Unfolding the Eichler Design

The evolution of the Eichler design—pivotal turns and experiments enroute to a better way of living

AtriumAmong many young California architects during the 1950s, there was a feeling of American can-do optimism, mixed with an altruistic belief in the potential of modern architecture to support a better way of life. And some even experimented with small modular house designs for their own use. Before either Bob Anshen or A. Quincy Jones ever met Joseph Eichler, the two architects were grappling with the issues surrounding the postwar housing crisis. Anshen and his wife, Eleanor, who were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts immediately after the World War II, wrote and lectured on their recommendations for mass production and standardization in the construction industry.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Jones set up his own practice in 1946, and by 1948 he had already built a house for himself and a modern tract house prototype for a Los Angeles developer. Both architects realized the need for inexpensive quick-to-build houses, but both also realized that while mass production—or merchant building—was the only economical way to fulfill this need, equal attention was owed to quality-of-life issues.

Joseph Eichler was quite aware of these conflicting needs when he began building houses in the late 1940s. However, he was unable to resolve the opposing issues of comfort and economy until he began hiring architects. He relied upon Anshen & Allen and later Jones & Emmons to devise a construction system which would be efficient to build, but inherently flexible enough to provide opportunities for individual designs.

Jones, who had designed a prototypical house for the Los Angeles-based builder, Hvistendahl, came to Eichler Homes equipped with an intimate knowledge of the parameters of merchant builder design. Anshen, on the other hand, had only theorized on the subject. His only residential design experience had involved custom homes, including a $3.5 million house for Ralph Davies, owner of a San Francisco-based cruise line, and Joseph Eichler's own house, in Atherton, which would cost a healthy $50,000.

Both architects proposed a post-and-beam construction method which had the twin benefits of a speedy erection time and plan flexibility. The Eichler architects' design strategy of post-and-beam structure and exposed wood panels was a simple one which nonetheless imbued their mass-produced product with the feel of a high-quality living environment. Furthermore, the Eichler vocabulary proved a resilient one which would permit the houses to evolve over time to accommodate changes in market demands without sacrificing its distinctive feel and image.

Over the course of the first 15 years of Eichler history, from 1950 until 1965, the designs of the houses would go through several important changes, but the high-quality feeling and the sense of freedom and livability would remain consistent throughout the entire term of development. In addition to their design of individual house models, the architects experimented with a succession of site-planning strategies, which implied a variety of living styles, including one un-built example which exhibited surprisingly farsighted ideas about land use and energy consciousness.

The challenge Eichler and his architects faced—to design a house which could rise above the ordinary builder quality, while remaining affordable to middle-class home buyers—was a serious one. An article in Arts & Architecture in May 1948 defined the issue Eichler and his architects would face when they joined forces a year later: " To the typical operative builder, a house is a commodity, an object to be bought and sold. But the word 'commodity' has another and equally correct definition: 'the quality or state of being commodious; convenience; accommodation; benefit; advantage.'" Resisting the ordinary builder mentality, and instead striving to achieve this second definition of commodity, would always be the goal of Eichler and his design staff.

Eichler's first architect-designed homes, 51 Anshen & Allen models, went on the market in 1950. Built in Sunnyvale, beyond the typical San Francisco commute, where land was relatively inexpensive, they were 'T'-shaped in plan, with the living-dining room in the stem of the 'T,' and under a high flat roof which overlapped the other two wings. Those two wings were formed by two bedrooms on the back and the garage on the street side. The bedroom wing helped define and shelter a backyard patio made accessible from the living room through a glass door in a floor-to-ceiling glass wall.

Jim San Jule, the marketing partner of Eichler Homes up until the mid-1950s, described this model as " a real gem," because of its superefficient planning and handsome proportions that made the interior space seem much larger than the actual 1,044 square feet. The plan consisted of three bedrooms, one bath, living room, kitchen, and a dining alcove. The price was $9,500, including the appliances.