It Wasn’t Cement to Be

The men who came to re-pipe my parent’s house made a small hole in one of the exterior walls, at long last revealing to me their composition. Over the last few years I have become acquainted with the conventions and methods of domestic architecture in the first few decades of the twentieth century, and so was fascinated to find that they made of concrete on metal mesh! (This explains why the men from the cable company broke several drill bits installing our cable connection.) Not many houses have cement walls but in the early twentieth century cement was marketed as an effective, affordable, and modern alternative to more traditional building materials.

A segment of wall, showing its concrete and metal lath composition.

A segment of wall, showing its concrete and metal lath composition.

The early twentieth century ushered in many changes to peoples lives and the home was substantially affected. Much of what we consider to be standard of living in the US today was determined in the early twentieth century. (Some people nowadays would consider a house with one bathroom undesirable but that was a novel improvement at the time.) With the expansion of the cities and development of the suburbs, homes were needed and the bungalow was the popular ambition of many Americans. Architects and engineers were looking for an affordable method of building homes that would be inexpensive, versatile, and easy to manipulate. Concrete became the material onto which many cast their hopes and aspirations.

Architects and inventors contrived of several methods of constructing homes of concrete. Thomas Edison encouraged builders to pour it into large, complex molds and Frank Lloyd Wright developed his highly stylized textile block system but both proved cumbersome and expensive. Edison imagined that everything from the house to furniture itself could be fashioned from concrete but the complexity and expense of the mold parts prohibited its popularity. Each of Wright’s concrete blocks had to have its own mold because they had to be destroyed once the concrete had set. Even when he didn’t exceed his estimated budget, as he often did, his homes were generally expensive, and his concrete homes were no exception.

Edison with a model of one his concrete homes.

Edison with a model of one his concrete homes.

The most commonly used techniques were the simplest: concrete brick, such as this design here, and concrete over metal mesh. The first method wasn’t, perhaps, the most attractive of the two and was implemented in the same way as any other brick. (A few months ago I discovered one concrete brick house in my neighborhood.) In the second technique concrete is spread over a metal mesh affixed to the exterior of the wall frame and extrudes through the perforations to form a solid mass when it dries. The result is a rather formidable structure and, if our walls are anything to go by, will likely stand the test of time. Of course, if you want to make alterations, that might prove to be more difficult.

The concrete method never caught on as it’s early promoters had hoped and was easily substituted with other methods. Concrete was not considered a particularly attractive material, whether as bricks or like plaster, and even in their more aesthetically pleasing formulations their cost and manufacture proved to be too prohibitive for widespread use. The concrete home remained a luxury commodity and, at least for me and other Bungalow devotees, a rather unique relic of American architectural history.

An afterthought:
It has been some time since I wrote and published this piece on Tumblr (originally) and I have come to the following realization. While the methods as described above never came to replace wood frame construction in the US, it was not entirely lost. Concrete blocks are now frequently used, and encouraged, for the building of homes and structures within hurricane zones. This makes quite a lot of sense considering how vulnerable wood frame construction it is.

It is also important to understand that wood frame construction is a rather new construction technique, which began popular in 19th century America largely because it was quick and easy to put up, and that brick construction, as can be seen in the well-known brownstones of New York city and the brick bungalows of Chicago, is more common. Brick construction was prefered for its resistance to fire and, in areas of high humidity, necessary for the prevention of mold formation. Well, the more one knows!

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