Story and photos by Diane Slawych
It’s shaped like a giant Hershey’s Kiss, has the silvery gleam of an Airstream trailer and a name that sounds like a laundry detergent.
The Dymaxion House was conceived by architect R. Buckminster Fuller as the home of the future. It was designed in 1946 to be the “strongest, lightest and most cost-effective housing ever built.
“Everything about it was based on one important principal – we need to do more with less – a novel idea for the time,” says Steve Harris, guide at The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Mich., home of the only full-scale prototype that was ever built.
One feature was a ventilator on the top of the house that was designed to cut down on heating costs in winter and cooling costs in summer by allowing fresh air in and keeping wind out. “A complete air change every six minutes,” as Fuller put it, also ensured the home was well ventilated.
Inside the aluminum-clad house reveals further innovations such as revolving closets and rotating bins that display clothes with the push of a button (all designed to maximize space); a bathroom with a mist-releasing fog shower and a toilet designed to shrink-wrap waste for composting. The tiny bathroom looked a bit dingy though.
“Don’t forget most people had outhouses back then,” a guide pointed out. “This would’ve been an improvement.”
The home is light, weighing less than three tons, yet also strong enough to withstand hurricane force winds of up to 180 miles per hour. And it was priced to cost less than a luxury car.
Despite these innovations, the Dymaxion house never achieved commercial success. Although it had many environmentally sustainable features, Harris says, “no one cared about conserving resources in 1940s America.”
Then there was the issue of attracting investors. “They weren’t about to fund a company that was proposing this thing that looks sort of like an aluminum teapot with too many windows,” says Harris. “But the windows let in a lot of light. That’s an energy conservation strategy. The round shape is going to require less material than a square one…The dome gives you 30 per cent less surface area per enclosed volume, so potentially there’s a 30 per cent energy saving.” Another issue, says Harris, was the lack of infrastructure for such a new idea.
Meanwhile Fuller, according to the museum’s literature, apparently never resolved certain engineering challenges and eventually abandoned the project. Still, there was enough interest among members of the public to generate thousands of unsolicited orders.
A former Fuller Houses Inc. employee, William Graham and his family were the only people ever to have lived in the house. Graham purchased parts of the home and then reassembled them as an extension to his existing ranch dwelling near Andover, Kan.
After his death, his family donated it to The Henry Ford, which spent two years and $1 million restoring it. The job involved careful analysis of more than 3,600 parts related to Fuller’s design. The Dymaxion House that visitors see today contains 70 per cent original material.
The home of the future, with its technological innovations and use of pioneering industrial materials, was clearly ahead of its time. Though it was never mass-produced, the ideas had an influence on innovators in other fields beyond architecture. It also led Fuller to other landmark projects, including the creation of a 20-storey-high geodesic dome, which became the U.S. pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal.
The conservation-minded architect likely would have appreciated what became of his creation. The geodesic dome is now home to an environment museum in Montreal called the Biosphere.
As for the Dymaxion House? “This is one of our treasures at The Henry Ford,” says Harris.