Moelven modular houses – 70’s modular

Furnished to the toothbrush according to the period, a modular house represents the decade of the 70’s at the open air museum Maihaugen in Lillehammer. The Moelven Senior is exhibited „because it was one of the more popular houses at that time. There were a lot of producers of prefabricated houses, but most of the others were not completed in the factory like the Moelven modular house. They precut the material for the construction in the factory but assembled the structure on the spot.“ [1] The modular building method had the advantage to work all year round in optimal and efficient production conditions with automatic and mechanized support for material handling which allowed to work with low skilled operators. Furthermore, the minimization of adjustments on site shortened the building period drastically to a few days and cut cost. [2]


Designated as a „Social-Democratic Ownership Country“ Norway has always been debating about subsidizing housing and keeping the taxes low on property.The aim was to provide housing for a reasonable amount of money in relation to income by public control and regulations on the housing market. During the housing shortage in pressure areas, the household cost until the 1970’s was not to exceed 20% of the average industrial worker’s salary. [3] In addition the Norwegian State Housing Bank, a state’s tool for financing a general housing supply and rebuilding the country after the war, provided subsidized loans and grants.[4]


Using a constantly updated Husguiden, the future homeowner could pick a house without contacting an architect. The following is an introduction to the book:


“The House Guide 1978 provides information with the possibility of comparison for over 100 different types of houses. The book also provides an introduction on how to find your particular house needs, as well as an introduction to what financing opportunities you have. With the amount of type- and prefabricated houses offered today in the Norwegian market, it is very difficult to cover the full overview. We have therefore tried to clean up the jungle of brochures and catalogs with the HUS-GUIDEN 1978. We hope to come up with a new and revised edition at Christmas each year and are receptive for good advice for future editions. Good luck with the hunt!” [5]


(a) Page 58 the “Husguiden 1978”, a “Katalog over Norske Typehus” with more than 100 nordic type-houses presented with plans, measurements, materials and the fabricator’s contact.


Out of these plans, you could choose your favorite and contact a contractor. A few customizations would be applied to the system’s plan, and the production could start immediately. The client was solely responsible for the foundation. In many cases, they would build their basement with friends and neighbors. This activity of working together and helping each other is called Dugnad, it continues to the present in Norwegian culture today. If not poured in concrete, it was common to use the LECA blocks. Courses were held to distribute the knowledge among the general population of homebuilders.[6]


(b) Aktiv on the marked. With campaigns all over the country, Moelven presented its housing concept and rational production.

“Trees are virtually 
ready-made beams and pillars” [Rasmus Wærn]
Prefabrication can be found with any material – brick in the antique Mesopotamia, [7] stone in ancient Roman temples erected in North African colonies and wood in precut joints for Japanese temples from the 1200’s to present [8], or simply be a wooden log house in the middle ages, cut in one place and transported to another place (Norway, Sweden and Russia) [9]. 


In 1833 H. Manning designed a framework construction for his to Australia emigrating son. It „appears to be the first house designed specifically for ease of travel and construction.“ [10] It became a prototype for several models and was advertised in the South Australian Record as „Portable Colonial Cottage“.


(c) Structure of the Portable colonial cottage by John Manning in 1833.


In the same year, the Balloon Frame in America was the response by Augustine Taylor to the housing shortage and the lack of skilled craftsmen. The system used precut wooden beams and posts, dimensioned two-by-four / two-by-six inch and manufactured iron nails instead of mortised fittings. Buster Keaton addressed the challenges of a homemade dwelling in his movie One Week.


(d) Buster Keaton’s One Week (1920) a comedy on homemade balloon construction.


One of the first Scandinavians to take advantage of the potential for manufacturing prefabricated houses on an industrial scale was the Swede Fredrik Blom. He envisioned a system in the 1840’s that could be moved on demand – individual building components – complete walls, including windows and doors, joint together with iron ties. At the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889, the Norwegian exhibition focused on the export of portable homes.
A century later a New York Times reporter asked Gropius “if it was not a good thing that at least in the realm of the house one could create a refuge from standardization and industrialization, Gropius noted that between 1913 and 1937 the average cost of a house in America had increased 193 percent, while the average cost of the car had fallen by 60 percent, concluding, ” The coming generation will certainly blame us if we should fail to overcome those understandable though sentimental reactions against prefabrication.”” [11]


(e) a variety of walls possible within the construction grid for an element.

