Dymaxion "Wichita" House
The Dymaxion House was a prefabricated, single family dwelling unit that was intended to be easily transportable, erectable, and maintainable, as well as comfortable, affordable, and mass-producible.
The Wichita House, constructed by Graham in 1948, was a hybridized version of the two prototype designs built by Fuller, one in 1945 (known as the Barwise prototype) and the other in 1946 (known as the Danbury prototype) but never assembled. The Barwise prototype was shaped like a cylinder with a pointed roof. It was thirty-six feet in diameter and twenty-two feet high. The single volume interior contained a living/dining room, a small kitchen and laundry unit, and two bedrooms, each with their own bathroom and freestanding storage unit.
In March of 1946, Fuller resigned as the Chairman of the Board and Chief Engineer due to the pressure exerted on him by his fellow business associates to finalize the design and start production. As a result of his unwillingness to compromise and disagreements among the associates, the newly formed Fuller Houses, Inc. collapsed. Graham, a stockholder of the company, acquired the two prototypes as well as any additional parts and combined them into a two-story house on permanent foundations. All leftover pieces were saved for spare parts.
The Barwise prototype had just over 1000 square feet of livable space. It was suspended and supported by a central mast, from which a light shell enclosed living space was hung in tension. All utilities (heating, refrigerating, air-conditioning, laundering, dishwashing, bathroom, and kitchen units) were grouped around the central mast. The walls and roof were constructed of unfinished aluminum panels and the ribbon-like windows were made of plastic. Capping the building was a wide, aerodynamic sheet metal ventilator, designed to rotate and lift depending on the weather conditions. The ventilator drew in outside air, allowing the windows to be inoperable. The Wichita House, while still maintaining the original cylindrical form and materials, was changed drastically to fit the Graham family’s needs. The house was no longer suspended in the air, but rather constructed with an additional floor below and on permanent foundations. The house was also built without the rotating ventilator. Further additions and alterations, such as a porch and building extension, were added over the years. According to Robert W. Marks in his book, The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller, Fuller visited the house and disapproved, remarking that “[Graham’s] architectural additions forever grounded [the] aeroplane.” (Pg 133)
The Wichita house was built with a full basement on a 600 acre site near Andover, Kansas. It was built along the steep embankment of the waterfront. Andover, at that time, was a small, unincorporated town, surrounded by farmland.
Near the end of World War II, the Foreign Economic Administration had expressed interest in retooling their operations 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. Beech Aircraft in Wichita, Kansas was voted as the best facility by the International Association of Machinists for sound labor policy. Having been trained in aircraft manufacturing techniques, their skills were easily adaptable to fabricating components for the house.
The building was designed to be lightweight, easy to ship, and quick to assemble (or dissemble). The majority of the components weighed less than ten pounds each, with the total weight of the house being less than 8000 lbs. The whole 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 one to 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 challenged the notion of home by converting the ideas of a traditional house into the most technologically advanced house of Fuller's time. It was designed when the concept of prefabricated homes was believed to be the answer to many of the housing shortage problems following the war. 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.
The Dymaxion House was, for a short time, one of the most sought after commodities on the market. In less than six months, between when the press reports and photographs were released until the collapse of Fuller Houses, Inc., 37,000 unsolicited orders were received. Today, it continues to be an object of excitement and curiosity, as it is one of the most visited exhibits in the museum.
Even though the realization of the Dymaxion House was prematurely abandoned, it is significant because it represents the ideals of modernity that would have been a great success if brought to its full potential. While the house never made it to mass production, Fuller’s vision of a modern house that it should be easy to disassemble and relocate was proven true when it took a mere two weeks to disassemble and ship it (in one container) to the Henry Ford Museum.
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