The Modern Quonset Hut - Reinterpreting a Classic & Enduring Design

The classic Quonset Hut is a prefabricated, lightweight galvanized steel building with a semi-cylindrical shape that was first used in mass numbers during the WW2 era.

This enduring design has become an iconic symbol of simplicity, architectural beauty, and practicality. It’s been utilized in just about every type of structural capacity, from bakeries, barracks, offices and garages, to postmodern cottages and inspiring backyard studio spaces.

The modern Quonset Hut is an interesting case architecturally. Reinterpreted for contemporary use, it remains structurally consistent to when it was first used as an inexpensive military shelter – and yet, that’s part of its enduring attraction. This is a shape that’s reminiscent of a time when strategy, function, humanity and a sense shared of purpose came together and gave rise to one of the most archetypal designs of the 20th century.

A Brief History of the Quonset

Named after Quonset Point, Rhode Island where they were first produced, the first Quonset Huts were built at the Davisville Naval Construction Battalion Center near North Kingstown, Rhode Island in 1941. Inspired by the similar British Nissen Hut introduced during World War 1, the US military produced between 150,000-170,000 Quonset Huts during the WW2 era.

The design was born when the US Navy required an all-purpose, light and strong structure that could be easily erected without the use of skilled on-site labourers. The original version was a 16ft x 36ft framed steel structure which featured 8 foot radius corrugated steel sheets. Both ends were capped with plywood or metal walls. These pop-up buildings could be placed on a concrete pad, or directly on the ground.

Deployed “to serve eighty-six official uses,”Quonsets were used as outbuildings, offices, garages and shelters. When the war was finally over, the US military began to sell the surplus structures to the public.

Post WW2, Quonset Huts were used as temporary housing, specifically in the Rodger Young Village in LA, as well as a makeshift village at Michigan State University. Some of the war-era militarized Quonset huts are still in use at bases in Korea and the Pohakuloa Training area on Hawaii’s big island.  This demonstrates their incredible durability, structural strength and weather-resistance capabilities.

Tried, True & Architecturally Sound

The Quonset Hut’s arched structural design is by far its most recognizable feature, but it serves as more than a compelling visual aesthetic. The arch design dates back to 1850 BC Israel and is found all over the world, from ancient Aztec Mexico to the Parthian civilization in modern-day Iran and Iraq. The ancient Romans learned and perfected the technique and helped it to achieve widespread popularity due to its relative ease to build and maintain, as well as its unprecedented strength.

A pure compression form, the arch can span large areas, eliminating tensile stresses by converting force into compressive stresses – the force is carried to the ground, where the arch pushed outwards – also referred to as “thrust”. Thrust in turn, needs to be restrained in order to keep the arch from collapsing, usually by use of internal bracing.

Design Potential

Upcycled, modified and custom designed Quonset huts are increasingly gaining traction as a unique and modern alternative to traditional dwellings. Over the past few years, Quonsets have been popularized by their use as cottages and seasonal retreats, cabins, garages, and personal studio space. They’ve also enjoyed their fair share of time in the spotlight, being featured on the silver screen in films and television programs like the Expendables, Orange Is the New Black, Portlandia and Family Guy.

The open concept space of the Quonset Hut design allows for an almost limitless potential for interior design, including balconies, upper tiered bedrooms or offices, as well as a multitude of options for exterior facades; popular modern day choices include stone, cedar shakes, floor-to-ceiling windows and upcycled or salvaged wood.

Further to aesthetic design, the user-friendly appeal of a Quonset Hut is undeniable.

Unlike a traditional sloped or flat roof, a Quonset Hut’s roof curve helps to keep it free of debris build up and can withstand significant snow accumulation. Rain gutters are located near the ground level so there’s no need to climb a ladder to clean the eaves. The roof of DwellTech cottages, for example, are made of a painted Galvalume® (55% Aluminum-Zinc Alloy-Coated steel) which boasts superior long-term corrosion resistance of up to 60 years, according to an extensive research study conducted by the Metal Construction Association (MCA). The unprecedented durability and low maintenance of Quonset style cottages makes them especially well-suited to areas that can experience extreme weather and for use as seasonal homes that might not see year-round maintenance.

The Next Generation of Quonset

This time-tested, semi-cylindrical design has endured because of its unmatched practicality, ease of maintenance and versatility – and now, thanks to great design and innovations in building materials and practices, Quonsets are becoming an increasingly viable, modern housing choice for many. A Quonset Hut style cottage, dwelling, in-law suite or studio space is more attainable than you’ve ever imagined, and it all begins with a strong, simple design that’s been around for over 65 years.