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Dymaxion and relaxin'
April 23, 2012 9:59 AM   Subscribe

Buckminster Fuller's prototype Dymaxion House now resides in the Henry Ford Museum. A checkup under the floorboards revealed extensive cracking in the aluminum support beams underneath. The repair process granted a sneak peek into Fuller's remarkable design.
posted by Horace Rumpole (25 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Simply, wow. It is playing the role of Wario to an Earthship's Mario, for lack of a better analogy (is my nerd showing?), but really amazing just the same.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:11 AM on April 23, 2012


Ahh, metal fatigue and Aluminum.

I'm fairly certain that, as a house, it would have been fine, but as a museum attraction, with many people walking through, the aluminum started to fail. The problem with aluminum is that it will *always* fail in fatigue if you keep stressing and relaxing it -- more material means it'll take more cycles, but it's not like Iron and Titanium alloys, where there's a certain level of stress that you can keep applying and it will handle forever.

And this is an odd case for aluminum. Yes, it's lighter, but really, lightness isn't a huge factor in housing. In aircraft, sure, which is why Al alloys are prominent in aircraft construction (and stress fractures have bedeviled aircraft the entire time) but I suspect that fewer steel beams would have done the job just as well, been, at worst, only a bit heavier, and would have been vastly cheaper.

Stress and metal fatigue is a complex subject, and more than one thing has gone horribly wrong because of it. Trains have crumpled, planes have crashed, bridges have fallen.
posted by eriko at 10:23 AM on April 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Dymaxion was apparently intended to be suspended, which is probably the reasoning behind the aluminum.
posted by felix at 10:28 AM on April 23, 2012


I think preserving things as museum attractions always involves a bit of Solomonic decision-making between "keeping the thing as it was originally designed" and "making it stable enough so that lots of people can experience it." It sounds like the Ford Museum folks were thoughtful in their decision, and the off-limits-to-visitors rooms can still be studied as representing the original construction.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:30 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, but will they let me use the bathroom?
posted by Burhanistan at 10:33 AM on April 23, 2012


Any links of a more technical nature regarding the ventilation/suspension systems? Since it's suspended from a central pillar I want to see how they accounted for wobble. Plus that gutter system sounds intriguing but potentially unworkable.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:36 AM on April 23, 2012


Well, lightness isn't a factor in a house when you're living in it, but Bucky designed the Dymaxion House to be manufactured remotely, transported, and assembled. All the pieces fit into a relatively small capsule, and no single piece was so heavy that a worker couldn't lift it with one hand. His design included other priorities.

Perhaps he was prioritizing the manufacture, transport, and assembly more highly than he should have. And the use of aluminum in that application was experimental at the time. But the general idea of designing for more of the house's lifecycle makes a lot of sense.
posted by adamrice at 10:38 AM on April 23, 2012


Henry Ford Museum Junkie here: The Dymaxion house is fantastic. Small details - like the all-one-piece molded metal bathroom that can simply be hosed down, ceiling to floor. Uncomfortable, scary, but theoretically practical! Or the "O-volving shelves" that allow you to store your sweaters in a carousel apparatus tucked inside the walls, which you access by pushing a button and watching your shelves scroll by - charming, and also a way to shred a sweater and jam up inaccessible household machinery at the same time.

Of course, it is full of many ingenious things as well, like a ventilation system that rotates to catch the wind, a beautifully thought-ought kitchen, and a tiny foundation footprint. Erico, my understanding is that aluminum was chosen specifically because of its prominence in aircraft construction: Buckminster Fuller was looking for a way to re-purpose aircraft plants and workers otherwise slated to go idle with the closing of the war.
posted by Ausamor at 10:43 AM on April 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Reminds me a bit of the troubles with Falling Water.
posted by smackfu at 10:46 AM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes, me too, smackfu. Same problem--how do you maintain a house designed for the day to day life of a few people when there are thousands of people going through it every year?
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:53 AM on April 23, 2012


Yes, but will they let me use the bathroom?

