The Dymaxion Dwelling Machine
Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Dwelling Machine, circa 1945–46, also known as the Wichita House.
Many architects dream of incorporating experimental technology and materials into their buildings; Buckminster Fuller made a lifetime career of it. The geodesic dome is one of his ingenious and unique contributions to the world of modern architecture, successfully enclosing a maximum amount of space with a minimum amount of material and expense. In many ways the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine is the precursor to the invention of the geodesic dome. Buckminster Fuller designed and built the DDM in Wichita, Kansas, in 1945–46.
The DDM’s external appearance and detailing is both elegant and streamlined. Its aircraft aluminum skin (walls) and plexiglass windows enclose over 1,000 square feet of floor space. For its occupants, it provided “natural” air conditioning, central heating with air filtration, pivoting wall panels revealing hidden storage spaces, mechanical evolving shelf units, integrated vacuum inlets, a fully functional kitchen, a Dymaxion bathroom unit, two bedrooms, and a full size living room. The house rests on its central load-bearing mast and is anchored to the ground for stability by perimeter tension rods.
The DDM was meant to be a prefabricated portable living unit, air deliverable anywhere in the world. Weighing a bit more than a car, it could be packaged into a delivery tube, and its components could easily be assembled by a single person. Portable, economical, easy to build and take down, the 1,075-square-foot house weighed only 6,000 pounds and was projected to cost the owner the same price as the current best-selling car of the time.
The Dymaxion House uses mostly aircraft materials and technology for its design and construction. The building is perfectly circular and the roofline is dome-shaped, offering aerodynamic advantages during high winds and inclement weather. The gleaming domed roof is assembled on a tensile framework similar to that of a giant bicycle wheel, which is then raised and suspended at the top of the central assembly mast. Here was Fuller’s visionary solution to the expected housing shortage of 1945 with the return to the USA of over a million veterans stationed in Europe and Asia.
In 1945, Wichita, Kansas, was the aircraft manufacturing capital of the world, and this is where Fuller found the engineering expertise and tooling needed to build his first Dymaxion prototypes. Since the Dymaxion House freely borrowed from the aircraft industry in its assembly techniques and materials, Wichita was the ideal place to develop and build the first original DDM prototypes.
Fuller partnered with Beech Aircraft Industries of Wichita to produce his first Dymaxion Dwelling Machine prototypes. Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, both economic and personal, the DDM never went into full production.
Only two prototypes were manufactured by Beech Aircraft Industries in 1945, and these were later purchased by William Graham, a local businessman. In 1946, the Graham family erected a hybridized version of the Dymaxion House, combining structural elements from both prototypes to create a family cottage standing on a permanent foundation, on the shore of a small lake just outside Wichita.
As the Graham family grew, various “traditional” architectural elements were added, such as an extended porch area, a complete brick and mortar ranch house, and a basement area extending under half of the DDM. Later, in the early 1970s, the DDM was abandoned and left in disrepair for nearly two decades.
In the early 1990s, the Graham family was determined to save the original DDM prototype and thankfully The Henry Ford museum stepped in. In 1991 it dismantled the structure, step by step, with the helpful guidance of Jay Baldwin, a Fuller collaborator of many years. The parts were moved to Dearborn, Michigan. The house lay in storage for a decade. In 2001 it was rebuilt on the grounds of the Henry Ford museum, where it is presently on exhibit.
It could be argued that the Wichita House is the first truly off-the-grid model house, destined to be air deliverable anywhere in the world. It could be installed and anchored on any level plot of land, thus eliminating the need for expensive and damaging excavations or landscaping. This architectural prototype was meant to be operated and lived in, independent of infrastructural support services.
This is the first truly “autonomous” building of the 20th century, with its passive heating and cooling ventilation systems, based on the “dome effect” using openings in the rooftop ventilator to regulate the downdraught, its central supporting mast incorporating all electrical and plumbing components, its internal rain gutter system collecting water into a cistern, and its self-contained Dymaxion bathroom, incorporating a toilet and a shower. The bathroom was an independent unit made of rustproof sheet metal stampings with prefabricated plumbing already installed.
The Dymaxion House was meant to generate its own power, using solar panels and wind turbines.
Martin Pawley, distinguished writer and architectural critic for The Guardian and The Observer, has called the DDM, “the house of the century,” in no uncertain terms.
The Dymaxion Dwelling Machine, this small round house meant for a future that never happened, remains, even today, one of the most thought-out, logical, and efficient dwellings to come out of the 20th century.
The abandoned Dymaxion Dwelling Machine
The DDM as rediscovered in 1990 in the Kansas prairie.
- View from the opposite shoreline of the lake
- Close up view of the rooftop ventilator
- Exterior walls made of heat treated aircraft aluminum, plexiglass windows and, above, a sun-shield extension added in 1950 and made of spare parts from the second DDM unit.
- Main entrance doorway
- From the interior looking up at the central mast supporting the structure
- The living room area with collapsing ceiling components
- The master bedroom with pivoting wall panels and a Dymaxion bathroom unit right next to them
- View inside the kitchen area
- In the basement area (den) looking up at the tapered aluminum floor beams
Dismantling of the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine
The DDM being dismantled by an international work team in 1991 before being moved to the Ford Museum.
- View of the Dymaxion House with the ventilator hat removed.
- Main entrance doorway with door removed.
- Jay Baldwin (team leader) removing a lower perimeter wall section, demonstrating a Fuller axiom that any part of the DDM can be manipulated by a single person.
- Wichita House crew removing roof panels. This view also reveals the central mast, the roof cable network, and spiral staircase.
- The DDM almost completely skinned of the exterior wall panels and roof sections. This photo also reveals the crisscrossing tension rods linking the dome roof to the outside perimeter of the floor.
- View of the A-B and C rings that support the roof panels. To the right we see a self-contained Dymaxion Bathroom unit.
- Jay Baldwin holding a tapered aluminum floor beam.
- Spare parts from the second Dymaxion House, found in a storage unit.
- Holding a section of the extended roof section or sun shield installed over the main entrance doorway on the north side of the house.