- November 8, 2021
Remembering the Architects’ Small House Service Bureau
Architects need to take more seriously the detached house, and the suburbs of which the house is the constituent element. We’ve always flitted around the margins of the building industry, using houses for relatives or rich acquaintances to express our manifestos or as stepping stones to larger commissions. But whether we like it or not, most housing units in the U.S. are single-family houses, and giant developers like David Weekley Homes continue to build millions of houses in the monocultural subdivisions that define the American built environment. Architects are rarely involved.
Ironically, the era of the American mass-market house started with the massively popular pattern books of landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, whose collaborations with architect Alexander Jackson Davis helped to popularize the notion of the detached single-family house in a bucolic setting.1 The age of the architect-led mass-marketing of small house designs culminated decades later with the Architects Small House Service Bureau, an organization of architects who provided mail-order plans to homebuilders in an attempt to promote quality architectural design in the early days of the mass-produced home. The ASHSB existed for less than 20 years and has subsequently been nearly forgotten 2 . –it merits only passing mention in the major histories of American suburban development. But in its earnest attempt to harness the techniques of contemporary mass-media, the ASHSB is a useful reference to architects who hope to attain a broader relevance today.
In the 1920s, the housing market was being transformed by mass-production. While mail-order building plans had been available since not long after the days of Downing’s pattern books, in the early 20th century companies began to offer full-on mail-order houses, including working drawings, all building materials and often a means of financing the purchase. The mail order house was a radical innovation in the commodification of living space, and it largely cut architects out of the process of designing small houses 3
The Architects’ Small House Service Bureau was created to address what many architects viewed as the deficiency in stock plans offered by the major mail-order house companies. Endorsed by the AIA in 1919, by the late 1920s the ASHSB had regional offices throughout the country and a robust publishing operation that reached prospective buyers through magazines and pattern books.4
The crucial difference between the ASHSB and a mail-order house company like Sears was that the ASHSB sold only working drawings from which a local builder would bid on and ultimately build the house.
Though it couldn’t match the resources of the large mail-order companies, the existence of the ASHSB reveals that at least some architects understood that architecture’s best hope was to reach people where they were. And it did – at its peak the ASHSB was reaching two million people per week.5 But a quick comparison between the 1932 Sears catalog and the 1929 ASHSB publication Small Homes of Architectural Distinction reveals house designs that differ in degree, not kind. 6 The illustrations, descriptions, and plans are almost interchangeable. Undoubtedly the ASHSB houses are somewhat more rationally planned and more adventurous in massing and materiality. But did anyone really think this was enough to compete with Sears’ infinitely better resourced and more comprehensive operation?
As Dolores Hayden writes in Building Suburbia, the ASHSB also suffered from an attitude of architectural elitism that foregrounded an idea of ‘correct style.’ Hayden quotes one ASHSB member lamenting that he “[sees] Colonial, English, Spanish built in New York, Florida, Los Angeles, Minnesota…”7 Ironically, the 1929 pattern book put out by the ASHSB is replete with suggestive references to locations connoted by its houses’ styles, but it never makes concrete recommendations about locating a specific style of house in a specific region. The tension then is palpable between a disciplinary desire on the part of ASHSB members to preserve an idea of regional stylistic appropriateness on the one hand, while tacitly accepting on the other that the house-buying public had no desire to accept these constraints. This was not a new struggle for architects; we often feel that we should be the creators rather than followers of popular taste.
The AIA withdrew its endorsement of the ASHSB in 1934, with the official reasoning that a stock plan service constituted undue competition with local architects. There remained a conflict between members who viewed the design of small houses as a civic duty and those who believed that architects should be solely focused on large-scale apartment buildings, but proponents of the small house were in the minority.8 Hayden estimates that only a few thousand houses were ever built with ASHSB plans.9 Despite its ultimate failure, can we learn from its ambitions? It’s possible that the ASHSB failed because it didn’t provide a radical enough alternative to the stock plans of Sears and the other mail-order companies, and was too obsessed with architectural style. But it was willing to play on the field of mass culture in a way that architecture typically isn’t, and for that alone it’s worth remembering. Today, as alternative living arrangements like co-living and multi-generational housing are proliferating, architects again have the opportunity to stake a claim in the creation of these spaces. Maybe a first step is to study the mass-marketing techniques through which housing is sold by developers and to use those techniques to promote alternative visions of a more collective life. Or maybe we should just start making pattern books again. RIP ASHSB.