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Manufactured Homes

Manufactured Homes

Manufactured homes have become an increasingly attractive and affordable alternative to the traditional site-built house. Factory-built and delivered to the home site in one or more sections by tractor-trailer, these structures now come in all shapes and sizes, with exteriors of varying styles, textures, and materials, and with interior space and layout approximating that found in more conventional houses—and they cost less. Once considered suitable only for the two extremes of the market spectrum, young first-time buyers or retirees, today manufactured homes allow homeownership to be within the reach of a much larger segment of society. Whether in a specifically designated manufactured housing subdivision or on an individual lot in town or country, the modern factory-built home is largely fulfilling America's urgent need for affordable housing.

A descendant of the mobile home, manufactured homes no longer are considered temporary in any sense of that word: they are not simply a stepping stone to a larger house, and, perhaps most significantly, they are intended, just like the stick-built dwelling, to remain permanently in place on their established lot. Numerous technical problems and design flaws have been overcome. Impediments to financing and mortgage arrangements have been removed. Institutional barriers such as local zoning ordinances that once blocked their way have been modified and compromised to enable their proliferation. One of the main obstacles to greater social acceptance of manufactured housing is its association in the minds of many with the earlier forms of the type: people still think of them as trailers.

While some wish to differentiate between the mobile home and the strictly modular prefabricated housing units manufactured in a factory, this distinction has been clouded by the industry's own semantics. From its humble beginnings, the "travel trailer," the term for the predominant type of mass-produced transportable shelter in this country, has made a progression through "house trailer," "mo-bile home," and finally to "manufactured home." Taking a cue from the popularity of British "motor caravans," American companies began production of travel trailers designed primarily for camping or road trips. During the 1930s, Arthur Sherman's Covered Wagon models rolled off the production line like Henry Ford's automobiles. Yet people soon began using them as year-round accommodations. This was the beginning of the application of an industrial mass-production mode to housing. Sherman advertised his product in popular magazines such as National Geographic and Field and Stream, and the public responded to the availability of this new way of building shelter. In 1936, noted financial analyst Roger Babson, who had earlier foreseen the stock market crash, predicted that soon more than half of all Americans would be living in trailers.

Several visionaries, including Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and R. Buckminster Fuller, had espoused the concept of mass-produced industrialized housing during the early decades of the twentieth century; but the initial departure away from a towable trailer in manufactured housing may be attributed to the modular unit known as the Durham House, designed in 1938 by two architecture professors at the University of Illinois. This structure had no underlying chassis, was presented in a double or single scheme, and was designed for more or less permanent placement on a cinder block foundation. While the double unit may indeed be viewed as the precursor of today's popular "double-wides," prospective home-buyers then did not seem as interested in manufactured housing that was decidedly something other than a trailer, and the Durham House never caught on. The so-called Lustron House was another failed attempt. General Houses Corporation of Chicago tried to market prefabricated designs during the 1930s, and a few government agencies, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, experimented at this time with transportable, sectional housing. Yet during the late 1930s, the notion that mobile homes could serve as permanent housing captured consumer consciousness. And it was then that the industry first changed the name for their product from "travel trailer" to "house trailer."

World War II created a ready market for the house trailer, as thousands of units were ordered by the government to shelter workers involved in construction and war-time production projects across the country. When hostilities ended and the flight to the suburbs began, the trailer house provided a competitive alternative to standardized models of the new subdivision home such as those being developed in places like Levittown. Trailer parks, once associated with seasonal camps and "Tin Can Tourists," began to offer instead a sense of permanent community. Moreover, basic designs for house trailers changed with their name, and they especially relinquished those elements symbolically associated with movement, substituting the suggestion of a real home fixed in place: exteriors became less streamlined, and interiors appeared less yacht-like; foldout porches and bay windows contributed to the new implication of permanence; skirting and suggested landscaping schemes covered up the hitch and chassis. In 1954, the eight-foot-width barrier was broken when Marshfield Homes introduced a ten-foot-wide model. During this same time, manufacturers and trade magazines initiated the newest label for their product in recognition of its now unmistakable role: it was to be called the "mobile home." Transportation regulations were modified to allow shipment over public rights of way, and manufacturers made their models wider, with 12-and 14-foot widths becoming standard. Soon buyers were favoring the "double-wide" home, designed to be transported in halves down the highway and joined together at the site.

