Monday, August 17, 2009

The Single Pour Concrete House

I recently met a contractor who believed he had a wonderful idea.

He wanted to create single pour concrete houses. After all, the concept is beyond simple. Just put up the forms, pour the mix, and---POOF!

An instant house. And not just any house. A solid, low cost, easy to maintain, and ultra-cheap to build house.

It's a great idea. But I told him it had been tried before.

In 1907.

By none other than the American inventor genius, Thomas Edison.

The article reprinted below explains the Edison experiment with the single pour concrete house, some of which still stand more than a century later in New Jersey.

Nevertheless, the concept is so intriguing. Technology has obviously advanced quite a bit since Edison's day. I'm actually talking to experts in this field to see if this can be done economically, practically, and with modern design standards and amenities in mind.

And most importantly, be done by me.

I'm off to New Jersey over the next few weeks to investigate this "new" construction technique a bit more closely.

Robert J. Abalos, Esq.


THE WIZARD OF MENLO PARK thought instant homes of concrete poured in molds could clear out America’s slums


“I AM GOING TO LIVE TO SEE THE DAY WHEN A WORKING MAN’S HOUSE can be built of concrete in a week. … If I succeed, it will take from the city slums everybody who is worth taking.” When Thomas Edison announced in 1906 that he planned to recast the world and mold it according to his own vision, people took him at his word. He was already well on his way to becoming history’s most successful and productive visionary, and with the progress that he had recently made in the Portland cement industry, the prospect of concrete nouses was not at all extraordinary. The genius of Menlo Park seemed perfectly capable of molding concrete into whatever shape he wanted. Thus with a few words, and the best of intentions, Edison launched himself into an endeavor that would prove more elusive in the end than the development of his incandescent lamp.

The story had begun in 1902, when Edison entered the Portland cement business. He did it mainly to find a use for the heavy equipment and giant crushing rolls that he had developed for an ill-fated iron-ore enterprise; the rolls would otherwise have been sold for scrap. (See “Thomas Edison, Failure,” Invention & Technology, Winter 1991.) Characteristically, once Edison became interested in the business, he threw himself into it wholeheartedly and came up with a string of innovations and improvements on traditional industry practices. By the summer of 1906 his huge new cement plant, near Stewartsville, New Jersey, was finished and ready to come on-line.

During construction of the plant, Edison was fascinated by the ability of concrete to mold into highly durable products in a wide variety of shapes. He began to wonder about the possibility of molding and pouring an entire house in one operation—a single monolithic concrete structure. If the process could be mechanized and the houses mass-produced, he reasoned, the final product could be made available at a very low price. In addition, Edison found that by using mostly concrete structures at Stewartsville, he had solved one of his biggest headaches: the availability and cost of fire insurance.

The Stewartsville buildings were built with reinforced concrete— that is, concrete with an internal mesh of steel rods—which could be cast into very strong, inexpensive structural members. The technology had been invented in France in the 186Os and revived at the end of the nineteenth century. Reinforced concrete had many benefits, but thus far it had only been cast into individual components, which were then assembled into a building. Edison proposed to eliminate this step by simply pouring concrete into an enormous mold, with reinforcing rods in place.

EVERYTHING FROM BATHTUBS, windowsills, staircases, and picture frames to electrical conduits and reinforcing rods would be molded right in.

The idea was not original with Edison; numerous local builders poured monolithic concrete houses in the first two decades of the century. They were generally built one at a time for wealthy clients because, as Scientific American noted in 1911, “a concrete house will cost considerably more money than the frame house as we know it today.” Edison had something different in mind: building inexpensive houses on an industrial scale, to provide affordable shelter for the working class. If successful, his scheme would benefit capitalists as well, because worker housing was a major concern of large employers in the early 1900s.

In August 1906 he shared his idea during an after-dinner speech in New York City. Why not concrete homes? After all, he argued, concrete is fireproof and insectproof, will never rot, stands up in a storm, is easy to clean, and can be adapted quickly to mass production. As usual when Edison spoke, the press listened. Though he hadn’t yet done the slightest bit of work on the project, its prospects were sensationalized in newspapers from Maine to Florida. Thousands of letters from would-be homeowners and contractors poured into the company’s office. Edison, a man of immense pride, had no choice but to deliver on his words.

