Flashback: Rediscovering a Dwelling Machine


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Welcome to the second installment of our Flashback series that revisits past articles featured in the Docomomo Journal. 
This issue highlights an article on prefabrication by James Ashby titled "Re-discovering a dwelling machine: Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House (1928-45)" first published in the Docomomo Journal No. 22 - May 2000: Modern Houses.
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by James Ashby and Clara Deck
Since the article was published in 2000, the conservation and restoration of the Dymaxion House was completed. The entire three-year conservation process was documented with weekly blog entries as a Conservator's Journal. The museum exhibit opened to the public in October 2001. In 2002, the as-built Dymaxion House was recorded for the Historic American Buildings Survey by Alexander Titenkov, ICOMOS-US, Georgia. The original drawings are held at the Library of Congress, and digital versions may be consulted on-line.
The house, a very popular exhibit, receives approximately 300,000 visitors a year. Tours of the interior are limited to 15 people at a time. However in 2012, a routine inspection identified fatigue cracking in many of the aluminum beams. The cause of the damage was a fundamental design flaw; Fuller evidently did not understand that aluminum has no fatigue limit and that cyclic loading might eventually result in structural failure. The goal of any required intervention was to respect the character-defining structural principle of a mast-hung floor deck. A repair program was initiated to patch the beams. Following the intervention, material stress analysis confirmed that the repairs were successful, based on current visitor loads.  

