In 1908, Sears Roebuck in the USA launched their “catalog homes”, selling over 100,000 of these kit homes before they were withdrawn from sale in 1942. It may seem odd to reference Sears Roebuck in a blog on modular housing but there are many similarities between their homes and today’s modern pre-fabricated products.
Originally created as a way to reduce excess stock in Sears’ building materials unit, the homes came with pre-cut lumber pieces that were machine cut to fit and were sold using the slogan “Correctly made, easy to build. Money, time and labor saved”. A strapline that would resonate with many of today’s governments and homebuilders, as they look to modular to reduce the housing deficit, with its faster build times and improved factory made quality. In fact, Sears estimated that, their pre-cut house with fitted pieces, would take only 352 carpenter hours to be constructed, as opposed to 583 hours for a conventional house - a 40% reduction. Not bad, when you consider that today the time saved by using modular is estimated to be between 20-60% of the construction programme.
To meet the demand for homes, Sears acquired their own lumber mill and factories producing doors and windows etc. This gave them greater control over the manufacturing process and, as a result,they were able to benefit from economies of scale and pass these savings on to the buyer. Similarly, many of today’s modular home producers also have their own factories, as they seek to reduce costs and reap the benefits of factory based production - such as productivity levels of 80% compared to 20% on site. But how do Sears’ production figures stack up against today’s modern factories? Despite working in a pre-automated production line era, Sears must have produced on average 2,777 home kits a year. In comparison, Sweden’s top modular home producer constructs more than 25,000 square feet of turnkey housing per week, equating to 1,500 apartments annually.