Edison's prefab, permutable fireproof concrete houses

For months now, the Story Spieler podcast (which features readings of public domain texts from Gutenberg Project as well as some CC licensed works) has been working through a 1910 book called Edison, His Life and Inventions by Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin, a glowing biography of Edison. I've always thought of Edison as a kind of jerk and a plagiarist who took credit for his juniors' inventions (a narrative familiar to fans of Tesla), but there's some really remarkable stuff in here. Most recently, the podcast included the chapter on Portland cement, and a remarkable account of a prefab, three-storey concrete house that Edison invented, which could be erected for $1200 (as opposed to $30,000 for a comparable cut-stone house). The house-moulds could be varied and permutated so that each house came out differently, and the houses were intended to form industrial suburbs around factories, so that working people could own their own homes.
Edison's conception of the workingman's ideal house has been a broad one from the very start. He was not content merely to provide a roomy, moderately priced house that should be fireproof, waterproof, and vermin-proof, and practically indestructible, but has been solicitous to get away from the idea of a plain "packing-box" type. He has also provided for ornamentation of a high class in designing the details of the structure. As he expressed it: "We will give the workingman and his family ornamentation in their house. They deserve it, and besides, it costs no more after the pattern is made to give decorative effects than it would to make everything plain." The plans have provided for a type of house that would cost not far from $30,000 if built of cut stone. He gave to Messrs. Mann & McNaillie, architects, New York, his idea of the type of house he wanted. On receiving these plans he changed them considerably, and built a model. After making many more changes in this while in the pattern shop, he produced a house satisfactory to himself.

This one-family house has a floor plan twenty-five by thirty feet, and is three stories high. The first floor is divided off into two large rooms--parlor and living-room--and the upper floors contain four large bedrooms, a roomy bath-room, and wide halls. The front porch extends eight feet, and the back porch three feet. A cellar seven and a half feet high extends under the whole house, and will contain the boiler, wash-tubs, and coal-bunker. It is intended that the house shall be built on lots forty by sixty feet, giving a lawn and a small garden.

It is contemplated that these houses shall be built in industrial communities, where they can be put up in groups of several hundred. If erected in this manner, and by an operator buying his materials in large quantities, Edison believes that these houses can be erected complete, including heating apparatus and plumbing, for $1200 each. This figure would also rest on the basis of using in the mixture the gravel excavated on the site. Comment has been made by persons of artistic taste on the monotony of a cluster of houses exactly alike in appearance, but this criticism has been anticipated, and the molds are so made as to be capable of permutations of arrangement. Thus it will be possible to introduce almost endless changes in the style of house by variation of the same set of molds.

EDISON PORTLAND CEMENT (via Story Spieler podcast)

(Image: The Thomas Edison Papers)


  1. My Great Uncle worked for Edison in NYC on some wacky idea that he had.

    Seems Edison had come up with (or plagiarised) an idea to project moving pictures on a screen. Crazy. It could never catch on.

    My relative later produced the 1926 production of Ben Hur & the early Fu Manchu movies.

  2. Houses were built similar to this in the UK, known as “wimpey no-fines”, my grandparents also lived in a “pre fab” bungalow which was of similar contruction

  3. Indeed it was a very interesting idea but one that almost bankrupt the man. I wouldn’t change your mind about his flaws just yet, as the concrete house wasn’t the smartest of his ideas for he didn’t really understand the limitations of the material he was dealing with (pianos and picture frames aside). In the houses that were built, the concrete cracked, let in water and because it was one giant molded wall of concrete, they were proved almost impossible to fix. He ended up selling off the molds and the giant concrete machines he made for next to nothing… and they were never heard of again.

    For modern Prefabs I always check in on this website:

    Martyn Day, AEC Magazine.

  4. The PBS series History Detectives did a segment on a house believed to have been one of these houses.


    It was a fairly in-depth discussion of these housing designs, and how some of the houses were actually built. Interesting stuff.

    The family living there led the camera person round the house — and it looks to be still very solid, and very snug for its current generation of occupants.

  5. How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read if they can’t even fit inside the building? ~ Derek Zoolander

  6. There is one of these houses in Ocean City NJ not far from the boardwalk, it is a great material for the harsh coastal weather.

  7. Edison built several of these houses near his lab. They were very good and rather stylish houses, in a late Victorian Italianate manner.

