This Modular House From the ’60s Is Still an Inspiration

When I was in high school and thinking about becoming an architect, I was often inspired by the architecture and design magazines that my interior decorator mom subscribed to, including Better Homes and Gardens (BHG). My dad was in the shipping container business, so I was very interested in moving big boxes.

Better Homes and Gardens is now owned by the same parent company that owns Treehugger, so I have been crawling through their archives, looking for projects like this great house I showed earlier. But there was a shock of recognition when I saw this one in the September 1969 edition: a new approach to the expandable house. I remember cutting it out of the magazine and pinning it on my wall as an inspiration.

Times have changed, but there are still lessons that can be learned from this.

The house is addressing the problem of changing needs, something that is a big deal today. The issue wrote: “Do you have a house that was just right when you bought it, but it seems to be closing in on you? Join the club. It is true that a family’s needs usually grow far beyond its original projections. Rather than contending with a progression of costly moves, wouldn’t it be nice to own a house that stayed in step with your family?”

Better Homes and Gardens


So designer Steve Mead came up with a form of what architect Avi Freidman later called a “grow home” where you could start small and, in the BHG design, add boxes as you need them. Mead, who died in 2021, was the architectural editor of Better Homes and Gardens before opening his own residential design firm.

“Each working sector of the house is made up of two rectangular modules placed side by side. Conventional on-site preparation is limited to grading, foundation and mechanical installations. The modules themselves are factory assembled and finished, complete with windows, doors, and cabinets in place. The units would arrive on trucks, ready to be installed on site.”

Better Homes and Gardens


This sounds like today’s modular housing, but there is a twist: All the modules are identical in size (12 feet by 20 feet) so you can shuffle them around. “Since all units are actually the same rectangle, any change in room arrangement will work.”

Every plan shown has the identical efficient core with all the expensive plumbed stuff, the kitchen, laundry, and first bathroom, with all the other spaces pinwheeling around as required. “Electric wiring runs within the floor joist space–connecting it isn’t much more complicated than plugging in a lamp.”

Need more space? Just call up and order another room. “All the units are tied together with a mechanical fastening system, using gaskets to allow independent movement of the units. Thus, subsequent settling of the new additions will have no effect on the original house.”

Better Homes and Gardens


When you can afford it, add a garage! “Here’s the finished product, a four-bedroom house with two complete baths.”

Better Homes and Gardens


They show a few other configurations and variations.

“The key to making the entire system work is the factory assembly of practically everything. Since the core module remains the same no matter what the finished house is to be, personalizing comes with how it is positioned on the lot and your choice of plans. When you specify what you want done with the additional modules, they are plumbed and wired (a simple hookup is all that’s needed. So go ahead–use your imagination and see what you can come up with to make this idea work for you. Although the concept of zoning a house into separate living areas is far from new, this way of doing it– an area at a time– is totally new.”

There are some lovely ideas here about modular, prefabricated, predesigned housing and a new model for buying it. But there are a few reasons why it didn’t catch on.

It could only work where land was cheap enough so you could build the little two-bedroom version on a lot big enough to expand. And did you buy it with the foundations poured for the future additions? Today you might just add helical piles as needed. Then there is the issue of ordering up more modules; they can’t just be dropped in the front yard. You need a crane, which is expensive.

Five years after this design was published, the Arab oil embargo caused an energy crisis and the first real concerns about energy efficiency. Pinwheel designs disappeared overnight; so much surface area and so many walls to insulate. All of these homes would be a nightmare to heat or cool.

But over half a century later, architects and engineers are still trying to do many of the same things as the designers of this system proposed: factory-built modular construction, plug-and-play installation connecting to a service core. Today our homes have to be adaptable, flexible, and possibly multigenerational designs, adapting to changing demographic, economic, and lifestyle needs.

They were on to something here, and it is still inspiring.