INVENTORY OF THE MOD-X BUILDING SYSTEM RECORDS, 1952-1967

Finding aid prepared by Jennifer Maiko Kishi


Descriptive Summary

Title: MOD-X Building System records
Date (inclusive): 1952-1967
Number: 2001.M.14
Creator/Collector: Harrison, D. Dex (Donald Dex), 1909-1987
Physical Description: 6.6 linear feet (8 boxes)
Repository:
The Getty Research Institute
Special Collections
1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100
Los Angeles, California, 90049-1688
(310) 440-7390
Abstract: The MOD-X Building System records document the brief life of this product as its creators sought to find a niche for it in the post World War II efforts to industrialize building design and construction through prefabrication. Consisting primarily of legal and financial records and correspondence among the various stakeholders, as well as drawings and photographs, the archive provides insight into one of the most critical issues that the architectural profession faced during the period spanning the second half of the 1940s until well into the 1960s: how to design buildings that could be mass produced by big construction companies while at the same time maintaining sufficient artistic freedom to make the buildings interesting and attractive.
Request Materials: Request access to the physical materials described in this inventory through the catalog record  for this collection. Click here for the access policy .
Language: Collection material is in English.

Biographical/Historical Note

In November 1952, the London-based architectural firm of Harrison & Seel applied to trademark the name "MOD-X" for a prefabricated modular building system it had developed. Both the role of inventor and a commitment to industrialized architecture were new directions for a fairly conventional small firm, whose largest and most lucrative project up to that moment had been the Festival Gardens in Battersea Park for the Festival of Britain (1951). Yet, the seeds for such a shift were present. The firm of Harrison & Seel had three partners, Donald Dex Harrison (known as Dex), his brother Norman Harrison, and Ernest Seel, but one of them, Dex Harrison, was especially committed to a new paradigm for architecture in the post-war world.
Dex Harrison (1909-1987) had met Ernest Seel when they were both students at the Leeds School of Architecture, and they worked together from around 1938 through much of the 1950s. However, during World War II, while Seel continued in his architectural practice, Harrison took a different path. He served with the government in the Ministry of Works, Directorate of Post-War Building. In this role, he conducted a comprehensive and seminal survey on prefabrication in Great Britain, the United States and Europe and was a lead author in its publication in 1945. After the war, Harrison furthered the discussion of standardization and modular construction with his publication of An Introduction to Standards in Building in 1947. Harrison had an opportunity to put this theoretical commitment into limited practice in 1949 when Harrison & Seel received spill-over work outsourced to private companies by the County Council in Hertfordshire, where an innovative and high-profile program of modular prefabrication of schools was already underway. Harrison's creation of the MOD-X Building System was the tangible expression of his theories.
The MOD-X Building System was based on factory-built components designed in "modular co-ordination." The sized, drilled and finished MOD-X parts could be assembled at the building site by unskilled laborers using the MOD-X connectors. The components consisted of support elements in varying materials (timber, steel, a planned aluminium alloy) as well as cladding and infill materials. The key element of the MOD-X system was that there were many ways that these parts could be put together. It was up to the builder or architect to determine the actual form of the structure. Since the versatility of the system allowed the creation of any size or shape building up to three stories tall, including trussed forms, the horrible repetitiveness of many earlier prefabricated buildings could be avoided. The promotional slogan was "MOD-X produces, not standard buildings, but standard parts." The product promised to have broad appeal to potential customers in the post-war development market. For the design-conscious architect, there was a Bauhaus imprint. The MOD-X kit of building parts that could be assembled in a variety of ways was a descendant of Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer's 1923 Baukasten im Grossen. For the average builder and the British public, it called forth memories of the possibilities of the childhood Meccano or erector set.
Having invented this system, the issue for Harrison & Seel became how to put it into broad production. The first step was to protect their asset. In the summer of 1952 the firm started applying for patent protection for elements of their system including their modular system, the tensioned frame, clamping plates and strap connectors first in Great Britain and then overseas. The next step involved the actual implementation of the MOD-X system. It appears that from an early point Harrison & Seel decided not to take an active role in the production of the system. In 1952, the firm encouraged two associates to form a company which would be licensed to manufacture and sell the MOD-X system in return for royalty payments. This company soon became MOD-X Holdings Limited, which in turn operated MOD-X Structures Limited in Great Britain and other subsidiaries overseas.
In August 1954, Dex Harrison bought out Ernest Seel and Norman Harrison's interest in the MOD-X system, making it independent from the firm of Harrison & Seel, which dissolved shortly afterward. As the new sole owner of the patents, Dex Harrison also entered into a new contract with MOD-X Holdings, continuing their role as the licensed agent of the system. At the same time, Harrison stated his intention that this sole ownership would be a temporary situation. He intended to vest all his rights, assets and liabilities relating to the MOD-X system in a company rather than hold them personally. This company would also take over debt Harrison had incurred.
To that end, Dex (Prefabrications) Limited was incorporated in March 1955 with the MOD-X System patents and intellectual property as its prime asset. Harrison held 90% of the shares of the new company with his wife holding another 5% and acting as the Secretary of the company. C.T. Hawkes held the final 5% and was named as Chairman of the company. Dex (Prefabrications) continued the licensing arrangement with MOD-X Holdings and served as a patent holding company, whose only business activity appears to be the maintenance of the patents and the collection of royalties.
The Mod-X Building System was modestly successful for a brief period. The royalty statements from Mod-X Holdings list their sales. Domestically, much of their work was for public projects in England and Wales, particularly with schools and British Railways structures. Their housing appears to have had a more international appeal, such as a pilot housing project for the Ashanti Goldfields Corporation in Ghana. Yet for the most part, the projects were small and the costs were high, with large scale, profitable contracts eluding them. In the end, the small companies marketing the MOD-X Building System were unable to compete with bigger corporations in the building industry. By the middle of 1959, MOD-X Holdings had quit paying royalties to Dex (Prefabrications) and had ceased doing business. In early 1961, Dex (Prefabrications) instructed their patent agents to let the patents laps, since they were producing no income. The attempt to collect unpaid royalties continued through most of the 1960s. Mod-X Structures, previously a subsidiary, seems to have succeeded Mod-X Holdings and it is from this company, with new directors and a new location in Kent, that Dex (Prefabrications) tried to collect its debt. Finally in 1967, Dex advised its solictors to abandon the collection attempts and the MOD-X system reached an official end when Dex (Prefabrications) was formally dissolved in 1970.

