not only that it was faster but that it could be done all year regardless of challenging weather conditions. Thomas Edison and the architect Grosvenor Atterbury took a more radical approach to mass production by utilizing an industrial material in their concrete houses. Edison may have had the name recognition but it was Atterbury who left a lasting legacy to prefabrication with his charming Forest Hills Gardens, a planned community featuring affordable housing for workers.

In architecture, the Functionalist movement produced a series of radical designs for the mass production of houses. Few of them were ever executed except in model or experimental form. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Houses are an example. Revolutionary in concept and design, only a few were built, as their design proved to be too unconventional to attract either government contracts or ordinary home buyers. Their function in the develop- ment of prefabrication is more one of stimulation than practicality.

The federal government has played an active role in encouraging prefab housing. Under President Franklin Roosevelt, the Farm Security Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority sponsored the development of entire prefabricated communities. These ranged from villages of movable trailers to prefabricated house units trucked in and joined together on site.

As in the past, prefab housing today ranges from the conventional to the radical and continues to generate excitement and controversy. In terms of sheer numbers, the ubiquitous mobile home, as popular as it is unpopular, must be considered the most successful of all prefabricated homes—by the year 2000, there were nearly 9 million of them in this country. Many builders and homeowners now turn to modular housing, prefabricated units trucked to their destination and then joined together. In our global economy, the very symbol of globalization, the 40-foot shipping container becomes a home to suit a modern nomad, here today, Hong Kong tomorrow. Today’s prefabs also play a vital role in international response to natural disasters. In the last year, various forms of prefabricated dwellings have been set up for those made homeless along the U.S. Gulf coast by Hurricane Katrina, for earthquake victims in the mountains of Pakistan, for survivors of the tsunami in Borneo and the devastating mudslides in Guatemala.