A new synthetic product developed by the Dow Chemical Company in the late 1930s, ethyl cellulose or Ethocel, captured the imagination of Alden B. Dow for its potential as a building material. While initially developed for use in industry, the architect tested its use in the design of the 1940 House, also known as the Ethocel House.

Called structural facing units in his application for a patent in 1938, these plastic building blocks were one foot square with a flange that could be nailed to a wood frame for walls and roofs. Air space was left between interior and exterior walls for insulation. They were light weight, easy to handle, and eliminated the need for paint, plaster, glass, or wallpaper.

Mr. Dow’s first drawing of the Ethocel House is dated July 28, 1937. It depicts a two-story cubic structure composed of smaller square units that are opaque as well as transparent. The transparent units serve as windows and wrap around the corners of the house, with one corner almost completely composed of a narrow vertical column of windows. Next to the house is a small covered porch or breezeway, the roof of which connects to a one-car garage. The entire exterior rendering is done in colored pencil.

Simplified floorplans show a large living room and kitchen on the first floor, three bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor, and a large game room and laundry room in the basement. Mr. Dow’s fascination with the possibilities of plastics led him to build a model of an expanded version of the Ethocel House.

 

 

In actual practice, he incorporated Ethocel blocks in the skylight over Midland’s Central Park Bathhouse (1938), and used them extensively for exhibit cases in the Dow Chemical Company’s display at the Golden Gate Exposition (1939).

The U. S. Patent Office granted his application for a patent on structural facing units in 1939. In the end, however, finding a family to live in a house of plastic building blocks proved elusive and the Ethocel House was never built.

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