Maison Tropicale and The Assembly Line

The assembly line was never invented but rather developed over time. Prior to the assembly line, in order to mass produce, something would require teams of craftsmen to build one unit at a time. The more complex the unit was, the more time it took to build, and the harder it was to control quality. When it came time to assemble the unit, trimming and modification would take place to ensure that the pieces could be assembled. Some huge problems with the approach to mass production are the problems of quality control, efficacy, and speed. The process of production began to change over to an assembly line method during the Industrial Revolution. The first linear and continuous assembly line was the Portsmouth Block Mill in England. They had developed 22 machine tools to fabricate pulley blocks for the British Navy. Their process was so efficient and successful that the plant operated from 1805 through to 1960.

With each new assembly line came greater efficiency, speed, and consistent quality; but there was one man that turned mass production into a science. In his book My Life and Work, Henry Ford outlines 3 principles for the ideal assembly line:

(1) Place the tools and the men in the sequence of the operation so that each component part shall travel the least possible distance while in the process of finishing.

Ford Assembly Line
(2) Use work slides or some other form of carrier so that when a workman completes his operation, he drops the part always in the same place—which place must always be the most convenient place to his hand—and if possible have gravity carry the part to the next workman for his operation.

(3) Use sliding assembling lines by which the parts to be assembled are delivered at convenient distances.

Henry Ford revolutionized the assembly process of all manufacturing with his 3 guidelines. His process of manufacturing was influential for many people in the industrial and manufacturing field. His process was largely responsible for the style of architecture that made Jean Prouvé so famous. Jean Prouvé actually admired the work that Henry Ford did, and greatly admired his ability to turn out consistent parts in a timely manner. Prouvé used this as a basis to design and then manufacture many of his prefabricated homes; most notably Maison Tropicale.

Ford, Henry. My Life and Work. N.p.: Doubleday, 2007.

"Henry Ford Changes the World, 1908," EyeWitness to History (2005).

"Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust." 

Jean Prouvé and Prefabrication

Roof Components
Jean Prouvé is well known for his prefabricated homes, including Maison Tropicale. The morphology of his prefabricated structures can be seen with is development of the structural frames for each of his buildings. He developed: the jointed frame, shed type, vaulted type, propped type, H-type, and central core type. The two frames that were implemented in his African prefabrication work were the joint type for Maison Tropicale and the H-type for his Sahara House.
The approach that France took to its colonization of Africa was the path of gentle assimilation. France wanted to integrate the local African people with the French colonialists, and eventually turn them into Evoluee’s or Westernized Africans. One of the best ways that the French government felt this could be achieved would be to introduce French culture into the colonies. By implementing buildings the French hoped to achieve a superior reign over the Evoluee’s and at the same time assimilate them with much needed French infrastructure; specifically housing.
Jean Prouvé received the contract for the construction of modular homes, to be built in the French-African colonies, from the government of France after they had seen his previous work with steel prefabricated homes. With the contract came specifications in the form of a colonial building code. The building code was not specific on the performance of the building itself, but rather the materials it was made out of. Previous colonial homes in Africa were made of concrete, and needless to say they were highly inefficient as they did not breathe but rather cook its occupants. The materials that were specified in the building code were aluminum, concrete, and brick. The choice to use the selection of materials that cost money versus the local indigenous materials that were free to use was part of the French assimilation plan to bring in foreign materials that would mark the area as a truly separate entity from the surrounding area.
Loading the Plane
With the only requirement of certain materials, Prouvé got to work on designing his aluminum prefabricated home. With Prouvé having started as an industrial metal worker, he understood the logistics of creating a home out of many panels that would be build to a specific dimension in order to be shipped to its final destination. By today’s shipping standards  the pieces for one complete house could fit into 2 shipping containers with a dimension of 2.4 meters wide by 12.2 meters long. He had the pieces fabricated at his Maxeville factory to fit a certain dimension of a 4 meters wide as that was maximum width his machine presses could handle, and that was also the maximum width that the cargo plane could handle. He also made the specification that the pieces could not weigh more than 100 kilograms partly because that was the maximum his machines could handle, but also that was the ideal weight for a 2 man team to carry the pieces without the aid of machines.
To see the prefabricated pieces, see Roof, Windows, Shutters, and  Gantry Frame.
Machine Press


