by Don Fabun

housing of

the future


(If you examine closely the science fiction stories concerning future societies, you'll find that, in most of them, homo sapiens is still living within structures having "four walls and a roof", and that, however magnificent his technology, his robots and rockets, his medicine and psychology, he spends his time cooped up in a box. Actually, of course, architecture is as dynamic as any other scientific art. It is the intent of this, and others in the series of articles to follow, to explore some of the concepts, already being experimented with today, that will help lay the foundations for the housing of the future. D.F.)

the chemistry

of tension

It is quite possible that the only reason homo sapiens moved out of caves is because he ran out of them. When he did move out, he carried his cave-psychology with him; four walls, a floor and ceiling, narrow apertures to admit the lord of the manor and to keep weather and enemies outside. Today, in one form or another, the walls, floor, ceiling and apertures remain in our thinking, but some daring innovators are experimenting with new forms that may give us a fresh way of looking at the places we live in.

Foremost among these innovators at the present time is R. Buckminster Fuller, who is already well known in art circles and to the more avant garde architects. Perhaps the gulf that separates him from current "modern" architecture is most clearly shown by contrasting his basic idea with that of Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright maintains, "A house should have the look of a shelter," Fuller says, "Let's have a house go up in the form of good geometry."

So when Fuller sat down to plan a house, he started with the tetrahedron, which is defined as the geometric form enclosing the least volume with the most surface, and the sphere, which is the form that encloses the most volume with the least surface. Each of these forms, in nature, has a tendency to a particular motion; the tetrahedron tends to resist external pressure; the sphere tends to resist internal pressure.

By combining these two inherent geometric actions into a single construction, he achieved a form which he calls "Dymaxion." From the standpoint of geometry, the "Dymaxion" is composed of a number of great circles which intersect each other to form spherical triangles on the surface of a sphere. These intersected spherical triangles are capable of action in the sense that they permit a "series of events", passing through various degrees of contraction; icosohedron, octohedron, tetrahedron, and finally a triangle, which, when released, immediately springs to its most expanded form, the sphere.

When all this is reduced to physical terms, the result is a discontinuous three-way grid of metal and air, held together by what Buckminster calls "the chemistry of tension", and acting almost like a membrane in absorbing and distributing loads.

Now if all this were merely doodles drawn on paper by an eccentric geometrician, it would be interesting, but only as a mental exercise. What is so provocative about Buckminster's "Dymaxion Domes" is that the damn things are actually being built, and if there were more aluminum available to make the gridwork from we'd probably be seeing them springing up all over the country.

Up in Canada, where aluminum supplies are on the free market, Dymaxion domes are already being manufactured and sold. One of these models, with an aluminum framework and orlon skin, is called "Weatherbreak". Thanks to the "chemistry of tension", each ounce of structure can roof a cubic foot and support seven pounds. The unit is 24 feet high, forty-nine feet in diameter, offering a clear and usable floor area of 1,450 square feet. It can be packed into a bundle two by four by five feet and can be erected in forty-five man hours. Total cost, $7000, a price that will steadily decrease once assembly line techniques and mass production are used for the parts.

These same Canadian producers are also marketing a smaller Dymaxion dome, a vacation house called "Skybreak", for $800. This model has 500 square feet of floor area, and the price includes duty, delivery and construction.

The geodesic dome has a number of advantages over more conventional structures. Its light weight (98% less than the weight of usual structures offering the same amount of usable floor space) makes it ideal wherever freight or shipping costs are an important factor. It can be bundles and dropped by airplane or delivered by helicopter anywhere in the world. Once delivered, it can be erected quickly and simply by unskilled labor using ordinary tools. Where extremes of temperature are a problem, a bigger dome can be erected outside of a smaller dome, the dead air space in between offering excellent insulation. If a business or a family using one size geodesic dome decides it needs a bigger one, the bigger one can be constructed over top of the smaller one, without disrupting the use of the smaller one. When the big one is finished, the little one is simply dismantled, bundled, and taken out the door.

Except that it "doesn't look like a house". the dome has few disadvantages. One problem, at the present time, is that nearly all of our present day furniture has been designed to fit square cornered rooms; the time may come when furniture is built to fit the smooth curves of the Dymaxion houses.

Will the day ever come when the land is dotted with Geodesic domes? Buckminster thinks it will; not because he developed the form, but because of economic and social pressures. As most persons are aware, building an adequate house at the present time is almost prohibitively expensive. The house of today is still largely constructed by primitive, handicraft methods that are inefficient, expensive, and generally of poor quality. The Dymaxion house, which offers as much shelter, more floor space, and cheaper costs than traditional houses, can be built with prefabricating machinery already to be found in most sheet-metal shops, on an assembly line basis, with mass production economies. They can be transported to any place, erected quickly and inexpensively, and moved, if necessary on short notice and at small cost, These natural advantages, which stem from the basic qualities of the geometric form itself, render it more efficient than any current traditional structural form. Historically, developments which have such a competitive advantage eventually win widespread acceptance.

The Dymaxion house, one of the first of the "buildings of the future", is an extreme departure from the houses you and I live in. But it is nowhere near as radical a departure as the "Endless House" designed by Frederick Kiesler, which will be discussed in the next issue.

Data entry and page scans provided by Judy Bemis

Data entry by Judy Bemis

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