Re-discovering a dwelling machine
Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House ( 1928·45)
by James Ashby
A product of rigorous adherence to scientific and engineering criteria, the architectural image of Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House was startlingly fresh. Although Fuller's vision of an affordable, mass-produced home was never realized, the Dymaxion House is no doubt the most important prefabricated house design of the 20th Century. In 1992, the only remaining prototype was dismantled in less than two weeks and shipped to the Henry Ford Museum near Detroit. The planned reconstruction of the house, that was designed to be disassembled and re-assembled, challenges conservation orthodoxy.
In October of 1998, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan embarked upon a project to conserve and restore the only surviving prototype of Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House. In 1945, the architectural image of the Dymaxion House was startlingly fresh. Its image was not the result of a search for a new style, but rather it was o product of rigorous adherence to scientific and engineering criteria. The house incorporated contemporary materials (not typically associated with residential construction) to achieve a single family dwelling that was easily transported, easily erected, resistant to weather, comfortable, and easy to maintain. In recent years, the house was described as ' ... the most important prefabricated house design of the 20th Century, and certainly the greatest lost opportunity of the years of post-war building recovery.' 1
Unlike other experiments in prefabricated or mass-produced housing, the building materials were incorporated in entirely new assemblies and systems: a mast-hung 'double wirewheel' structure, and a passive ventilation system reliant upon the building's aerodynamic shape. It was named Dymaxion for its properties: dynamic, maximum, and tension. Two prototypes were fabricated in the Beech Aircraft plant and constructed in Kansas. Although Fuller Houses Inc. planned to produce millions of homes and ship them world-wide, the business collapsed and Fuller's vision was never realized.
Intensive archival research and an analysis of the house components have occurred as the first phase in the current conservation and restoration project. This investigation has offered an opportunity to further understand this heroic yet diminutive building.
R. Buckminster Fuller
The Dymaxion House achieves significance, in part, because of its authorship. The house represents almost two decades of work in the early career of renowned 20th Century innovator R. Buckminster Fuller. He went on to be awarded twenty-five U.S. patents, to author twenty-eight books, and to receive forty-seven honorary doctorates in the arts, sciences, and humanities. Initially dismissed by the architectural community, many years later Fuller received major awards including the American Institute of Architects' Gold Medal and the Royal Institute of British Architects' Gold Medal.
The Dymaxion House is considered a significant and characteristic work of Fuller. The house has been described 'as unconventional and irrepressible as its illustrious inventor.' 2 The house is also considered important in his development of tensile structures. In the decade that followed the Dymaxion House, Buckminster Fuller patented the geodesic dome. This triangulated space-enclosing technology was to become his most important and most commercially successful invention.
The 4D House
The story of the Dymaxion begins almost two decades prior to its construction. In 1927, following a period of professional and personal setbacks, Buckminster Fuller suffered a crisis. He endured a self-imposed year of silence, the result of which was clarity for the direction in his life, and a focus for his considerable energy. Fuller's concepts for the search for universal principles to achieve an improvement to the human condition were published in his first book, '4D Time Lock'. In it, he speculated that the application of scientific methods and industrial processes to the design and construction of a house would be a benefit to humanity. Initially he developed a design for the 4D Lightful Tower. Its basic structural principle was that of tension, suspending the building from a central mast. He drew inspiration from the structures of umbrellas, radio antennae, lighthouses, and airship mooring masts. He scaled the project to a single - family home and sought patent protection in 1928. Public presentations followed, including one in Chicago in 1929, when words favoured by Fuller (dynamic, maximum, tension) were combined to create the name 'Dymaxion'.
Fuller's research at the Foreign Economic Administration in the 1940's revealed that the wartime aircraft industry was interested in retooling their operations for peacetime manufacture of prefabricated housing. Beech Aircraft in Wichita, Kansas, sought to keep their workers, many of whom anticipated layoffs with the end of the war approaching. Dymaxion Dwelling Machines Inc. was established in October 1944, as 'an organization to be managed and directed by labor, capital, and science to their collective profit, for advancement of the standard of living in a democratic society ....' 3
The first complete prototype was constructed within Beech Aircraft's Borwise St. factory, and was unveiled at a private preview in October of 1945. By March of 1946, a second prototype was erected out-of-doors at a site that was codenamed 'Danbury'. It was tested for resistance to wind, heat, and structural loads. 4
The Wichita House was constructed by William Graham in 1948 on a lakeside property near Andover, Kansas. All illustrations: collection Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village
A cross-section of the Wichita House showing the variation from Fuller's original design. Drawing: Jeffrey Bourke Architect for Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village.                                                                         
Price of a Cadillac
As constructed by Fuller Houses Inc., the lightweight building was essentially a cylinder with a domed roof enclosing a single volume. The building was thirty-six feet in diameter, twenty-two feet high, and just over one thousand square feet in area. The structure was suspended from a central column (or most), and its steel rods formed a frame (or cage) that was braced to the ground at the perimeter at twelve locations. A floor (or deck) was suspended between the mast and the perimeter cage, several feet above grade. The structure was sheathed in unfinished aluminum sheets (or skin). A series of plastic panels formed on almost continuous ribbon window around the perimeter of the building. At the top, a wide aerodynamic sheet metal ventilator (or head) sat on the mast and was designed to rotate or lift depending on weather conditions. Building services (mechanical and electrical) were clustered around the central most. Freestanding storage closets and bathrooms acted as room dividers that partitioned the space. They were also designed to contain kitchen and laundry equipment. Narrow exterior stairs ascended to each of the two doors at 'front' and 'back'.
The building was designed to facilitate transport, erection, and dismantling. The majority of the components weigh less than ten pounds each. The fabrication of the components was adopted from aircraft manufacturing techniques. The construction occurred primarily at grade, and the building was hoisted upwards as it was completed. The designers claimed o crew would erect a house in two days.
In April of 1946, an illustrated story on the 'Fuller House' appeared in Life magazine. Estimates in Fortune magazine for production were 250,000 dwellings to be manufactured annually in Wichita. The cost was to be US$ 6,500, or about the price of a Codillac.5
The Wichita House
With the pending lift on the government bon on wood utilized for housing, Fuller was under pressure from his business associates to finalize the design and commence production. Fuller Houses Inc. had received 3,500 unsolicited orders, some with checks enclosed.'6
Fuller had spent almost twenty years developing the Dymaxion, and he believed he needed nine more months to complete the design before it was ready for moss production. However, Fuller was unwilling to compromise and he resigned as Chairman of the Board and Chief Engineer on March 25, 1946.7 As the business slowly collapsed, the two prototypes and additional ports were token by stockholder William Graham, 'an agreeably eccentric oil and real estate man'.8 The Wichita House, as it has come to be known, was constructed on a 600 acre property near Andover, Kansas in the spring of 1948. The house was built on a waterfront site with a full basement. Buckminster Fuller visited the house, and did not approve of the form that the house took under Graham's ownership. Fuller later remarked, 'His architectural additions forever grounded this aeroplane.’9
The Wichita House was disassembled in May 1992 by Jay Baldwin, and a small team of Museum staff and volunteers.
A conservation technician sorts and examines roof purlins, named 'carlins', in the Dymaxion Conservation Laboratory.
Further alterations and additions were made over the years, some incorporating spare Dymaxion parts. The Graham's raised their children there, and left the house in the 1970's. By the late 1980's the house had fallen into disrepair and had been inhabited by raccoons.
In 1991, the Graham family (the adult children of William Graham) donated the Dymoxion House to the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village. The unusual house was a controversial acquisition, and was among the first major artifacts collected as the museum committed to a new mission, to provide 'unique educational experiences based on authentic objects, stories, and lives from America's traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and innovation.' In 1992 the house was disassembled in less than two weeks and shipped to the Henry Ford Museum in the metropolitan Detroit area. The house components were shipped inside one container on a transport truck. At the museum all of the components were labeled and initial research was executed. In November of 1998 the house components were moved to on offsite conservation laboratory for the further analysis and treatment. The house will be erected inside the Museum with on opening in 2001.
Conservation and restoration
Just as the Dymoxion House challenged the notion of 'home' in the 1940s, its conservation and restoration challenges conservation orthodoxy. Historic preservation charters and standards would suggest that integrity is compromised once a building has been disassembled. However, Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House was intended to be disassembled and re-assembled. This may suggest that its integrity is not as compromised as one might initially assume. The issue of context is another difficult one posed by the disassembly of the Dymaxion House in Kansas and its restoration in Michigan. The Wichita House was part of the cultural landscape of Kansas, a product of its thriving aircraft industry at the conclusion of World War II. Conservation orthodoxy would suggest that the building's site is on important aspect of its authenticity. However, as the Dymaxion House was designed to be de-mountable and shipped anywhere in the world, one might argue that the context is indeterminate.

