Being both a mechanical engineer and industrial designer, I am always on the lookout for products that push the theoretical boundaries of technology and challenge the status quo. Some designs might not be massively popular or even go into production, but they serve as inspiration for how to apply new technology in innovative, sometimes unintended ways. These objects change the way other designers look at the world. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House at The Henry Ford demonstrates a new way of designing a shelter, and while it was never produced on a mass scale it challenged the way other designers and architects viewed technology, manufacturing, and design.
R. Buckminster Fuller was a philosopher, inventor, and designer born in Milton, Massachusetts on July 12, 1895. “Bucky” Fuller, as he was commonly known, wanted to make the world work better for all of humanity. He is best known as the inventor of the geodesic dome, of which over 300,000 have been constructed worldwide. Throughout his career, he stressed responsible conservation of the earth’s resources, and emphasized technological efficiency by creating objects that do more with less. His impact on the world is found in his continued influence upon generations of designers, architects, scientists and artists working to create a more sustainable planet.
Bucky started thinking about the Dymaxion House concept in 1927. At the time, the aircraft industry was developing new technologies that created strong, lightweight structures and materials. In this same era, traditional buildings depended on compression on their walls to support the roof. Bucky found this paradox absurd. He knew that modern technology had developed tensile materials which are many times stronger in relation to their weight than compression materials. If Bucky could develop a house that was designed to use a tension structure he could reduce weight, use fewer materials, and therefore reduce the cost. In the end, Bucky saw this design as a mass-produced house that could potentially solve the world’s shelter problems.
After World War II, Fuller decided that the time was right to produce the Dymaxion House. He convinced Beech Aircraft of Wichita, Kansas to work with him since the materials used in the house were very similar to those used in aircraft and after the war the aircraft factory would have extra capacity. In 1945 he introduced the Wichita House, which was an updated version of the Dymaxion House. Bucky had a hard time compromising on his design, and the house never made it to full production. Only two prototypes of the house were ever produced.
The Dymaxion House carried Corbusier’s “machine-for-living” concept to the next level. The house was designed to be mass-produced, affordable, easily built on site, air-delivered and environmentally efficient. The living space was suspended using tensile materials from a central mast. This reduced the home’s footprint to a pillar in the ground, and the area under the living space could be landscaped. Structure similar to the spokes of a bicycle wheel hung down from the mast to suspend the domed roof, and beams radiated out to support the floor. Since they were not load-bearing, the outer walls were made of glass with sliding panels to allow for continuous, natural air-conditioning through the central mast. The house was designed to be easily movable and independent of its location so if the homeowner decided to move, the entire thing could be picked up and re-planted anywhere.
Fuller made many design decisions for the house that affected both its form and function. At 1,017 square feet, and with two bedrooms the Dymaxion House was designed for single families of no more than four people. In addition to the bedrooms, the house features a foyer, living room, dining room, kitchen, kitchen storage, a Dymaxion modular bathroom, stainless steel fireplace, O-Volving shelves, and revolving shoe and clothes racks. It was supposed to cost about $6,500 in 1946 which was about the cost of a luxury automobile.
The exterior of the house was made out of aluminum because Bucky wanted to use this relatively new material for its strength and low weight. It was ideal for a mass-produced, transportable, easily disassembled house that could withstand strong storms such as tornados. Aluminum was also already familiar to aircraft manufacturers whom Bucky saw as likely partners in the production of the houses after the war. The round shape of the house reduces the amount of materials needed while maintaining strength.
Critics of the Dymaxion House point out that its design is inflexible and it completely disregards the site upon which it is built. A more customizable design would make it a true home for the masses because each family could choose the elements that are important to them instead of settling on one design for all. In addition, Fuller’s choice of energy-intensive materials like aluminum apparently disregards his desire to create an environmentally sensitive housing solution. However, Fuller chose aluminum for its low weight, strength, and durability – all factors that over the lifetime of the product would compensate for its initial cost.
Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House is an example of how technology and engineering can inform a design and help to create a concept that challenges the status quo. He questioned how houses were traditionally constructed and he applied new technology to help solve problems he saw in their manufacture, structure and assembly. It’s a great example of an object that challenges future designers to continually stretch boundaries.