Dymaxion World

The Evolution of Mass Production

A clip from Charlie Chaplin's 1936 film Modern Times in which Chaplin struggles to find his way in the newly industrialized world

Mass production, a by-product of World War I, greatly influenced Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion designs. Fuller made use of the already existing factories and the excess aluminum to manufacture a machine for habitation. Mass production not only saved the U.S. during the Great Depression, it also won them the war as an industrial superpower.
The prefabrication of homes started approximately around the same time as the emergence of the definition of the "nuclear family." The earliest example of prefab housing was in 1624, when the English built a wooden panelled building that could be disassembled, and moved. Prefabrication becomes a key part of Fuller’s design. He invasions all of his residential projects made of independent parts that could either be assembled on site or prefabricated in a factory and then airdropped onto the site.
There are three main types of prefabricated homes categorized by assembly location, mobility, and division of parts.
     1) Modular homes are entirely fabricated in a single factory and are delivered to the site 
          near completion.
     2) Component homes are made out of various parts that are brought to the site to be 
          assembled. These parts are often customized for the site, and can come from various 
           3)   Motor homes are entirely mobile, with design directions towards efficiency, and
          durability rather than relation to the site.
Component Homes can be classified into two categories; prefabricated homes and kit homes. Prefabricated homes carry most elements of the home and are brought to the site to be assembled whereas a kit home includes every part of the home.
Prefab homes became a feature for the Dwelling Machine as Buckminster sought to “maximize the performance of the house per pound of material in its structure.” But The Dwelling Machine is not considered a kit home or a prefab home. Although it came to the site in several parts, the assembly of these parts required a lot of site work, unlike the average prefab home. The Dwelling Machine was broken into individual parts packaged in a long metal tube to be assembled on site. If one part of the home became defective, it could be easily taken out and replaced without any tampering of any other part of the house. 


Significant Dates:

1903: Henry Ford forms the Ford Motor Company.

1908: Sears Roebuck & Co. establishes a mail program for kit homes.
Sears Roebuck and Co. are a chain of department stores founded by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck in the late 19th century. Sears once had catalog homes sold between 1908 and 1940. These kit homes sold through mail order, offering the latest technology (central heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity) in their modern homes. These prefab houses become another of Buckminster’s competitors who sold 700,000 kits in North America during the period it was available.

1908: The 15th million Ford Model T automobiles is sold.

1911: Fredrick W. Taylor publishes “The Principles of Scientific Management.” Fredrick Taylor is an American mechanical engineer who wanted to better industrial efficiency through a number of principles he devises through scientific management. Fredrick Taylor reflects Buckminster’s idea on fully establishing efficiency through science.

1913: Henry Ford utilizes the assembly line in the production of the Ford Model T.
The assembly line was introduced to Ford by William Klann. Ford works out the practice of moving work from one worker to the next until the process becomes a complete unit. The succession of mass production is reflected in the millions of Ford Model T’s manufactured. Although first mechanized by Eli Whitney, Ford was known as the father of mass production. The assembly line becomes an essential way of diffusing Model T’s across North America and the main industrial formula during WWII. Buckminster decides to adopt this manufacturing process, further defining his Dymaxion Dwelling Machine as being truly efficient in both function and production.

1938: The Farm Security Administration builds 1,000 prefab homes in Missouri.

1939: Alcoa builds over 20 plants maximizing the production of aluminum. The mass production of aluminum becomes a fundamental part of the U.S.’s war effort.

1939: A total investment of $672 million is put into Alcoa.

1941-1943: Government finances the production capacity of aluminum by 2x.

1947: Federal Housing and Rent Act gets passed.