Are you sure you want to? The "bathrooms" on the Dymaxion house were plastic molded shells about the size of a Greyhound Bus "bathroom", except with an actual small bath and sink molded into it.

I love Buckminster Fuller - but outside of popularizing (not inventing) the geodesic dome, the word "synergy" and the even less well known tensegrity concepts, the older and wiser I get the more it seems like he didn't invent anything usesful, and the more he seems like the future-mad drunken crackpot he probably was.

Granted, few futurists (corporate entities or otherwise) did any better. The Monsanto House of the Future is even worse than the Dymaxion house - a literal nightmare of plastic and chemicals. Nightmares like "Hey, that's neat. It takes you 30 seconds just to open and close your powered refrigerated shelves and grab a beer." or "Power went out. Can't even get a clean pair of socks out of the closet." or "Honey, I've had a headache for a decade. Maybe there's something to this whole offgassing plastics thing."

I can only imagine that an actual lived-in Monsanto House of Plastics, Benjamin would look like a cross between an old worn out dirty sneaker and a plastic tote bin that had been to Burning Man a few too many times. Like a sippy-cup chewed on by a dog.

Meanwhile, high-minded hippie concept housing like Earthships made from modern yurts, mud-and-cob, rammed earth or adobe all look like positively great ideas in comparison and would outlast and outperform any of these dubious houses of the future.
posted by loquacious at 11:30 AM on April 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


Metafilter: a cross between an old worn out dirty sneaker and a plastic tote bin that had been to Burning Man a few too many times.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:37 AM on April 23, 2012


Same problem--how do you maintain a house designed for the day to day life of a few people when there are thousands of people going through it every year?

I thought Falling Water had leaks, not problems related to the amount of visitors?
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 11:41 AM on April 23, 2012


I meant the problems with the cantilevered concrete sagging, which were probably exacerbated by the crowds. They also had to pull up the floors to fix that issue.
posted by smackfu at 11:44 AM on April 23, 2012


And this is an odd case for aluminum.

In addition to the point about it being light so it was easily transportable from factory to assembly point, it was also intended to take advantage of the excess aluminium manufacturing/construction capacity in airplane factories after the 2nd World War.
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:44 AM on April 23, 2012


And d'oh, Ausamor already said that.
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:45 AM on April 23, 2012


I love Bucky Fuller, and this is an interesting thought experiment. It fails as a house, though — too much unnecessary complexity, too much "design", too much ego.
posted by Tom-B at 11:51 AM on April 23, 2012


I thought Falling Water had leaks, not problems related to the amount of visitors?

As a work of architecture, Fallingwater is a thing of beauty and a joy to behold. As a work of engineering, it's damn near a disaster.

For example. Downstairs, in the dining room, FLW specified a single piece of glass for the outside view. No such glass existed, so instead, it was built with two pieces of glass, with a thin metal element between that.

Kaufmann, the owner, and the lead contractor took a look at the plans and went "There is no way this works." So, they sent the plans to a set of consulting engineers, who modified them because, well, the house wouldn't stand. Wright heard about this and threw a fit, and demanded either his design untouched, or he would refuse to allow the house to be built.

So, it's built. There are rumors that the contractors did some hidden reinforcement work. The amazing cantilevered balconies sag almost immediately -- nearly 8" on a 15' run -- but don't fall.

Years pass. Someone models the entire house from the plans, and discovers that, well, according to the very well tested model, the balcony off the bedroom has fallen off years ago. Obviously, this wasn't true -- but the structural issue worries them. Consultations are made, and investigations are done. They discover that they'd modeled that part as designed. So, they try it as built, with the two pieces of glass and thin steel mullion.

And they discover that that thin steel was *load bearing*. It was holding the balcony up -- barely. Further examination shows that the contractor had indeed added extra support, which is why they'd stayed up, but both the concrete and steel were damn near failure limits.

