Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Prefab Homebuilding 60 Years Ago

Prefab and modular home construction has been with us for over a century but until I saw these videos from the 1950's I didn't realize just how much changed from today. The two things that stick out are the number of people working on the factory production line and the use of machinery that many factories no longer use but instead have gone back to the "one man, one hammer, one nail" method that site builders have been using since Biblical times.

One page from the National Homes catalog

Both of these videos feature National Homes which had a huge portion of the homebuilding industry in the 50's, 60's and 70's.

I also noticed that today's housing codes and regulations would have killed National's speed and efficiency to the point that getting a house from one of their factories would take as long as getting a home from today's modular home factory.

Here is a longer video showing the house from Architect to 'rough-in'.

This article from the 1987 Chicago Tribune about what happened to National Homes. It's a history lesson that continues to play out in our industry.

Big Builder Getting It Together Again
With New Name And Its History, Firm Ready To Go
July 26, 1987|By Steve Kerch, Chicago Tribune.

LAFAYETTE, IND. — Executives at the headquarters of National Enterprises Inc. here are talking publicly about their reorganized company for the first time.
If history is any indication, they won`t have to do much talking to gain name recognition. The company from which National Enterprises springs

--National Homes Corp.--has the kind of history that is hard to ignore.

Founded in 1940, National Homes within 20 years had become the country’s largest manufacturer of prefabricated housing.

The early going was slow. From 1941 through 1945, National built 7,500 single-family houses for war-plant workers and army officers. After the war, production was converted to a line of houses for the civilian market ranging in price from $7,000 to $10,000.

In November, 1948, the company introduced its ``thrift line`` two bedroom houses that sold for $5,150 plus lot, and business took off.

Demand among postwar buyers moving to the suburbs skyrocketed and so did National`s fortunes. With the addition of three- and four-bedroom models, the thrift line by 1950 accounted for 90 percent of the firm`s output.

The 100,000th National Home was built in 1956, the 250,000th in 1963. In 1960, the 200,000th house was shipped to northwest suburban Streamwood and erected by Robert Alexander in his Woodland Heights subdivision, one of the most ambitious projects in the area at the time with a projected 6,000 houses. In 1961, National Homes even designed a special Chicago-area three bedroom model with 1,870 square feet of space and a basement, which Chicago buyers were demanding. Corporate officials hosted a gala at Woodland Heights to introduce the model.

National always had a special connection with Chicago. Through the 1950s, `60s and early `70s, the company had major subdivisions under construction in the Chicago suburbs.

The names may no longer be familiar, but they were synonymous with the suburban boom in their day--Crystal Lake Manor in Crystal Lake, Hampton Park in Romeoville, Bel Aire in Sauk Village, Cricket Hill in Matteson and Seasons 4 in Roselle.

The builders are no longer household names, either, but they constructed thousands of National Homes in the suburbs--L & H Builders of Mundelein, Morriss Dreyfuss in Streamwood, F & S Construction Co. in Sauk Village and Martin Braun in Orland Park.

Braun, who built 622 houses in Orland Park at 147th Street and Holly Court, at the time summed up the advantages of prefab housing, saying that it gave buyers the benefit of noted architects, skilled engineering and mass production economies.

How economical? In Streamwood, just two weeks after its incorporation in 1957, plans were announced for 1,000 homes on 300 acres on the south side of Schaumburg Road at the intersection of Bartlett Road. Three models were available, ranging in size from 956 to 1,167 square feet and priced from $12,900 to $15,750. Terms on Veterans Administration loans for the houses were $300 down and $70 a month.

At one time, 27 models were in production. The firm introduced a new model line every year, much as car makers and fashion designers.

The company always had splashy promotions. During the 1954 National Association of Home Builders convention in Chicago, 12 men erected a National Homes house at 800 S. Michigan in one 8-to-5 shift. The 1956 production model could be erected by a six-person crew in 4 1/2 days.

A 1958 promotion for the builders convention didn`t fare so well. Plans to build an aluminum-sided ranch house suspended above State Street were thwarted by protests from tradesmen, who complained that the prefabricated houses cut local employment.

The housing boom provided other opportunities for the company. Prefabbed schools were introduced in 1955 to fill the demand for more neighborhood classrooms. An eight-room school, costing $18,444 per classroom, could be built in 21 days.

``There wasn`t any need for great creativity in those days,`` said David Price, president of National Enterprises. ``People wanted a home, they could afford $X, we`d come up with a home that would cost about that price and it sold.”

In 1972, just before the oil embargo and subsequent recession changed National`s fate, the company introduced a designer line of models created by well-known architects. The Frank Lloyd Wright foundation contributed a three- bedroom split-level to the project, for which 700 builders were signed up.

At its peak in the early 1970s, the company was supplying parts of about 2,000 Chicago-area houses a year. Today the firm still ships about 1,000 units to Chicago-area builders. That represents one-third of the output at its 100,000-square foot Effingham, Ill. plant, which serves a 12-state Midwest region.

But in 1972, the last major National Homes subdivision in Chicago was started--Richton Hills, planned for 634 houses at Sauk Trail and Cicero Avenue in south suburban Richton Park. Although Shore Oaks in Crystal Lake was built under a National Homes franchise starting in 1973, the company`s presence in the Chicago market had faded as its financial woes mounted.
By October, 1973, the firm announced that it was dropping its modular home business because of losses that totaled about $8 million. In modular construction, whole sections of a home are prefabricated. The company decided to concentrate on the panelized construction it had pioneered.

The company posted a loss of nearly $10 million for the nine months ending Sept. 30, 1973, and began cutting back all of its single-family building. In 1974, losses doubled to $20 million and in the first quarter of 1975 the company lost another $4 million.

Workers at the firm`s factories voted to forego raises that year in order to preserve jobs. The company had laid off 300 of its 1,000 employees since 1973. By 1978 the company had divested its mobile home operations.

When Price took over the firm in 1979, the costs of closing plants had left National Homes struggling with its debt and Price set about reorganizing the company.

Price took two big steps: He closed the Lafayette manufacturing operation in 1984, transferring it to a plant one-seventh the size in Effingham; and he brought in needed cash in a deal with Forum Group, a developer of retirement communities.

Today the company, under the new name of National Enterprises Inc., is housed in remodeled headquarters in Lafayette. Price and other company executives now believe the firm is poised for a return to its glory days as a leader in the housing industry.

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