    However he ran into problems with the battery-mold casting process. This is similar to the process used by Moshe Safdie for Habitat in Montreal.

    Each Edison house required a large number of specialized cast iron forms that were bolted together so the entire house could be cast in one pour. Assembling the forms was very time consuming, as was stripping the forms after the concrete cured. So, there were time and materials costs that turned out to be much more expensive than projected and were essentially uneconomical.

    Also, not everyone was so concerned about housing workers so well.

    Edison also built cast concrete factories for himself that still stand and are remarkably solid.

  8. This intrigued me, so a simple google search led me to this article. Pretty scathing in it’s opinion of these houses.

    Interesting that Edison ran a fairly large cement business, The Edison Portland Cement Company. Thanks for the info and thanks for the link to the Story Spieler podcast

  9. Frank Lloyd Wright also experimented with similar ideas. They weren’t abandoned because of some lack of vision – they were abandoned because they were bad ideas.

    1) They weren’t waterproof. Not for long anyway. In fact, they leaked like they were made of Swiss cheese. A problem common with all concrete house designs – they’ve had to plug up more holes in Fallingwater than they can count.

    2) They were ugly. The forms never quite held the shape to the concrete, so they looked like melted candlewax versions of houses.

    3) They were too cold or too hot. Concrete has bad thermal characteristics standing up on its own, and the houses turned into iceboxes during the winter and ovens during the summer.

  10. 1. Wooden houses aren’t waterproof either. Don’t make the roof out of concrete.

    2. Make plain flat walls.

    3. Don’t know anything about this as we don’t have winter down here in the tropics, but maybe double walls?

  11. They are still building some houses out of concrete. After the exterior walls are up they put 2 inches (4.8 cm)of foam insulation inside and out. The inside is then covered with sheetrock or plaster. The outside is sprayed with some thick textured material. They are also able to cut designs into the foam before they spray the outside. This tecnique is used for commercial applications too. The roof of the house that I have worked on in Massachusetts USA is trusses with plywood then fiberglass shingles. The house is beautiful, but it is difficult to add and electrical outlets on the outside walls once it is finished. The interior walls are like any other house in this part of the world with 2 inch X 4 inch studs and sheetrock. The walls are not very likely to leak because the spray on material dries to a hard plastic like substance. Having drilled through it I can say it is pretty durable.

  12. I can’t comment on practicality or the issues people are bringing up, but I will say that I’m surprised how appealing that model is. More attractive than the houses in pretty much any development I’ve seen, from Levittown up through 90s and oughts McMansions.

    I sure do like having a kitchen, though…

  13. Didn’t he also come up with a similar prefab concept, but the houses were domes, intended to be tornado-proof? Could have sworn I read that somewhere.

  14. Interesting concept of size. 25×30 house, four “large bedrooms” upstairs, wide hall and roomy bathroom? Those bedrooms end up being about 12′ by 10′.

    Zoning around here isn’t going to like them on 40×60 lots either. It will take almost twice the lot area to pass the setbacks where I live.

    So by the time you jiggle the rooms around for such silliness as a kitchen and bedrooms that match people’s modern conception I think you end up with a two, maybe three bedroom house at half the house density envisioned, or about 1/4th the people per acre envisioned back in, well let’s say Edison’s day since I don’t see a date in the article.

  15. @ #10: Well, if a more complex construction process is involved, that kinda undercuts the point – people being able to simply and easily mix and pour a house out of cheap easily accessible materials like concrete..

    I’ll admit, modern construction techniques might conquer this problem, but 100 years ago, it wasn’t workable, and concrete housing still doesn’t serve the purpose Edison or Wright intended.

  16. But Edison’s idea didn’t solve a problem. There was no end of affordable housing available at that time in that price range.

    In the first few decades of the 20th Century, Sears Roebuck was selling plans for wood frame houses that could be built for a similar cost. They came in a much wider variety of sizes, prices, and looks. I owned one of the two-story models in the 70s-80s and it was a solidly built, comfortable, and beautiful home.


