The Dymoxion House is an extraordinary dwelling designed to be the strongest, lightest and most cost-effective housing ever built around 1946. The remaining prototype is located in the Henry Ford museum across Ford Conference center in Dearborn , Michigan . The visionary and spiritually fulfilling architecture of R. Buckminster Fuller takes us thought “the house of the future.”
Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House plan uses prefabricated parts designed for easy shipment and assembly into modest-sized, single-family homes; though beyond that, the similarities dissolve. The Dymaxion House was round with a domed roof; the entire structure was suspended from a central mast anchored to a foundation. Cables spread from the central mast at the floor and ceiling levels like bicycle spokes supporting the building’s weight with tensile force rather than gravity. The exterior was clad in aluminum sheeting and never needed painting, like a durable silver onion.
At 1,100 square feet, the house was lighter, stronger, faster to assemble, and less expensive to manufacture or to own than a comparable conventional house. Fuller’s house weighed 3,000 pounds, 1/100th the weight of an ordinary house, and less than a mid-sized car. Structurally it was sound enough to withstand earthquakes or tornados that would level a normal house. Delivered in its own metal tube, it could be assembled in one day by six workers. Theoretically, it could also be disassembled, repacked, moved and reassembled, though in practice the process would have been inconvenient. The Dymaxion House was marketed for around the price of a luxury car—half the cost of a basic house.
The round shape maximized interior space with a minimal amount of material. The floor plan included a living/dining room, kitchen, and two bedrooms with private baths. Energy- and water-efficient features included expansive windows for passive solar heating, a ventilation system for passive air conditioning, a gray-water system to reuse wastewater, a waterless “packaging toilet,” and a low-water “fogger” to replace the shower.
Fuller’s first drawings for the Dymaxion House appeared in his 1928 self-published manifesto 4D Time Lock. It was a speculative work of science, engineering, and spirituality that proposed reforms to what Fuller saw as the destructive inefficacies of modern industrial civilization.
At the most prosaic level, 4D is a proposal for a new type of small house that Fuller earnestly hoped would be embraced by the building trades, the financial industry, and the architectural profession… 4D is not really about houses, however; it is a spiritual meditation on time, the supramaterial fourth dimension of experience and the true measure of industrial society.
Fuller sent his manifesto to leading scientists, planners, and industrialists of the day, hoping to find support for enacting his reforms on a large scale. At the time, he had little recognition within the architectural community. In fact, the AIA released a statement in 1928 that it was “inherently opposed to any peas-in-a-pod-like reproducible designs.”
Fuller would later claim that the statement was in direct response to the 4D house proposal. Whether that’s true isn’t certain, but it’s clear that Fuller’s plan broke with contemporary architectural dialects. In fact, prominent architects like Mies van der Rohe and Corbusier were already making extensive use of standardized industrial elements, but Fuller’s house plan went further in leaving behind familiar aesthetics of residential design. His vision was closer to the production of an automobile or an airplane than a durable building.
Corbusier wanted to make a “machine for living in” by using machine processes to achieve aesthetic results that would please the inhabitant. Fuller wanted a “machine for living,” a house that would function like a machine to improve the quality of the life of its inhabitants. (2)
The Dymaxion House first came to public attention through a display at Chicago’s Marshall Field Department Store in 1929. A public relations agent working on the display came up with the term “dymaxion,” combining syllables from dynamic, maximum, and tension, some of Fuller’s favorite words for the project. Fuller embraced the term and applied it to numerous projects throughout his career.
From the beginning, Fuller had wanted to put the Dymaxion House into mass production. But whatever interest the 4D manifesto or the Marshall Field display generated, it wasn’t until after World War II that he made progress towards manufacturing. Fuller saw the country’s military aircraft plants, facing slowdowns and shutdowns with the end of the war, as ideal facilities for manufacturing the aluminum Dymaxion House. He found interested investors and entered into a deal with Beech Aircraft to manufacture 250,000 houses per year. The house received attention in the press, and over 3,500 buyers placed orders by 1946.
Nonetheless, Fuller’s engineering acumen, visionary zeal, and big-picture efficiency weren’t enough to bring the house to the assembly line. Plans with Beech broke down over design and manufacturing details and the house never went into production. Maybe Fuller, for all his empiricism, wasn’t willing to compromise his vision for the technical production requirements. Maybe the house wasn’t really workable on an industrial scale. In any event, only two prototype Dymaxion houses were ever made. No one ever lived in the Dymaxion House as Fuller had envisioned it. The prototypes were eventually bought by one of the investors, who erected one as an addition to his family’s ranch style summer house, and kept the other one disassembled to use for replacement materials.
The family used the house until the 1970s, and eventually donated it to the Henry Ford Museum in 1991. The Dymaxion House was painstakingly restored and has been on display at the museum since 2001, gleaming like a modern, industrial Faberge egg.
This final enshrinement at least dovetails with Fuller’s own ambition: he considered Ford’s assembly-line innovations to be one of the great achievements of the 20th century, and had included Ford on the short list of original recipients of the 4D Time Lock manifesto.