No Simple Dwelling: Design, Politics, and the Mid-Twentieth Century Economy House

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Published in: Buildings & Landscapes, vol. 26 No. 2, Spring 2019.


In the 1940s and early 1950s, the American home-building industry embarked on a period of intensive design and planning experimentation as they endeavored to produce faster, cheaper, and better-quality homes for lower income segments of the housing market than it had ever served before. Builders across the country engaged in robust design discourse, networks of design exchange, and campaigns of informal design research to produce what they termed “economy houses,” or homes within the financial reach of the nation’s lower-middle-class or working-class wage earners. Period builders experimented with modern and modular design, streamlined production processes, and cooperative building to create increasingly efficient and inexpensive economy houses. The results of their efforts reflect the building community’s design acumen as well as the complex political economy of period housing development that guided builders’ product development and design thinking. Joint examination of builders’ products and industry design discourse reveal how the home-building industry’s experimentation with economy housing simultaneously advanced the modernization of the building industry and reinforced its arguments in support of free markets, unfettered housing production, and private-sector building as the best answer to America’s housing needs.