1947: William Levitt builds the first ever Levittown in New York.
William Levitt was an American real-estate developer dubbed the“Father of Modern American Suburbia.”  He was the son of Abraham Levitt who started the Real estate development company: Levitt and Sons at the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929. He developed mass-production techniques of large development homes replacing farmland with suburban sprawl. As an outcome of mass-producing these suburban homes, Levitt is able to provide affordable housing. 
Levittown in Long Island becomes the site for his huge building project. Levittown is a planned town located in Nassau County. It was the first truly mass-produced suburb designed to minimize construction time. Levittown had multitudes of identical homes using modular construction and prefabricated components assembled on site.
Fuller had similar intentions in making single-family homes using prefabricated parts designed for easy shipment. Cladded in aluminum sheeting, the dwelling becomes lighter, stronger, less expensive to manufacture and easy to assemble. It is designed to be delivered in a metal tube and to be assembled in one day by six workers. Unfortunately, Fuller’s vision was directed towards creating a “machine for living;” a home that would function like a machine to improve the inhabitant’s standard of living rather than making a “machine for living in,” that would please its inhabitants.

1947: Buckminster Fuller introduces the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine to the public.

1949: US Housing Act gets passed.

Ford's History of Mass Production

Technology and Sustainability

The Second World War had driven the need for advances in technology, medicine, and communications for military use. Perhaps with the aid of the discoveries made with this demand, Fuller was able to make the innovations he did and create a housing unit as sustainable as the Dymaxion House. The Dymaxion House addressed the problems of existing housing in employing methods against excessive energy and water consumption, maximizing space and materials, improving stability and resistance, and coming up with a way to create it out of available resources and materials in a minimal time frame.
The building’s extreme technological advancement and sustainability dealt with tackling issues in the areas of heating, space and material minimization, ventilation, efficient exterior forms, internal space configuration, stability, weight, ease of assembly, and many more. The Dymaxion House’s main feature was its “employment of wire principles…[to create] a more economically refined structure with vastly increased strength for less material investment.”

Aluminum becomes Buckminster Fuller’s primary material used in the design of his Dwelling Machine in light of its abundance aluminum due to excess post-war production, durability, and lightness.

The Evolution of Automobile Construction

The evolution of automobile construction played a significant role in Buckminster Fuller’s design of the Dymaxion House, specifically in the fields of available construction systems and materials.

Significant Dates:

1900: At the beginning of the 20th century, automobiles were first built entirely out      of wood, and soon gained steel body panels that covered a wooden frame. In the first few years of vehicle production, the idea of body-on-frame design was introduced, and the machines were built with a load-bearing wooden chassis that supported all their mechanical parts, covered with steel sheathing on the exterior. Unlike its popularity in the Dymaxion House, aluminum was not used in car production until the end of the 20th century.
Body-on-frame construction was a process in which a separate body was mounted onto the rigid frame that supported the vehicle’s working components. Originally, the frames were made out of wood, commonly ash, but the material was replaced by steel in the 1930s. The frames in these structures were ladder frames, not the later monocoque, and differed from the later development by being made out of numerous wooden parts assembled together as opposed to a single molded piece of the material. Although not as strong as the later monocoque, ladder framing had the benefit of easy part replacement and repair. Monocoque framing did not appear in the car industry until the 1960s.

1901: Olds Automobile Factory in Detroit begins to make car parts for larger vehicle companies, introducing the beginnings of mass production into the car industry.

1903: The Electric Ignition System is introduced.

1905-1914: Over the course of World War One, the Brass Era, also known as the Edwardian Era, of vehicles emerged. Cars were characterized by their front rear-wheel drive internal combustion engines, sliding gear transmissions, and less expensive body materials. The covers were known as tonneau, steel hard covers opened by hinges or folding mechanisms. The systems used in these vehicles may have had an impact on Fuller’s design of the Dymaion House and his principles of tensegrity and synergetics, as they enabled leaf springs in a suspensions system to hold the wheels in place.

1905: Safety glass was introduced as a vehicle material. This may have influenced Fuller’s design of the window’s in his Dymaxion Houses.

1906: The Steam Car is developed.

1908: With their Ford Model T, the vehicle company introduced assembly line production, replacing the earlier handcrafting methods, and producing the first ever mass produced car.
The development used machines more than people in the production of a vehicle for the first time in history. The vehicle had features like completely interchangeable parts, financially benefiting middle-class customers. The model also evolved on the suspension systems used in cars, by including a semi-elliptical spring in the front and rear axis of the wheel. Again, this most likely affected Buckminster Fuller’s own developments of a suspended home.

1913: The first moving assembly line for vehicles is developed by Ford.