In the post-World War II period, deliberate attempts at mass producing industrialized modular housing units apart from the mobile home industry have been sporadic and unsuccessful, despite a number of notable ventures. During the 1940s, a collaborative effort by several architects exiled from Hitler's Germany set a course toward production of the "Packaged House," an enterprise that engaged much fanfare but little else. One tangible result was that during the late 1940s, the General Panel Company turned out a limited quantity of Packaged House kits from their California plant. Contemporary attempts at marketing manufactured homes by firms such as Uni-Seco Structures, Arcon, and Aluminum Bungalow were equally less than successful. Prefabrication was seen as the application of systems design to the problem of shelter, but all the dreams of efficiency and technique could not meet the wishes of the market. Even Buckminster Fuller had labeled his famous Dymaxion House a "theory only." Improvements in design and technological breakthroughs over the years have not seemed to improve the chances for commercial success. The Marlette Company, for instance, produced a sophisticated industrial design in 1963 that went nowhere. That same year, Kaiser Aluminum introduced several innovative floor plans in modular homes. And in 1970 a distinctive Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired "prairie style" manufactured home was developed but never commercially produced.

In 1975, however, an official industry name change prompted recognition of reality: mobile homes were now called manufactured housing, and since that time any additional efforts at prefabricated factory-built housing have been subsumed within the mobile home/manufactured housing industry. In terms of overall output, the percentage of all new housing represented by mobile/manufactured home shipments rose steadily following the end of World War II and peaked during the end of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, when for several years they comprised about a third of all housing starts. This ratio has declined recently and remains relatively stable at approximately 20 percent in the late 1990s, according to figures compiled by the Manufactured Housing Institute. At a national level, government recognition of the legitimacy of the manufactured home as a fully acceptable housing unit only came in 1969, when HUD loans were authorized for their purchase and financing no matter where they were to be located. The local legal landscape is still contested terrain, however. In a 1982 decision upholding restrictions against their placement anywhere other than in a designated park, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that "mobile homes are different and thus may be classified separately from other residential structures for purposes of regulation." But in a Michigan case, that state's highest court overturned such restrictions as not being a proper exercise of the police power, and affirmed that "mobile homes today can compare favorably with site-built housing in size, safety, and attractiveness."

To be sure, from all outward appearances many manufactured homes are virtually indistinguishable from those constructed on site. As Allan Wallis says in Wheel Estate: "They have pitched shingled roofs, overhanging eaves with gutters, and permanent foundations … often sited parallel to the street like conventional homes, rather than in the perpendicular arrangement characteristic of the mobile home park." While aesthetics are no longer an issue, there remains social prejudice built on the long-term association of trailers with lower socioeconomic classes and impermanence, but few of today's mobile homeowners select their house out of a desire for mobility, and nine out of ten placements remain in their original location. Furthermore, evidence has shown that fears of neighborhoods looking more trashy are unfounded, and the industry is expanding its target market.

—Robert Kuhlken

Further Reading:

Bernhardt, Arthur. Building Tomorrow: The Mobile/Manufactured Housing Industry. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1980.

Dietz, Albert, and Laurence S. Cutler. Industrialized Building Systems for Housing. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1971.

Herbert, Gilbert. The Dream of the Factory-made House: Walter Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1984.

Reidelbach, John A. Modular Housing in the Real: A Study of the Industry and the Product, Focusing on the Wood Framed Sectional Unit. Annandale, Virginia, Modco, 1970.

Thornburg, David. Galloping Bungalows: The Rise and Demise of the American House Trailer. Hamden, Connecticut, Archon Books, 1991.

Wallis, Allan D. Wheel Estate: The Rise and Decline of Mobile Homes. New York, Oxford University Press, 1991.

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