  17. The Edison Museum

    The Edison Museum, not open to the public
    Its haunted towers rise into the clouds above it
    Folks drive in from out of town to gaze in amazement when they see it
    Just outside the gate, I look into the courtyard
    Underneath the gathering thunderstorm
    Through the iron bars, I see the Black Mariah
    Revolving slowly on its platform
    In the topmost tower, a light burns dim
    A coiling filament glowing within
    The Edison Museum, once a bustling factory,
    Today’s but a darkened cobweb-covered hive of industry
    The tallest, widest, and most famous
    Haunted mansion in New Jersey
    Behind a wooden door, the voice of Thomas Alva
    Recites a poem on a phonograph
    Ghosts float up the stair
    Like silent moving pictures
    The loyal phantoms of his in-house staff
    A wondrous place it is, there can be no doubt
    But no one ever goes in
    And no one ever goes out
    So when your children quarrel, and nothing seems to quell them
    Just tell them that you’ll take them to the Edison Museum
    The largest independently owned and operated

    I Can Hear You by They Might Be Giants. Made at the Edison Laboratories.

    I can hear you
    Just barely hear you
    I can just barely hear you

    This is a warning
    Step away from the car
    This car is protected by Viper

    Guess where I am
    I’m calling from the plane
    I’ll call you when I get there

    You won’t hear a buzz
    But I’m buzzing you in
    I’m buzzing you in

    What’s your order?
    I can super-size that
    Please bring your car around

    I can hear you
    Just barely hear you
    I can just barely hear you

  18. The rooms are too small, though. Hardly room enough to electrocute an even a smallish sized elephant.

    It does come pre-wired with DC, right?

  19. This is one of those ideas that looked great on paper, but didn’t work out so well in practice.

    See http://flyingmoose.org/truthfic/edison.htm

    and http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/it/1996/3/1996_3_50.shtml

    This is not to say that concrete homes can’t be built well, you just have to approach the material on its own terms, and not take the plans/methods used in wood construction and translate them to concrete.

    Like this: http://www.monolithic.com/

  20. primalchaos, I think you’re basing that info on the Discovery show, specifically Dolores Chumsky’s house. Notably, though, hers is one of ten left from the original eleven built. (One was apparently torn down for freeway construction.) I only found one other homeowner interviewed, and they liked their house a lot, claiming that it didn’t leak, was very well temperature controlled, and needed zero maintenance.

    (Ref here: http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/it/1996/3/1996_3_50.shtml search for Joseph Fila)

    Of note is the fact that she says the outside walls are TWENTY FOUR inches thick!? I know from experience that concrete walls that thick provide an excellent thermal mass and you will indeed have a cool space in the summer and a warm space in the winter with only minimal climate controls. For example, the Unity Temple in Chicago, a Wright design, has no air conditioning, but on 90+ degree days is very cool and comfortable inside.

    Regarding the ugly complaint, if they didn’t hold their shape well then the builder was doing something wrong. Concrete does not flow after it’s cured! And it can form very precise shapes.

    All that is secondary, though, to the fact that concrete is much more expensive than stick framing. It’ll last generations, but the average person doesn’t care about that and won’t bother spending the money to make a building that lasts.

  21. Ahh, forgot to mention specifics on concrete cost:

    When I built my garage, I had the foundation and slab made of poured concrete. That portion of the job was 50% of the total cost – over half of that being materials alone. The lumber and steel and shingles to build the upper portion were a very minimal cost compared to the concrete.

  22. @#9 and #14:

    Modern construction certainly has conquered this problem. I would invite you to check out ICF (insulated concrete form) houses. Sturdy, great energy efficiency, and virtually tornado-proof. They’re also not outrageously more expensive than stick-built houses, and go up far faster. Info can be had here (no affiliation): ICF Homes

  23. There’s a town in PA, a former coal patch company town, that’s built of concrete. (With the total lack of imagination common in coal patches, the town is called Concrete City.)


    My favorite bit is the fact that when they tried to destroy the houses, they simply couldn’t–even 100 sticks of dynamite didn’t bring it down. There’s a couple blogs out there with recent photos of the place, and it’s still in surprisingly good shape considering the age (nearly 100 years) and total lack of anything resembling maintenance. (In fact, I’ve read elsewhere that for a while some police and military groups used it as a training ground because it’s nearly indestructible.)

