The modular mansion


This past week I came upon an article in the Washington Post about the latest trend in home building, the modular mansion. The article can be accessed from this link:

It reminds me of the growing industrialization Marx spoke of in his manifesto, and also of the “mechanized petrification” Weber discussed.  It is a much faster and cheaper method of building than its competition, the stick-built custom home.  Buyers can order their homes from a set of stock designs, and parts are usually built on the assembly line.  The pre-fabricated parts are then trucked to the site of construction and stacked atop one another by a crane.     

This method of building is being favored by elite architects because it is cheaper in a time of recession.  At one point in the article Jerry Smalley, president of one of the companies, states “The goal is more volume”.  The concern lies in producing as many of these homes as possible, rather than making a few quality ones.  The lower cost is made possible by cheaper labor and a shorter construction time.  A modular home can be built in only 7 months whereas its stick-built competitor takes 17 months to construct.  As Weber recounts Benjamin Franklin saying, “Time is money”. 

There seems to be a few parallels between this story and Chapter 5 of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  Steinbeck’s story also takes place in a time of economic recession.  The government favors cheap mass production of crops as opposed to paying individual tenants for working the land.  The tenants are replaced by the more efficient mechanized farming with tractors.  Likewise in this story modular mansions are becoming more popular than the stick-built individualized homes.  In Marx’s manifesto he bemoans the loss of specialization in labor as a result of increasing industrialization.  Modular mansions are often assembled in parts by factory workers, rather than built by one master architect.

The article also recounts the effect these modular mansions are having in small neighborhood communities of Bethesda, MD.  It speaks of residents and neighbors-to-be of the incoming modular mansions in admiring the aesthetic beauty of “lush woodland garden around the property’s original house for 70 years”.  They were outraged when the developer came in, bought the plot of land, and tore down the house and gardens in order to put in three new modular homes.  One resident even refers to Leibovitz (the developer in this article) as “such a rapacious developer”.  This is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s reaction to the industrialized machine-farming.  He describes the tractors as “methodically raping” the land.  There are also recurrent themes in the destruction of individuality and tradition in favor of a standardization in the means of production.  Individual stick-built homes surrounded by nature in this article were unique and held meaning to members of the community.  They had also been standing for at least 70 years.  This is quite similar to the tenant farmer in Steinbeck grieving the loss of his property and everything that made it special to him.

In addition to all this, there appears to be a large disparity between the incomes of the workers and that of the people that must be purchasing these colossal mansions.  To allow for the mass production of these modular mansions on a cheaper scale, factory laborers are also being paid even less.  This is yet another example of the exploitation of the proletariat as Marx discusses.  Even though the modulars are less expensive than their custom-built competition, they are still selling for anywhere between $400,000 and well over $1,000,000 a piece.  The fact that a market for so many of these mansions can exist during an economic recession seems ironic.


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