1911: The car industry moves away from using wood frame and metal panel structures, and instead turns to wood frame and reinforced steel construction, producing vehicles with more rigidity. This is named armoured wood construction.
This move towards an entirely metal frame is reflected in the material’s chosen by Fuller’s design.

1914: All-steel bodies are introduced by Budd Company.

1915: The Unibody is created. This structure involves body members fashioned into a tubular form to provide metal rigidity without using an interior frame. It is also referred to as the Ruler Frameless process. This development influenced Fuller’s concept of lightweight, self-supportive structure that did not require any traditional, internal support.

1919-1929: The vehicle market experiences a radical shift in popularity from open to closed roof cars.

1930: Car manufacturing greatly decreases on account of the Great Depression. Factories experience an abundance of unsold products, useless machinery, workers, and materials. Buckminster Fuller’s concept of mass production was even more grounded with this development, as he now had an abundance of factories in which his house would be a welcome product to produce. Also, the extreme low cost of his home greatly appealed to the majority of the American population, which was now experiencing great poverty.
The Saloon or Sedan body style becomes the most popularly produced design for many years.

1931: The first modern independent suspension system in wheel design is created, minimizing road shock and creating a more sturdy, long-lasting vehicle. In the Dymaxion House, this development can be seen in the suspension system it uses as well as its impressive weather resistance, which Fuller may have achieved perhaps by referencing these very developments.

1936: the Rolls-Royce Phantom III is produced with an aluminum-alloy engine, cylinder banks, independent front suspension spring-based system, and a carryover semielliptical sprint rear unit. Both the materials (aluminum) and systems (suspension) used in this design are reflected in Fuller’s Dymaxion House.

1930-1940: Tempered glass is invented and now used standardly in car window.
Automobile companies are now used to produce wartime products like trucks, shells, guns, recoil mechanism, gun carriages, tractors, and aircraft engines.
This multi-use of a facility pushed Fuller’s idea of similarly taking advantage of aircraft and vehicle production lines in order to efficiently produce his own invention.

1950’s: The common car materials of this time were steel (used as a base material as well as for components like the doors, hood, and rigid frame), chrome (used for the bezel that encompassed the headlights and the car’s front and rear bumpers), wood (used mainly in the steering wheel but no longer in the car’s frame), fiberglass (used as a lightweight alternative to steel), and safety plate glass (an alternative to earlier window materials, now with a layer of polyvinyl butyral for added strength).
Fuller was obviously affected by the materials used in similar industries during his time, in example also using stainless steel for the construction of his central mast. 

1953: Fiberglass body construction is finally realized on a practical level, with prototypes dating back to 1938. 
The Evolution of Aircraft Construction

The major developments that occurred since the beginning of aircraft production at the start of the 20th century were the creation of lighter, more reliable and efficient structure and engines, smoother exteriors with no struts or rivets for less drag and greater speed, and the development of smaller, single fixed wings, which again reduced the drag of air on the plane.
These developments had a huge impact on Buckminster Fuller’s invention of the Dymaxion House by giving him the resources to create an optimally light, wind and drag resistance structure, with maximum efficiency and strength.

Significant Dates:

1903: The Wright Brothers make the first flying machine.
The materials they used are mainly wood (mainly spruce) and fabric, on account of their lightweight qualities. The brothers also use aluminum, platinum, tin, muslin, and other steel products in more minor areas of their design. The structure consists of a spar-and-rib wing, wire-braced box-girder fuselage, wire-trussed strut-supported biplane wing cell, sealed fabric airframe skin, and two-wheel fixed landing gear. This becomes known as the classic wire-braced, wood-and-fabric biplane. The fragmented, non-monocoque framing system is seen in Fuller’s earlier prototypes of the Dymaxion House, especially visible in the hexagonal structure he was bound to, unable to yet produce a circular curved form with the technologies of the day.

1911: Retractable flying gear is invented. 
This may have influenced Fuller’s inclusion of items such as the o-volving closet, by using similar systems to those in aircraft technology.
Airplanes become a popular mean of transporting mail between continents, and soon later begin to move people.

