May 19, 2014

Operation Breakthrough: Promise and Failure in US Factory Built Housing

Written by Associate Professor and Associate Chair Alex Anderson

Promise and failure. These two words seem to sum up the long project of developing a commercially viable, architecturally significant, factory produced house in the United States. A recent exhibition at the MOMA in New York, Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, highlighted this sense of promise without dwelling too much on the consequent failures. It included an extensive historical collection of fascinating, but generally unsuccessful, experiments undertaken over last two centuries. These complimented a vivid collection of promising new prototypes built by progressive young architects and wrapped up with Kieran and Timberlake’s Cellophane House. “Not only is prefab on everyone’s lips in 2008,” declared the exhibit curator, Barry Bergdol, “but it is poised to make great advances in coming years both unleashing creative intelligence and tackling the daunting problems facing cities and settlements worldwide.” While we await those advances, it is worth looking back at one huge, promising, but ultimately unsuccessful project not mentioned in the exhibit catalog: Operation Breakthrough.


In 1969 the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, under then director George Romney (Mitt’s dad) and his boss President Richard Nixon, proposed the nation’s largest ever effort to manufacture housing on a massive scale. Operation Breakthrough, “an action program to support the development of industrialized housing construction systems,” resulted in the production of 2,794 factory-built prototype housing units on 9 test sites throughout the United States, followed by an additional 20,000 or so production units manufactured by the participating firms. Despite these seemingly large numbers, they never approached the hundreds of thousands the endeavor was expected to produce. In their 1976 report to congress the directors of HUD declared this grand and expensive experiment a failure, inasmuch as “it did not create the large, continuous markets necessary for efficient industrialized housing construction.” (16) The report cited many problems that contributed, including marketing challenges, conflicting building codes, labor opposition, transportation costs, and so on. (I won’t go into these, but you can read the report yourself at

What makes Operation Breakthrough especially interesting for us here in Seattle is that 236 of the prototype units took shape on two sites within 10 miles of the UW campus – an urban site at 18th and Yesler and a suburban site in Kirkland. Furthermore, King County was the only locality in the operation with more than one prototype site; the aim here was to investigate both urban and suburban housing types in a single market. It is also worth noting that as part of this experiment Boeing was chosen as the developer for both sites, not because it had any experience with housing, but because of its manufacturing expertise and extensive government and labor connections in the region. Their job was to keep things running smoothly for the participating housing manufacturers, which they generally managed to do. (For anyone who has read Kieran and Timberlake’s Refabricating-Architecture this might induce a sense of déjà-vu: they envisioned the closure and eventual conversion of Boeing’s airline assembly facilities in Everett to industrial housing production, after management’s move to Chicago in 2003.) Finally, all of the Operation Breakthrough units in King County are still intact and occupied, and since they are easy to access, they seem worth a look.

I visited both the Yesler and Kirkland sites last month and found them to be both fascinating and surprisingly mundane. It is easy to pass by the Yesler site without even noticing it, and the Kirkland site appears almost indistinguishable from other nearby developments. Nevertheless, each represents, in a modest way, an important effort in the long struggle to make mass-production housing viable in the United States.






The 58 units on the Yesler site were built by Building Systems Development, Inc. of San Francisco. Most of the units appear to be fairly conventional multi-family dwellings, but historical photos show their assembly from large pre-assembled chunks. The oddly massive concrete frame along Yesler, is anything but conventional, however. It is a small example of the firm’s “Supported Land System,” (SLS) which they proposed to use for large-scale housing developments. SLS consists of a cast in place frame with very deep corrugated precast concrete decking designed to support electrical and water infrastructure as well as several feet of soil for planting. At full scale SLS would provide many levels of “land”, so that all residents, even of large factory-built housing schemes, could have a sidewalk and back yard. Not surprisingly this project went significantly over budget, so the costly SLS portion had to be scaled back.




The 178 attached and detached single family units that constitute the Lendemain neighborhood in north Kirkland were assembled by four different manufacturers: Alcoa Construction Systems (86 units), Christiana Western Structures (54 units), Levitt Technology Corporation (28 units), and Material Systems Corporation (10 units). Each company employed a different system. Alcoa brought factory-built “wet cores” containing kitchens and bathrooms to the site and encased them in site-built shells. Christiana initially proposed a system of sprayed fiberglass wall panels, which proved impractical, so they ended up using more standard components pre-cut and preassembled in the factory, then aggregated on site. Levitt employed a system of room-sized boxes with pull-out bays and hinged roofs, which they shipped 2000 miles by train from their purpose-built factory in Battle Creek Michigan. Material Systems used aerospace technology to produce fiberglass-reinforced panels, which were combined into modules to be assembled on site. All of this technology is well-hidden in what appear to be well-used and generally well-cared for homes.

Although these modest factory-produced dwellings may represent the failure of an ambitious and costly effort to inaugurate a house-manufacturing industry in the United States, it is not difficult to understand why the project generated tremendous enthusiasm. The spectacle of houses shipped by train and truck from all parts of the country to be rapidly deployed on carefully-prepared sites is hardly evident now, but must have been intense in the early 1970s.