Carl Koch (1912-1998)
Traditional house (left) compared to Techbuilt House (right)
Techbuilt House building components
Techbuilt House construction methods
At the time of his death, architect Carl Koch (1912-1998) was described as “an innovator in an innovative field.” Trained as an architect at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Koch began his career designing individual, customized homes for each client who engaged his services. Sensing the need for a modest, well-designed and easy to build house for middle-class Americans, Koch began his experiments in mass-produced housing that would eventually lead to the Techbuilt house.
His early projects included a community of five standardized houses in Belmont, Massachusetts (1939), design of the original Acorn House (1946), re-design of the all-steel Lustron House (1949), and Conantum, one of the nation’s first cluster housing developments, in Concord, Massachusetts (1951). The Techbuilt house came about as a result of Koch’s previous projects, taking the best aspects of each and discarding ideas that didn’t work. Launched in 1953, the design proved so successful that it surprised even Koch: “Our ten-year record of mishap, rude practical education, and artistic successes qualified by insolvency was spotted unexpectedly by something that worked – and worked well."
Techbuilt’s success had to do with its design and method of construction. In determining the form and layout of the house, Koch examined the expenses of his previous projects. He found that attics and basements were much less expensive to build and finish than the main floor of an average house. He also noted that a house with a gable roof automatically has an attic, and foundation footings and basements will almost always have to be dug. Would it be possible, then, to eliminate the expensive main floor and collapse the house into two less expensive levels: a finished attic upstairs and a finished basement downstairs? Raising the attic knee walls five or six feet allows for a ten-foot peak on the upper level, and excavating the basement to three feet below grade allows for eight-foot ceilings on the lower level. An entrance placed at mid-level on the side of the house provides easy access to both levels up or down a short flight of stairs.
Koch designed the Techbuilt house with post and beam construction, allowing for large expanses of glazing on the gable ends. The panels for the roof, walls, and floors were built using prefabricated stressed skin panels produced in a controlled factory environment, reducing the amount of on-site construction and material waste. Made of wooden framing members sandwiched between two sheets of plywood, the panels were light enough for two men to handle on the building site. Window and door panels maintained the same dimensions as the wall panels, enabling them to be interchanged and rearranged as needed.
Perhaps the greatest aspect of the panelized system was that the house plan could be reversed, flipped or reconfigured to fit different sites without redesigning the component parts. If one end of the house faced a busy street, it could be filled with solid wall panels and clerestory windows. The other end, facing a nice view, could be completely glazed with a door out to a deck or patio. The ability to design and build a customized yet prefabricated structure was the key to the success of the Techbuilt house. After the client or builder selected a design and floor plan, Techbuilt supplied the wall, floor and roof panels (fabricated at various locations across the country), framing members, and interior parts such as doors and cabinets. The owner and builder selected exterior and interior finishes and paint colors, while local contractors installed the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. The resulting house, made of standardized components, was individually tailored to each specific client.
Carl Koch and Andy Lewis, At Home With Tomorrow (New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1958), 146.
Tom Long, “Carl Koch, 86; Noted Architect of Prefab Homes, Cluster Housing,” The Boston Globe, July 10, 1998, B7.