1914: The production of airplanes hugely increases on account of military needs. Planes were used to carry guns, bombs, and torpedoes.

1913: Military aircraft is developed for WWI. The Avro 504 specifically marks the development of a two-bay biplane with a square-section fuselage (main body) of all-wooden construction.
The plane marks a time in which Fuller was still limited to his hexagonal (as opposed to circular) designs.
WWII marks a huge evolution in airplane frame construction. The earlier standard of fabric on wood frame is abandoned on account of its vulnerability to battle heat and lack of optimal stability. In this time, the two main developments are cantilevered wings and monocoque fuselage. Cantilevered wings involve a main spar with a self-supporting beam, eliminating the need for any wire bracing or struts, creating a self-sufficient component. The wings are strengthened with a shear web added to their spar  and a wooden flange facing done so that the grain is oriented at different angles to the main member of the spar. The wings are also no longer covered with fabric, but instead with a stronger wooden veneer (referred to as stressed skin wings).
Monocoque fuselage mainly involved switching the fabric covered wooden box with a  single molded thin wood shell supported internally by bulkheads and longitudinal stringers, creating a strong streamline tube-like structure.
The development was seen in the curved panels used by Buckminster Fuller to create the walls of his houses, which were most likely produced using this newly developed method. It is specifically seen in the Dymaxion Mobile Dormitory and all consequent developments of the invention.
The airplanes constructed in WWI also used semi-monocoque fuselage, in which the two halves of the aircraft’s body were molded separately out of thin plywood and then assembled together by gluing and nailing the plywood panels onto the framework of bulkheads and stringers.
The most popular material used during this time was wood, and the principal aluminum of Fuller’s design was not yet reflected in the aircraft industry.

1917: The first all metal airplane is produced by the Germans. It is called the Hugo Junker J4, and is constructed almost entirely out of a lightweight aluminum alloy (exactly the same as that used in Fuller’s structures), has a steel armour around the fuel tanks, crew, and engine (as Fuller used steel to construct the central mast and frame its inner mechanical components), and strong internally braced cantilevered wings. The new wings provided less drag, reflecting Fuller’s own ambitions of creating a streamline house. The new metal use in aircrafts led to stressed-skin construction, in which the airplane’s skin accounted for all structural support and eliminated the need for heavy framework. This is almost exactly reflected in Fuller’s objectives with the supportive system of his Dymaxion House. The metal used was also a critical factor in heat and humidity resistance, something Fuller also achieved in the same method, creating a home that did not require any additional insulation.

1918: Longhead Aircraft Manufacturing Company undergoes a breakthrough in monocoque fuselage construction by creating a new method of fuselage construction out of half shells of spruce veneer in large concrete molds fitted with a rubber bladder. Although it exercises the same molding principles as before, the tools used to create the new shape are much more efficient and productive. The method involved placing the veneers in place, fitting in the case, and inflating the bladder that forced the wood to fit into the mold. After the glue cured, the sells were removed from the mold in a light skeletal form. These airplanes were much lighter, and less air resistance than before. This method continued to have popular use well into the 1930s.
As stated in the earlier points, fuller used these construction methods for the panels in his own design.

1920: An improvement in aircraft wind-tunnel testing occurs, ameliorating the design of engines, airframes, and the maintenance of equipment. Buckminster Fuller also benefited from these developments in creating a home that was optimally weather and wind resistant.

1929: Frank Whittle designs an engine based on jet propulsion, leading to the production of the world’s first jet engine aircrafts at the end of the 1930s.

1933: Donald Douglass introduces the DC-1, a 12 passenger cabin airplane with heaters and soundproofing technology. The aircraft had an all-metal frame with optimal strength, an almost completely enclosed engine to reduce drag, variable pitch propellers for more effective flight angles, and more efficiently controlled wings.
Perhaps Douglass’s aircraft influenced the invention of features in the Dymaxion home like self-heating and cooling, air ventilation, and overall efficiency. Similarly, they were also both constructed entirely out of metal.

