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The only Dymaxion to ever house a family is now a display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. (Henry Ford Museum)

Home Sweet Duralumin

A Buckminster Fuller design was grounded in aerospace technology.

Designed to keep aircraft assembly lines running after World War II, plus solve the nation’s peacetime housing needs, the all-metal, circular Dymaxion House, designed by inventor Buckminster Fuller, was put together like an airliner. Replacing wood and shingles, a duralumin skin was stretched over metal ribs that were buttressed by stainless steel cables suspended from a central mast. The wraparound windows were plexiglass.

“[Fuller] was inspired by an airplane’s lightness, the efficiency of its parts, and how they rolled off assembly lines,” says Marc Greuther, chief curator at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where a prototype Dymaxion, built in 1946, is on display. To Fuller, houses “flew” through the prevailing breeze. He tested models of his 1,100-square-foot dwelling in a wind tunnel and crowned them with a pivoting roof vent, complete with tailfin. The structure could be built with existing aircraft tooling, meaning Kansas-based Beech Aircraft, Fuller’s partner in the project, might assemble houses and airplanes side-by-side.

Clever headlines (“Wichita New Kitty Hawk of Housing!”) and wry coverage in Fortune earned the house pop status. Production maps projected entire towns of the mass-produced units springing up nationwide. Promotional literature envisioned inhabitants relaxing in the Dymaxion’s semicircular rooms, selecting clothing from its revolving metal closets, taking “low-flow” showers, and otherwise living in a kind of proto-space capsule.

Yet it proved a flight of fancy. A Dymaxion House was simply too different to build, live in, or make compliant with city codes—especially since Fuller refused to modify the design. Eventually, disagreements within Fuller Houses, the company formed to produce and market the Dymaxion, brought it down. And there was the “coming home” factor: Like aircraft manufacturers who mistakenly predicted that former Air Force fliers would want their own airplanes, Fuller Houses figured military families would be first in line to buy such futuristic dwellings. “Returning servicemen, maybe after dropping bombs from aluminum planes, wanted a home that was cozy and traditional,” Greuther says. “This just wasn’t it.”

Despite accepting tailfins on their cars, families chose Levittown boxes, not Dymaxion domes. Simpler versions of Fuller’s ingenious shelters housed radar installations and served other functions (two Dymaxion Deployment Units, made of corrugated steel, still sit atop an Army Signal Corps building at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where they housed telecommunications experiments).

The lone surviving Dymaxion House is now at the Ford Museum. Perched on a lot near Wichita, the structure, blended with a traditional house, was home to the William Graham family from 1948 until the early 1970s. By 1991, when the museum acquired it, the Dymaxion was derelict.

Senior conservator Clara Deck recalls how the oxidizing skin and decaying ribs presented many of the same conservation issues encountered in metal aircraft long exposed to the elements. “We found laminar corrosions, galvanic effects where differing materials contacted each other, and a unique, blue-tinged corrosion, which metallurgists at the Ford Motor Company are studying.” While conservators normally bristle at altering an artifact, Deck’s team adapted heat treatment, used in aircraft manufacture and repair to alter and improve the mechanical properties of an alloy, to help stabilize the structure’s metals. Workers then spent two years reassembling it in full view of museum visitors.

Greuther finds hints of Fuller’s house in today’s homes. “Light, strong, mass-produced home furnishings, from Eames chairs to Ikea, all derive from ideas Fuller developed in the Dymaxion for making efficient living spaces,” he says. “The floor is aluminum,” Deck adds, “but set over a subfloor of plywood. That’s probably the first use of this aircraft staple in home construction.”

Mechanical engineer Nick D’Alto lives in a boring rectangular house but, like Buckminster Fuller, is inspired by airplanes.

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