By R. Burke & J. Hong

The history of affordable housing began with the mission of improving living conditions for the working poor of the industrial revolution. In the twentieth century, the focus shifted to the reinvention of urban areas; the provision of affordable high-quality housing to the growing middle class and; freeing women from their historical role of housekeeper in post-war society.  Modularity as a design tool to address cost issues has grown from mere planning to the physical manufacture of complete unit kitchens and homes.  Future control of construction and operating costs will require the use of new materials, including recycled and repurposed materials, modular manufacturing techniques and gaining further cost savings by increasing sustainability and efficiency.

A History Lesson

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution of nineteenth century that swept across the developing economies of the western world unleashed tremendous powers of production, but the mass migration of rural populations from their traditional work of the past to the new industrialized urban centers raised new pressing issues of mass housing.  Issues of overcrowding and lack of sanitary facilities led to poor living conditions and an increase in industrial diseases and falling life expectancy.  The reform movements of the late nineteenth century began the application of local housing codes to address sanitation and safety in addition to the first widespread movements to provide low-income housing.  The innovations of the late nineteenth century in the area of plumbing fixtures and cooking equipment, coupled with the changes in laws concerning working and housing made a huge difference in the existing conditions of the urban working class.

The Twentieth Century

Photo Courtesy of WikiMir

As the larger more crowded cities matured into the early twentieth century, architects and designers began to address the needs of the modern working class.  Groundbreaking design thinking by architects including Le Corbusier as set forth in L’Esprit Nouveau about using modern materials and theories to raise standards of living for all socio-economic groups resulted in revolutionary plans such as his Plan Voisin for Paris of 1925. Architects began to incorporate the concepts and philosophy of industrial mass-production techniques pioneered by Henry Ford and the efficiency theories of Frederick Taylor and new materials to positively impact the standard of living of working class families through the application of easily reproduced modular architecture to middle-income housing.

The emerging trend of women entering the workforce in larger numbers spurred social housing projects applying Taylorist principles, such as the “Frankfurt kitchen” of 1926 , designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, the kitchen was fitted in 10,000 Frankfurt housing project units in the 1930’s.

Photo Courtesy of New York Times

The demand for affordable housing grew further as soldiers returned home from World War II, and new suburban planned communities such as Levittown, built in 1948, were created to meet this need. The architectural theories of modern housing continued to spread through architecture schools and architecture studios around the world in the years immediately after the war and the practice of designing to a

Photo Courtesy of Eames Foundation

module as propounded by Le Corbusier in Modulor informed new housing projects such as his Unite d’Habitationhousing project in Marseilles.  Similar projects were undertaken in the United States in the 1940’s, most notable being the Case Study House Project which showcased much of the new thinking in housing design.  Study House #8 designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1945 was consciously constructed from off-the-shelf parts, continuing the tradition of “catalog” homes begun in the mid-nineteenth century, such as the Sears, Roebuck kit homes sold from their Book of Modern Homes catalog of 1908. During this period influential research schools were established to expand on these ideas which became linked to the nascent environmental movement.  One of the most well-known, the Vastu-Shilpa Foundation was established in 1955 by Balkrishna Doshi, a onetime senior assistant to Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, which considers environmental design and new models for the provision of low income housing.

Image Courtesy of Poggenpohl

Hand-in hand with advances in modular building techniques, kitchen providers began to experiment with modular kitchens in the 1940’s, and Poggenpohl of Germany unveiled their groundbreaking form 1000 kitchen at the 1950 Cologne Furniture Fair, widely credited with being the first fitted kitchen.  Since then, the fitted kitchen has become the industry standard for providing kitchens in a cost-effective way and the use of modular, easily produced kitchens has succeeded in keeping installation costs down.


As advances in mass production techniques became widely adopted and modular construction techniques commonplace, modular design has grown into the practice of providing complete pre-fabricated, manufactured homes.  In addition to creating cost savings for consumers, generally 10% – 35% less per square foot than traditionally site-built homes, these techniques have been applied to tackle specific issues of low-income housing and the provision of emergency rescue housing for displaced families.

Photo Courtesy of California Mobile Home Loans

  Low-income housing

Photo Courtesy of Capsys Corp

The economies of scale provided by modular design has led to a significant increase in off-the shelf modular homes for low-income families and the creation of communities targeted at specific groups such as seniors.  Public housing providers are increasingly exploring the option of manufactured homes for the cost savings and speed of delivery to ease housing shortages, most recently the Vancouver city council announced a significant portion of their future public housing requirements may be met by manufactured homes.  Companies such as Capsys Corp. provide pre-manufactured module design to provide solutions to a range of design requirements from townhouses to supportive housing for at-risk groups; providing fast construction time with a basis in sustainable practices and a significant element of design flexibility.

Rescue housing

Image Courtesy of Lab Report
Photo Courtesy of Daiwa Lease

The second application which requires low-cost, reliable housing and kitchen construction is the provision of rescue housing in emergencies.  Recent large-scale disasters have led companies to consider the “house in a box” concept, which can provide basic shelter, sanitary and cooking facilities and communication capabilities for some period of time before more permanent solutions can be established.  The concept work done on kitchens by companies such as Steel Space and Daiwa base their concept on the international dimensions of the shipping container, for ease of transportation,, and while the results are high-concept, the problems of creating compact efficient spaces, much like the Frankfurt kitchen of 1926, will have an impact on the efficiency and waste management of the kitchens of the future.  The necessity for self-sufficiency requires the designers to survey and adapt the newest in sustainable technology, which will be adapted in the future as fuel costs rise and consumers become more aware of issues of sustainability and require those features in their homes.

 The Future

Photo Courtesy of Modular Building Institute

The future of low-income housing is currently being explored by architects providing housing alternatives in the wake of mass housing destruction as experienced in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina and the tsunami victims in Indonesia and most recently, Japan.  Much of the current thinking is evident in the Flow House a prototype modular house designed by McDonough + Partners for the Make it Right Foundation building initiative in New Orleans.  The modular home takes advantage of material and resource efficiencies, materials cost reduction and faster construction times with less onsite waste.  The design of the building has attempted to eliminate the concept of waste and a increased reliance on renewable energy.  As far as possible, the house has been designed to be dismantled and either repurposed or recycled, thus ensuring a light environmental footprint in keeping with the McDonough “Cradle to Cradle” sustainable design philosophy.

To make a real impact on affordability, building and kitchen providers will have to tackle the cost of initial building and the continuing operating costs.  The modular pre-fabricated system which incorporates ideas of sustainability through the use of newer inexpensive materials, often from refurbished and recycled material and pays attention to life cycle cost can take advantage of economies of scale in keeping costs down.  An equally important factor critical to new kitchens is the reduction in operating costs.  Reducing the financial burden to owners means a continuing focus on efficiency in fuel costs; concentrating on renewable resources including solar and other sustainable sources will become ever more important. 


Affordable Housing Institute (

National Modular Housing Council (

Manufactured Housing Institute (

National Building Museum (

Modular Building Institute (


Wikipedia: “Kitchen” (

Unite d’Haibitation Housing Project (

Eames Foundation: Case Study House (

Vastu-Shilpa Foundation: (

Poggenpohl history: (


Sears, Roebuck Catalog Homes: (

Vancouver, BC looks to modular public housing: ( ( (

Capsys Corp. modular home builders (

Steel Space (

Daiwa EDV-01 Rescue House (


The Flow House: (

Make It Right Foundation, Flow House (

UK Government White Paper on Affordable Housing (

National Building Museum Symposium on Sustainable Design (