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On Housing Flexibility and Expandability:

A Combined Design and Construction System

School of Architecture
University of Hawaii at Manoa

Abstract: This paper focuses on housing flexibility and expandability in the generation of
housing design and variations, particularly in the work of Rudolph M. Schindler. His ideas
for modular planning and construction were developed during the depression of the 19301s,at
an appropriate time to help meet the needs for low-cost and adaptable shelter in the United
States. One of Schindler's un-built housing designs, the so-called Schindler Shelter, is
described as a prototype applicable to discussions today. Schindler's integrated design and
construction system is described for its role in the development of the Schindler Shelter. The
paper concludes with an interactive computer model, based upon the studies and analyses of
the Schindler Shelter, for flexible and expandable housing designs. The model may be unique
as a basis for offering a supplementary option in combination with existing network
capabilities, allowing homebuyers to change, modify, and manipulate the layout of preset
floor plans, in real-time on the Internet.

Keywords: housing flexibility, Schindler, panel-post construction, and user interface model


The aim of both homebuilders and homebuyers has always been that of a balance between
mass-customization housing and individualized privately designed homes. To this end, architects
and homebuilders have sought to develop strategies and methodologies that allow minimal
prototypes to adapt to changing needs over time (Habraken 1976). There have been some fertile
periods in the United States when flexible and expandable housing designs were developed to
facilitate simple changes and additions to the original basic units. Such a time was depression-era

1.1. Rudolph Schindler and Depression-era California

California in the 1930's was a reception area for many disadvantaged migrants who were
fleeing depression-hit industrial areas and drought-hit rural areas of the mid-western United States.
Between 1933 and 1939 over 600,000 migrants entered the state (Starr 1996). At the beginning of
the decade, in both rural and urbanizing California, there was a largely unmet need for inexpensive
shelter, quickly erectable. At the lowest level, that of migrant farm-workers, dormitory style
buildings, designed by Farm Security Administration architects, were hastily raised and situated in
towns planned by young architects, landscape architects, and planners who later became the core
of environmental professionals during California's post World War I1 boom years.
Coincident to this demand, the architect Rudolph M. Schindler was ready with concepts
for rapidly erectable module-based houses. Schindler, raised and trained as an architect in Vienna,
had come to the United States just before World War I, working with Frank Lloyd Wright in
Chicago, Wisconsin and then California (McCoy 1960). Wright gave him wide latitude, as he
himself was busy with projects in Japan, and Schindler used the opportunity to develop his own
theories of spatial continuity and post-panel construction.
Using his 4-foot (1.2 12 meters) grid called Reference Frames in Space (Schindler, 1946),
Schindler developed several basic plan types and full home designs. From these studies, he
created prefabricated elements from which most any plan could be created. With nearly continuous
clerestory windows because of a low nailing plate line, the sense of spatial continuity and openness
he had brought from his years with Wright allowed for a flowing environment within constraints
of low cost and rapid erection time (McCoy 1960).

1.2. The Continuing Need for Flexible and Expandable Prototypes

As the world urbanizes, the great migration from rural areas can be likened to that of the
west coast United States in the 1930's. While much of Asia has relied on large-scale concrete and
steel technologies, the imperatives of use of lightweight and sustainable material selection is
making it sensible to re-examine the searches for appropriate concepts of industrialized
construction developed in various parts of the world from 1930 to 1960. Many of these concepts
have already been institutionalized and absorbed into common practices of large homebuilders in
the United States. In the free market, the demand for construction and plan layout variability has
grown, changing almost as rapidly as clothing fashion. The range of prototypes is wide because of
the market demands.
Housing prototypes also vary depending on the size and scale of the homebuilder. Each
homebuilder has his own unit prototypes associated with his own individual construction systems.
Homebuilders modify prototypes to meet specific legal requirements, construction systems, local
ordinances and, of course, market preferences. On the whole, homebuilders provide a few different
types housing designs for different homebuyers. Homebuilders also have the assurance of a
product built to closer tolerances, thereby reducing move-in time from start to finish, as well as
cost savings through less waste using appropriate construction systems. Homebuilders become
aware of the client's needs for flexible and expandable housing designs to adapt to new, different,
or changing opportunities. Although basic housing unit spaces are almost as unchangeable as they
are necessary, it could be worse if the minimum design is fixed without consideration of one who
lives in the house or future needs.
This study re-examines Rudolph Schindler's work on a project which came to be known as
the Schindler Shelter, as an important point in the development of prototypes. It is further used as
the basis for development of an interactive Internet model for user-developed housing designs as
extensions of the original modular layout.


