Tuesday, March 6, 2012

No idea is really new

I couldn’t help but be amused Monday morning when Robin Meade (the one-time WMAQ-TV reporter-type who now anchors the morning news on CNN’s headline news service) sounded so perky in telling us that IKEA is now in the business of selling us actual houses.
The Ideabox pre-fab home ...

Now, one can not only go to IKEA to buy a batch of build-it-yourself furniture, you can even plunk down some $86,000 and buy a build-it-yourself house.

ACTUALLY, A KIT with all the pieces needed. What a new innovation! How clever!

Except for a couple of things.

First off, it seems that the prefab houses are not actually an IKEA product. They were designed (and the kits put together) by an Oregon-based company called Ideabox.

Although, Ideabox got input in the design of the kits from IKEA officials in Portland. So naturally, everybody was quick to give IKEA the credit. The company had to go so far as issuing a statement last week to clarify the situation.

YET THERE IS another, more important, reason why this particular “story” amuses me. The idea of buying a prefab house is so NOT a new concept.

Anybody who thinks that buying one of these kits and putting together a residence puts them at the forefront of the 21st Century will be depressed to learn that they’re, “So last century!”

Because we all either remember, or have heard the stories about, the days when Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck & Co. was in the business of selling pre-fabricated houses – many of which are still standing even though it has been just over seven decades since Sears got out of the house business.
... and its century-old Sears predecessor

In fact, the concept is so similar that a part of me wonders if it is possible for the Sears types to sue Ideabox for stealing their idea. (It probably isn’t, but I’m sure Sears officials are feeling so desperate these days that they’d consider just about any concept that didn’t involve closing more stores).

THE IDEABOX HOUSES are in kit form, with all the pieces needed to put together a house. You have to figure out how to buy a plot of land to build it on and pay for the connections to electricity and other utilities (otherwise the structure becomes nothing more than an overly-elaborate outhouse).

But it’s literally a build-it-yourself project. Invite a few friends over, particularly if you have friends who actually have some skills when it comes to construction or repair projects.

Which sounds so virtually identical to the concept of the old Sears Modern Homes that I have to wonder who ripped off whom.

Those homes were also sold through the catalog (you couldn’t go to an actual Sears store to pick out a “house”) between 1908 and 1940 – with the company estimating that some 70,000 kits were sold during those 32 years.

THE KITS WERE shipped literally in railroad box cars, with every single piece labeled properly so that (if you were capable of following instructions) you could put it together yourself.

Or perhaps invite the friends and neighbors over to help – almost like the days of old when this was still the frontier and you might literally turn a home construction into a “barn-raising” party.

These Ideabox people have literally resurrected an idea with origins in the early days of this nation (the 18th and early 19th centuries) as we are now one decade into the 21st.

And just as the Ideabox houses are advertised as having all of the equipment needed for modern technology (it won’t be a primitive shack), the Sears houses of old incorporated the now-standard ideas of central heating, indoor plumbing and electricity.

IN FACT, I can only think of one real difference between the two ideas.

The Sears Modern Homes idea ultimately died with the Great Depression, which caused many people to default on the mortgages that Sears offered to help people pay for such a financially-substantial purchase – which ultimately made the idea of a new home purchase too expensive for enough people to buy for Sears to keep the product in their inventory of goods for sale.
MEADE: Told us about it

Whereas it seems the Ideabox houses are being marketed in part as a cheaper alternative to a more conventionally-constructed residence; although Meade on Monday morning quipped that the prefab houses could be a cheap way to have a small, “vacation house” on an isolated plot of land.

I suppose anything is possible, particularly in these times that many people feel economically-strapped, and some think it is the worst downtown SINCE the Great Depression.

SO SINCE THIS Ideabox concept seems to be a Portland-based concept for the time being, it may be some time before we start seeing such structures being erected here.

Which means it remains to be seen whether they will take on the lasting character of the Sears Modern Homes. Will we someday see clusters of Ideabox/IKEA houses being boasted of – similar to how places like Elgin think it adds to their historic character because their roughly 200 Sears homes are the largest-known collection of such houses anywhere in the world.

And for those of you wondering why I'd write up something on this trivial topic, would you really rather read yet another piece of commentary about "Super Tuesday?" I didn't think so.


1 comment:

Lara said...

This Ideabox model reminds me more of the Lustron steel homes built after WWII.