Part of United States Army's Fort Belvoir, the Thermo-Con House is the only International Style building at the fort. Dating back to 1949, the house was the product of a collaboration between the Department of Defense and Higgins Resources with the goal of creating a standard house design to address a housing shortage on Army bases. E. S. Henderson of architecture firm Albert Kahn & Associates designed the house, and an engineering battalion built it. Although the Army did not end up building more houses from this prototype, the Thermo-Con House symbolizes the shift in housing construction from traditional craftsmanship to industrial design and production.
Backstory and Context
During World War II, the United States military had begun partnering with modern architects and large industrial firms to produce housing for workers, soldiers, and other personnel. The U.S. Division of Defense Housing, Clark Foreman, believed that such partnerships would contribute to the practice of architecture and reduce the stigma associated with public housing in the United States. Several successful projects emerged from these partnerships in the early 1940s.
The name of the Thermo-Con house refers to the material used to construct the walls, floors, and roof. "Thermo-Con" combines cement, water, and a proprietary mineral in a specialized mixer, which when poured into place expands as it cures. Higgins Resources, Inc. (also known as Higgins Industries), which had produced landing craft during World War II, held the patent for this material. Shortages of building materials like wood and steel during the war had led to the invention of this and other innovative materials.
E. S. Henderson of industrial architecture firm Albert Kahn & Associations designed the Thermo-Con house as a prototype, and the 410th Engineer Battalion (Construction) built the structure in 1949. The Kahn design utilizes the International Style, which avoids any historically-based decoration. The style favors a flat roof (often asphalt), smooth surfaces, asymmetrical massing, and simplicity. Other experimental housing designs emerged during this time period, but none of them were ever mass-produced as they had been intended. Despite the housing shortage and need to inexpensively produce housing, the International Style did not appeal to consumers and the Thermo-Con prototype did not produce any additional houses.
The house served as the unofficial residence of the Post Sergeant Major at Fort Belvoir. Some renovations to the two-story building took place in the 1970s. The National Register of Historic Places recognized the property in 1997, at which time it was unoccupied. Three years later, the Army renovated the building for use as housing for distinguished visitors to Fort Belvoir.
Harnsberger, Douglas, et al. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, Virginia Department of Historic Resources. November 1997. Accessed January 16th 2020. https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/VLR_to_transfer/PDFNoms/029-5001_Thermo-Con_House_1997_Draft_Nomination.pdf.
Prats, J.J. "Thermo-Con" House, Historical Marker Database. June 11th 2019. Accessed January 16th 2020. https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=9440&Result=1.