Walter Gropius’ “Housing Industry” (1924)

Translated from the German by Roger Banham.

From The Scope of Total Architecture.

(MacMillan Publishing Company.  New York, NY: 1980).

• • •

Man is undoubtedly endowed with the capability of building his dwelling soundly and adequately, but innate inertia and sentimental attachment to tradition are obstructing his progress.  The austerity occasioned by world events is today forcing governments as well as individuals to surmount this inert.  By adjusting to changed world conditions, attempts are finally being made to realize the old ideal of building typical dwellings more cheaply, better and in larger numbers than heretofore so as to provide every family with the basis for a healthy life.  Generally applicable solutions genuinely suited to modern conditions have not yet been found, simply because the problem of dwelling design as such has never been dealt with in its entirety of sociological, economic, technical and formal ramifications.  Starting from scratch, it must be solved on a large-scale basis by a systematic consideration of these factors.  All previous attempts were deadlocked on controversial side issues, on matters of “ersatz” materials and economy construction measures on agricultural or esthetic deliberations.  However, as soon the over-all scope of preconceived requirements which affect the dwelling design problem are clearly recognized and accurately outlined, the tactical problem of realization is reduced to a mere problem of methods and large-scale management.

This universal ideal of “how do we want to live?” as a generally applicable result of reflections upon the spiritual and material possibilities of our age has not yet been clearly outlined.  The chaotic lack of unity of our residential buildings, is evidence of the vagueness of prevailing concepts concerning the proper dwelling for modern man.

Is it a reflection of man’s way of life that each individual’s dwelling should differ entirely from that of every other individual? [129] Is it not a sign of intellectual impoverishment and fallacious thinking to furnish a dwelling in rococo or Renaissance style while identical modern clothes are worn in all parts of the world? Advances in technology made during the past three generations surpass those of millennia before us.  The better we organize physical labor, the more the human spirit will be emancipated.  Perhaps mobile dwellings which will enable us to take with us all the conveniences of comfortable living even when we move are no longer utopian.

Housing the people is a problem of mass requirements.  Who would dream of having his shoes custom made? Instead, we buy stock products which satisfy most individual requirements, thanks to refined production methods.  Similarly, it will be possible for the individual in the future to order from stock dwellings suitable for his purposes.  Modern technique might already be ripe for this development, but the building trade today is still using old methods of handcrafts in which the machine plays only a subordinate role.  A radical reformation of the entire building trade along industrial lines is therefore a must for a modern solution of this important problem.  It must be simultaneously approached from the three angles of economy, technology and form; all three are interdependent.  Satisfactory results can only be gained by simultaneous progress in all three fields because of the profusion of complex problems involved.  These are beyond the competence of the individual and can be solved only by a concerted effort in collaboration with numerous experts.

Reduction of cost of dwelling construction is of decisive importance for the national budget.  Attempts to reduce the cost of conventional handicraft methods of construction by introducing more rigorous organizational techniques have brought only slight progress.  The problem was not attacked at its root.  The new aim, on the other hand, would be the manufacture by mass production methods of stock dwellings which are no longer constructed at the site but are produced in special factories in the form of component parts or units suitable for assembly.  The advantages of this method of production would be increasingly greater in the extent to which it becomes possible to assemble such prefabricated component parts of houses at the building site just like machines.  This [130] dry assembly method, to be discussed in detail below, would eliminate not only the troublesome twisting and warping of building parts due to moisture but also the loss of time required for the drying out of houses built by conventional construction methods of masonry, mortar and plaster.  This would at once ensure independence of weather and season.

An industrial building process of this type is only conceivable on a broad financial basis.  The small individual contractor; engineer or architect will never be in the position to realize such building techniques alone by himself.  On the other hand large enterprises involving all the separate branches under a single ownership have been found to be economically feasible in other fields of business as well.  It would therefore be necessary first to mobilize a large number of interested people before consumer organizations and vertical enterprises could be formed whose financial strength would be adequate to ensure the realization of such a major project.  Of course, the economic advantages of this industrialized construction method would then be enormous.  Experienced experts estimate that savings of 50 per cent or more can be expected.  This would imply that every employed person could then afford to provide his family with a good, healthful dwelling, just as he can nowadays purchase the articles of daily need at less cost due to the development of world industry than this was possible for previous; generations.  The cost of these industrial products could be reduced step by step by the use of steam and electric power increasingly replacing hand labor; cost reduction in the construction industry will equally depend upon the exploitation of such power.

