Sunday, August 28, 2016

Earl W. Smith (1908-2000): Developed "Flat Top" home; Influenced Eichler

Earl W. Smith
Earl W. Smith's was a pioneer in the construction of affordable housing, who is best remembered for designing and building the "Flat Top" home. He developed the home in 1947 in order to open the door to home ownership to thousands of post World War II Californians. The key to the design was a flat topped home built atop a concrete slab.

The home was so popular that it appeared in the September 10, 1951 issue of LIFE magazine in a feature on the "Best Houses under $15,000." After  World War II, building supplies were scarce and President Harry Truman had signed a bill easing down-payment requirements. Smith seized on the opportunity building over 2,000 homes a year that ranged in price from $6,795 for a two-bedroom home to $8,250 for a deluxe three-bedroom home with 1,300 square feet of living space. Smith estimated that the flat top roof saved him about 4% on building costs.

Part of the feature on Earl Smith that appeared in the September 10, 1951 issue of LIFE
Smith was dubbed "Flat Top" after the popularity of his homes took off. Many of the homes were built in El Cerrito, El Sobrante and Richmond, California. His design had a great influence on both two noted builders of homes,  California’s Joseph Eichler and Kansas City's Donald Drummond.  Eichler closely studied the construction techniques of Smith, particularly the poured concrete floors  and flat roofs and modeled his earliest housing development, the 104-unit Sunnyvale Manor, on Smith's designs.

Smith eventually switched to building California's first zero-lot line homes in the 1960s. These also allowed him to cut costs by building the more tradition-style home but with low-pitched roofs and "compact" lot placement allowing families to buy into the "American Dream."

In the early 1940's, Smith was one of the founding members of the Association of Home Builders of the Greater East Bay. This group represented home builders in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, and soon joined six other associations in the state to form the then Home Builders Council of California. He became its President in 1948.

In 1955, "Flat Top" was elected President of the National Association of Home Builders. As President, he brought about the first official "people to people" exchange with representatives of the Soviet Ministry of Construction and the heralded "Homes for Korea" program. In later years, he also helped establish an improved housing industry for the country of Equador.

​In 1978, Mr. Smith was inducted into the National Housing Hall of Fame. He was honored by the National Association of Home Builders Research Institute for promoting "improved building techniques, more economical construction methods, and fundamental improvements in the standard of American housing."

Smith was also a Regent of St. Mary's College in Moraga, where he also served as a guest lecturer in the Graduate School of Business.

Sources: "El Sobrante’s Canyon Park Neighborhood – The “Flat-top” Smith Legacy" by Maurice Abraham, El Sobrante Historical Society, California Homebuilding Foundation, LIFE magazine, Eichler: Modernism Rebuilds the American Dream by Paul Adamson

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