Teitsch-Kent-Fay Architects, P.C. recently assisted a residential client in Canastota who wanted to make some modifications/ additions to their existing house. Built in the first half of the last century, the residence was simple, cleanly detailed, and efficient in its layout. As we got further into our investigations, it appeared that the structural elements (wall framing, rafters, and joists) were all small compared to what would be expected. As we continued to investigate it became clear that this was a pre-fabricated structure of some sort, meaning the parts of the building were prepared in a factory and shipped to the site for assembly. Further investigation revealed that this was not only pre-fabricated, it was actually a Sears house!
You read that correctly, Sears house, as in Sears and Roebuck Company. Between 1908 and 1942 Sears offered a house kit that could be ordered from a catalog, shipped to the site, and assembled either by the owner or a contractor. Included in this kit were lumber, roofing, fixtures, wiring, and hardware; all the elements needed to make a home. The homeowner could select the type of house that they wanted from a number of existing models. There were even options such as types of hardware, bathroom sink or tub types, and kitchen details such as cabinet styles and ironing boards, that a homeowner could select to make their own dream house.
What may be surprising to hear about the Sears houses is that they were constructed of quality materials despite being mass produced. The Sears company sold more than 70,000 of these homes between 1908 and 1942, making it not surprising to come across one today. There are however, several issues architects have to address when renovating a Sears (or any other kit) house. The structures were designed many decades ago, and many aspects of house construction have changed in the interim.
One of the greatest problems that homeowners who have Sears Houses face is lack of insulation. Homes are now insulated to a much greater extent than they did in the first half of the 20th century due to the rise in the cost of heating. This lack of insulation represents a challenge to a modern designer in a couple of ways. First, because the wall and roof construction is relatively light, there is often not even room to add insulation to these existing buildings. Additionally, by better insulating the structure, you will typically retain more snow during the winter months, resulting in greater stresses on the existing building. This means that when architects come across these houses it is vital that they address these issues, especially when the house is located in Central New York.
Another issue, particularly with multi-story kit houses is that in order to facilitate the prefabricated system the exterior walls were constructed with “balloon framing”. This was a quite common practice at the time whereby the exterior studs extend all the way from foundation to the roof framing. While quick and easy to construct, unless adequate blocking is installed between the floor levels, these stud spaces act as chimney’s in a fire. It is important to make sure that buildings of this type are checked, and if necessary adjusted to prevent a tragedy.
When Teitsch-Kent Fay Architects, P.C. was contacted to renovate a Sears home, we quickly found the primary issue was the light nature of the wall and roof framing. The walls were extremely thin because it was minimally designed in a factory. This left very little room for insulation making the house expensive to heat and uncomfortable to live in. To remedy this our team reached out to our structural consultant and together we worked out a design that would allow us to add on to the structure while spreading the load over sufficient existing members to make sure the load would not be too great. At the same time we utilized modern insulation techniques to improve the thermal quality of the space. The resulting design retained the best of the past while providing the homeowners with the spaces they desired.
So this year while this year if you are looking through the Sears catalog you probably won’t see any kit houses. Since it was extremely affordable and convenient, it is still something that is prominent in our world today. Rather than looking to purchase one of these homes, see if you can’t spot them when you are driving around your neighborhood looking at holiday lights.