  24. We had a show at MoMA last summer called Home Delivery that focused on prefabrication, including this system. You can hear the curators discussing the system here:


    And learn more about the exhibition here:

    **Disclosure: I worked on the exhibition site, and don’t mean for this to be advertising/promotion. Just thought people might be interested in another reference, and excited to see the system discussed on BoingBoing.**

  25. I have visited beautiful, comfortable, efficient concrete homes (there’s a wonderful one near the top of the Great Falls of the Potomac) and horrible, damp, inhumane concrete hovels.

    If you want a concrete home, follow these simple guidelines:

    1) Make the concrete THICK. You can compensate for lack of insulative capability by sheer thermal mass. Consider carefully the locations of embedded thermal breaks.

    2) Flat roofs are and always have been an impractical abomination, and are especially so in concrete construction. A pitched slate roof made with medieval technology can last well over 300 years, a flat roof made with the latest and best technology and materials cannot last more than 30 years without continuous, costly maintenance. All flat roofs, even megalithic stone ones, have a catastrophic failure mode. When a flat concrete roof fails, it starts dropping widowmakers on the inhabitants.

    3) Incorporate wiring and plumbing into the ornamentation. Casting deep channels (at least five times the volume required by the wiring and plumbing) into walls at baseboard and chair rail height is very effective, and can be achieved by embedding I-beam steel or with box forms. Do not forget pass-throughs on both sides of each interior doorway and cast similar channels (only twice the volume required, though) in ceilings in a simple cross pattern, meeting at the middle. All these channels to be covered with decorative wood or metal.

    4) Keep doorways and stairways wide. They will not be easily expanded. Make at least one wall on each floor composed almost entirely of glass and framing, to allow additions for new functions in a century or so (hovercar garage, orgasmatron room, etc.) without breaking out concrete.

  26. #3: Hilarious

    I grew up in the Florida Keys where the danger of hurricanes mean that most houses are made of steel reinforced concrete. You can definitely build a very solid, leak force house out of concrete. It rains in the Keys all the time.

  27. Regarding the size – Edison’s idea was to build cheap, solid houses for the working class, and working class homes were quite small by today’s standards.

    Re: the comment about Sears homes. Those weren’t just _plans_ for homes. Those were do-it-yourself kits, containing every piece of the house, shipped to your location by train, with an assembly manual. There are lots of them still standing today.

  28. I think it’s a great idea. It’s certainly more expensive (now) than 2×4 stud construction, but back then wood was often more expensive than other materials. Sawmill productivity wasn’t as high, trees weren’t farmed for lumber, and wood often had to come great distances. This is the same reason you see a lot more stone and brick housed from the late 1800s than you see built today. You see a lot of houses in the UK and Ireland built from concrete, brick, and stone, for the same reasons. Lumber is mostly imported, but concrete, stone, and brick can be locally produced.

    The basic layout of the house appears to be what’s called a “Foursquare” house. This was a popular layout for American residential architecture in the late 1800s/early 1900s that was based on getting the maximum living space while optimizing it for a small footprint. Lots tended to be small, houses were close together, roofing materials weren’t as cheap or as durable, prefab roof trusses didn’t exist, and so there was a lot of benefit to making a square pyramidal roof with a two story house under it.

  29. I know someone who lives in a concrete home in California. During the planning stage they discovered that @21 was right. Modern methods have greatly improved and the costs have come down. I believe that some of their walls are 2′ thick. They are in a valley that gets more extreme temps and find that they are perfectly happy with no AC. They say that their heating costs are lower than the average built home. I’m sorry I don’t have any photos to share, but I can tell you that the house is big, beautiful, and you’d never guess it was a concrete build if you weren’t told.

  30. First of all, there’s a factual error in Cory’s title; concrete structures are not fireproof. Concrete needs to have a reinforcing material embedded in it during construction for it work as a structural component that sees any bending stresses. Usually, and certainly during Edison’s time, that reinforcing is steel. Steel doesn’t like heat and will quickly lose its strength in a fire. The amount of time before still gives way and the structure collapses depends on how much concrete is between it and the fire. Usually concrete structures are designed to stand up for 2 hours, sometimes 3 (4 on very rare occasions) which give people time to get out and firefighters time to suppress the fire.


    both concrete and wood can be configured to ensure a dry interior environment. Look at cedar shake roofs and slate tile roofs. In order to successfully do this, though, the roof needs to be sloped. Concrete as a roof structure is only advantageous because it can provide a flat surface, though, so if you’re goiong to have a sloped roof, it is more economical to have the roof structure built of wood or steel trusses.

