What are the lessons from Bucky Fuller's Dymaxion House?

wichita house
via Time to build/ Houseplans.com

After World War II there a was a serious housing crisis in the USA, as thousands of young people returned home without much money or jobs and nowhere to live. It was also just after an industrial revolution where mass production techniques were refined to crank out vast volumes of planes, ships and weapons. Some designers, like Bucky Fuller, tried to apply those manufacturing technologies to the problem of housing.

On Houseplans blog Time To Build, Boyce Thompson looks at his Dymaxion House in some detail. It is an amazing and sad story; the house was actually a brilliant design.

Interior, Wichita House© Henry Ford museum/ Interior, Wichita House

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.”

The entire house hung from a central mast, so foundations were minimal; then the house could be bolted together in a day. It could also be taken apart and moved if the owners relocated. Thompson describes it:

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.

And why a round house?

Bucky explains in this video that we showed in a previous look at this house:

Why not? The only reason that houses have been rectangular all these years is that, that is all we could do with the materials we had. Now with modern materials and technology, we can apply to houses the same efficiency of engineering that we apply to suspension bridges and airplanes . . . . The whole thing is as modern as a streamlined plane.

In between his wonderful photos of the one remaining Dymaxion House at the Henry Ford Museum, Thompson describes why then, as is now, there was a 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.”

So why didn’t it catch on? Thompson lists a number of reasons, including lack of funds, Fuller’s stubbornness, internal squabbling. Thompson notes that “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.”

But considering that Thompson is writing for a Houseplans blog, I think it is interesting that he didn't list the single most important reason: It is the land that matters. The mortgages that fund it. The infrastructure that supports it. The zoning bylaws that regulate it. That’s why the Levitts of the era succeeded and the Fullers didn’t, and why to this day the the tiny home, the modern green prefab home, and even the build your own from a Houseplans.com plan home are niche products, and why so little has changed in 70 years.

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