One of the finest prototypes to come out of California, one of R.M. Schindler's un-built
housing units, is the so-called Schindler Shelter. This prototype is the subject of the discussion
below. The project is a prime example of flexibility and expandability, since it illustrates how a
variety of designs may be produced as an outcome of using a combined design and construction
In 1933, Schindler advocated a housing system that involved into an integrated
construction system and systematic design strategies. For Schindler, compositional method and
construction systems are closely related: the compositional method is a vehicle to organize space
and space forms. The construction system is a technical support to realize the space form, "an
integral part of the conception of a building." Both functioned as indispensable components of his
'Space Architecture' throughout his lifelong practice. Schindler writes, "I have tried to experiment
always with new materials and techniques." The development of new construction methods was
essential for Schindler because conventional or standard construction systems were, at times, not
always suitable for the execution of the new concept of space architecture. Schindler was always
technically innovative, pushing methods of construction beyond conventional wisdom. These ideas
are clearly reflected in his housing design.
Schindler developed the Schindler Shelter project from 1933 to 1942 although it was never
built. The project was intended to provide urban dwellers with an opportunity to attain economic
security as well as comfortable suburban shelter within somewhat limited means. Schindler
presented a concept, which addressed flexibility of the floor plan, expandability for the changing
needs of a growing family, minimum maintenance, low cost, and new construction methods (Smith
2001). In the concept Schindler intended to demonstrate a variety of optimal space layouts and
multiple unit orientations, with the integration of both systematic composition and construction
techniques. Although the development of the project spanned more than ten years, and a series of
shelter plans underwent a variety of spatial transformations, they all share common compositional
principles and construction techniques. Schindler created four basic types of shelter plans for Shell
Construction [Fig. 11 and another four basic schemes using Panel Post Construction [Fig. 21.

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Figure I The Schindler Shelter with the Shell Construction system, four diffrent prototypes, including 3, 4,
4% and 5 room tjpes.

Although the designs appear different, the two construction systems share fundamental
principles in floor plan organization. First, each unit is arranged with a central hall. The kitchen,
bathroom and laundry are grouped as a unit to concentrate the plumbing system into a single wall.
By grouping in this way, supply lines, waste branches and soil pipes are simple and short, so that
plumbing stack will be saved. This centralized plumbing system allows economic maintenance
access for cleaning and repairing. The laundry area is provided in an open porch, affording an
excellent means of open-air drying. The remaining rooms are distributed along closet partitions:
one for the living room and another two for bedrooms. The main entrance to the house is adjacent
to the living room. A door in the living room and child's room is made to be accessible to the
garden. Finally, the garage is a separate unit, which can be added to any side of the house. The
garage is large enough to serve as a workshop and storage room. Garage doorways can front the
street or side of the house, allowing different types of driveways. The rooftop of the garage
provides space for sunbathing.
Figure 2 The Schindler Shelter with the Panel Post Construction svstern, four different prototypes

