“I’m going to say a horrible word,” warns UIC architecture professor Roberta Feldman. “Trailer trash. We link it with people we consider uprooted and mobile.” Housing built in a factory doesn’t exclusively mean double-wides, and it may offer an affordable alternative to the usual–and more expensive–practice of building homes from scratch on-site. But it’s hard for many people to get comfortable with a type of housing they usually encounter only in jokes.

Feldman is cocurator of “Design Innovations in Manufactured Housing,” a new exhibit at the Field Museum meant to move the discussion beyond punch lines. On display are concepts from eight architects and industrial designers who’ve explored ways that new technology and superior design can produce affordable prefab homes, from traditional freestanding one- and two-story houses to stackable pods.

“What’s interesting is that the average American moves every five to six years,” Feldman says. “We’re very mobile, but some-how the value of rootedness is expressed in site-built housing, even though we’re not rooted. We associate renters and people who move a lot with shifty people who don’t share our values and aren’t civic-minded. Manufactured housing has gotten very tied up in that value system, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so stigmatized.”

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Develop-ment, 30 percent of new home construction in the past decade was either prefab or used prefab components, but examples in Chicago are rare. “We have so few examples in Chicago, I’m tongue-tied,” Feldman says. “You find most manufactured housing built on the urban fringe or in rural areas.” But during the first half of the 20th century, Chicago was home to one of the great engines of manufactured housing. In 1908 Sears, Roebuck published a specialty catalog, Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans, that sold 22 styles of houses. In 1915 Sears began selling kit homes, consisting of up to 10,000 numbered parts and a set of instructions showing the buyer how to put them together: “$945 Builds This $1,500.00 to $1,800.00 Eight-Room Bungalow Style House,” read one typical ad. By 1925 Sears had sold 30,000 such homes.

Low cost was the main incentive for buyers, but design quality also played a major role. “They were all copied after popular styles,” says Elgin-based architecture historian Rebecca Hunter, who maintains a registry of mail-order houses. “In basic size, shape, and style they are no different from anything else on the block.” The most expensive Sears home between 1915 and 1920, the Magnolia, sold for up to $6,000; the house included a two-story portico with fluted columns, a sun parlor, and a “massive but graceful stairway.” By 1940, when the effects of the Depression forced Sears to discontinue its catalog houses, 75,000 had been sold. Large numbers of them remain in Elgin, Villa Park, Downers Grove, and other suburbs, but few were ever built in the city proper.

“Most of them wound up by the rail lines because that’s how the kits were transported,” Hunter says. “They say that parts for a typical house filled two railroad boxcars. There was also a lot of union opposition in Chicago. Chicago had very strict union labor laws, and they really gave people a hard time if they wanted to put a kit home up.”

The department-store kit-home concept lives on today, on a small and fairly pricey scale, at Target. In addition to his teakettles and can openers the discount retailer also sells Michael Graves Pavilions, prefabricated modules that add a breakfast nook or dining room to an existing house; the largest maxes out at 215 square feet and costs upwards of $33,000.

The era of low interest rates hasn’t been kind to the manufactured-housing industry.

More buyers can afford houses, which has propelled the home ownership rate to 69.2 percent–the highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking it in 1965. But from 1997 to 2003 shipments of manufactured homes dropped by more than half, from 354,000 to 170,000 units, according to the Freedonia Group, a consumer research firm. Its research also shows that in 2002 the mobile home still accounted for 65 percent of all manufactured housing in the U.S., and anticipates little growth for other types of prefab housing.

Nevertheless, in recent years a boutique subset of the manufactured-housing industry has emerged, deploying edgy design to appeal to both upscale buyers and those looking for more affordable homes. Flatpak, a prefab house system created by architect Charlie Lazor, allows buyers to customize not only floor-plan configurations but also the use of wood, metal, glass, and concrete on the exteriors. Lazor has said his goal is to make not just housing but design affordable, but a Flatpak home isn’t cheap: building a 2,500-square-foot Flatpak house runs $360,000, and that doesn’t include the land.

Loftcube, created by German architect Werner Aisslinger, is potentially more affordable. A raised, white-framed, beveled-edge cube, the unit has a retro space-age style you might call early Jetsons. It offers 360-degree views and a completely open plan that extends to the exposed shower, where one small wall segment houses the pipes and showerhead. The Loftcube, according to its Web site, is designed to be helicoptered or craned onto the “endless flat tops of the postwar high-rises.” The first 2.5-ton, 388-square-foot prototype was assembled on a Berlin rooftop in 2003. The cost is 55,000 euros (approximately $72,000), and Aisslinger has announced that he plans to ship the first unit in April.

In 2002 Dwell magazine, a glossy journal of hip home design, declared prefab housing “a terrific–and feasible–option for home building in the 21st century.” To prove it, it launched a competition to create the Dwell Home, a $175,000 prefab house that would showcase prefab’s “aesthetic, environmental, economic, technologic” potential. Sixteen architects participated, and in May 2003 the New York firm Resolution: 4 was named the winner. Its entry combined traditional wood framing with high-tech modular design; the 2,042-square-foot, three-bedroom, 2.5-bath house was delivered to its owners in Pittsboro, North Carolina, last April and assembled by July.

The benefits of designs like these may eventually trickle down to the broader market, but they currently bear the stamp of playthings for the affluent. The real-world potential for manufactured housing is in alleviating the increasing shortage of affordable housing in cities like Chicago, where between November 2003 and November 2004 the median price of a single-family home increased 10.2 percent, to $246,000. North Center, not long ago a solidly working-class neighborhood, is now one of the priciest residential communities in the city: according to Appraisal Research data published in the Tribune, in October the median purchase price of a home there was almost half a million dollars.