Administrative Information

Access

Open for use by qualified researchers.

Publication Rights

Preferred Citation

MOD-X Building System records, 1952-1967, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Accession no. 2001.M.14.

Acquisition Information

The MOD-X Building System records were acquired in 2001.

Processing History

Jennifer Maiko Kishi rehoused and created the collection inventory in 2013, under the supervision of Ann Harrison.

Scope and Content of Collection

The MOD-X Building System records document the brief life of this product as its creators sought to find a niche for it in the post World War II efforts to industrialize building design and construction through prefabrication. Consisting primarily of legal and financial records and correspondence among the various stakeholders, as well as drawings and photographs, the archive provides insight into one of the most critical issues that the architectural profession faced during the period spanning the second half of the 1940s until well into the 1960s: how to design buildings that could be mass produced by big construction companies while at the same time maintaining sufficient artistic freedom to make the buildings interesting and attractive.
The material preserved in the archive falls into two main groups: design records, and legal and financial records. The design records provide documentation of the system itself. Notes, sketches, architectural drawings, structural calculations and testing reports, and materials sourcing information, as well as photographs, trace the development of the MOD-X Building System. The photographs show multiple aspects of the system, from the prototype bungalow erected in Kidbrooke to marketing campaigns such as the MOD-X stand at the British Industries Fair or the display of a mocked-up hospital treatment room.
The legal and financial records document the attempt to bring this new building system to market and turn it into a viable business enterprise. Documentation created by Dex Harrison, the firm of Harrison & Seel and the two companies formed specifically to implement the system, MOD-X Holdings Ltd. and Dex (Prefabrications) Ltd., comprises this section of the archive. Deeds of trust, account statements, corporate minutes, contracts and correspondence with patent agents, solicitors and accountants write the history and ultimate failure of this modular construction system.
A third, very small group of materials belonging to Dex Harrison, but unrelated to the MOD-X system, completes the archive.

Arrangement

The MOD-X Building System records are arranged by topic.

