10 September 2010

From Wigwarm to Ikea (houses)

'I find it incredible that there will not be a sweeping revolution in the methods of building during the next century. The erection of a house wall, come to think of it, is an astonishingly tedious and complex business: the final result is exceedingly unsatisfactory'

Wells, H.G. 'Anticipations of the reaction of mechanical and scientific progress upon human life and thought', Chapman, London 1901. 
Taken from Alan Brookes, 'The turning point of building'

Who said H.G. Wells was not a man of vision? Some might argue, though, that Mr Wells failed by not predicting the arrival of mass housing prefabrication systems in the 20th century. Well, if that was the question, I'm afraid the answer is even tougher: he didn't have to predic anything, because house prefabrication was well known by the turn of the century. And again, if he new it, he didn't fail in his predictions at all: prefab houses today are as much 'the next thing to come to building' as they were in 1900. Only that we are still waiting for this to happen...

One of the first succesful examples of prefab housing in the USA is the E.F. Hodgson Company, active in Dover, Massachusetts between 1894 and 1944. Their houses came under the brand Wigwarm. The word is a mixture of wigwam, an Indian tent similar to a teepee, and warm. Its meaning: quick to assemble but comfy.

A Hodgson cottage in Dover, MA, as appeared in the 1935 E.F. Hodgson Catalog

One of the remaining Hodgson houses, built in 1940, in pristine condition inside and outside
The Wigwarm construction was a framed house, lighter than a standard timber frame construction, based on several timber sections fastened together with key bolts of special design. With just a blow of a hammer the wedge key tightened up the bolt, saving time during erection or dismantling. Frames were covered with a very heavy waterproof fibre or lining and then with a rabetted siding. The basic modulus for the houses was 6 x 12ft (1.80 x 3.60m). Mr Hodgson didn't just prefabricate houses, he also sold brooders, tool houses, dog houses, car garages - there is one in the top image to the right - or, during war periods, barracks for the military. In the '20s and '30s you could see Hogson houses in places as Europe (Belgium and Italy), Israel, Africa and South America.

Was it a commercial success? It really was, and it was simply based on selling by mail. A response to an ad in a newspaper would get the potential client a full catalog with photographs, floor plans and comments by satisfied customers. The company did not survive its founder: Mr Hodgson, without a son to continue the business, sold it in 1944, four years before he died.

The story is surprisingly similar to today's prefab, portable houses through catalog: the brand new Ikea/BoKlok house. Even the look is familiar. BoKlok, the webpage tells, builds homes for ordinary people who want to have money left over. But the idea for this house was born in very different circumstances, as a dialogue between IKEA and Skanska chairmen in 1996. A retailer and a construction company sharing forces to create affordable apartments. Up to now they have sold more than 4,000 houses in five countries, and the idea is booming, from Scandinavia to Germany to the UK. 

Who knows, maybe now it's the time for the sweeping revolution in the methods of building that H.G. Wells was asking for: his period of 100 years is finally over...

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