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Carl Koch, Roy Schoenbrod, and the Techbuilt Homes in Northfield
I don’t know what immediately comes to your mind when you think of suburban Northfield. Maybe Chief Keef? But architecture is probably not at the top of the list. Located about 19 miles north of downtown Chicago, the upscale village formerly known as Wau Bun (a Potawatomi word meaning “dawn” that was chosen by railroad tycon Samuel Insull in 1926) has just under 6000 residents and surprisingly, some interesting buildings. Not only are there a couple of examples of architect Bruce Goff’s early work here but Northfield also has eight prefabricated homes created by architect Carl Koch and his firm known as Techbuilt.
Koch, whose education at Harvard coincided with Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer’s early teaching days there, later became known as the “grandfather of prefab” for his innovation in prefabrication technologies. Not only did he work for Sven Markelius and Edward Durell Stone as well as the National Housing Authority but Koch designed several affordable prefabricated housing prototypes like the original Acorn House (1946), a re-vamped design of the all-steel Lustron House (1949), and finally one of America’s first cluster housing developments, Conantum (1951), in Concord, Massachusetts. In his book At Home With Tomorrow Koch wrote: “My own introduction to prefabrication, in fact, came in Sweden (from his time working with Markelius) in 1938, while I was abroad on a fellowship. I remember being somewhat intrigued by the do-it-yourself aspects of the thing - families working on weekends to put together wood-panel walls, and roofs on walls - but at the time it didn’t seem to me like the sort of thing a ‘real’ architect should concern himself with.”
After all this work and experimentation Koch launched Techbuilt in 1953, offering a number of different models at a much lower cost than the average home of the time, only $7.50 per square foot. This housing system used prefab panels for the walls, floor and roof so it could be easily assembled, disassembled and reconfigured. Koch’s prefab design stand outs for its clean lines, peaked roof, long walls of windows, and defined separation between the living and sleeping areas. He called it “a design for living” which recognized “the family as the basic unit around which a structure must be built.” Parents Magazine agreed, giving the architect three awards for designing “the best home for families with children” in 1955.
Over the next decade it is estimated that around 3000 of Koch’s Techbuilt homes were constructed in 32 states, mainly in the eastern part of the country. Though it should be noted that the company partnered with Creative Buildings, Inc. based in Urbana, Illinois, a manufacturing facility that could produce the panels and house packages.
The Northfield Techbuilt homes, located off Old Willow Road and Edens Lane, might be just a handful of surviving examples here in Illinois. One of these residences was recently on the market, selling for $526,000 in early June 2023, which is how I found out about them in the first place. With the traffic noise of the Edens Expressway buzzing away in the background, I’m sure when they were originally built by local architect and developer Roy Shoenbrod in the late 1950s Northfield was a much quieter place to live. These prefabs were the suburban dream many people were hoping to achieve in post-WWII America.
So who was Roy Schoenbrod? Born and raised in Chicago, he graduated from Morgan Park Academy in 1936 then received an architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania. After establishing his own architectural and engineering firm sometime in the 1940s, it appears that most of his projects were residential specifically high-rises, four-flats, and condos. In the 1960s he partnered with Richard A. Raggi. They were responsible for Park Astor, an International Style condo tower built in 1968 that architect Bertrand Goldberg complained about in my post from last year.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1967, Schoenbrod talked about the advantages of converting cooperative apartment buildings into condominiums. This shift came about due to Schoenbrod’s one-time associate, Herbert M. Rosenthal, who led the effort to change Illinois laws to make condo ownership possible. He developed one of the first condos to be built in the country with Fountain View, a 40-unit complex in Rogers Park. In the early 1950s Schoenbrod designed the co-ops known as the Budlong Woods Addition between Foster, Peterson, Kimball, and Western Avenues for Rosenthal. But with changing trends, over a decade later Schoenbrod was now designing (with Raggi) and putting up condos as his own developer, like the land he bought at 3470 North Lake Shore Drive, which looks over Belmont Harbor.
From my research it seems like Schoenbrod was as much an architect as he was a developer. He had a good head for business even when he was first starting out. According to the 1950 census, the 30-year-old Schoenbrod’s occupation was listed as an architect as well as the proprietor of a Gold Coast boarding house where he resided with his wife Barbara. One can guess how Schoenbrod found out about the Techbuilt homes. Was it a magazine? Or was he one of the millions of viewers who watched the Ford Foundation TV and Radio Workshop’s Excursion program, which featured the building process of Koch’s Techbuilt homes in 1954? Did he own the land in Northfield and thought it was more cost effective to use Koch’s prefabs than design something from scratch? Who knows?
From a 1970s Building Code and Contractors Register I found that Schoenbrod was living in Highland Park, which is interesting because there is a Techbuilt home located there in the Sunset Terrace subdivision. It was supposedly built by him. The residence was recently for sale if you’re interested in seeing the interior.
In early 2020 a Carl Koch Techbuilt home in Winnetka built in 1957 hit the market, which Dennis Rodkin highlighted in this Crain’s Chicago Business article (it’s not behind a paywall so you can actually read it). The exterior was renovated with Hardie Board a decade ago but “the interior, daylit by two-story windows and with ceiling beams that extend from inside to out, still looks like Koch’s midcentury design,” according to Rodkin.
Who knows how many other Techbuilt houses exist in the Chicagoland area? Bill Johnson, the editor of The Techbuilt House, shared a list of franchished and non-franchised Techbuilt builders on his website. It included English Construction Company in Barrington, Custom Builders of Wheaton, Donald B. Johnson of Skokie, and Park Forest’s Henry Shames. I’m sure there are more out there in Chicagoland just waiting to be discovered. Now that I am familiar with these prefabs, I will always be looking out for them.
Highland Park Architecture Survey
The Techbuilt House website