Aluminum Français - Influence on Prefabrication Manufacturing


Meudon Houses
Following the end of World War II, Jean Prouvé was interested in capitalizing on the post war construction projects that would be commissioned by the government of France. He believed however, that these projects would be given to larger companies and not smaller shops such as his, Atelier de Jean Prouvé. He entered an agreement with Aluminum Français who had a strong government relationship. Aluminum Français bought 17% of Atelier Jean Prouvé. This agreement also benefited Prouvé's shop, because he could now afford to purchase new machinery with the capital from Aluminum Français. In contracts through Aluminum Français, Atelier de Jean Prouvé was forced to use more aluminum in the design. When working on the designs of projects such as Maison Tropicale, Prouvé's process came from pressures from Aluminum Français. The company wanted the shop to operate like an assembly line and wanted a greater focus on the individual components, not the overall concept. The production style of Maison Tropicale came as a result of external pressures and in 1953, Atelier de Jean Prouvé was sold and Prouvé no longer had to adhere to Aluminum Français in his designs and process of manufacturing.


O'Day, Kathleen. “Tropical or Colonial? A Reception History of Jean Prouvé's Prefabricated Houses For Africa.” Thesis, Louisiana State University and Art College, 2009.
"Arquitectura: Una casa en una semana," accessed December 8, 2012,

Prefabrication Timeline

“Chapter 1: A Brief History of Prefabrication.” Accessed December 8, 2012,

Attention to Detail

It is rare in architecture to have the same person or group design as well as manufacture the design. Atelier de Jean Prouvé was an example.  In this shop, Jean Prouvé designed and manufactured furniture and components for buildings, including Maison Tropicale.  In the design of Maison Tropicale, his goal was to develop a housing system that was suited to the tropical climate of French West Africa, and could be erected quickly and cost effectively. His attention to detail is very noticeable in the final design, from the building envelope that would act as a ventilation system to the connections of the components. Prouvé was able to combine the work of an architect and an engineer.  Prouvé took an engineering approach to all his designs, visually illustrating the transfer of forces, and choosing materials suitable materials. He approached the development of prototypes from the perspective of an artisan, paying close attention to materials, the feel of them and how they react when combined with other materials. The intention in all of his designs and developments, was to combine utility, an honest use of materials, and economy, with the high demands of mass production. Being involved in both processes allowed Prouvé to put as much care into the manufacturing and structure of the design as the design itself.  It was Prouvé's relationship with the design and construction, that allowed him to design every bit of the furniture or buildings down to what connections were used and how they interacted with the components.  

Instead of continuing to work in the typical format, where a building is constructed by many different people from many different places, he had the design and building process organized in the same place with a consistent group of supervisors including both designers and engineers.  
The collective nature of Atelier de Jean Prouvé reflects Prouvé's ideals that the design and manufacturing process should be collective.  The quote below provides insight into why the building process should occur as previously described.

"Every object except a building is made by a single organic entity, a single industry equivalent to one firm." - Jean Prouvé

The simple elegance of Prouvé's style is evident in all his designs, from his furniture to his buildings. He developed a timeless aesthetic, which is what made him so well-known and well-respected.  

The typical format of a building process is currently the design, bid, build process, the traditional process, where the design and construction are handled by separate parties.  However, Prouvé's process of combining design and manufacturing (construction) into one process, is becoming more prevalent, leading to the design, build process, where both process are carried out simultaneously, working off each other.

 O'Day, Kathleen. “Tropical or Colonial? A Reception History of Jean Prouvé's Prefabricated Houses For Africa.” Thesis, Louisiana State University and Art College, 2009.



Shipping the Components


Niamey House Assembly

1 comment:

  1. Nice blog thanks to shared this valid information really it will help us more Prefabricated homes