In October 2016, with my grandson James, I visited the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. To my surprise, tucked away in one corner of the museum, was a large aluminum structure shaped like a Hersey’s kiss. To my surprise it was a house designed by renowned inventor and architect Buckminster Fuller.
The Dymaxion House was developed by Fuller to address several perceived shortcomings with existing home-building techniques. Through the years, he designed several versions of the house—all of them factory-manufactured kits, constructed to be assembled on site. The “final” design of the Dymaxion house could be shipped in reusable stainless steel shipping tubes that could be transported by a truck to any part of the country. It could then be assembled in two days by a crew of six. The total cost, including site and assembly labor, was estimated to be approximately $6,500, about equivalent to the price of a Cadillac.
The Dymaxion house was equipped with a variety of innovations, particularly in the bathroom which was designed to have a “fog gun” water vapor shower that used only a cup of water for a soapless, hygienic clean. And a waterless toilet that separated the liquid and solid, and deftly shrink-wrapped the solids for later composting.
Near the end of World War II, the Foreign Economic Administration expressed interest in retooling the aircraft industry for the manufacture of prefabricated homes. War-expanded aircraft plants all around the country were worrying about a huge cut in work. The mass production of the Dymaxion House seemed like an appropriate solution to keep those plants in business. The manufacture of parts, such as the curved aluminum panels for the house, would have been easy to combine with the metal-working techniques already used to produce the curved surface of airplane fuselage during the war.
Criticisms of the Dymaxion Houses include its supposed inflexible design which completely disregarded local site and architectural idiom, and its use of energy-intensive materials such as aluminum, rather than low-energy materials, such as adobe or tile. Fuller chose aluminium for its light weight, great strength, and long-term durability, arguably factors that compensate for the initial production cost. Aluminum was also a logical choice if the homes were to be built in aircraft factories, which, since World War II had ended, had substantial excess capacity.
The Dymaxion house challenged the notion of a residence by converting the ideas of a traditional house into the most technologically advanced house of Fuller’s time. Not only did the Dymaxion house incorporate the newest state-of-the-art materials, it also embodied the ideals of a comfortable, efficient, and affordable home. According to Fortune magazine, the ‘dwelling machine’ was likely to produce greater social consequences than the introduction of the automobile (April 1946). Unfortunately the business venture collapsed before any of it was realized.
Perhaps because Fuller was such a perfectionist, no Dymaxion houses were ever installed. However, William Graham, a stockholder in Fuller’s company, combined parts from two prototypes to construct his own two-story house, commonly referred to as the Wichita House. Several alterations and additions were made to the house between 1948 and 1970. Few if any met with Fuller’s approval. Wichita House was eventually disassembled and shipped to the Henry Ford Museum. It was reconstructed (as per a 1946 prototype design) inside the museum. Since Fuller never completed the designs for a “final” prototype and Graham never completely followed Fuller’s incomplete designs, the reconstruction was built as closely as possible to Fuller’s original intentions. On October 24, 2001, reconstruction of house inside the museum was completed.
As he did when naming many of his inventions, Fuller named the house using a portmanteau of the words: dynamic, maximum, and tension.