When you think of concrete houses, your mind probably goes immediately to the concrete buildings of the Mid Century Modern period, or to more recently constructed concrete dwellings. But did you know that Thomas Edison was building concrete homes clear back in the early 20th century?
Poured Concrete Home Design Way Ahead of Its Time
Thomas Edison may be best-known for his electrical work, but he also experimented with innovation across other fields. The inventor created the Edison Ore-Milling Company in 1881, which generated waste sand as a by-product. Edison sold this by-product to cement companies. This is what got him interested in concrete’s potential.
Edison came up with a novel idea. With the help of reusable forms, he could construct entire concrete homes with a single slow pour, complete with interior components.
You can check out his patent here, dated March 13th, 1917. Edison writes, “The object of my invention is to construct a building of a cement mixture by a single molding operation, all its parts, including the sides, roofs, partitions, bath tubs, floors, etc., being formed of an integral mass of a cement mixture.”
In fact, he wanted to go even further than that. Furniture, phonograph cabinets, pianos and more were all going to be made out of concrete (it was a relatively lightweight concrete—but still—can you imagine trying to move a concrete piano?).
A Proposed Solution to Homelessness
Hypothetically, it would be cheap and easy to build Thomas Edison’s concrete homes (more on that shortly). That meant that they would be available to purchase for around $1,200 at the time.
According to inflation calculators, $1,200 in 1917 is equivalent to around $27,910 in 2022 dollars. That is impressively affordable!
Additionally, Edison’s houses would boast the numerous other advantages of concrete. They would be fireproof, resistant to rodents and insects, and require little maintenance to stand the test of time.
There was interest in Edison’s idea. Philanthropist Henry Phipps Jr. actually wanted to construct a whole city this way. Additionally, in 1913, U.S. Steel did end up purchasing molds and using the technique in Gary, Indiana, which at that time was a company town.
So, why did the technique never really take off? The problem had to do with the start-up requirements.
The molds that were used for the technique were inconvenient. For one thing, they consisted of over 2,000 parts. Imagine how difficult it would be to purchase and keep track of so many components. To make matters worse, the forms were made of nickel-plated iron. That meant they weighed in at around half a million pounds! Try lugging that around town.
If that were not enough, the start-up costs were around $175,000. That was what a builder could expect to spend before being able to build even one Thomas Edison house.
To add to that, there were marketing and demand problems. Even though affordable housing was sorely needed, a lot of people found the houses unattractive, and associated them with poverty.
Some Thomas Edison Concrete Houses Still Stand Today
Despite the fact that Edison’s concrete houses did not become yesterday’s home of tomorrow, there are still some examples you can check out today.
Indiana Landmarks writes, “No longer the property of U. S. Steel, the Edison houses vary widely in condition, with some occupied in good condition and others, owned by the cash-strapped city, vacant and ruinous. PIP funded the National Register nominations to bring attention to these rare houses with an important pedigree, and to make sure they qualify for restoration incentives.”
So, if you are ever are visiting Gary, IN, you are going to want to go take a look at some of these historical poured concrete homes. We hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the history of concrete housing.
Even though Thomas Edison’s concrete houses did not catch on, others did come to recognize the numerous advantages of the material itself for strength, longevity, comfort, energy efficiency and safety. Today, concrete is experiencing a resurgence in popularity. Keep exploring our site to learn more about the history and benefits of concrete as a building material, and to discover inspiration for your own concrete home design project.