AS EARLY AS 1902, WHILE THE Edison Portland Cement Company was still in the design stage, he had predicted to reporters that concrete was the construction material of the future. The forests that had supplied lumber to build the great cities of the East Coast were rapidly disappearing. The price of wood could go no place but up. If cement could be produced in large enough quantities, then concrete (a mixture of cement, water, and an aggregate—sand, crushed stone, gravel, or the like) would be far more attractive to homeowners than wood.

Edison’s cement plant was different from most others of its day. Not only was it highly mechanized, but it had rotary-driven kilns more than five times as large as any others then in use. Changes in the grinding and composition of the cement made Edison’s product stronger and smoother than that of his competitors. By 1907 each of the kilns at Stewartsville was capable of producing more than 1,100 barrels a day, compared with an average of 200 elsewhere, and the Edison complex had become the fifthlargest cement company in the world. In the next three decades Edison Portland Cement built a large portion of New York City, including Yankee Stadium, and provided the impetus (and free materials) to test the world’s first concrete highway, Route 57 in Warren County, New Jersey. The master met these challenges with ease. But that little two-story home, the one Edison envisioned as the cornerstone of vast new suburbs full of yards, trees, and flowers, turned out to be a more difficult problem.

The quest to cast mass-produced housing was not a commercial venture, Edison said, for if he succeeded, he would take no profit. Instead it was something he felt impelled to do so that the poor could have a better life than in existing tenement slums. Such altruism presumably dated back to his working-class childhood. Later on, frequent visits to Manhattan’s ghettos would reinforce this compassion.

Though his idea had progressed no further than the talking stage for two years, by 1906 Edison wanted to pursue it more than ever, because industry insiders and engineers were beginning to scoff. Concrete can’t be poured reliably, they said; it doesn’t run properly, and a mold the size of a house would be ridiculously complex. Such skepticism only made Edison more determined.

By the time Edison had resolved the problems associated with starting up the Stewartsville plant, in early 1907, he had also obtained a first-rate education in the technology and properties of cement and concrete. During that period the numerous inquiries he received about his concrete housing were answered with a mimeographed letter, which he initialed personally, stating that he was hard at work on the idea and would tell the world all the details as soon as it was ready. But as expectations continued to grow, the inventor remained otherwise occupied.

FINALLY, IN THE SPRING OF 1908, two experiments got under way. The first was an attempt to cast a miniature house as a demonstrator, complete with individual rooms, door and window openings, and intricate ornamentation. Employees jokingly called the tiny mold a “chicken coop.” Ultimately the chicken coop was cast on the lawn behind the family estate in Llewellyn Park.

The second experiment was a detailed study of the molding, pouring, and liquidity properties of Portland materials, conducted on the floor of the big lab. Starting in the summer of 1908, visitors couldn’t help noticing a large wooden mold, eight feet high, with risers at either end, four right angles, and a switchback in the middle. Throughout the fall and winter, different formulas of concrete would be poured in the high end and forced to the top of the opposite side. Each time a new batch of concrete cured, core samples were taken from various locations and studied to see if the finished product was of uniform strength and composition.

The initial quest was for a way to make concrete run horizontally for a long distance and then, through hydraulic force, in an upward direction. One simple solution was to add more water, but this would interfere with the finicky chemistry of the concrete and create a mix that would never fully cure or, if it did, would remain weak and brittle. The running and pouring problem was eventually resolved by adjusting the mix of fine and coarse particles. Another challenge was determining how much gypsum to add to the mix. Gypsum is used to control the length of time before the material begins to set. Edison and his associates decided that six hours was the optimum drying period: less and it wouldn’t have time to fill the mold, more and the components would start to separate. Whenever they fiddled with the other ingredients, they had to readjust the gypsum content accordingly to maintain the proper drying time.

Of all the difficulties Edison encountered, maintaining a homogeneous mixture proved to be the most vexing. After flowing fifty feet or more and sitting for six hours, the heavier aggregates, such as gravel and coarse sand, tended to separate from the cement and lighter materials. The mixture somehow had to be glued together in an even composition that would stay that way. After much casting about, Edison started experimenting with bentonite clay, which was commonly used in well drilling to bind and draw up small stones. When added to the mix, the bentonite acted as a colloidal glue, turning the cement into a jelly that stabilized within moments of coming to rest.

EDISON WANTED TO WORK out the technical aspects and then license the patents to anyone with the means and desire to help humanity.

