This is the third installment of a short series on Nissen Huts, other posts can be accessed by clicking on the underlined text below:
1. Nissen Huts – an introduction
3. The Nissen’s American Cousin (this post)
The Quonset hut is perhaps the most ubiquitous prefabricated structure born out of a period of war. More an evolution of the Nissen hut than an architectural innovation, the Quonset was first built at Quonset Point, Rhode Island (hence the name), one of many naval bases established by the Allied forces during World War II. The U.S. military enlisted the services of the George A. Fuller Company, one of the largest construction contractors in the United states and builders of such iconic projects as the Flatiron Building in New York and the Lincoln Memorial, to design a simple, repeatable, and inexpensive structure that could be deployed as housing across naval bases on the Atlantic seaboard and the Pacific rim. Otto Brandenberger, the only architect on staff at Fuller, led the project.
The Original Quonset Hut (16′ x 36′ and 16′ x 20′)
The original design, known as the T-Rib Quonset hut, was a 16-by-36-foot semicyclindrical structure with an 8-foot radius, framed with steel members and sided with corrugated steel sheets and closely resembled the World War I Nissen hut.
The principal difference between the two was in the wall system. In the T-Rib Quonset, the interior wallboards were Masonite®. Its exterior was corrugated metal panels lapped and mounted to wood purlins with a core layer of paper insulation. The Nissen hut, on the other hand, had a more complicated system of corrugated metal panels both inside and out and depended solely on the air space between the two for its thermal barrier. T-Rib Quonsets instantly provided U.S. troops with a greater level of comfort than could be provided by tents with wooden platforms typically used at that time.
The ends of the structure were capped with preassembled plywood faces punctured with openings for a door and windows. The interior contained insulation that was installed on-site, pressed wood lining, a tongue-and-groove floor, and crude overhead lighting running along the central spine of the ceiling. The structure cost approximately $800 to build.
Less than three months after initiating the hut design project, the U.S. military had in its arsenal a new demountable structure that could be shipped in twelve crates and put up in one day by ten men. It required no special skills to erect.
By the end of 1941, approximately 8,200 T-Rib Quonset huts were produced.
Quonset Redesign (16′ x 36′ and 24′ x 60′)
Since the arch of the Quonset hut extended to the floor, beds, sinks, and washing machines had to be moved inward until they abutted the curve at the top edge of the unit. Valuable floor space was being wasted. Reclaiming this space would necessitate changing the overall form of the building.
Brandenberger’s team proposed a modified arch with four-foot vertical sidewalls. The new arch, assembled in two sections instead of three, reduced erection time and required fewer fasteners. Furthermore, the profile of this arch was changed to a lighter weight “I” section, produced by Stran-Steel, a system that was already being utilized for additions added to T-Rib Quonset huts.
The new hut system was thirty-five percent lighter to ship and sixty percent less expensive to produce. Approximately 25,000 Quonset Redesign huts were produced by George A. Fuller Company at West Davisville, Rhode Island.
Stran-Steel Quonset Hut (20′ x 48′ and 20′ x 56′)
The last major redesign of the Quonset hut came in about 1943 when the factory at Quonset Point was phased out and the contract to produce Quonset huts transferred to the Stran-Steel Division of the Great Lakes Steel Corporation. The new hut had an expanded footprint of 20′ x 48′ and reverted back to the full arch rib.
Although this was a bigger building than the original 16′ x 36′ hut, it weighed less and took up less shipping space. The floor system was changed from one-inch floorboards to half-inch plywood, and a lighter gauge galvanized siding was introduced. In addition, the siding layout was modified with the factory-curved panel used only along the ridgeline. The remainder of the hut was sided horizontally, enabling panels to be shipped flat. Stran-Steel also introduced a four-foot overhang at each end of the structure, making the full length 56 feet, but this proved unnecessary in northern climates and was phased out.
By the end of WWII, approximately 120,000 Stran-Steel huts had been produced and shipped to almost every corner of the globe. Designed to serve eighty-six official uses these huts represented a refinement in thinking that spanned two world wars. When Brandenberger’s T-Rib Quonset hut and Quonset Redesign are included in the calculations, there were more than 153,000 lightweight, prefabricated units deployed and erected in support of American troops in WWII.
By war’s end, variants on the original T-Rib model were to be found all over the coastal United States. In certain parts of the United States, particularly Alaska, they are the most common vernacular building form.