2.1 Modular Planning and Symmetry Transformations

Two significant underlying compositional methods involved in the generation of the
Schindler Shelter are the modular idea and symmetry.
First of all, a modular system prevails in an attempt to minimize building costs, as well as
to execute simple but accurate construction. This leads to various advantages, including
standardization of many building components for mass production in manufacturing, and
optimization of floor plans. Schindler proposed his own modular system called "Reference Frames
in Space" in 1946. Schindler recommended 48 inches (4 feet) as the basic unit, to be used with
simple multiples and with 112, 113, and 114 subdivisions. Among the subdivisions, with only a few
exceptions, 113 and 114 are used for vertical modules in his works. This single unit module with its
multiples and subdivisions form the basis of all dimensions of rooms. The reasons for his using
this system are twofold. First, all locations and sizes of the parts with respect to the whole are
precisely identified during the construction process. Thus, no obscure or arbitrarily unrelated
measurements are involved in the unit system. Second, the unit grid system offers the means to
visualize 'space forms' in three dimensions. He argued, " .. . And last, but most important [part of
the unit system] for the 'space architect,' must be a unit which [the architect] can carry palpably in
his mind in order to be able to deal with space forms easily but accurately in his imagination."
With Schindler's system, symmetrical operations are extensively used in his housing
designs as underlying principles of spatial composition (Park 2000, forthcoming). Although never
written, his conspicuous application of the symmetry idea overlaying a 48-inch unit system is
remarkably consistent and worthy of investigation. While bilateral symmetry in architecture,
which refers to such operations as reflection, is the most often encountered concept of symmetry in
the classical period, Schindler explored symmetries other than traditional bilateralism in housing
designs. In particular, Euclidian transformations with xy-Cartesian coordinates are broadly used
for the generation of variations. The transformations include rotation, reflection, translation, and
glide reflection (March and Steadman 1971).
The Schindler Shelter designs achieve a level of quality in their variations, retaining their
principal uniformity while enabling a variety of exterior appearances via garage location. That is
the novelty of the Schindler Shelter. Schindler used both the 5-foot unit system for basic schemes
with the Shell Construction and 4-foot unit system for basic schemes with the Panel Post
Construction. His employment of different unit grids stems from the different construction
systems. The variations of the Schindler Shelter are also derived from symmetry transformations
where each basic room type is rotated and reflected, and then a garage attached to a side of the unit
in a number of ways. Schindler provides only a few examples of the layouts he developed.
Potentially, an exhaustive number of plans could be generated as a complete map of probable
designs. We test the possible variations in the next section.
2.2. Construction Method
The housing designs compatible with industrial construction system is considered the only
way to take advantage of technology in the housing production process. The integration of design
and construction process makes it possible to produce a variety of housing design options.
Schindler uses two different construction techniques for the development of the Schindler
Shelter: The Shell Construction method (Goss 1933) and the Panel Post Construction method.
Schindler employed the Shell Construction system developed by Neal Garrett. It consists of a
hollow reinforced double-wall for walls, floors, and roof. Based on light metal forms, wire mesh,
and cement plaster, two slabs (each one-inch thick) are made to form double wall panels. These
two panels are connected and braced by a steel truss-like system spaced 16 inches apart. Thus, it
forms panels16 inches wide and 6 feet long, weighing 12 pounds each. Although light and thin,
these double walls are strong enough that they work as structural members. By a series of erected
courses of walls, cement mortar is sprayed on the outer surface to produce a bearing surface.
Subsequently, the whole house becomes a monolithic shell of one material and structure without
any joints, resulting in a uniform building.
Unlike Shell Construction, the Panel Post Construction system is a full-fledged
prefabrication for mass-production. Schindler himself developed the system. The system embodies
principles of what Schindler envisioned, namely, flexibility, affordability, expandability,
demountability, and sustainability. All prefabrication of building components is made in an off-site
factory. The structural system is fabricated with nine modular components, namely: floor panel,
post, vent board, base, roof panel, wall panel, sash panel, door panel, end-rafter, and fascia. All
components are regulated with regard to his 4-foot unit module and sub-modules (12", 18", and
24"). When all components are delivered on site, they are assembled to become a home.
Assemblage of components is easy and simple; altering or replacing components is much the
same. It does not require a highly skilled work force nor special machinery, even less a heavy mill.
The construction system is a kit-of-parts solution to the affordable housing problem. Partitions and
walls can be made of cheap material, like plywood, boards, metals, etc., since they form a non-load
bearing structural system. Posts carry all structural loads. The posts are designed as a cross-shape
and erected at standard distances, so that panels are inserted into the grooves of the post, side by
side. The system of post joint is designed to permit joining of panels in four-side joints (Sarnitz

Figure 3 R. M. Schindler, Partial section/component model of the Panel Post Construction System

The housing industry has begun to harness the benefits of information technology through
the numerous building industry manufacturers that maintain a web presence, the value of e-
commerce transacted on the web, and the amount of marketing dollars spent on the web. Web
marketing experts expect this number to grow rapidly as both sellers and buyers realize how much
detailed information is available to them online. The Internet becomes the place where
homebuyers first look to buy and sell their homes. Thus, e-commerce becomes an undeniable
current and future venue for the housing industry.
Although there has been phenomenal growth in commercial presence of the housing
industry on the Internet, exploitation of online user interactive housing design capabilities in the
housing industry is still in their infancy. Currently, therefore, we are developing a user interface
housing online model employing a Java Applet technology that allows users to modify and change
unit plans for their needs from a distance rather than manufacturers offering preset or fixed designs
on the Internet. It will also provide a new paradigm to directly contact to homebuilders and
customers. This process will also accelerate and improve the pre-construction design processes.
The Java applet is the graphical component of a user interface in a web browser. Basically,
a java-enabled model can be built on Java's applet technology that allows users to explore new
designs in the Web browser. It provides graphical user-oriented interface components for
displaying and interacting, designing with an object-oriented model loaded in the applet. The
following figure shows a snap shot of our implementation of a Java based interface for dynamic
retrieval of a set of housing design in plan.

