Today, we build an instant house. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
As WW-II war clouds gathered
in 1941, the Navy knew it would soon face vast
problems of moving and housing people and materiel.
War is about logistics, and people need shelter.
Someone had a bright idea. Why not create a cheap,
lightweight, portable structure that could be put
up by untrained people?
So they went to the George A. Fuller construction
company in New York. The Navy wanted buildings
within two months. The British had developed a
light prefab structure called a Nissen hut during
WW-I. Now the Navy wanted an improved version.
And they got it: Peter Dejongh and Otto
Brandenberger went to work. Within a month they'd
set up a production facility near Quonset, Rhode
Island. They moved so quickly that they were
producing units while the design was still being
That's how the famous Quonset hut came into being.
Some people thought the old Nissen hut had been
modeled on Iroquois council lodges. Now the Quonset
hut version had the same shape and an
Iroquois-sounding name. The Indian connection was
probably fortuitous. Still, the resemblance was
strong. The Quonset hut skeleton was a row of
semi-circular steel ribs covered with corrugated
sheet metal. The ribs sat on a low steel-frame
foundation with a plywood floor. The basic model
was 20 feet wide and 48 feet long with 720 square
feet of usable floor space. The larger model was 40
by 100 feet.
So we entered the war armed with this cheap housing
meant for airstrips, MASH units, barracks -- you
name it. Historian Michael Lamm tells how Quonsets
were strung together in Guam to form a
Around 170,000 Quonset huts were produced during
the war -- enough to house the combined populations
of Portland and Seattle. Then the war ended, and
they were too good a resource to throw away. So the
military sold them to civilians for about a
thousand dollars each. They made serviceable
Returning veterans now occupied Quonset huts by
choice. Universities made them into student
housing. Architects took an interest and gussied
them up in odd ways. Churches and small businesses
took up residence in them. In 1948 the Sacramento
Peak observatory was housed in Quonset huts.
Playwright Robert Finton has written a play about
them. He titled it Tents of Tin.
Drive your streets today and you'll see them here
and there. Much more than relics of war, they're
icons of a day in our history -- icons that spread
all the way from North Africa to the Aleutian
Islands. And now, a new memorial museum for war
correspondent Ernie Pyle has just been built of
Quonset huts. Once in a while, a really good design
surfaces -- robust, simple, and enduring. The DC-3,
the Jeep, and the Quonset hut are all examples of
the clear thinking that was needed to keep us out
of serious trouble, back in the 1940s.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Lamm, M., The Instant Building. Invention &
And Technology, Winter, 1998, pp. 68-72.
See also the following websites which reflect some
of the continuation of the Quonset hut in our lives
While we see few orginal Quonset huts around today,
we do find the form being utilized in modern
versions of it. See, for example,
Here is a U.S. Government photo of Quonset huts as
seen in front of Laguna Peak, Point Mugu, in 1946:
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John
H. Lienhard. All Rights Reserved.
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