Lustrons of Durham
Lustrons of DurhamSubmitted by gary on Fri, 12/02/2011 - 3:01pm
The Lustron house is a quirky branch on the evolutionary path of mass housing production in the United States during the mid-20th century. I'm not an expert on this topic, and there are entire websites devoted to Lustron fandom out there to peruse.
Various attempts to mass produce housing in the US date back to at least the first decade of the 20th century, with the advent of 'kit' houses - which, as the name implies, were ordered from a company and shipped disassembled, but with all parts pre-cut and in sufficient quantity for a local builder to erect a complete house.
Sears houses are the most well known of these, but a quick Wikipedia glance lists 11 major companies.
Kit houses waned in popularity after World War II, and the great infatuation with industrial mass production along with widening highways, etc. gave rise to several efforts to more fully assemble houses at a central location and ship them in assembled or partially assembled form. The evolution of these efforts exist today as mobile homes, modular houses, and pre-fab(ricated) houses.
Lustrons were an unusual product, taking cues from the appliance and automobile industries in material selection - the houses are steel framed, and interior/exterior finishes make heavy use of enameled metal panels - of the kind typical on mid-century appliances. There were several models to choose from, and a selection of colors.
Even the roof 'shingles' were enameled steel, and the interior came with built-in cabinets, pass-throughs, etc. - all in the same enameled metal.
The pre-fabricated sections of house would be shipped to the building site and assembled - typically on a concrete slab, but occasionally over a foundation that provided a basement.
The general idea behind prefabricated housing was the same idea that had dramatically shifted industry from craft / local to centralization. The advantages of scale production / and the plummeting cost of shipping would provide a cheap and predictable product. The combination of the predictable assemblage and 'low-maintenance' materials would provide a product that minimized future operating costs (both direct and indirect.)
No worries about painting, scraping, etc. Just hose it off.
In theory, this should have been a great idea.
Carl Strandlund was a Swedish-born engineer who had worked for the Chicago Vitreous Enamel Products Company, and helped to retool the company's factory to produce products for World War II. Near the end of the war, Strandlund devised and patented an architectural porcelain enamel panel : “The present invention relates generally to architectural porcelain enamel panels, but more particularly to a novel and improved construction and an arrangement of interlocking and sealing adjacent porcelain enamel panels, units, or adjoining connecting parts of the exterior or interior walls of a building or structure of any type or design.”
After the war, Strandlund applied to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation for financing to deploy his architectural panels in the construction of gas stations_ but was denied. Seeing an opportunity in the government's concern over housing shortages for returning GIs, Strandlund persuaded the Federal government that the same techniques could be used to mass produce quality housing cheaply and efficiently. They were persuaded, and would eventually loan Strandlund $37.5 million.
In 1947, Strandlund formed the Lustron Corporation. He stated - “We believe that our technology has advanced to the point where a basic commodity as necessary as a home no longer should be handmade,” Strandlund said. “We think it has advanced to the rank of the automobile-that it can be mass-produced, handled by local dealers, transported to a new locality if desired, even traded in on a larger model.” He added: “The Lustron home isn’t a cheap house by any means. It isn’t a substitute for a house similar to those we are used to now. What Lustron offers is a new way of life.”
The Lustron Corporation utilized a 1 million square foot plant that had been used for manufacturing warplanes in Columbus, OH, and started with heady claims of volume production. The plant started with four house models in eight colors: "Surf Blue," "Blue-green," "Dove Gray," "Maize Yellow," "Desert Tan," Green, Pink, and White. The houses were designed by Morris Beckman of Chicago architectural firm Beckman and Blass
The plant fell behind the ambitious schedule almost immediately, and hopes that some 'parts' could be sold to other companies did not materialize. There are a multitude of theories as to why the Lustrons failed as a business model, but the internet consensus seems to be some combination of overly ambitious goals in devising an entirely new way of building and commoditizing a product that had antecedents, but was new and different looking, along with a new distribution network. Perhaps most importantly, people seem to see houses differently than other consumer products. Even if a house is the blandest pseudo-traditional, repetitive plasticness in a subdivision, people will still pay top dollar while turning up their noses at modular or mobile homes as inferior.
Houses were also something with a well-established local production industry in almost every city and town. Whether that industry could meet volume or not, it was competition - unlike refrigerator production or similar. Various levels of credence are given to the role that resistance from local contractors and government played in hampering acceptance of Lustrons.
By 1950, the company was bankrupt, having produced ~2680 Lustron houses. The houses were mostly deployed on the east coast. Lombard, IL had 120 houses. The US Government installed 60 at the US Marine Corps base at Quantico, VA.
Durham still has 5 Lustrons - various online directories list one more - at the Broad Street address of Marie Austin Realty, where it clearly isn't. So there may be another out there somewhere.
It's an interesting model to revisit in a contemporary context. Housing development in the US followed a path of site-built, stick-built Colonial Revival/Neoclassical Revival housing after the ~1960s, with mild variation between houses. Parts of the houses became mass-produced, but still with a high degree of potential customization. Vinyl, wood, sheetrock, and asphalt became the materials of choice.
Various people continue to try to make modularity/pre-fab work on a broader scale; it works well with modern design and not so well with traditional design. Unfortunately, architecture schools continue, 60-70 years in, to think modernism is going to become widely appreciated. Hasn't happened yet. I happen to like modern architecture, when done properly. But the modular market tends to ornament the boxes with little plastic shutters and vinyl siding, etc., and you end up with a product that just looks bad, and doesn't appeal to those that can afford stick-built/site-built housing. It's a missed opportunity.
It's also interesting to revisit in the 'green' context. I find the "green building" movement okay, but off-putting. One reason is the strong focus on recycled materials and minimizing utility usage. Good things, but only a subset of what the life cycle costs of building are. Lustrons are interesting because they sought to address two areas little addressed by green building, the Movement - durability and portability. It's poor at addressing another weakness of most 'green' designs - user serviceability/inexpensive replacement/repair costs.
It would be great if we could tie together the threads of portable, inexpensive construction with good design, low-environmental impact materials, and the potential for repairs by a DIYer (not DIY buying entire new window assemblies from Home Depot.) Lustrons are an interesting case study in the creation of future housing - it's not really much of an exaggeration to say they were built like tanks, and seem to have thus held up well.