With these problems solved, Edison filed a patent application outlining the entire process of casting a pouredconcrete house. The company’s mimeographed reply letter was replaced with an illustrated brochure that described the plan, if not the actual process. Rumors of impending construction of the new Edison houses surfaced in the press once again.

For the concept to be economical, a company would have to take advantage of the houses’ reproducibility by building many on a single site. The footings and slab foundations would be produced by traditional means, using a steam shovel, and then a crew consisting of thirty-five laborers, a foreman, and a mechanic would erect the first set of cast-iron house molds. The next day a large mechanical mixer would churn out the concrete, which would be fed into the tops of the molds by a conveyor with a string of bucket hoppers. Six men at the top would tamp the mixture to keep it liquid and make sure it flowed properly. As the cement went in, air would be vented out special cloth traps on the roof and at the highest points above each wall.

Reinforcing rods, pipes, and electrical conduit would be molded right in, as would everything from staircases and windowsills to picture frames, closets, bathtubs, hinges and fireplaces— even the roof and exterior decorations. Both exterior and interior would already be “painted” with pastel tints added to the cement. After six days’ curing, the mold could be removed. A day was allocated to do minor finishing work, add windows and doors, attach light fixtures, and install a furnace; Edison even planned to leave a groove around the edge of each room for a strip of wood to which carpets would be tacked. The next day the house could be occupied. An efficient crew with four sets of molds at its disposal could build a house every two days, or 144 per year, working a six-day week.

Edison decided that the houses should sell for $1,200 each, about one-third the usual price for a house at the time. The one drawback was that only large companies would be able to handle the logistics and cash outlay. With at least four sets of molds (at $25,000 each) needed per crew, as well as cranes and other equipment, the initial investment would be more than $175,000.

Despite much publicity and planning, by the end of 1909 there was still no concrete house, no iron molds, and no other hint of new cementrelated activity around the lab. Logistical problems persisted, technical snafus remained to be worked out, and since Edison was again otherwise distracted (by work on batteries and a redesign of his phonograph), he started looking to others to deal with the “minor details.”

Even though the architect William Ransome had already designed a concrete house on his own, Edison hired the high-profile New York City firm of Mann & MacNeille, which had experience working with pre-cast and modular concrete construction in the city. The Mann design was a two-story, two-family house “in the style of Francis I,” according to Scientific American, with a large front porch and extensive moldings and exterior decoration (at Edison’s request; he did not want to be remembered as “the father of ugly houses”).

A small model of the Mann house appeared in many photos and much news coverage over the next two years. But all was not as rosy as it seemed, because the molds for the Mann house were impossibly unwieldy. A finished mold set would contain between 2,300 and 2,500 structural parts, subject to options, and thousands more bolts, flanges, and connectors. In addition, it would weigh more than 450,000 pounds —hardly conducive to quick, easy assembly by unskilled labor.

NONETHELESS, THE PROJECT rumbled on. Edison’s good friend and neighbor Frank D. Lambie fabricated a set of molds; his business, the New York Steel Form Company, had the relevant expertise and was interested in acquiring a license. When the Lambie/Mann molds were done, Edison became directly involved again. Experimenting on the grounds of his Llewellyn Park estate, he cast two buildings, which are still standing: a two-story gardener’s cottage and a larger garage and workshop.

Lambie tried casting two Mann houses (minus the porches) on Mountain Avenue in nearby Montclair. He succeeded in creating a pair of durable buildings—they remain standing today—but the casting did not go smoothly. Evidence shows that he wound up pouring the two stories separately.

After learning of Lambie’s difficulties, Edison decided that the Mann design was too large and complex to be practical. That winter he directed two of his top draftsmen, Henry Harms and George Small, to draw up a new building that would be much less complicated and somewhat smaller: twenty-five by thirty feet, two stories high, with a living room and a kitchen downstairs and two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, as well as a front porch, an attic, and a cellar. Only the closets, the staircase, and some minor ornamentation would remain of the earlier, more ambitious plans. The new mold had only five hundred structural pieces and weighed less than 250,000 pounds.

The design had to have interchangeable sections and options that would allow an enterprising builder to vary the size, look, and decor of a house by simply using different sections of mold from the inventory. By doing this, and by tinting the concrete with different colors, Edison envisioned up to twelve house designs, each with a significantly different look from its neighbors, on the same street.

Sometime in the winter of 1910-11 the first true monolithic Edison house was cast by a Lambie crew on Hixon Street in South Orange, New Jersey. This time, despite the usual hitches, the process worked, and the house went up almost exactly as envisioned. (In the late 1960s it was demolished to make way for a supermarket and parking lot.)