As if following Gropius two years later the „Boligdirektoratet“ (Housing Department) published in the edition of „Moderne Trehusbygging“ (Modern Wooden Houses, 1949) new construction principles. They adapted the binding system to be based on nails instead of timber connections, and a construction grid of 60 cm. In the same year, thermal insulation came for the first time in building regulations. Implemented within a few years, most of the houses in 1951 were built with a light bonding, high-grade insulation, and three-layered glass windows. On their study trip to America, the housing director Jacob Christie Kielland and representatives from the construction industries were particularly interested in the coordination of material production to the finished house. The Housing types in the 1950’s and 60’s were a response to the demand for both dense/affordable and good housing. [12]
Towards the 1970’s the industrial production methods picked up and more investments went into the housing sector. The housing construction reached a peak in 1973 with almost 45.000 completed homes (70 percent of these were financed through the Husbank; note by the author: every 88th person built a new house in 1973).



two, three, four or five …

… modules for your house?


(f) this might be the page that convinced the original owners of the studied house to build the type house >>Senior<< with Moelven.

Walking through the production hall, it seems that time has not changed the method but only the machines. The standardized measurements allow an industrial assembly line for production with optimized mechanical support. The posts and beams are aligned with the help of distance holders and joined by hand-guided hydraulic nail-machines to a frame-wall. The assembly table simply turns the element with a hydraulic operated arrangement to be worked on further from the other side – insulated and closed. The gypsum plates – already covered with tapestry and the exterior cladding is painted. The window frames are mounted and the vapor-barrier only needs to be joined once erected.[13]


(g) Assembling of wooden bars and plates with the help of an element-table to elements of floors, walls, and ceilings.


(h) The elements assembled to modules.


The elements are joined to a module almost automatized by an erector robot and aligned on a production line for completion within the factory; plumbing, electrical wiring, sanitary equipment, kitchen cupboards, wardrobes and more. 


(i) Modules on the final assembly line cupboards were mounted, sanitary and electrical installations were performed. Tables and Beds could be added – depending on the contract with the home buyer.

(j) A very efficient way of transportation is the truck with a customized trailer, manufactured by Moelven’s mechanical department. Four modules – the complete house – could be transported with just these two trucks.


(k) The production hall at the Moelven Factory in a pamphlet. 1 _ assembling frame wall; 2 _ storing the element for further processing; 3 _ mounting to a module; 4 _ finishing for occupancy;

Once the interior and exterior are finished and the folded roof is mounted they are sealed off and packed for transportation on a truck or railroad. On the building site, the house was erected within a couple of hours. [14] All the installations for water were in the Moelven Senior only within one Module which consisted of the kitchen, a bathroom, a separate toilet and the kids’ room, all accessed by a windowless hallway. After all wires are connected and pipes attached, the roof was pulled up and the chimney put in place, the house was ready for occupancy.

(l) orientation and situation: the house type is described to be a solitary house; the plot is flat where the house will be and the entrance will face the North – East.


(m) homemade: the basement built with LECA stones on a Dugnads day with friends and neighbors by the clients themselves.


(n) The floorplan has a flexible layout with four modules, each one is 3m wide and 8m long with fixed walls and fittings only in a module. The size is suitable for up to 5 people to inhabit the area: brutto 96,00 m2; netto 91,64 m2 ;  rental area 90,08 m2

The heating with oil and electricity was cheap. A barrel of oil was usually stored next to the house and residents had to transport small amounts to the oven. [15]
The Husbank could grant a subsidized loan if the single rooms were not too big, the interior finish and fittings were modest [16], and the total area of the house did not exceed 96 square meters. [17] The four modules of the Moelven Senior could be labeled moderate and they did not exceed the rental area with it’s 90,08 square meters.  The living and dining room was open, which might have disabled a subsidized Husbank loan but not a regular loan from another Bank.
These modular houses of various types were used in low rise structures for high-density suburbs, for single standing houses surrounded by a garden as well as for building barracks. Whole temporary villages were built for the period of a construction period of a hydropower plant until moved on to the next site if demanded. [18]


(o) 1 _ planning, a vague representation of the thoughts and techniques behind; 2 _ hydraulic operated turning table; 3 _ erector robot; 4 _ stored in the stacking conveyors; 5 _ once joint, modules are finished on the production line; 6 _ transport by customized truck; 7 _ erected within a few hours on site by crane; 8 _ the house is ready to move in; 9 _ the subtle background of a world might promise global influences and a global market. 