Indexing Terms

Subjects - Topics

Buildings, Prefabricated--Design and construction
Buildings, Prefabricated--Great Britain--History
Modular construction
Prefabricated houses--Design and construction

Genres and Forms of Material

Black-and-white negatives
Black-and-white prints (photographs)

Contributors

Dex (Prefabrications) Limited
Mod-X Holdings Limited


Container List

 

MOD-X Building System records

 

Design records for the MOD-X Building System, 1952-1958, undated

 

General documentation, 1952-1958, undated

Box 1, Folder 1-2

Building design binder, 1952-1954, undated

Scope and Content Note

Includes material from binder with an index. Handwritten notes, calculations, specifications, sketches, brochures, and correspondence, relating to various topics including costs, building erection, insulation, loading, packaging, shipping and handling, specifications, timber, structural design, joints, and weight limits, as well as notes on potential overseas projects in San Salvador, Trinidad, British Guiana. Includes three photographs of loading tests on models.
Box 1, Folder 3-4

Building materials and structural testing, 1952-1955, undated

Scope and Content Note

Includes notes and correspondence regarding evaluation and sourcing of building materials, as well as numerous materials and structural tests with photographs.
Box 1, Folder 5-6

Miscellaneous design notes, 1955-1958, undated

Scope and Content Note

Includes notes, sketches and brochures. Some of the material relates to MOD-X system, such as connector plates and bolting; other material relates to turbines, cooling and water systems.
 

Projects, 1953-1954, undated

 

Prototype bungalow at Kidbrooke, 1953

Scope and Content Note

Also referred to as the demonstration house.
Box 1, Folder 7

Documentation

Scope and Content Note

Includes technical notes on erection of prototype March-May 1953.
Box 8*, Folder 1

Promotional display board

Box 2, Folder 1-2

Black-and-white prints

Box 8*, Folder 3

Enlargements

Box 5

Glass negatives

 

MOD-X stand at the British Industries Fair, probably 1954

Scope and Content Note

Includes documentation of model for the stand, construction of stand and finished display.
Box 2, Folder 3

Black-and-white prints

Box 6, Folder 1

Glass negatives

 

Hospital treatment room display, undated

Box 2, Folder 4

Black-and-white prints

Box 6, Folder 2

Glass negatives

 

Unidentified projects, undated

Scope and Content Note

Possibly includes Ashanti Goldfields project and a Barking project.
Box 2, Folder 5

Black-and-white prints

Box 8*, Folder 3

Enlargements

Box 6, Folder 3

Glass negatives

 

Plans and elevations, undated

Scope and Content Note

Includes prototype bungalow, as well as other houses and a school.
Box 2, Folder 6

Prints

Box 7

Glass negatives

Scope and Content Note

Most images not printed.
 

Legal and financial records regarding the MOD-X Building system, 1952-1967

 

Patents, 1953-1961

Scope and Content Note

Includes materials relating to patents held initially by the firm of Harrison & Seel and then transferred through Harrison to Dex (Prefabrications) Ltd.; primarily legal documents and correspondence with patent agents regarding the application for and maintenance of patents in a range of countries.
Box 4, Folder 1-4

General

Box 8*, Folder 2

Oversize connector drawings, with notes and photographs

Box 4, Folder 5

Trademarks, 1952-1959

Scope and Content Note

Includes documents and correspondence concerning the registry of the "MOD-X" trademark by the firm of Harrison & Seel and the subsequent transfer to Dex (Prefabrications), Ltd., and registration of MOD-X Holdings, Ltd. as an authorized user.
Box 4, Folder 12

Client leads and correspondence, 1954-1958

 

Records relatings to MOD-X Holdings Ltd., 1952-1959

Box 4, Folder 6

Creation of MOD-X Holdings, 1952-1954

Scope and Content Note

Legal documents and correspondence relating to the creation of MOD-X Holdings Ltd. as the licensee for the MOD-X System.
Box 4, Folder 7

Financial documents, 1954-1959

Scope and Content Note

Correspondence regarding royalty payments and consulting fees.
 

Records relating to Dex (Prefabrications) Ltd., 1954-1967

Box 4, Folder 8

Corporate and legal documentation, 1954-1958, undated

Scope and Content Note

Includes legal documents and correspondence with their solicitor; also includes some documents relating to the transfer of assets from Harrison & Seel to Dex Harrison personally.
Box 4, Folder 9-10

General financial documentation, 1955-1961

Scope and Content Note

Includes correspondence with accountants, tax documentation, bank documents, annual accounts.
Box 3

Corporate minute book, 1955-1960

Box 4, Folder 11

Correspondence regarding the collection of outstanding royalties, 1960-1967

Box 1, Folder 8

Miscellaneous personal papers of Dex Harrison, 1955-1960

Scope and Content Note

Personal items relating to Dex Harrison and his wife Ruth Harrison, an animal-rights activist, including a newspaper clipping, car registration for a vintage Isotta Fraschini, information on a battery hen watering device and brochures.