So, first thing they did was install jackstands under the balconies. This gave them time to do some research into how to stabilize the structure without changing the appearance. They manage to do so by running steel cables through the balconies, attaching them to the end and to the frame, and tightening, thus creating a post-tensioned concrete beam, rather than a free hanging one. This brought the loads under control, brought the balconies close to level, and relieved the load off that mullion in the dining room. Given that the mullion was being held vertical by the glass, Fallingwater was basically one baseball away from Fallingover.

And, yes, between the humidity, the complete lack of damp proofing, and the not exactly best roofing job, Edgar Kaufmann Sr. has been known to refer to Fallingwater as Risingmildew.
posted by eriko at 11:58 AM on April 23, 2012 [23 favorites]


I didn't even know that there was still a full-sized model of one of these houses around! Awesome!
posted by GuyZero at 3:07 PM on April 23, 2012


From the wiki : Two Dymaxion houses were prototyped – one indoor (the "Barwise" house) and one outdoor (the "Danbury" house). -- Any Bucky fans able to shed light on why he named one Danbury?
posted by crunchland at 4:03 PM on April 23, 2012



I love Buckminster Fuller - but outside of popularizing (not inventing) the geodesic dome, the word "synergy" and the even less well known tensegrity concepts, the older and wiser I get the more it seems like he didn't invent anything usesful, and the more he seems like the future-mad drunken crackpot he probably was.

I think that's really selling the Dymaxion House concept (and Fuller) short. The original Dymaxion house was highly efficient, designed to collect rainwater, have nearly passive climate control based on yurts, a waterless toilet designed to collect waste for composting later, fully autonomous (off the grid) design that sat lightly on the land while resistant to fire and tornadoes. There's still a need for mass produced, instantly available housing that can't be met by cob or bale construction, and Fuller considered the Dymaxion House a prototype for temporary disaster relief housing or transportable rental units, rather than an expression of private property. These ideas about sustainability absolutely fueled the hippie housing movement in the 60's and 70's, especially since Fuller was regularly touring college campuses- in fact you can draw a direct line from Fuller's off-grid philosophy to the Earthships, in spite of the fact that they are constructed from old tires and dirt. Sure, there was an evolution from mass-production to mud-production, but that doesn't mean Fuller was a crank when he proposed that we should be conserving water, recycling waste, producing housing for the less priveleged or displaced, and living off-grid way back in the 30's.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:27 PM on April 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Round walls are an especially lame use of space unless there is similarly round furniture kicking around. Your square fridge in your round house doesn't nest properly against the wall. If you try to put a square dishwasher or counter or whatever next to the square fridge and still try to push it against the wall, you lose a "v" sized slice of space.

Basically, all of your wall abutting furniture needs to be custom made to work with the specific curve of your house's round walls.

On the other hand, perfect for indoor jogging.
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:29 PM on April 23, 2012


Sure, there was an evolution from mass-production to mud-production, but that doesn't mean Fuller was a crank when he proposed that we should be conserving water, recycling waste, producing housing for the less priveleged or displaced, and living off-grid way back in the 30's.

Seriously, have you had a look at Fuller's writings? He may have been a visionary with respect to environmentalism, but otherwise he was an utter crank of the type which nowadays puts out websites with flashing BOLD text in many sizes and colours. His obsession with "Dymaxion" bordered on the insane, and some of his concepts, like the Dymaxion car or the Dymaxion map were utterly useless.
posted by Skeptic at 4:45 AM on April 24, 2012


I have, but the fact that they're nearly impenetrable doesn't mean the concepts I listed were loony. Cahill's map is far better than the various iterations of the Dymaxion Map, but the geodesic explorations Fuller was making led directly to his domes.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:13 AM on April 24, 2012


the Dymaxion map were utterly useless

You hush your mouth oneirodynia (if that's even your real name)! That is my favourite projection in the world and you better be careful.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:05 AM on April 25, 2012


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