With the success of the Hixon Street house, Edison considered his work complete. He reiterated to reporters that he had only wanted to show the way and work out the technical aspects, then give a license to build the houses to anyone with the means and desire to help humanity. The one restriction was that builders had to sell them to “working men” at no more than a 10 percent markup if they wanted to use the process royalty-free.

MEANWHILE FRANK LAMbie still had his molds. Convinced that Edison was done with the project, he began to explore his options. The investor for whom he had performed the Hixon Street test was Charles Ingersoll, of the dollar-pocketwatch fortune. Together they formed the Lambie Concrete House Corporation (renamed the American Building Corporation after Ingersoll withdrew). They made a good team: Lambie had expertise and equipment, while Ingersoll had money and connections. Though Edison did lend them his blessing and occasionally his ear thereafter, he declined to lend his name to the company or even serve as a director.

The ultimate test of the Edison process would be in mass production, which had yet to be demonstrated. After careful planning, with the equipment all assembled, the first large-scale development began, with forty houses planned to be built off Route 22 in Union, New Jersey, during July and August of 1917.

The street was named Ingersoll Terrace. Basements for the first eleven houses were dug with a steam shovel, and all the equipment and materials were put in place. The first few houses went up very slowly, as laborers struggled to learn the system and become familiar with the molds. Eventually the crew began to move with increasing speed and expertise. By the time the mold was broken on the eleventh house, the process was almost as systematized as Edison had predicted.

In the end the technical side of the monolithic concrete house was another Edison success story. But neither Edison nor Lambie nor Ingersoll had predicted the marketing nightmare they would encounter. Ingersoll decided, as a test, to put the first houses up for sale at the agreed price of $1,200 before building the next block. To everyone’s surprise, despite the extremely low price, not a single house was sold in the first month. Ingersoll abandoned the project, and no more Edison concrete houses were ever built.

Some historians and Edison biographers blame the publicity and Edison’s grandiose predictions for the demise of his most altruistic endeavor. No one wanted to live in a house that had been described as “the salvation of the slum dweller.” People were too proud to be stigmatized as having been “rescued from squalor and poverty.”

But there may have been a more important reason for the Edison monoliths’ failure to catch on. The architect Ernest Flagg, writing in Collier’s Weekly seven years later, noted that “Mr. Edison was not an architect— it was not cheapness that wanted so much as relief from ugliness, and Mr. Edison’s early models entirely did not achieve that relief.” From looking at them, it is hard to disagree.

After the initial fiasco the scheme did not vanish instantly. Following World War I, Henry Ford and others talked about plans to build Edison housing. Eambie went on to experiment with other types of molds, and several companies tried marketing concrete houses over the next seven years. None of them got anywhere. Edison’s vision of molding America had died in Union, New Jersey, in 1917, when the first For Sale signs produced nothing more than a handful of reporters.

The Edison Portland Cement Company remained one of the top producers of concrete and cement materials until it closed in 1942 in response to wartime energy-conservation measures. By then the technology had become outdated and inefficient, so the machinery was dismantled and sold to a South American company. Skeletal remains of the buildings, including some minor structures still occupied by other businesses, are evident at the site in northwestern New Jersey.

Ten of the original eleven houses remain standing on Ingersoll Terrace (one was demolished to make way for a highway exit), so the technology of the process has certainly shown itself to be durable. The original owners are long gone, but newer residents have generally positive opinions of the little houses. According to Mrs. Joseph Fila, who occupied an Edison house for half a century, “The twenty-four inch walls keep out the summer heat and provide good winter insulation.” Joe Kearny says that the maintenance cost of his concrete house is “zero.” Dolores Chumsky is less enthusiastic; her house is plagued by an elusive leak that defies detection. She adds that any prospects for renovation or improvements are doomed. “Just try and get someone to come and make repairs,” she says. “They may come in once, but they never come back.”

IN CONSIDERABLY DIFFERENT FORM from what Edison envisioned, concrete construction has become a mainstay of modern building technology. The technique of pre-stressing, developed in the 1920s and 1930s and widely used beginning in the 1950s, has made concrete skyscrapers built from pre-cast elements commonplace. The plight of the slum dweller, however, remains unsolved.

Michael Peterson is a freelance photographer and writer in Blairstown, New Jersey.