The buildings we live in have changed remarkably little over the past few centuries. Sure, they're better constructed today and take advantage of a slew of technological advances. Fundamentally they haven't changed much – some combination of wood, stone, and metal on a concrete or stone-like foundation. Build some load-bearing walls and top it off with some kind of roof that hopefully won't catch fire or let the rain in. Put a few windows in the walls for light and ventilation. Add some doors. Voila.

I've always been fascinated by efforts to depart from this basic formula, none of which ever manage to catch on. That suggests that people are resistant to change, but also that, well, the basic design works pretty damn well. Sometimes we stick with things because they don't need much improvement.

Two specific examples from the United States of efforts to improve upon the basic design are, to me, especially interesting. One is the Lustron home that emerged after World War II in response to the nationwide shortage of cheap housing for returning GI Bill home buyers. Lustron was a marketing name for steel baked with a porcelain enamel. The sales pitch was that such homes eliminated the maintenance and deterioration issues of wood and drywall. It never needed to be painted, it wouldn't absorb moisture, and it would not fade or crumble with time. And believe it or not, to look at the surviving Lustron homes today you'd never guess their age from the condition of the exterior. The homes were very small by current standards (about the size of an average 1 or 2 bedroom apartment today) but the manufacturers were not kidding about the durability of the enameled steel construction. They did not rust or wear.


Despite the advantages (and some disadvantages, as temperature control was an issue with the steel walls) the heavily marketed homes were not backed by a robust system of manufacturing and distribution. In other words, they were great at selling them but not great at building them as quickly as competing vendors of traditional wood-and-vinyl siding houses could slap them together. People wanted houses and they wanted them now. Lustron could promise a nice house, but with subdivisions exploding around major cities with cheap ranch houses the buyer could step into tomorrow, the company eventually failed. They had the last laugh, though. Compare these homes today to any houses flung together in haste between 1945 and 1950 and see which one you'd want to occupy.

The other scheme – one remarkable in its failure given the man behind it – was Thomas Edison's all-concrete home. Though better known for other things Edison and his associates made great advances in the mass production of concrete ("Portland cement") in the United States, and his company came to be a major player in that industry. Edison and some other wealthy backers believed that a cheap poured concrete home was the solution to America's housing needs, arguing that such homes could be built rapidly and at low cost due to the simplicity of materials. And when Edison said "concrete home" he meant the whole damn thing. They had concrete furniture. Concrete appliances. Concrete walls, floors, and roof. You were getting a house that you could move into immediately with almost no possessions.

Unfortunately, while the material used to build the homes was simple, the process of building one was extremely impractical. Builders refused even to consider buying a quarter-million dollars worth of molds, forms, and pouring equipment necessary to begin constructing them. Those who tried found that construction was near impossible, since they could not figure a way to keep the concrete poured at floor level from hardening before the rest of the home had been poured on top of it. Concrete that dries at different rates ends up brittle, and test homes ended up leaking. And it turns out concrete furniture and appliances are kind of a terrible idea.

To his credit, the small number of concrete houses built have aged beautifully. Visitors have described them as claustrophobic on the inside, with the unusual temperature and acoustics of a concrete bunker (not surprisingly). While they are rather cool in summer, they're freezing in the winter. They were just too hard to build and too "different" from traditional wood-framed housing to catch on. Home builders didn't want to make them and home buyers weren't interested in buying them. The handful that were built are footnote curiosities today.

Don't even get me started on missile silo homes or we could be here all day.

19 thoughts on “NPF: HOME OF THE FUTURE”

  • Love the story about Mr. Brennan's concrete house. "His concrete sculpture of a house is cool in the summertime…" I shouldn't doubt it. It appears to have a number of room air conditioners hanging from the windows.

  • A couple more of interest:

    Bucky Fuller's Dymaxion House followed by untold numbers of hippies in the woods living in geodesic domes.

    Concrete houses have been being made for quite a while

    Heck This Old House featured a house built from 'poured-in-place' forms for the foundation, walls and floors.

    No concrete sofas, though. that's just stupid…

  • A 2004 documentary called Lustron: The House America's Been Waiting For alleges a conspiracy of car and appliance manufacturers to deny the Lustron company the steel they were competing for. Seen it? Any thoughts?

  • And then there's the "hobbit homes" made of out prefab laminate composite vaulted panels. Anyone, says the company, can dig out the site, snap together the panels, cover the whole thing except the windows with earth, and grow vegetables on top. Looks cool. Of course, the company has rather stunning scenery in front of the windows.

    Oh, and 3D printed adobe houses.

    Meanwhile, back in reality….

  • Before there was the Dymaxion house, Bucky and his father-in-law had the Stockade Building System. From the description I read (Becoming Bucky Fuller) it seemed the idea was to use preformed bricks with interstitial holes which could be used with normal construction techniques and then filled with concrete to reinforce the structure. I don't remember a figure for how many houses were built using the system. Bucky's mercurial personality along with his predisposition to make outsized and unfounded claims eventually got him forced out of the company.

