When you think of pioneers of production home building, the Ryan brothers of Pittsburgh may not come to mind as quickly as William Levitt of Levittown fame or Kaufman and Broad, now KB Home. And they should. Ed, Jim, and Bill Ryan developed profitable, cost-effective building methods that many, if not most, production builders still use today. They also followed a philosophy of creating value for everyone in the home building chain, from vendors and subcontractors to buyers and builders.
Each brother followed slightly different trajectories. Ed, the engineer and mathematician, figured out how to estimate every aspect of a house. He used his expertise to make Ryan Homes one of the first successful production builders in the 1950s and 1960s. Jim, the motivator and marketer, shared developer Jim Rouse's vision of planned communities. He founded Ryland Homes to realize that vision. And, Bill put Ed's methods to work on his own terms when he started Crest Communities and later Williamsburg Homes in Cincinnati.
The Ryan brothers' mark on production building is every bit as influential as the better known pioneers of the industry. This is their story.
SQUARE ONE A child of the Great Depression, Ed Ryan came home to Pittsburgh from World War II—he was an Air Force navigator and prisoner of war—and followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a builder. His timing was perfect.
“At the end of World War II, there was a confluence of circumstances that had never existed before,” says Ned Eichler, an industry consultant. “There was very little home building in the 1930s and none during the war. [But afterwards,] lots of young soldiers came home. The GI Bill [allowed] working class people buy homes with a little down payment. Highway development made it possible to build homes outside major metropolitan areas. There was a feeling that growth was good, so expansion into the suburbs was seen as a positive.”
Young soldiers returning home—the first- and second-time home buyers—were the target market for Ryan. “Ed had three goals,” says Jay Buchert, a former employee of Bill Ryan's Crest Communities and the founder of American Heritage Properties. “He wanted to become the largest builder in Pittsburgh, provide homes at the best price to young families and make a profit doing it.” Buchert says the homes Ed built were great values and buyers built equity in them very quickly.
According to his brother Bill, Ed had another goal, too. “His motto was to do the most amount of good for the most amount of people, including customers, employees, and shareholders.”
What made Ryan Homes one of the biggest and most profitable home builders of the 1950s and 1960s were the construction methods Ed developed. They were so efficient and profitable that Ed earned a reputation as a genius in construction.
“One of the new things Ed did was to take a contract on a home, that is, he sold it at a fixed price before he built it,” Bill says. “With Ed's method, we could borrow on a line of credit from a bank.” This is standard today, but at that time, a builder typically completed a house, figured out how much it cost him, and then sold it. For that sequence, banks offered only construction loans. “On a construction loan, you'd build to a certain point, then the bank would send out an inspector to see if the house was really at that stage,” Bill says. “It involved lots of paperwork, delays, and fees.