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Production line technology for housing

By Chris Johnson - posted Thursday, 14 October 2004

The house and the car are the two biggest purchases of most Australians. They are produced in vast numbers with ever changing styles. But the construction of the house remains as an arts and craft activity compared to the modern production processes for the car. Around the world this is changing as computer technology has opened up the design dream of using mass-production techniques to produce not endless copies of the same object, but diverse variations.

Look at the Holden production line in Elizabeth, Australia. Holden is capturing a new international market - it is not to be the world’s biggest, it is to be the best niche international supplier. Holden has used expertise to design special vehicles like the Commodore, which is built as one of only two rear-wheel drive platforms made by the company. An article in the Australian Financial Review by Peter Roberts (January 6, 2004) explains how special Holden is … “in this Goliath of a market, Holden has made a virtue of its size through a small company’s ability to move quickly on new opportunities”.

The Elizabeth plant on the outskirts of Adelaide has been equipped to produce 780 cars a day. It is one of the most flexible automobile production plants in the world. Roberts defined the production line as almost a non production line. “Such is the flexibility of the plant that a red Commodore sedan can be followed along the line by a white four door utility and a yellow Pontiac GTO - batch size is as little as one.”


The use of automobile technology to influence the design of homes has been a long held dream of modernist architects. In 1923, Le Corbusier wrote one of the most influential books on architecture and building. Towards a New Architecture was a call to arms to designers and architects to join the modern “Fordist” world of mass-production. Corbusier was inspired by three new design typologies that evolved from the mass-production world - the ocean liner, the aeroplane and the automobile. Le Corbusier sees the design of the automobile as the key to house design:

If the problem of the dwelling or the flat was designed in the same way that a chassis is, a speedy transformation and improvement will be seen in our houses. If houses were constructed by industrial mass-production, like the chassis, unexpected but sane and defensible forms would soon appear and a new aesthetic would be formulated with astonishing precision.

Le Corbusier’s ultimate conclusion is that “the house is a machine for living in” and these words have become one of the great statements of modern architecture.

The dream is now becoming reality as Toyota moves into the housing market in Japan. Toyota is a company that is into systems - with 264,000 employees world wide, vehicles marketed to 260 countries and sales of Yen 16,000 billion - this is a big company that must take a systems approach to its businesses and must be continually involved in R and D.

Toyota has a philosophy of developing new industries world wide in areas inside and outside the company. It is in this context that Toyota has a special programme called More than Cars. As the automobile is at the centre of Toyota’s activities, the technology and know-how accumulated through development, production, sales and servicing of the automobiles are being harnessed to venture beyond the car industry. Toyota in following this direction has moved into information and communications, marine biotechnology, forestation and housing.

Click onto the “housing” button on the Toyota website and we have the Toyota home “building 21st century comfort and luxury into houses in Japan”. The language that describes these homes comes from the automobile industry - “Toyota’s house making is based on the skeleton and infill approach”. The homes include “equipment that incorporates high level automobile technology …“. However the images of the Toyota home certainly don’t look like cars. In fact they are disappointingly quite traditional, hip roofed, tiled homes. The technology is there behind the image but the cladding is not what Le Corbusier would have expected.


Even more information on the Toyota home can be found on where the graphic details are displayed of the construction of a typical Toyota home. Starting at 9.00am by 10.00am the first floor is complete, by 11.30am the second floor is completed, and by 3.00pm the roof is on and the structure enclosed. Within one day 85 per cent of the construction is complete. The chassis of the building is a series of lattice steel frames that link together to give sufficient rigidity for earthquakes and typhoons. Special corners are available for a curve or 45-degree cuts, as are cantilevers to overhang a car parking space. A 2.6m ceiling is an extra over the standard 2.4m ceiling.

A series of air quality systems are available to take Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) out of the air and improve cross-ventilation. The automobile research process affects materials in the house with the reduction in formaldehydes that cause “sick house” syndrome. Most materials (99 per cent) are also desalinated through “Bi-AZTION”. Clearly Toyota’s research department for automobiles is beginning to have a major impact on better technology for the construction of the Toyota home.

Can Australia move to a similar shake up of our housing market? Just imagine the Holden house appearing in a street near you. A number of Australian architects are espousing these approaches. Foremost among the team is Gabriel Poole from Queensland, who has been a champion of the mass-produced house for many years. While he has designed many award winning individual houses on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, his real drive has been to experiment with production line systems to produce a range of houses accessible to the larger market. His latest range is intriguingly titled “the Takeaway” and is interchangeable with his previous range “the Small House” series.

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About the Author

Chris Johnson is the NSW Government Architect and General Manager of the Government Architect’s Office, Department of Commerce.

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