Forget Geodesic Domes, Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House Was His Masterpiece
Arguably the first Space Age designer, Buckminster Fuller imagined shining, aluminum, assembly line-produced suburbs.
In 1920, architect, inventor, and theorist Buckminster Fuller set his sights on designing a sustainable and inexpensive dwelling. Determined to eschew middle-class waste, Fuller incorporated a number of inventive (though not altogether practical) features into his pods, including a compost-based methane heating system, a wind power generator, and a recirculating greywater plumbing system. To keep the expense of the project down, Fuller went modular. His hope was that he could create something altogether new: an assembly line home.
The first iteration of the house more or less resembled a metal circus tent: The outer walls were non-load bearing and hung by cables from a central mast anchored deep into the ground. The living area itself was suspended, which Fuller declared would protect the inhabitants from the effects of “fire, flood, tornado, earthquake, electrical storms” and, to witness the promotional video, a roving bands of marauders.
By the time the first prototype was built, Fuller had managed to streamline the design, making the “Dymaxion” more stable, yet reducing the overall weight. The 1929 version weighed a total of 6000 lbs and provided over 1600 square feet of living space. The interchangeable triangular panels that were used to construct the roof, floor, and walls, every single piece of the kit — aside from the central mast — were light enough for a single man to carry (albeit not easily).
Not only did this mean the Dymaxion could be easily shipped across country, it meant it could be built quickly. A crew was needed to dig the hole, sink the mast, and raise the frame, but after that, the rest of the house could be completed by a two person team in less than a day. The modular design meant that the interiors were incredibly customizable; with all of the utilities built into the mast, the homeowners were free to transform the interior living space to suit their needs on the fly. In-laws coming in for a weekend? Simply throw up a few extra wall panels and voila! You’ve turned half of the den into a full fledged guestroom.
As his designs evolved, Fuller really began to throw his back into making the Dymaxion as self-sufficient as possible. Wind turbines were added to the roof, septic tanks were incorporated into the bottom of the central mast, and a composting system was added to turn waste into methane gas fuel. With the addition of a network of vents and a more classic dome-like roof, a vertical vortex was created that could suck cooler air into the living quarters that allowed for a manual climate control system.
Fuller wouldn’t be content until his houses could produce their own power, dispose of their own waste, and provide the same level of comfort, regardless of geographic location. And though it may sound like Fuller skewed a bit towards the survivalist side of things, the Dymaxion wouldn’t be short on the luxuries. Later models came with rooftop gardens, observatory decks, automatic washer and dryer units, ambient neon lighting kits, and even optional elevators.
Unfortunately, between the Great Depression and the outbreak of the Second World War, the world wasn’t ready for Fuller’s ground-breaking domicile. People lacked the money to invest in new homes no matter how inexpensive, and the outbreak of war saw the price of aluminum (the only material at the time light and flexible enough to construct the houses) increase tenfold. Yet Fuller, ever the visionary, knew that war would create demand for his cheap, mass produced housing. He started to work on a design for a much more simplified, temporary shelter that still incorporated his most innovative ideas.
In 1940, he began work on his Dymaxion Deployment Unit. Though not raised off the ground like the Dymaxion house, the round DDU’s were short, squat units, similar to a miniature grain silo, but still had a central mast from which the walls were suspended. Instead of aluminum, the DDU’s were built with galvanized corrugated iron, the same materials used by the aircraft industry. Just as importantly, the DDU’s designed to be manufactured in the same plants pushing out fighter planes and bombers. Upon seeing a prototype, the U.S. Air Force immediately ordered 2000, and the British War Relief Society began to order units to be shipped overseas as emergency housing (though the DDU’s proved to be capable bomb shelters).
With the war coming to an end, the U.S. was facing a serious housing crisis. Fuller was commissioned to design permanent, single-family dwellings. These new houses needed to be constructed cheaply (a few dollars per square foot), quickly, and most importantly needed to be light enough to be shipped across the country en masse by airplane.
By all accounts, Fuller’s Wichita House prototype was the perfect synthesis of his three decades of design. It incorporated many of the safety and sustainability features of the original Dymaxion House, yet retained the simplicity and convenience of the Dymaxion Dwelling. Weighing in at a total of 3000 pounds (less than half of the original Dymaxion House) the 1200 square foot Wichita House came with two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, two Dymaxion bathrooms, laundry unit, and even a conveyor belt storage system.
This time around, no single piece of the house weighed more than 10 pounds, and the kit could be completely constructed in half a day, though it was reported that one man was able to build a prototype by himself in less than 24 hours. For a total price of just under $6500 including shipping, Fuller’s Wichita House seemed like a surefire success. Upon seeing the prototype in 1946, Forbes magazine proclaimed “the ‘dwelling machine’ was likely to produce greater social consequences than the introduction of the automobile.”
Though pre-orders for the new “smart dwellings” began rolling in site unseen, only two of the models were ever built. Investors threatened to pull funding and competitors began to flood the market with cheaper mass-produced home kits. More thinker than capitalist, Fuller refused to sign off on a final production version. Always seeking improvement and innovation to the point of stalling the project completely, the persnickety inventor dealt his own dream a mortal blow.
Yet while Fuller would eventually go on to find critical and commercial success for his geodesic dome, his Dymaxion Houses still may prove to be his greatest creation. At a time where there is a global housing crisis, many of the world’s greatest minds have brainstormed to find a way to have mass produced homes that are inexpensive, portable, and sustainable. Given the past 70 years of improvements in technology and materials, perhaps the world is finally ready for Buckminster Fuller’s retro-future architecture.