Fifth International Conference on Construction History
‘Decent and Suitable’ Modules: The Politics of Construction Research in HUD’s Operation Breakthrough, 1969-1974
Conference Presentation, June 2015


In 1969, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) began a research program called 'Operation Breakthrough' to encourage industrialized construction and overcome barriers to technological advancement in code, labor, and management. Breakthrough was predicated on an understanding that industrialized housing would not only reduce the costs of new housing but also that technological advances were required to meet skyrocketing need. Prior to the program’s launch, research data had led HUD to a specious prediction that by 1980, two-thirds of all new housing units in the US would have to be built using methods of prefabrication. It seemed at the time that without increased efficiency and lower cost, the construction industry would be unable to produce sufficient new housing to accommodate an increasing (and increasingly impoverished) urban population. Responding to this massive need, HUD solicited Breakthrough proposals from architects, contractors, developers, and producers of construction materials, eventually building several hundred demonstration units at nine sites across the country. The program was restricted by its small output, slow pace, and retrograde technologies, yet in order to justify their investment in Operation Breakthrough, HUD engaged in premature efforts to convince the public and industry groups of their program’s success. It hoped to overcome some of the barriers to industrialized housing inscribed in building codes and labor practices, but in the end, Breakthrough's limited scope deluded its administrators. Against all evidence to the contrary, they were convinced that Breakthrough’s streamlined code enforcement procedures and hard-fought union production agreements—which were counted among the program’s early successes—would receive widespread adoption. In these and other respects, the everyday realities of America's construction industry and housing market derailed Breakthrough's ambitions in both quality and quantity.

Page from HUD Challenge magazine, March 1971, showing Operation Breakthrough “Control Room” at HUD headquarters in Washington, D.C.