The House That Carl Built The 1940s home of the future outlasted its manufacturer.
By Paul Lukas

(FORTUNE Small Business) – The most obvious gauge of a business idea is simply whether it succeeds. But it's worth remembering that success is an elastic concept. For proof, consider Carl Strandlund, an engineer who almost reshaped American housing.

Strandlund's story begins in 1946, when he was working for a firm that manufactured porcelain-enameled steel panels (the stuff used for stoves and other appliances). Commercial steel use was federally controlled at the time, so Strandlund went to Washington to pitch his company's latest project, which involved building gas stations. But the government wasn't interested in allocating steel for gas stations; with countless GIs returning home from the war, Washington was worried about a housing crunch.

Strandlund saw an opportunity and soon proposed the Lustron, a two-bedroom ranch house made entirely from porcelainized steel. His all-metal Lustron would be built from about 3,000 parts, which would be mass-produced, shipped to housing lots, and erected on concrete-slab foundations. When Strandlund told federal officials he could produce 100 Lustrons a day, they were so impressed that they set him up with $37 million in government loans and an Ohio production plant.

It's easy to see why Washington found Lustrons so appealing--or why anyone would. The homes were termite-, rust-, and fire-proof, never needed to be repainted, reshingled, or reroofed, and could be cleaned simply by hosing them down. With their range of baked-on decorator color options (aqua, pink, canary, and so forth), Lustrons also had an attractive pop-modernist factor, and they featured clever design touches like sliding pocket doors, abundant built-in shelving, and an ingenious radiant heating system. Women liked the combination dishwasher-clothes washer, and everyone liked the $7,000 price tag.

Most enticing, perhaps, was the method of producing the Lustrons. With World War II having just reaffirmed America's factory-driven industrial supremacy, the notion of a mass-produced home must have seemed magnificently contemporary. As Strandlund's slogan put it, Lustrons were "A new standard for living." And given the explosion of assembly-line suburban culture that soon followed--fast food, strip malls, Hula-Hoops--his timing seemed perfect.

But there were problems. Although demand was high, production was trickier than Strandlund had anticipated. Instead of turning out 100 Lustrons a day--or even the 50 a day needed to break even--he had a daily high of 26. As buyers faced increasing delays, Strandlund's Washington advocates grew antsy. In 1950, with back orders piling up, they abruptly foreclosed on his loans. The Lustron experiment was over.

Strandlund died, bitter and broke, in 1974. Lustrons, however, live on--about 2,500 were built, and most remain intact, their porcelain exteriors still gleaming. Given their initial popularity and evident durability, they probably would have become a significant chapter in American architectural history, instead of a dusty footnote, if the venture had run for just a few more years. But now attention is finally being paid: Fifty Lustrons have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and a Lustron book is due this winter. Think of it as posthumous validation of Strandlund's vision and a potent reminder that true success can be measured only over the long term.