The Techbuilt Manual Your Dream vs the Cold Dollar (5.3Mb PDF) Next Chapter…Your Dream Takes the Techbuilt Shape
The first chapter of The Techbuilt Manual introduces the potential buyer to the basics of buying a new home and to the Techbuilt Idea. The services if Techbuilt Inc are also outlined and include this great advice, “Techbuilt does not intend to go into the way of handling hammer and saw, so to speak. If the family does not have the ability, it is strongly urged that they do not build their own house”.
The Techbuilt Manual – Your Dream (4.6Mb PDF) Next up…Your Dream Against the Cold Dollar
In 1953, Techbuilt Inc put together The Techbuilt Manual in preparation for the 1954 Building Your Home show in New York City. It was intended to introduce potential clients to the way that the company worked and how to approach becoming a Techbuilt homeowner. As the front matter states, below, the intention was to develop this book into something more substantial.
I have not found any indication that a second edition was produced nor have I come across another copy of this edition. As you can see in the cover image above, this copy came from materials belonging to Robert Bacon, the source of many Techbuilt treasures you can see on the web. I plan to post the Manual chapter by chapter over the next few weeks with this first installment being the preface. This preface contains information about the origins of Techbuilt that I haven’t seen elsewhere. The role of Leon Lipshutz is especially interesting and I was inspired to finally get these posts up after some recent correspondence with his son. I hope you enjoy these posts and, if you have never seen them, I cannot wait for you to see the many wonderful illustrations that Mary MacLennan created for this book!
The Techbuilt Manual – The Plan (1.7Mb PDF) Next up…Your Dream
The Ford Foundation’s TV Radio Workshop show Excursion featured the Techbuilt House in its broadcast on February 14, 1954. The show documented (and dramatized) the design and construction process of one of the first Techbuilts. Below is the re-airing of the show in the Workshop’s Omnibus program.
The timing of this broadcast coincided with the upcoming Building Your Home expo in New York City, which featured a Techbuilt constructed inside the 71st Regiment Armory on Park Avenue. This is also the time when the houses started showing up in magazine articles and newspaper features. Early adopters of the Techbuilt franchise in St. Louis and Detroit were able to capture the moment and took out ads that connected the TV show with the developments and model homes they were in the process of building.
Huge thanks to our Associate Editor, Scott, for tracking this video down and getting it released in a digital format. (The story of how he did that will be featured later either as an addition to this post or a post of its own.)
Custom Techbuilts were available to buyers since the early days of the company. For the most part this involved a custom configuration of the 4 foot panels, altering the width or length of a house, but generally keeping with the rectangular shape. However, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw several new forms of Techbuilt appear. Some of these appear to be one-off custom designs that were then offered as a standard package. One of these is the Shikoku.
The Shikoku featured large open spaces with the long elevations being mostly glass. A walled garden was created to screen the house from the street. This feature allowed for the deep soak tub in the bathroom having a view to the garden, seen in the image above.
The Shikoku model came during a time when Techbuilt was part of the Kanaje Corporation of New York which had acquired Techbuilt Inc from Federal Paper Board in 1972. Kanaje included a Shikoku model in their Redwoods East development along with some other Techbuilts.
We have only been able to locate the one Shikoku model built in Redwoods East, though it has been modified and no longer has the walled garden. Any information regarding others of this model would be appreciated.
Shikoku images are from a Techbuilt catalog, circa 1973, from the collection of Jeff Adkisson.
Redwoods East advertisement is from The Journal News, White Plains, NY. June 22, 1973.
In response to demand from builders and new owners, Techbuilt continued to expand the house package in 1955. The Techbuilt News from January 15, 1955 outlines the first additions to the package. These included Pittsburgh Plate glass for the expanses of glazing on the gable ends of the house and horizontal sliding windows. Prefabricated stairs also were added as were some of the specialized hardware required for construction such as the roof ties that connected the roof panels together and the caps for the support posts. A polyethylene vapor barrier was added as was kitchen cabinetry by Geneva. By March, the package included the items, shown below, along with some optional add-ons.
The company sent out a memo on May 20, 1955 to inform their network of Techbuilders of new inclusions to the Techbuilt package for order placed after June 1st. The first addition was a selection of Techbuilt Spacemaking Cabinetry. The memo alerts builders to a story set to appear in LIFE magazine mid-summer that will feature photographs of the furniture. Builders are encouraged to have the furniture on display in all model houses in order to take advantage of the coming publicity.
The second addition was a specially designed Westcott-Alexander horizontal boiler and Rittling baseboard radiators. Available for either a gas or oil burner, the unit eliminated the need for the heater pit under the stair landing. There were two sizes of boiler, 120,000 BTU unit for all but the “F” house and a 131,000 for the “F” house.
The house package continued to evolve with notable changes including the switch to laminated beams from the earlier single board beams. The roof modules changed from using 2×4 framing to 2×6 in order to ease building code challenges as the houses shipped to more states. It isn’t clear yet what changes occurred after the late 1950s, but hopefully more research will reveal more about this time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.