The Techbuilt Package: Part 1

Initially, buying a Techbuilt meant that you purchased a house package from Techbuilt Inc. consisting of the wall, roof and floor panels that formed the shell of the house. Other components were acquired locally by the builder according to the specifications from Techbuilt. This approach served the desire to keep the cost of the house package and its shipment to a minimum. However, it also introduced the likelihood that locally sourced materials and hardware would vary in type and quality and could, therefore, reflect poorly on the company. In response to these concerns, as well as consumer demand, the Techbuilt package was expanded several times throughout 1954 and 1955.

The first set of houses offered were simply named with letters, A-F. (See The Techbuilt Idea for model details.) As of July 1954, the panel package prices were:

A House $2,150
B House $2,500
C house $2,825
D House $2,525
E House $2,900
Ex (Excursion) House $2,900
F House $3,350

At this time, there were three add-ons available to the base package, a Gaboon ceiling (E-F houses only) for $400, a door for $35 and stairs for $125.

Techbuilt Package exploded

Efforts to expand the package offering experienced a setback due to ongoing strikes at many of the plywood mills on the west coast. In response to this, Techbuilt sent the following memo with package price updates to their sales staff on September 1, 1954.

“As you are probably aware, there has been a strike at the West Coast plywood mills for the past several weeks causing material prices to soar. We had hoped that the strike would end before our inventory of materials purchased at pre-strike prices ran out. Unfortunately the strike has persisted, our materials supply has run out, and we have been forced to purchase our plywood in small lots wherever we could find it at premium prices. Effective as of orders placed September 15, 1954, is the following schedule for panels:

A House $2,250
B House $2,610
C house $2,950
D House $2,635
E House $3,025
Ex (Excursion) House $3,075
F House $3,500”

The plywood strikes started to come to an end not long after this memo was issued and the company was able to get back to work expanding their offerings. The changes that came in 1955 will be discussed in Part 2.

 

 

Techbuilt on Campus: Dartmouth

From the beginning, Techbuilt had a connection to various college and university campuses. Early marketing for the company, and Conantum before it, was aimed at young professionals at MIT and Harvard who sought to move to the suburbs. Over the next 15 years, Techbuilts  started showing up on campuses in various capacities from faculty housing to a fraternity house. This post represents the first in what will be an occasional series looking at the Techbuilt on campus. First up: Dartmouth College.

Dartmouth

Dartmouth Faculty Housing – Techbuilt Catalog, Techbuilt Inc ca 1958.

Ok, the Dartmouth Techbuilts might technically not be on campus, but they certainly represent one of the most interesting applications of the Techbuilt on or off of a campus. Dartmouth College partnered with the Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital to develop Rivercrest in 1957. Rivercrest featured 30 duplexes designed by Techbuilt and was to provide housing for faculty and staff of the two institutions.

Dartmouth to Build

Dartmouth to Build – New York Times, March 1, 1957.

 

Dartmouth House 2

 

Dartmouth House

 

 

An article in The Dartmouth from November 1958 shares a couple of humorous anecdotes about the houses. Given the generally north-south orientation of the duplexes, the first winter surprised the residents on the north side with snow drifts on their car and carport. The article states that “every house has a wire fence, a car, a dog, and most have a baby carriage.” Though it says most mothers don’t let there kids out since they are outnumbered by the dogs.

The Rivercrest duplexes stood for a long time until finally being demolished in the past few years. Below is a Google Earth image from 2006 of the site.

Rivercrest Aerial 2006

Rivercrest in 2006 – Google Earth Historic Imagery

 


The two photographs of the houses were taken by Richard Lodmill for the article “Inside Suburbia: A Glance into the homes of Rivercrest and Sachem Village” by Thomas Green featured in the November 21, 1958 edition of The Dartmouth.

 

Techbuilt Spacemaking Furniture

Techbuilt Furniture Front

 

With the initial success of the Techbuilt house, and keeping with their goal of adding onto the house package to better serve the needs of home buyers, Techbuilt launched Techbuilt Spacemaking Furniture in 1955. The design of the furniture draws on work done in the late 1940s as part of an entry in the Museum of Modern Art’s International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design which Carl Koch entered as part of the Design Research Team category in collaboration with Albert Dietz, Burnham Kelly and John Wulff, all of MIT. The catalog for the exhibit said the MIT entry, “was the most inclusive submission by any of the Design Research Teams. Problems of seating and storage were well presented in extensive models and drawings. Besides a fine sense of design, the report made clear an exceptionally keen appreciation of manufacturing and marketing problems.”

This competition is notable as the first and second place winners in the seating category went on to production and became classics of modern furniture. These are the first place submission by Don Knorr that was produced by Knoll and the second place entry of molded fiberglass/plastic chairs by Charles Eames and UCLA produced by Herman Miller. 

