Case Study House Program: 7 lessons (and a call-to-action)

Case Study House Program: 7 lessons (and a call-to-action)

The enduring legacy and influence of the Case
Study House Program in the United States on residential design is remarkable given that
it was essentially a regional architecture movement centered in Southern California. In part as a response to the post-war World
War II housing shortage and building boom, Arts & Architecture magazine announced the
Case Study House Program in January of 1945. The editor at the time, John Entenza, handpicked
a select group of architects to design and construct homes that were affordable, modern
and efficient. Entenza wrote in the program’s announcement
that the houses were required to be quote, “conceived within the spirit of our times,
using as far as is practicable, many war-born techniques and materials best suited to the
expression of man’s life in the modern world.” In other words, the houses were to be devised
to disseminate modernist ideas and design culture on a mass scale. Despite the fact that so few were built, many
of the case study homes and the ideas they inspired persist today, including the Eames
House shown here, designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1949. The homes reflected post-war attitudes toward
reinvention and social awareness. They helped to define the style of mid-century
modernism but they were much more than style. The open floor plans that the homes imagined
decades ago are still seen today. They offered a new way of thinking about space
and made modern design available and approachable for all. Their budgets were modest, which meant they
had to employ off-the-shelf, standardized materials, and they were small in scale. Open plans blurred lines between inside and
out and a simple, honest use of materials were key to their economy. Here are seven enduring lessons the case-study
house program offered and a call-to-action for architects to consider developing their
own case-study homes. Lesson 1: Case study homes as teaching tools
for the value of architecture. Few of the original case study homes were
actually built, but the ones that were became immensely popular. The first six were toured by more than 368,000
people in 1946 and 1947. People were eager to experience the designs. Architects often rely on technical, abstract
language and drawings that most have a hard time interpreting to describe space. These instruments don’t accurately portray
the physical reality of architecture in a way that a case-study home would. For example, a reverse living concept, such
as the one employed in this home, may make implicit sense to an architect when visiting
a particular site, but for a client to experience the building describes the concept in real
terms. The benefits of lifting the living plane above
street level is made explicit here. Lesson 2: Real solutions to real problems. Just as the housing shortage provided the
impetus for the case study house program in 1945, the lack of affordable real estate,
density restrictions and underdeveloped housing stocks are problems affecting our communities
today. Solving these difficult problems inherently
takes more creative horsepower and consequently more design fee. A case study house can propose adaptable solutions
to common needs and model designs sold to many effectively amortizing the design costs
over a larger client base. Frequently, the only properties that are affordable
for the average individual or family are the ones with the most latent liabilities. Sites that require special permitting, alternative
construction procedures or those that are bound by development restrictions are viewed
as intractable problems to most. Infill housing schemes and accessory dwelling
unit concepts designed by architects, especially in urban areas, are two areas where the case
study home could effect positive change. Lesson 3: The value of financial skin in the
game. Arts & Architecture magazine initially agreed
to commission the homes for the case study program, however due to a lack of funds the
funding burden fell to each architect charging them with the task of finding suitable clients
— of which John Entenza was one. Borrowing from this model, it’s entirely possible
to solicit buy-in from interested clients or a personal need for a home by an architect
to fund a case study model home. There’s no substitute for the hard evidence
and real-world current cost feedback that construction provides. A personal financial commitment to a project
is a strong motivator too. Understanding the real cost of systems and
construction incentivizes invention rather than a reliance on – potentially more expensive
– common practice and conventional details. Having some skin in the game shows future
clients you believe in the product too. Lesson 4: Regional Prototypes for Mass Production. Even though this was an integral part of the
A+A’s design brief, the case study house program never delivered on the goal of mass production. Due in part to a shortage of building materials
after the war and increasing opposition from builders eager to meet consumer demand for
housing but unwilling to adopt unconventional residential building practices. Glazed walls, limited insulation and seamless
to the outdoor environment was another barrier to wider adoption; it was a hard concept to
rationalize in many less-temperate parts of the US. Yet the case study ideas persist to this day