That’s well outside the city’s definition of “affordable”: within reach of a family of four with a household income of up to $75,000 a year for a purchased home (which translates to houses between $150,000 and $200,000), or $45,250 a year for rentals (between $600 and $900 a month). The politics of affordable housing are reflected in the ongoing debate between Mayor Daley and Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle. The current ordinance, approved by Daley and enacted in April 2003, mandates that 10 percent of units in city-subsidized developments be set aside for affordable housing; Preckwinkle’s more aggressive proposal would require 15 percent of units in all developments be made available to lower-income families.

Instead of addressing how technology can help the process, both of their plans leave it to developers to figure out how to create affordable units that don’t turn off full-price buyers or stigmatize lower-income residents. Which brings us to “Design Innovations.”

“Affordable housing must no longer be equated with fast and cheap,” says Chicago architect Douglas Garofalo, explaining his CorPod, a concept in the exhibit that looks back to the 30s, when travel trailers like the Airstream were actually seen as stylish. CorPod mates the classic design of the trailer to current prefab technology. A concrete shell incorporates conduit systems for electricity, heating, and water traditionally (and expensively) installed on-site. The pod itself, which contains the kitchen, bathroom, and other living spaces, is lifted by crane and fitted into the shell.

Pods are also the driving concept behind the LaCan Project, a more fanciful design by David Baker & Partners: ten-by-ten-by-ten units are stacked atop one another in a “mainframe” that forms a tall tower. The basic pod, according to the exhibit notes, “has been designed with contemporary Americans in mind. Not only is it built to move, it can expand to accommodate growing families, or contract for empty nesters.” The model on display looks very much like the start of a game of Jenga.

Manufactured housing requires standardization. Because most mobile and modular homes are driven to their sites, their pieces must conform to size restrictions on highways. Modules in “Design Innovations” could not be more than 80 feet long, 18 feet wide, and 14 feet 4 inches high. Several participants found ingenious ways around the limit. In Packed House, by David Khoury, “the package, typically a disposable husk, transforms itself into an integral and permanent part of the structure upon downloading.” One half of the husk forms the walls surrounding the unit’s courtyard; the house itself is lifted out of and placed atop the other half, which becomes a carport and entry pavilion.

Throughout the exhibit, photos and text compare individual designs to the homes of nomadic peoples. The way the Bambuti tribe of central Africa place their tents around a central area for privacy and safety is mirrored in the way the Boston firm Taylor & Burns arranges modular housing units to form an interior courtyard. The goatskin roofs of tents used by the Tuareg of North Africa let sunlight enter while deflecting heat and glare, similar to the way the clerestory windows in Ali Tayar’s House Nine allow light to enter while minimizing heat in summer. MiniMax, by architects Yolande Daniels and Sunil Bald, aka the design collective SUMO, is likened to the domed yurts of Mongolian nomads, in which lattices expand to create more space. The vertical components of the MiniMax home–shelving, the bath unit, the kitchen unit, and a sleeping unit with a Murphy bed–are shipped crammed together like the pleats of a closed accordion, but once on-site can expand to form dividers that define various rooms.

But can any of these designs work in Chicago? Roberta Feldman says each entry was vetted to make sure it could be constructed affordably, but concedes that driving down costs would require mass production. “Maybe we should be questioning why we’re not building houses the way we build cars,” she says. “We’re very willing to accept cars off an assembly line. We’ve come to recognize our manufacturing plants that create a great diversity of consumer products and meet consumer demand, yet in our housing somehow we insist that it has to be site-built to be a good home.”

Getting the “Design Innovations” concepts into mass production, Feldman says, would also require changing the building codes in cities like Chicago, which restrict what types of materials can be used in home construction. An ongoing controversy over just one cost-saving material, PVC, illustrates how difficult that task can be. “PVC is a legitimate form of piping,” Feldman says. “It doesn’t last as long as copper does, but it’s easier and cheaper to repair.” However, environmental groups like Greenpeace claim it emits deadly dioxins during its manufacture and disposal and hydrogen chloride gas in fires. In December New York governor George Pataki vetoed legislation that would have continued a three-year-old ban on the use of PVC pipe in commercial and large residential projects. The legislation was supported by a coalition of plumbers unions, while a coalition of environmental groups joined with a firefighters association to protest the veto.

One installation in “Design Innovations,” Manufactured Site, thinks beyond these issues and in the process makes the others seem like a sideshow. An introduction by its creator, San Diego architect Teddy Cruz, notes that 837 million people worldwide are essentially squatters: lacking legal title to the land they live on, their homes, packed into densely overcrowded shantytowns, are makeshift structures built from whatever materials are at hand. That’s the case for half the urban residents of Africa, a third of those in Asia, and a fourth of those in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Cruz describes San Diego as “the Home Depot of Tijuana,” where discarded wooden pallets, garage and refrigerator doors, tarps, plywood–even entire houses slated for demolition–are brought across the border and reassembled into housing for the poor. Inspired by “the resourcefulness of poverty,” Cruz’s concept is a third-world revival of the Sears catalog house. Families in Tijuana receive a kit with an assembly manual, a snap-in water tank, and 36 frames that can be placed in a variety of configurations and can incorporate materials found nearby.

Ironically, it’s among the poor living beneath the radar of zoning boards, unions, and trade groups that the proponents of manufactured housing have the greatest freedom to really make a difference.

Design Innovations in Manufactured Housing

When: Through 1/16/2006: 9 AM-5 PM daily

Where: Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr.

Price: $12; $7 students, seniors, children 4-11; teachers and toddlers free

Info: 312-922-9410, fieldmuseum.org

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Michael Graves & Associates, City Design Center.