    Thanks to bauhaus, the popularity of flat roofs caused the failed experiments that we saw from that era. Now, with a proper slope and bitumen layer, waterproof concrete roofs are indeed possible.

    the problems with forms have been greatly resolved. I higly recommend everyone check out the work of Mark West, who works with fabric formwork and achieves gorgeous strucutres:

    Don’t get me started on ICF. That stuff has way too high of a footprint to be justified for any above grade structures.

    “All that is secondary, though, to the fact that concrete is much more expensive than stick framing. It’ll last generations, but the average person doesn’t care about that and won’t bother spending the money to make a building that lasts.”

    stick frame buildings last for generations, too. They just need to be protected from the elements. Our house will be celebrating its 100 year anniversary soon and shows no signs of stopping.

  31. I live in a concrete house, built ca. 1870 as a summer house. It’s enormous, and towers three full floors above the basement, which is only partially underground.

    Because it was built before they knew how strong concrete is, the walls are some 2 feet thick. They added stone to the outside, to make it look more “normal” — which makes it a briard-style house (the French term used to describe this type of home).

    We’ve only been here a few months, so I can’t yet say as to the temps in the summer, but the huge windows in every room (plenty of cross-ventilation) plus the thick walls lead me to believe that it will be very comfortable here in the heat.

    In the winter? Drafty as hell, but that’s far more due to the huge windows mentioned above — which are original to the house, and thus single-paned. What a pisser — keep the original windows and pay a fortune in heating bills, or pay a fortune for insulated windows and lose the historic windows. Meh.

    And oh yes — with a tile roof, it’s been absolutely dry all spring.

  32. ICF is very cool – neighbor built his out of it.
    Well designed and you don’t notice the walls unless you’re specifically looking for it.
    Blocks wifi too…

  33. “Comment has been made by persons of artistic taste on the monotony of a cluster of houses exactly alike in appearance…”

    If only Edison and co. could have known how little this would actually matter, given the atrocious tracts of identical boxes we would build decades later. Artistic taste, bah!

  34. I grew up in a rural Canadian schoolhouse within walking distance (1-2 miles) of a Pioneer Heritage Village, so I know something about Northern construction.

    Every building had at least a fireplace — at the occasional -40 degrees this was essential, and at -5 (common) helpful. My “school”house’s main room had a twenty-foot beamed ceiling, central fireplace, hardwood floors over an “air pocket” (crawlspace would be too big)

    The entire original building used large, unshaped, indigenous rocks with large quantities of “mortar” and anywhere that surface was exposed was terrifically cold in the winter, and quite warm in the summer.

    The additions were much more comfortable and manageable than the rest, largely due to the incorporation of wood and other forms of insulation!

    Don’t get me wrong, I loved the old place, but sometimes modern is better. That said, a truly modern concrete house intrigues me immensely!

  35. re room size – DoucheSniper @17, Anonymous @ 33, et al – I’m in the UK, and 12′ x 10′ is pretty big for a bedroom here. Of course I understand that expectations of spaciousness are different in the (rural) US, but I’d be surprised if they were typical the world over…

  36. #22,The workingman can’t kill elephants indoors, this house is run on DC. He can electrocute all the elephants he wants outdoors, using that dangerous new AC power system. Good thing it’s made of stone to bear the weight of all that copper for his wonderful DC power grid.

  37. carriem “MODUSOPERANDI –> :) You had me laughing in my cube”
    My cube contains only anxious fear, failure and existential self-loathing. Oh, and a picture of someone’s kids.
    I might be in the wrong cube.

  38. I have lived in an edison built one for the last five years and it is cool in summer and warm in winter, very little maintenance, at least 12×15 bedrooms and 8ft basement ceilings. raceways for utilities and a 95×190 lot

  39. I’m surprised at how many comments describe these houses as ugly; compared to what? I’ve seen a number of “fireproof” concrete houses from this era in my neighborhood, most are of concrete block with a fake “stone like” rough texture. They are a little grim, but compared to the average new vinyl-drenched fake-colonial subdivision, they are monuments to restrained good taste. I’d rather live in a man-made cave than a cheap plastic box with fake shutters.

Comments are closed.