in moderate climates because they work well; they’re comfortable. The regional case study is an interesting
idea that could be applied to a localized mass production or prefab facility. Imagine architects intimately familiar with
their regional climate bringing those hard-won lessons to bear on the problem of modern housing
needs. Case study homes could achieve wide regional
acceptance if their prototypes were as well-suited to their climate as the Southern Californian
modernists’ designs were. Lesson 5: Product versus process. The case study houses were built to be toured
and experienced by people. Although the reality of the program was such
that the houses were one-off constructions, the intent was that they were to be examples,
full-scale mock-ups – products. The notion of architecture as product is rejected
by many architects because it’s antithetical to the approach most of us rely on in our
everyday practice: the design process. Yet, increasingly, this process is only affordable
to a select few. It’s part of the reason architects are commissioned
to work on fewer than 1% of the new homes constructed today in the US. The process of design we rely on isn’t readily
reducible to a set of known outcomes and it’s not linear. Information is gathered and synthesized by
an individual’s (or firm’s) personal design process. It takes courage for a client to agree to
an unfamiliar process and an implicit trust that their architect will deliver on their
promise. Contrast this with the eminently familiar
act of buying a product. With a case study house, the consumer can
view (even experience) the product, understand the cost and quickly make a value judgment. Either the perceived value is there or it
isn’t. Products can build-in profitability for the
professional and affordability for the client. Eliminating the stressful sequence of bidding
and price negotiation has benefits for both parties. For the client it ties decisions to real costs. The architect can capitalize on their own
efficiencies, investing in the design and receive a royalty each time the design is
sold. Profit can be built-into the product and once
it’s created there’s no inventory to store or maintain. If changes or customizations are required
they can be performed at a fixed hourly rate, again with integrated profit margins. Quibbling over invoices can be a thing of
the past with a product model. And, there’s no finger-pointing when bids
come in high because the costs are known from the outset. Lesson 6: The perfect versus the good. Custom, one-off bespoke commissions are prized
by any architect. Who would argue if asked to tailor every square
inch of a home to a specific client’s need? Although case study homes forfeit some customization
I would argue that it actually makes a home more marketable. The less owner-specific a home is the more
people it can accommodate in the future. Giving up a high level of customization helps
keep the budget in line too. We can’t let our struggle for the perfect
be the enemy of the good. Design isn’t a zero-sum game, with the efforts
of architects and the benefits of design conferred to only certain problems. Thoughtful architecture can address the problems
facing a wider spectrum of the population. Case study homes can be explored for affordable
but less than perfect sites. Who better than to solve these problems than
architects? Lesson 7: An ethos of experimentation. Most admirably, the Case Study House Program
embraced an ethos of experimentation. The designs reflected a willingness to step
away from traditional notions of home and try new things. Some were successful – the open plan still
exists today – while others weren’t. The things that didn’t work, steel framing
for example, told us something about the world and our acceptance of new building technologies
in the home. To experiment with new living arrangements,
novel materials, or more efficient ways of constructing common details is rewarding. When it goes right, the spoils can be incorporated
into future production processes and the finished product offers convincing proof. When it goes wrong you know which direction
to pivot. Either way you’ve learned something in the
process. When we choose to educate, making our daily
work an instructive case study for all to learn from, we can all benefit. In this way, architecture can deliver on the
promise of relevant, affordable housing solutions for all.

5 thoughts on “Case Study House Program: 7 lessons (and a call-to-action)

  1. Great video! I'm a huge fan of the Case Study houses, and Modernism in general.

    Do you think the idea of 'Modernism for the Masses' is a failed one? It seems that in the US at least, modern homes are generally thought to be out-of-touch and outside the price range of the average homeowner. Is prefab a Renaissance of this idea?

  2. I was hoping this was going to show more of the actual Case Study homes, but this was interesting as well.

    Could you do an episode on placement of the house on a site? That's something I'm always reading about but have very little understanding of.

  3. why are most houses so fucking ugly? like these houses are so gorgeous, I think it’s so interesting how even the majority of houses built today are just really repulsive looking, like there’s no aesthetic consideration like there is in other art, idk I guess this is unrelated but I’m just getting into this and I find it so odd

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