3.1. Model Control Structure

The user interface java model interacts with the user through a set of buttons to turn the
control system on and off, switch between control modes, and single-step through the operation
sequence. The initial layout of the java applet model is composed of a simple unit plan in a
window with a panel of buttons on the lower and upper regions. The upper buttons allow users to
adjust the parameters including unit prototypes, total area square footage, scaling transformations,
and 3D "VRNIL" model. The lower buttons modify the position of the objects based on Euclidian
transformations. "Rotate Clockwise" and "Rotate Counter Clockwise7' transform the number of
cyclic rotations, "Mirror Vertical" and "Mirror Horizontal" apply horizontal and vertical
reflections respectively. Translate "up," "down," "left," and "right" shifts the position of the
garage. Translation buttons allow a selected object (either the house or the garage) to move
according to the underlying grid system. The applet ensures that the transformation is always
properly moved based on the given grid. Thus, each increment is based on the house unit module,
which is 5-foot grid.

3.2. Operation Sequence

The main structure of this java model is a sequence of states representing the sequence of
operations that must be performed. There are a few steps that users should follow to create a
successful design. First, users should select the unit type that they want or a garage. There are five
room type options. In the applet canvas, two major components of the unit plan are illustrated: a
house and a garage. When users drag the mouse and select a unit, the unit will be highlighted in a
blue color. This means that the unit is selected to be transformed and modified. The unit may be
selected from standard plans, customized, or designed to fit users' needs. Users also select each
room for the individual expansions. Garage is colored with green. If reset command is selected, the
current working unit is reset to its home position.
Users click on one of the objects in the window and select a transformation button to
change the position of the object. They can then transform the object by choosing the definition of
symmetric transformations using the "Reflect," "Mirror," and "Translation" toggle button. To
manipulate the three-dimensional appearance of each design, the applet also provides a series of
pre-built 3D VRML models stored on the server. Users can explore 3D models of each housing
design by zooming, tilting, rotating, and panning the 3D model in the network environment.
Using this model we provide the capabilities for building 2D design models which
encompass all possible user selections. After transformations, users can toggle the scale button to
alter the size of rooms in two dimensions. The scaling button works after users finish the basic
transformation. With the entrance hall area set in the middle of each unit, each room extends its
dimensions in two directions.

Figure 4 Java applet model structure


R. M. Schindler's work in the early part of the 20th Century has been shown to have
applicability today, in the development of usable housing prototypes, which can demonstrate
flexibility and expandability. More than many such prototypes, his are comprehensive, containing
both design and construction methods in a unified manner, conscious always of achieving spatial
grace at modest cost.
The Schindler Shelter prototype, with its many variations, is particularly suited to the new
form of delivery of housing options to consumers, that of the Internet. In these studies, we have
introduced an interactive model system. This system is currently being developed as a 2D and 3D
interactive system where a 3D real-time model that is designed and displayed on the user's screen,
using real-time rather than a pre-built Java 3D model, is stored on the server. When the users'
designs and changes are completed in the 2D model, 3D Java models are automatically created on
the user's screen.
The data for making 3D housing prototypes have been carefully prepared in accordance
with the basic unit typology of Schindler and its variation capabilities. On the basis of the Java-
based interface floor plans, a user can retrieve a variety of the 3D models depending on how the
user manipulates the given data selection. In addition, the 2D and 3D models will be integrated
with a multitude of spatial referenced data, including materials, colors, texture, etc. Further
investigation will set up an information database that will provide all the detailed information and
options for the network user. The ongoing research also includes setting up information database
model where the net clients can transmit the entire inventory, the ordering, the shipping, the
payments, and so on. The 2D and 3D model will be integrated with a multitude of spatial
referenced data.
Schindler himself, part of a generation of California architects with European roots,
working in a city where romantic craftsman bungalows were often themselves built from
prefabricated kits bought from catalogues, would likely be pleased to find his work alive and
accessible to ordinary people in a new technological format.

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