What Industrialized Construction Could Learn from Ford's Model T

Disbrave Car Dealership / João Filgueiras Lima (Lelé). Image via Disbrave Disbrave Car Dealership / João Filgueiras Lima (Lelé). Image via Disbrave

On October 1, 1908, Ford launched its first model car in the American market, the Ford T, starting the automotive industry and establishing new paths for industrialization. Inspired by the manufacturing systems of weapons and sewing machines, in 1913, Henry Ford revolutionized production with the first moving assembly line to produce the Model T; a simple, safe, reliable and cheap car. 

The price decreased over time as production became more efficient. The Model T cost $850 in its first year and, as the manufacturing process became more efficient, it decreased to $290 in 1927, the last year it was produced. Industrialization led to optimized costs, time, and logistics.

Similar to the automotive industry, the construction market moves large amounts of capital, with large investments, incentives, and the need to employ a great number of people in its productive chain. Despite this, the use of technology and serialized production did not evolve in the same way. In architecture, industrialized materials represent only a limited amount of what is made, and many times it is restricted to specific cases. However, it is important to highlight some efforts in this direction. For instance, with the use of pre-fabricated components, it usually means better conditions on the construction site and the ability to save time, materials, and money.

Ford Model T Ford Model T

The approaching industrialization of building construction was also a concern in Walter Gropius’ writings, who, in the 1929 Bauhaus manifesto, said:

These days, 90% of the population doesn’t consider ordering custom-made shoes and making use of serialized products as a consequence of improved manufacturing method. In the future, an individual will be able to order his or her home from a factory. Perhaps modern techniques are up to the task, but the economic organization in construction is not, still reliant on manual labor and restricted to machines. The rational remodeling of construction organization, in its industrial sense, is, therefore, an imperative condition for the modern solution of this important issue.

In Europe, the use of prefabricated components increased during Post-World War II reconstruction. A time in which the sector saw great development, establishing itself as a widely used method in construction. It reached America a couple of years later where it finally found its place in the construction of skyscrapers.

In Brazil, some architects made remarkable efforts to include industrialized processes into the production of their work. Not only with proposals that made use of prefabrication, but also considering industrial techniques to think of the work: such as planning the construction site, the scheduling and strict execution of the steps, mechanizing tasks and giving special attention to how to manage site and labor. These professionals helped to leverage technical and productive knowledge in construction. 

At the beginning of his career, architect João Figueiras Lima, known as Lelé, worked with masters of Brazilian architecture during the construction of Brasília. After working with Oscar Niemeyer on a couple of projects, Lelé began to focus on the constructive efficiency of his work.

Sarah Kubitschek Salvador Hospital/ João Filgueiras Lima (Lelé). © Nelson Kon Sarah Kubitschek Salvador Hospital/ João Filgueiras Lima (Lelé). © Nelson Kon

He proposed strategies to make construction more sustainable and organized, as well as faster and cleaner. Throughout his career, he made use of prefabricated systems of reinforced and pre-stressed concrete, and self-supporting components made of mortar. In the late 1970s, Lelé also implemented a light steel system in his factories in Salvador, which later became a research and technology development center for construction efficiency. Lelé is considered a Brazilian master and has inspired following generations to consider this process in their works.

Taguatinga Regional Hospital / João Filgueiras Lima (Lelé). © João Filgueiras Lima Taguatinga Regional Hospital / João Filgueiras Lima (Lelé). © João Filgueiras Lima

Modulation and prefabrication are also present in the works of other leading Brazilian architects. Paulo Mendes da Rocha, for example, launched a residential building typology in the 1960s that made use of the material expressiveness of concrete. The first of these buildings is Edifício Guaimbê, which represents an allegory between industrialization and the technological limitations that often prevented a strict project execution. The original design, made together with João Eduardo de Gennaro, displays slabs, brick, and other prefabricated elements, but, after the construction began, these solutions proved unfeasible. In a 1967 edition, Acrópole published an article that attributed this impossibility to technical limitations.

Guaimbê Residential Building / Paulo Mendes da Rocha and João Eduardo de Gennaro. © Revista Acrópole, n. 343 Guaimbê Residential Building / Paulo Mendes da Rocha and João Eduardo de Gennaro. © Revista Acrópole, n. 343

Despite this experience, Mendes da Rocha was involved in later projects that used this process, such as the Zezinho Magalhães Prado Social Housing (in collaboration with Villanova Artigas and Fábio Penteado) and the Butantã House, among others.

Another primary figure is Eduardo de Almeida. In his renowned projects, the architect has combined constructive systems available in Brazil with technologies that were being developed in other countries. For example, his project for the offices of the metallurgical company Morlan, in Sao Paulo, combines a reinforced concrete structure with a space framed roof developed by the German company MERO, which produces independent parts articulated by fittings.

Morlan Office in Sao Paulo / Eduardo de Almeida. © Cesar Shundi Iwamizu Morlan Office in Sao Paulo / Eduardo de Almeida. © Cesar Shundi Iwamizu

Contemporary production has certainly been inspired by previous masters of Brazilian architecture. Some works that highlight the potential of prefabricated systems are Estúdio Madalena by Apiacás Arquitetos, a building made from a steel structure and prefabricated concrete boards. Another recent project is the New Triangle House by Metro Arquitetos Associados, which was built of cement, polycarbonate boards, and expanded steel sheet panels, all industrially produced.

Madalena Studio / Apiacás Arquitetos. © Leonardo Finotti Madalena Studio / Apiacás Arquitetos. © Leonardo Finotti
New Triangle House / Metro Arquitetos Associados. © Leonardo Finotti New Triangle House / Metro Arquitetos Associados. © Leonardo Finotti

Be it the automotive or architecture industry, industrialization is an economic factor that has a great ability to imbue quality to its finished products and constructive processes. While the Model T highlighted this in a symbolic and definitive way in 1908, architecture and construction are still searching to leave their mark.

References:

Ford Model T Page, from Wikipedia available here;
GUERRA, Abílio; MARQUES, André. João Filgueiras Lima, ecologia e racionalização. Vitruvius, 16 jun, 2015.
BREYTON, Ugo. O emprego de estruturas metálicas tri-dimensionais em quatro projetos de Eduardo de Almeida. Pesquisa de Iniciação Científica, Escola da Cidade, São Paulo 2017.