Service men and women had returned from overseas. Young
adults were doubling up with their parents, unable to find decent-paying jobs. Traditional
homes remained beyond the financial reach of many. In the midst of a severe
housing crisis, the nation looked to factory-produced housing as a solution. Sound familiar? The scenario almost describes current
housing conditions, given the thousands of veterans returning from the Middle
East, debt-ridden young adults living with their parents, and the country’s
fascination with modular housing. Instead, this was the housing condition the United
States faced after World War II.
Inventor/designer/futurist Buckminster Fuller (the much later geodesic dome was his idea) proposed a solution – his 1,017-square-foot
Dymaxion house, built from leftover airplane parts. Fuller invented the name by combining parts of the words dynamic, maximum, and tension.
The modular, easy-to-clean,
portable homes could be assembled in two days. They would function in the
coldest and the hottest climates, relying on processes found in nature. They
sold for only $6,500, including shipping. More than 3,000 people made the journey to the Beech
Aircraft factory in Wichita, Kansas to sneak a peak. The Dymaxion home capitalized
on wartime research that had advanced the technology of Lucite and Plexiglas,
aluminum and other metal alloys, and plywood. Forbes
magazine declared that the
dwelling machine was likely “to produce greater social consequences than the
introduction of the automobile.”
Flash forward 70 years and only one Dymaxion house remains –
at the Henry Ford Museum
in Suburban Detroit. The house was pieced together
from the parts of two prototypes. It took the museum’s engineers more than a
year, using the original drawings, to reconstruct the house in the way the
architect/inventor initially intended. It’s as though a spaceship from the past
has landed to chart the future. Fuller, who had been developing prototypes of the dwelling
machine for 15 years, designed an inexpensive, sustainable house with no wasted
space. Homes could be shipped in pieces weighing no more than 10 pounds that homeowners
could bolt together on site in a couple of days. Backers estimated that the
Wichita plant could produce a quarter million homes a year, using the same
labor that had built planes.
A central stainless-steel mast, anchored by a small
foundation, facilitated the revolutionary shape.
Spokes spread out from the top
of the mast to hold up the roof, and beams radiated out to support the floor. Homebuyers
would need a crew to dig a hole, sink the mast, and raise the frame. But then a
two-person team could bolt the house together within a day. The beauty of the
approach was that the homes could be disassembled and moved to the next
location where owners wanted to live, saving material that would otherwise be
consumed for a second house. The design is sustainable, to say the least. It features a
natural ventilation system. The dome shape induces a vortex that sucks cooler
air downward, if the dome is vented properly – with a single overhead vent and
vents along the periphery. A rooftop ventilator changes the air every six
minutes, drawing air through screened walls.
The home anticipated the country’s evolving fascination with
factory-built housing. “Prefabrication may be the answer to churning out the
millions of homes our country needs,” intones the narrator of a jumpy newsreel
produced at the time. “Produced in factories, where the weather is never a
problem, trucked to their location, and assembled in a speedy and efficient
manner, these dwellings are helping to fill the housing gap.” The circular form of the home allowed Americans to live more cheaply and efficiently, according to marketing material produced at the
time. Living in a round house, it read, is “the smart thing to do.” A dome
shape provides more interior space and allows air to flow unrestricted through
The aerodynamic design also results in less heat loss. Utilities, bundled around the mast, supported built-in
plumbing, heating, and air conditioning. Locating utilities near the central
stack meant that interior walls
could be easily moved to customize spaces. The floor plan consisted of a combined living and dining room anchored by a metal
fireplace, two bedrooms, two baths, and a kitchen. Guests coming for the
weekend? No problem. Adding extra wall panels could quickly convert half the
living room into a guest room.
The home included many other modern conveniences. Fuller designed
a “dust-free” hat rack by the door.
Space-saving carousel shelving worked in
lieu of dressers and closets for storage of clothes and linens. Coats and shoes were stored in automated revolving closets.
A sleek, “all-in-one” kitchen
included built-in appliances.
A two-piece modular bathroom module with circular fixtures made
for easy cleaning – and water savings. The bathroom included a composting
toilet and a fogger that used compressed air to emit small water particles for
showers. The home included a greywater system as well. Roof joints channeled
rainwater to an internal gutter and drain. Water was routed to a cistern in the
basement then used to water the lawn and garden.
Despite great interest – more than 3,700 families wanted more
information -- the house never went into official production. Backers couldn’t
raise the $10 million needed to seed the venture. Asked to simplify the design
to lower costs, Fuller refused, creating an impasse that eventually led him to
leave the company. Only two models were ever built. A video next to the museum exhibit notes that while
executives at Fuller Homes squabbled, other developers got 1.2 million more conventional
houses underway in 1946. Most of these homes – Cape Cods, Ranches, and
Colonials – paid little attention to the social, environmental, and building
issues addressed by the Dymaxion house. Tradition ultimately prevailed.
Boyce Thompson is the former Editorial Director of Builder
Magazine and the author of The New New Home.