  • Skepticalist says:

    Every time I get on the bus, it drives by one of the Lustron houses here in my southwestern, NY city. It looks pretty much the same as the one depicted here. The green steel home at Wikipedia looks exactly like it.

    We are told that there are more in the area. There was a big shortage of housing here in the 1940s. No garage for the Dymaxion though.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Has there been much thought of building houses into the ground?
    I know there are some, because I've seen photo's.
    They'd be cool in the summer, and cost less to keep warm in the winter.
    It's Sunday, and I'm to lazy to google this.

  • what is the future of 3D printing in housing?
    far off? never? around the corner? any ideas?
    Ed, nice NPF…thank you.
    happy independence day to all.

  • Adobe! Stayed in one during a hot summer. The house was cool all day. Just amazing. Simple, gracious and practical, at least in the Southwest.
    A high school buddy grew up in the Wichita House, a combo of Fuller's designs: thanks for the link Bruce, I had forgotten about that.
    Now that house was a trip. Unlike anything I've been in since. Money was apparently no object, it was all about novelty and innovation. Everything in the house was different. It could have been a colony on Mars for all the similarities to the track house I lived in.

  • Speaking of concrete furniture, I have a story from my Parents. They had a friend who was a real practical joker. With a tradition to go after the newly engaged men in the group. Things like dumping on–in only his underwear–stuffed in a duffel bag dropped out in a field out in the country (generally lead by him). So, once he was engaged, he waited and waited…and waited…nothing. He and his new wife left on their honeymoon…still nothing. They came back to their apartment where their friends (his targets) had gotten in and poured them a full set of concrete living room furniture (couch and two arm chairs if I remember). His wife made slipcovers for them, and only broke them up when they they had to move.

  • BruceJ – I've been attracted by the Dymaxion house for years. It's a perfect symbol for Fuller's appeal – a cool looking house that nobody actually wanted to build..

    Definitely on my lotto bucket list.

    Here in California, we had the Eichler houses, which actually were built, in the post-war building boom. They Incorporated a number of new concepts and technologies, but still looked 'house' enough that people would buy and live in them.

  • In the hit dystopian first-person-shooter game Fallout 4, several ruined suburban neighborhoods are exclusively Lustron homes (with Jetsons kitchens).

  • The concrete home caught on a little more in the UK, possibly because they weren't stupid enough to try and add concrete furniture. A method known as Laing Easi-Form was popular:

    As it happens I live in one of these from the 1950s era. Heating is not too bad; the walls aren't solid concrete, but hollow with cavity insulation. My only major complaint is that drilling a hole in the wall is a major undertaking.

  • Monte Davis says:

    As a hippie who built a geodesic dome in the Maine woods long ago — and still loves the high ratio of strength/volume to structural mass — I'd say the biggest challenge is sealing the many seams between all the triangles. Those seams near the top of a large dome are not steeply pitched, so snow and ice can work on them through freeze/thaw cycles: not good. Unless you can wrap the whole thing in an integral, durably waterproof skin of some kind, the potential for leakage is worse than that of a traditional roof.

  • I've noticed that houses are built a bit differently lately. Until maybe ten years ago, they would first build the balloon frame, then clad it with plywood and wrap it with a plastic liner. Now, they build the frame and clad it with plywood panels as they go, most likely to take advantage of the flat panel strength and allowing a lighter frame. I'm guessing this has something to do with cheap, practical finite element analysis software making its way into the home building trade. Buckminster Fuller would have loved it, even if it does have right angles.

    P.S. If you actually study how a modern car is designed with its crumple zones and force lines, you'd realize how far ahead of his times Buckminster Fuller was. All those curves to maximize strength, minimize weight and protect the passenger compartment are right out of his playbook.

  • Today is the 100th birthday of Anne Olivier Bell, one of just two living Monuments Women. Following the end of World War II in Europe

  • I'm kind of surprised concrete homes haven't caught on since, actually, many people do live in concrete homes — most high-rise buildings are made of reinforced concrete. If they can build the Burj Khalifa that way I don't know why they couldn't build a simple box-like single family home. (The furniture idea is just stupid though). It seems like the same construction methods used to build a shopping center could be scaled down to build a house.

    I would guess that framing carpenters and wood materials, which are suitable for 1-3 stories, are cheaper than a crew pouring structural concrete.

  • GibsonGirl99 says:

    I have lusted for a Lustron ever since I stumbled across them on the great interwebs. Lovely things, utilitarian and utopian in one. And I come from adobe land, and they are wonderful. I personally, want a gen-engineered tree house — where the tree itself grows the rooms. But then I read a lot of science fiction…..thanks for a lovely wander down memory lane!

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