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1908, Sears Roebuck in the USA launched their “catalog homes”, selling over 100,000 of these kit homes before they were withdrawn from sale in 1942.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. 
One of the reasons for the growth of modular across the globe is a lack of skilled labour, which currently causes 36% of site delays. Constructing homes in a factory setting helps to address this by reducing the need for skilled workers on site, as the modular buildings arrive pre-made, with services installed.  The need to reduce labour requirements was also a factor in the Sears’ homes, as they sought to keep build costs low and make it feasible for families to construct their own properties. By introducing pre-cut lumber Sears eliminated the need for buyers to measure and cut timber. In addition, their development of the balloon style framing system meant that only one carpenter was now required to frame a house, instead of an entire team. Sears also introduced drywall into its later home kits, allowing them to lower prices and offer easier installation and added fire protection.

Affordability is a huge issue in today’s housing market and it is hoped that the lower costs associated with modular will help to lower prices. Ikea has partnered with US manufacturer Ideabox to create a home that sells for $86,000 and they also have a partnership with Skanska called BoKlok, which aims to produce affordable homes for ordinary people.  Affordability was also an issue for Sears’ buyers. The rising costs of city living was pushing people and companies out to the suburbs, where they needed homes quickly and at reasonable prices. In response, the first 22 home kits were priced between US $360–$2,890, (the average US worker took home $10.06 a week or just over $523 a year in 1905) and were designed to meet all tastes and incomes. 
The Sears homes were sold via its catalogue, which at the height of its popularity had millions of readers across the USA and Canada. The first catalogue featured 22 styles of home and 447 home designs were created until 1942. Each of the designs could be modified in numerous ways, including reversing floor plans, building with brick instead of wood siding, and many other options. For today’s home builders standardisation is crucial to make certain that they can maintain continuity in demand and in turn achieve obtain the economies of scale necessary to remain financially viable. BoKlok, mentioned above, only has four to five standard designs, which can be customised to suit local requirements. However, unlike Sears, Ikea does not sell its homes in its catalogues - but you can buy one in store! Ikea is also not the only modern day retailer to sell homes. Muji the Japanese brand launched the prefab Muji hut in 2017 and is also testing a prefab house.
Despite modular being seen as a new approach, its principles have been around for some time. As the Sears’ homes show there are many comparisons between their product and what we are looking to achieve now. Eventually the increased demand for timber during World War II put an end to Sears’ catalog homes but hundreds of them still exist as family homes across the USA. Today we have the opportunity to embrace modular once again, to enable us to create sustainable and affordable homes that will provide current and future generations with a place of their own. As an industry, we must come together to make this vision a reality.

About the author

Stephanie Whittaker

Senior Marketing Communications Manager for BAM Design

Stephanie Whittaker is the senior marketing communications manager for BAM Design. She is also the leader of ENCORD’s Foresighting work group which aims to provide construction industry leaders with the insight and knowledge they need to develop business strategies for the medium to long term.  

Stephanie has spent more than 15 years in the construction industry, working for Arup, Capita Symonds and Halcrow before joining BAM in 2013. During this time she has worked on a variety of projects with a particular focus on creating resilient communities, high performing buildings, sustainable corporate strategies, building information modelling and energy.    

Most recently she has developed an interest in smart cities and how this approach can be used to have a positive impact on the wider city agenda and residents’ lives.

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