Carl Koch

About Carl Koch

There is an understandable reluctance on the part of everyman to
build his counsel of nuts, bolts, and chromium. The industrial
revolution will help us realize our dreams if we can handle it, but we
haven’t handled it too well so far. Although it is pathetic to think
we can escape the pressure of competitive business, the battle of
home-office transportation, and a compulsion to drive ourselves too
far, too fast, too much, by escaping into fantasy in the shape of an
eighteenth-century farmhouse, it is understandable that we try.

In our general progression of skills, building somehow lags far behind. Not 50 years behind, perhaps — but not much less, at that. It goes still by hammer and handsaw — agonizingly slow, inefficient, and more wasteful of money and people than we can any longer afford. The greatest irony of all is that it is so set about by habit, prejudice, false enthusiasm, and obsolete local constrictions that in a land of free enterprise the look of our urban landscapes is as comfortless, imitative, and repetitive, often, as any dictator could wish.

— Carl Koch, preface to At Home With Tomorrow, 1958

Carl Koch came to the region when he attended Harvard School of Design, during “the confusing period between Beaux-Arts Eclectic and all-out Modern.” It was a period (circa 1937) that overlapped with Gropius’ time at the school, but for the most part, it seems Koch regarded his “contemporaries” the school as “leaderless or rudderless.” More significant in the development of his own professional philosophy and style was a six-month tenure he spent in Sweden with Sven Markelius(1940-41), “which left him with an enduring admiration for the Scandinavian approach to life, democracy, and architecture.” Certainly one can easily observe the themes of what is typically regarded as the Scandinavian aesthetic — simple, clean, and functional design.

The eight-house neighborhood of Snake Hill, it seems, was an experiment in creating inexpensive housing for his own family. It is set on winding road high on a hillside off of Route 60 in Belmont.

A lovely Ezra Stoller shot of a Snake Hill home

In 1947, Koch designed the Acorn House (later merged with Deck House). His aim was to create well-designed and stylish housing for a good value (i.e. inexpensively) for middle classes by producing a modular construction system, manufactured in a factory controlled environment, which could be transported to a building site and assembled in a few days. However, the Acorn house was met with “resistance from local governments” and building code problems.  More on Acorn history, by Lloyd Alter here.

(By the way, it seems Mr Alter’s piece on the demise of Acorn/Deck/Empyrean (sourced liberally from the Boston Globe article linked at bottom) might have been, well not premature, but new life has been given to the first two brands, with a newly resuscitated Deck/Acorn.)

Far more successful were the Techbuilt houses, which, while certainly progressive architecturally, were more in line with prevailing trends and tastes. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, over 3000 of these houses were built, utilizing six different models. At least three were built in New Canaan, Ct., that other hotbed of Northeastern modernism, but it seems as though Lexington and Concord have the highest concentration and the highest amount of Techbuilt homes still preserved today. The company was even based in town for a period.

From the Lexington Historic Survey about Lexington’s Middle Ridge/Turning Mill neighborhood:

Middle Ridge was originally conceived and designed in 1955 by architect Carl Koch as a neighborhood of “Techbuilt” homes. After receiving his architectural training at Harvard under Bauhaus founder, Walter Gropius, Koch taught architecture at MIT and created the first planned community of modern houses in the region at Snake Hill Road in Belmont in 1941. Prior to building in Lexington, he also designed and constructed Conantum, Concord’s first residential housing development (1951) and Kendal Common in Weston (1950). First introduced in 1953, the Techbuilt house was a low-cost, semi-factory-built modern style house which used modular construction.

The Techbuilt house was based on a consistent four foot wide module for all major building components such as wall, floor, and roof panels. The pieces were delivered by truck and could be erected in a few days. The Techbuilt homes, which include both one and two-story models, are characterized by simplicity of shape, pitched roofs and overhanging eaves and the extensive use of glass, especially on the wide glazed gabled ends. The exteriors of the houses are typically clad in vertical cedar siding with panels between the stories. The Techbuilt houses incorporated various structural innovations including the use of modular prefabricated stressed skin panels rather than conventional framing and the use of steel posts and wooden beams for support rather than load bearing walls. In keeping with Techbuilt philosophy, the houses are typically set into a natural and wooded landscape. In some cases the owners also purchased carports or garages.
The Techbuilt House was featured in various national publications including Better Homes and Gardens and Parents Magazine and was awarded the American Institute of Architects “Best Development House” Award. By the end of 1957, Techbuilt homes had been constructed in thirty-two states.
Ultimately, due to financial difficulties, the Techbuilt Corporation was only involved in the construction of the first two phases of Middle Ridge and these houses are found on Demar Road and the southern end of Turning Mill Road. Although many of the buildings have seen additions, collectively they are significant as one of the largest groups of this award-winning and innovative semi-prefabricated house in the Boston area.

An original flyer for Techbuilt advertising their potential as a vacation cottage.

Koch on TV


Courtesy of Scott Hedges, this is the second airing of the Ford Foundation’s TV Radio Workshop show on the “Excursion” and “Omnibus” programs. Hosted by Alistair Cooke and narrated by Burgess Meredith shows the construction of a Techbuilt House its design inspiration in the office of Carl Koch. The show catapulted TechBuilt into the public consciousness, and was produced by Andy Lewis, who lived in Conantum, and later wrote “A Home with Tomorrow”.

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