The other important means of cost reduction is based on new farsighted financing policies which should consciously avoid excessive interest rates on the building capital due to unproductive middlemen dispensable in the transaction.

Before decisive preliminary organizational steps can be taken toward solving the industrial mass production problem our living requirements must be clarified sufficiently to establish generally valid, precise demands as to “how do we want to live?” As a result, numerous habits will be found to be superfluous and obsolete; for example, it should be no loss to reduce the size of rooms in favor of increasing living comforts The [131] majority of citizens of a specific country have similar dwelling and living requirements; it is therefore hard to understand why the dwellings we build should not show a similar unification as, say, our clothes, shoes or automobiles. The danger Of undesirable suppression of legitimate individual requirements should be no greater here than in the case of fashions.

There is no justification for the fact that every house in a suburban development should have a different floor plan, a different exterior of a different style and different building materials; on the contrary, this is a wasteful and tasteless attitude of parvenus.  The old farmhouse as well as the average citizen’s town house of the eighteenth century, for example, all throughout Europe, show a similar arrangement of the floor plan and the over-all design.  However, the danger of too rigid a standardization, such as is exemplified by the English suburban home, must be avoided because suppression of individuality is always shortsighted and unwise.  Dwellings must be designed in such a way that justified individual requirements derived from the family size or the type of profession of the family head can be suitably and flexibly fulfilled.  The organization must therefore aim first of ail at standardizing and mass-producing not entire houses, but only their component parts which can then be assembled into various types of houses, in the same way as in modern machine design certain internationally standardized parts are interchangeably used for different machines. The production policy would provide for carrying in stock all individual parts necessary for the construction of houses of various types and sizes, to be ordered to the building site as required from various specialized factories.  At the same time field-tested assembly plans for houses of different layout and appearance will be available to the public.  Since all the standardized machine-made parts will fit together accurately, house erection at the site on the basis of precise assembly plans can be performed rapidly and with a minimum of labor, partly with unskilled workers, and under any conditions of weather and season.  Above all, this method avoids once and for all the numerous embarrassing surprises and unpredictable hazards which are inevitably connected with the conventional methods of construction: failure of building elements to fit due to inaccurate wall dimensions or to the effects of moisture, unforeseen patchwork [132] work due to construction damage, loss of time and rent due to delays in drying, as well as the consequences of the usual haste in the design of custom-made house plans.  Instead, we shall be blessed with exact fit of the various machine-made component building parts, with a fixed price, and with a brief, accurately predictable and guaranteed assembly time for the house.

The realization of this economic and organizational scheme is above all the engineer’s problem.  Also from his point of view the task represents a radical change from conventional developments in regard to building materials as well as structural design.  Most construction today is executed with the old natural building materials, stone, brick and wood.  Production of most of the old house takes place at the building site.  The necessary tools and machinery, while being transported to the site for this purpose, block the traffic.  These mobile factories, so to speak, are necessarily primitive compared to stationary plants.  Erection of the building shell by conventional methods makes it impossible to predict the time required for the rough enclosure to dry and the interior to be completed because this depends upon weather conditions.  Attempts to perfect these conventional building methods, for example by enlarging the building blocks and introducing more highly standardized and efficient organization of the work at the site, failed to achieve significant simplifications or cost reductions.  In order to reap the advantages of the new assembly construction methods, industry will therefore have to employ building materials other than those used heretofore, materials capable of being processed by machine instead of unprocessed natural materials.  In this respect the aim would not be the creation of substitutes, but the improvement of natural products to obtain absolutely reliable uniformity of performance (rolled steel, cement alloys, synthetic wood).  A standardized solution of the problem would be made possible only by prefabrication of all the structural parts necessary in the construction of a house, even the walls, ceilings and roof.