Further philosophical challenges are posed by the fact that the building is a prototype, representing a design in process. While a considerable collection of archival drawings and parts lists survives at the Buckminster Fuller Institute, the interpretation of these materials is challenging. At Beech Aircraft, drawings were revised and parts were re-drawn every few months. Identifying 'what' precisely is the Dymaxion House, is a matter of understanding each of the prototypes. These same philosophical challenges are manifest in the collection of components that comprise the house. There are missing parts, extra parts, obsolete parts, and parts that have been altered. The modern materials pose particular conservation challenges. The building materials are very specific to the aircraft and construction industry as World War II concluded in the USA. The materials include aircraft aluminum alloys, polymethyl methacrylate, plywood, chromoly steel, fiberglass-backed neoprene, and naugehyde among others. Due to the abandoned condition of the house prior to its acquisition by the Henry Ford Museum, the deterioration of many of the materials is considerable.

The Museum has taken the unique opportunity provided by the conservation and restoration of the house, and has designed a public program to accompany it. Museum visitors will find that the construction site is the focus of a temporary exhibit. The construction wall that surrounds the site will have text and graphics describing the project and explaining the conservation and restoration processes. Windows in the wall will allow views of the restoration work as well as small exhibits on specific conservation issues. Visitors may use the computer to investigate the project in greater depth. Internet users can visit the Dymaxion Project at its website.
The website features background information on the house and provides an opportunity to contact the Museum. The Conservator's Journal chronicles activities each month with photographs and text. Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Dwelling Machine will join other reconstructed buildings of the 20th Century such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion.

As with these other buildings, it is intended that the restoration will offer greater insight into the work of its author. Another of the Museum's goals is to contribute to a further understanding of the phi losophical and technical issues involved in conserving and restoring 20th Century buildings, prototypes, and their construction materials. Finally, the Museum anticipates offering its visitors the opportunity to experience Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Dwelling Machine for the first time in over fifty years.

Dymaxion House at the Henry Ford Museum. Credit: The Collection of The Henry Ford Museum. Gift of the William L. & Marjorie M. Graham Family, Wichita, Kansas.


James Ashby is an architect specializing in the built heritage of the modern era, and is based in Ottawa, Canada.

Clara Deck is Senior Conservator at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, responsible for the operational maintenance and conservation of a quarter of a million artifacts documenting American innovation. clarad@thehenryford.org

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1. Pawley, Martin, Buckminster Fuller. london: Toplinger Publishing Company, 1990.
2. LeBlanc, Sydney, 'Dymaxion House, 1947' in Whitney Guide to 20th Century American Architecture: Two Hundred Key Buildings. New York Watson-Guptill Publications, 1993, p. 77 3. Overland, C. R., Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Dwelling Machine: A New Way of Living, 1998 M.A. Thesis at the Stole University of New York, Oneonta.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Jandl, H. Word, Yesterday's Houses of Tomorrow· Innovative Amencan Homes, 1850- 1950. Washington, D.C. Preservation Press, 1991, p. 99.
9. Marks, Robert W., The Dymoxion World of Buckminster Fuller, p. 133.  

Further Reference

1. Clara Deck, James Ashby, Richard Jeryan. “Deconstructing the Dymaxion House: Designing Survival Strategies for an Aluminum Tension Structure,” in Aluminum: History, Technology and Conservation, conference April 7-11, 2014, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, publication pending.
2. James Ashby. "The Puzzle of the Dymaxion House: Conservation challenges and Fuller's dwelling machine," in Architecture industrialisée et préfabriquée: connaissance et sauvegarde / Understanding and Conserving Industrialized and Prefabricated Architecture, Franz Graf and Yvan Delemontey, ed., Lausanne, Switzerland: Presses Polytechniques et Universitaires Romandes, 2012.