Design of the new line of Techbuilt Spacemaking Furniture was well under way by January 1955. When it launched, Lou Fischer was named Furniture Manager. The marketing of the furniture reflected on the Techbuilt Idea of flexibility, affordability and customization. There were more than 20 basic pieces that could be ordered as designed or minus the back or a side panel to allow for connecting multiple units. Another marketing strategy was the idea of bundling the desired furniture packages with the house package thus allowing the buyer to roll the cost of the furniture into the mortgage. What was unique for the pieces at the time was that they were shipped knocked-down, unassembled in a flat package like we now associate with Ikea, to be assembled on site by the buyer with a basic set of tools.

When Techbuilt further expanded the basic house package in late 1955, it included a recommended collection of the Spacemaking Furniture that Koch & Associates had identified as meeting the minimal storage needs of a family with each Techbuilt model receiving its own collection of furniture.

Techbuilt Furniture Back

The first production order for the furniture line was placed with Commander Woodworking of Rockville, Connecticut in early June 1955 and was completed on July 1.  Commander Woodworking, founded by fellow Harvard graduate Richard Lagreze, was also the manufacturer of another line of knock-down furniture called Focus, designed by Reginald Squire. The second production order for Techbuilt was completed by mid-October though it is unclear as to who the manufacturer was. There were issues with the first production run of the furniture that they sought to correct in the second run. These included sagging of the bottom frame of the wardrobe, which was fixed by adding a center leg for support, and the redesign of drawer fronts to close a 3/4” gap that was thought to allow dust in.

Focus Brochure cover

In At Home With Tomorrow Koch mentions that they tried two different manufacturers for the furniture with neither one producing at the quality desired (p169). Owners of the furniture described it as being somewhat flimsy, so it may have been more the fault of the design and less so the manufacturer. No additional production orders were placed for the Spacemaking Furniture and it seems to have disappeared from the company’s marketing material by the next year.

Study of any existing pieces of the furniture may reveal more about the manufacturer for the two production runs. Given the quick turn around between selling out the first run and ordering the second, I lean towards the belief that Commander did both runs. I look forward to uncovering more information about this line of furniture. Though the furniture wasn’t successful by almost any measure, I believe these pieces are important as they were an extension of the bigger Techbuilt Idea and I imagine they are quite rare at this point.


 Special thanks goes to the family of Richard Lagreze who have been extremely generous with information and materials related to Commander Woodworking and the Focus line of furniture. 

The Techbuilt Idea

TBIdea-Header

The core of the work that Techbuilt Inc. did in its early years was based on a desire to provide well-designed, affordable products that can change with the life stages of their owners. Though based on standard modules, both the Techbuilt house and Spacemaking Furniture could be customized or modified beyond the base offering. This allowance for variation was critical to the Techbuilt Idea as it would allow for whole developments of Techbuilts while avoiding the possibility of every house looking the same. This was certainly a concern with Koch’s other developments like Conantum and Kendal Common, as well as with the consulting work done for the Lustron Corporation.

Published in late 1954, The Techbuilt Idea shows the early vision of the company, through several drawings of proposed layouts, to develop neighborhoods full of Techbuilt houses. Other pages feature the positive press the house received in its first year as well as letters from owners and interested parties. The initial house packages, A thorough F,  are then detailed with the ‘E’, or Excursion, house being featured to illustrate some the the principles of the Techbuilt Idea. A short list of franchised builders, as well as those seeking a franchise, follows with more information for those potential buyers who want to build where there is no franchise. This latter section gives a good description of the materials used to produce the panels at the time. There is also mention of the fact that Techbuilt was actively looking to expand the package offerings to include windows, roofing, appliances etc. In the early years, many of the building materials specified in the builder’s specification pack were acquired locally and, therefore, could vary in type and quality. Future posts will look at the evolution of the Techbuilt package in more depth.

The illustrations in The Techbuilt Idea are wonderful and feature quite a few renderings (probably) done by the architectural staff along with two pages of illustrations by Mary MacLennan. The MacLennan drawings show the process of building a Techbuilt house as well as the broader process of becoming a Techbuilt owner starting with a visit to a model house through financing, construction and the final DIY stage of finishing. A related document, The Techbuilt Manual (to be featured in the future), is full of similar sketches by MacLennan.

Every time I read through The Techbuilt Idea, I notice something new. I hope you do as well, and please don’t hesitate to comment here to share what you found.


The Techbuilt Idea was published in late 1954 by Techbuilt Inc of Cambridge, MA. The pdf scan for download is 14Mb in size and comes from the author’s personal collection.