(p) 1980 moving the Moelven Senior house from the Gardemoen Airport by the company Moelven with only two of their customized trucks and trailers to the open air Museum Maihaugen in Lillehammer. By the same Team that erected it initially.


(q) metal pipes for transportation.



(r) The Moelven Senior, as part of the residential area in the open air museum Maihaugen in Lillehammer.

High inflation in the late 70’s led to a significant increase in building and land costs. [19] Moelven had to accept by 1990 the decreasing profit and quit the production of modules for permanent housing. Costumers wanted more than just the standard pallet which they simply accepted in the 70’s.[20] Odvar Nordly, head of the housing department – later Prime Minister, also saw the other side and noted that he was disappointed by the price of these prefabricated modular houses, they expected them to be cheaper for the consumers.[21] Today, the produced modules are mostly rented building barracks for construction sites with various sizes.


As prefabrication in various implementations is a common method it is important for us as Architects to accept Gropius request and engage in the development of prefabrication and be aware to use it as a tool, not as a limit to our design.


(t) A critique of mass production in Bjørn Larsen’s handbook to open system building.


([1] [6] [16] [21] Interview: Scharler, K. and Hosar, K. (2017). 1970-Tallshuset
[2] [14] Moelven Industrier, Moelven Housing System, (2000) Lillehammer: Mesna-Trykk
[3] Sørvoll J. (2011), Norsk boligpolitikk i forandring 1970-2010 – Dokumentasjon og debatt. NOVA – Norwegian Social Research.
[4] [19], (2010), Historie. [online] Available at: [Accessed 02 Oct.2017)
[5] Wikborg, T. (1978). Forword. In: I. Thorkildson Svendson, ed., Husguiden 1978, Oslo:Erik Sandberg A/S, p.3.
[7] [9] Sørby, H., (1992), Klar – ferdig – Hus! – norske ferdighus gjennom tidene, Oslo: Juel Solbakken A/S, p.15.
[8] [10] Bergdoll, B., and Christensen, P. (2008). Home Delivery – fabricating the modern dwelling, New York: Museum of Modern Art, p.40.
[11] Bergdoll, B., and Christensen, P. (2008). Home Delivery – fabricating the modern dwelling, New York: Museum of Modern Art, p.21-22.
[12] Jørgensen, K., and Martens, J.-D. (1996). Debatten om boligkvalitet og arbeidet med typetegninger. husbanken, p.35.
[13] [15] Scharler, K. site visit
[17] [18] [20] Interview: Scharler, K. and Weisser-Svendsen, E. (2017). production of Modular housing
(a)Wikborg, T. (1978). Forword. In: I. Thorkildson Svendson, ed., Husguiden 1978, Oslo:Erik Sandberg A/S, p.58.
(b)Moelven Industrier ASA, Hemsøe, O. (1999). 1899 – 1999 Moelven, Oslo: NorAdvice AS, p.67.
(c) Gilbert, H. (1978). Pioneers of Prefabrication, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, p.10.
(d) Buster Keaton: One Week (1920), [online] Available at: [Accessed 06 Nov.2017)
(e) produced by the author, according to archival plans – Moelven Industrier ASA, received from K. and Weisser-Svendsen, E. (2017)
(f) Linaae, R.; Bøhn, J.; Iversen, E.; Jørgensen, K.; Mundal, R.; (1971). Norske typehus, Oslo: IPA forlag, p.132.
(g)(h)(i)(j) produced by the author
(k)(o) Moelven Industrier, (2000) Moelven Housing System, Lillehammer: Mesna-Trykk
(l)(m)(n) produced by the author, according to archival plans – Stiftelsen Lillehammer Museum; Maihaugen, received from Hosar, K. (2017)
(p) archival photograph – Stiftelsen Lillehammer Museum; Maihaugen, received from Hosar, K. (2017)
(q) archival Plan, received from Weisser-Svendsen, E. (2017)
(r) photograph by the author at the Stiftelsen Lillehammer Museum; Maihaugen; residential Area; Moelven Senior – 1970er
(t) Larsen, B., (1977). Åpen systembygging – om teori og praksis. Oslo: Arkitekthøgskolen i Oslo, p.34.