To this end, the structural design of houses must also be changed drastically.  Either a material must be produced which possesses the same structural and insulating properties as conventional masonry walls while having less volume and weight [133] so that it can be assembled in large slabs of story height, or else the whole structure must be made of a structural skeleton on the one hand and of nonstructural wall, roof and ceiling panels on the other.  A skeleton of this type may be of steel beams and columns or of reinforced concrete beams and pillars connected to different structural systems similar to wood frame constructions.  The panels for the walls, ceilings and roof will have to consist of standardized slabs which are to be factory-made of weather-resistant material, dimensionally stable, yet porous, insulating, tough and of light weight.  Building slabs of this nature are already beginning to appear on the market in the form of the conventional planks of pumice concrete or gypsum.  But the problems involved in the industrial production of satisfactory wall, ceiling, and roof panels, as well as of a suitable light skeleton for houses, are still in need of an economical solution.  The standardization and mass production of doors, windows, stairs, trim, fixtures and interior finish has already reached a more advanced stage of development, although hand labor still outweighs industrial machine production.  The engineer engaged in vehicular design for railroad cars, ships, automobiles and airplanes has surpassed the building engineer in the development of his methods of construction and materials insofar as he has already perfected the use of machine-processed, homogeneous building materials (iron, aluminum, glass) and the application of machine-produced structural components made of such materials.  His experience is therefore of inestimable value in the field of housing mass production.

The new building method should meet with approval from the artistic standpoint as well.  It is fallacious to assume that architecture will deteriorate because of the industrialization of dwelling construction.  On the contrary, the standardization of building elements will have the beneficial effect of imparting a unified character to new dwellings and developments. There is no reason to fear monotony such as that of English suburbs, provided the basic requirement is fulfilled of standardizing only the building elements, whereas the appearance of buildings assembled from these elements will vary.  The form of these elements shall be determined solely by their purpose and function.  Their “beauty” should be ensured by [134] good, well-finished materials and lucid, simple design, not by added-on decorations and profiles alien to their structural of material properties.  The success with which these building elements, this large-scale “erector set,” are assembled into an actual structure of well-proportioned space depends upon the creative talents of the designing architect.  The standardization of parts certainly does not limit the variety of individual arrangements which we all desire, and the recurrence of individual parts and identical materials in the various buildings will have a rhythmic and soothing effect on us.  Adequate freedom remains for individual or national character to express itself, exactly as in the case of our clothing, and yet all of it will bear the stamp of our era.

As extensive a project as the industrialization of building construction can only be carried out with the aid of an unusual extent of public support.  The problem is of such great importance to national economy that laymen and experts alike must emphatically demand that the government make preparations for its solution on a public level.  States and communities, being the major builders, are compelled economically and culturally to exploit all possible means for reducing the cost of housing construction.  The previous approach of encouraging use of “ersatz” materials and short-cut methods of construction has failed to reach the goal.  Publicly supported experimental building sites are needed! Any article to be mass-produced by industry must be systematically subjected to numerous preliminary tests in which the businessman, the engineer and the artist participate equally before its model is standardized for production; similarly the production of standardized building components can be accomplished only by large-scale collaboration among industrialists, economists and artists.  Teamwork so organized, not the creation of “ersatz” methods, would represent genuine planning and economic foresight.

It is obvious that construction of the pilot model houses will require considerable investment, just as do the models made in industrial laboratories as a basis for mass-produced consumer goods.  The financing of these experiments is the task of the consumer organizations which are to benefit from the savings to be achieved ultimately.  They are the organizations primarily interested in the establishment of experimental institutions [135] where all previous accomplishments can be systematically collected in accordance with guiding principles and be tested with a view to the new building rationale.  So drastic a modification of the building industry is bound to take place gradually, to be lure.  But in spite of all arguments against such development, it will inevitably come.  The enormous waste of materials, time and labor, caused by the fact that extensive housing developments are still being built by hand according to countless unrelated individual designs instead of being mass-produced according to standardized though flexible plans, can no longer be defended on any grounds.

[From Bauhausbücher, Vol. 3, Ein Versuchshaus des Bauhauses, Albert Langen Verlag, München, 1924]


~ by Ross Wolfe on October 28, 2010.

3 Responses to “Walter Gropius’ “Housing Industry” (1924)”

  1. […] Gropius, Walter.  “The Housing Industry.” Translated by Roger Banham. The Scope of Total Architecture.  (MacMillan Publishing Company.  New […]

  2. […] Gropius, “Housing Industry.”  Pgs. […]

  3. […] Gropius, Walter.  “The Housing Industry.” Translated by Roger Banham. The Scope of Total Architecture.  (MacMillan Publishing Company.  New […]

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