Case Study House #18: Architect Craig Ellwood Puts the “Fab” in Prefab


Up next, let’s take a look architect Craig Ellwood’s third and final submission to the Case Study Program:

Case Study House #18, or the “Fields House.”

Built from 1956 to 1958, the house quickly became known as Ellwood’s best contribution to the program. It paired modern design with luxe amenities, and was a sturdier and more elaborate home than his previous submissions.

But, the most remarkable thing about this house isn’t the design, at least not as a standalone element. By creating the structure with factory­built components, Ellwood showed how good design could be applied to prefabrication.

Ellwood predicted the rise of prefab building years before the completion of Case Study House #18. During his first series of lectures “On Form and Function,” he argued that increasing labor costs and declining craftsmanship would soon force a complete mechanization of residential construction.

“The American residence is becoming a product, and eventually all homes – except those of the very wealthy – will be bought in prefabricated form,” he said. When Dr. Irving Fields asked him to design a new Case Study House using factory­ made components, he looked at it as an opportunity to create an architectural model for the future of single­ family homes.

Instead of attempting to hide that the house was built as a prefabricated structure, Ellwood emphasized the elements of construction with a bold use of color. The painted blue steel frame provided a visual rhythm, carried throughout the house with a repetition of off­ white paneling.

The house also differed from prefab homes built up to that point because Ellwood chose to separate the construction of the walls from the construction of the structural frame. By doing so, he allowed for greater design flexibility not otherwise possible, especially with the selection of wall material. The modular structural frame also made the frame do all the work to support the structure, which was a smart choice given the earthquake factor in Southern California.

Prefabrication in steel gave the structure an advantage in strength of material, but the lightning­ fast assembly was even more remarkable. The house was built from an 8­foot modular steel frame, pre­-welded into 16 foot bents and swung into place on site from the delivery trucks. On­site welding was needed for only 19 beam connections and 40 column ­base connections. The entire frame was assembled on site by four men in just eight hours.

The home’s unique interior design included wood paneling, terrazzo flooring, and an extensive use of ceramic mosaics throughout. The bath and kitchen countertops featured ceramic mosaics in color schemes based on colors used in the house and landscaping. An abstract 8’ x 8’ mosaic mural in the covered court was also made of chipped and crushed ceramics.

And look at that furniture! This house is packed with some of the most iconic pieces in Mid­Century Modern furniture design.

From the Eames Aluminum Group chair by the mural to the George Nelson Coconut Lounge Chairs in the living room, the decor provides visual inspiration and a definite WOW factor in just about every space.

Much like Case Study House #17, the home came with the very latest in technology, including a central vacuum system, a hi­fi system from Altec Lansing, and a built­in radio intercom that doubled as a fire warning device and alarm at any or all stations.

Ellwood placed many electrical outlets around the house to help its owners tailor the space as they liked. But, no good deed goes unpunished. Over time, the owners renovated the original design beyond recognition.

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