1939: World War Two once again elevates the production and development of aircraft, requesting the arrival of bigger bombers and faster, more manoeuvrable airplanes.
Over the course of this period, there was a Metal and Structural Revolution that took place. The 1930’s introduced the wide use of metal aircrafts, with Boeing 247D and Douglas DC-3 as popular examples. The wing design remained largely the same as before, but now used sheet metal to cover the entire structure with the same stressed skin effect. Instead of using flanges to create a web along a main spar, they had many spars narrowly spaced along the intersecting ribs, creating small rectangular cells over which sheet metal was riveted. This was called the Multicellular Wing. Overall, the structure did not change, apart from replacing wood with metal. This shift in material allowed Fuller to appropriate all the previously discussed techniques directly into his aluminum house design.

1942: The prototype of the world’s first jet flown engine, the Messerschmitt ME 262, is complete and used in combat.


Roundhouses were not an idea pioneered by Buckminster Fuller. Other architects at the time, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Cecil Alexander, and Charles Haertling were all designing roundhouses as well.
However these houses were large-scale, relatively luxurious homes designed for specific people. These were spaces with room to spare, as seen in how the plans are all rings formed around a central view port or courtyard.
Fuller, on the other hand, used the circular plan purely for its efficiency, not for creating an interesting form and designing set pieces like central courtyards. His plan was radial, with rooms going right into the centre.  The house itself was much smaller in comparison. Maximum functionality was crammed into each space: there were no hallways, no courtyards, and only enough rooms for a small family to be comfortable.
Similarly, another Architect named Wallace Neff created the Airform House in the 1940s to combat housing shortages. It was shaped like a hemisphere, and similar to the Dymaxion house, it was small and spatially efficient. However, instead of a radial plan Neff organized the house in a typical grid fashion. Unlike Bucky, Neff actually mass produced his house and managed to build a few hundred bubble homes. However the grid layout of the rooms in a circular enclosure posed questions of furniture placement and how expansions could be made. Ultimately, though residents liked the open concept, the house was too foreign an idea and failed to truly take off. 
Elevations and Plan of Wallace Neff's Airform House
Fuller may have avoided this with his radial plan, and by presenting ideas of how to add extensions, either by stacking as in his 4D towers, or laying two circles side by side as in his Dymaxion Deployment Unit. The Dymaxion house solicited 3 500 orders, by far outstripping Neff's Airform House in demand. In the end it was the unwillingness of Banks to fund a housing project that had no set building codes that ended Fuller's dream of thousands of Dymaxion Dwellings. Though his design may have been more fleshed out, the foreignness of the round house once again struck down an attempt at turning round homes into a standard.
Internal components within Fuller's radial plan

"The round shape is known to be structurally logical, hence the archetypical Native American tipis, African huts, Inuit igloos and Mongolian yurts. There is a favourable ratio between the liveable surface and the more costly facade. More than once the circular house was used as a solution for the home as an affordable, industrially produced ready-made product.The freestanding, 'ideal' round shape is isolated within its context and could theoretically be placed anywhere. On the other hand this non-contextual form has often been used to have as much contact with the surrounding environment as possible: the maximum 360 degrees view to the world around you! Sometimes even revolving on a single pole. These types of projects contribute to the image of the round house as a flamboyant, futuristic UFO-like fashion phenomenon, that was en vogue during the 1960's. And there is the organic point of view: in nature there are no straight lines."
- from Introduction to Sebastian Kaal's Roundhouse Project

The common form and shape of the Dymaxion housing inventions was driven by Fuller’s idea of following nature in forming a structure that revolved around a central point (just as our universe does), and take advantage of the triangle’s strength in construction by creating a hexagonal form. This use of triangles and tetrahedrons was developed into a practical system of geometry and mathematics he called synergetics
"Synergetics is the system of holistic thinking which R. Buckminster Fuller introduced and began to formulate. Synergetics is multi-faceted: it involves geometric modeling, exploring inter-relationships in the facts of experience and the process of thinking. Synergetics endeavors to identify and understand the methods that Nature actually uses in coordinating Universe (both physically and metaphysically). Synergetics provides a method and a philosophy for problem-solving and design and therefore has applications in all areas of human endeavor."
One of Fuller's geodesic domes under construction
Synergetics involves the behavior of system that can only function assembled, while the action of its separate parts is unpredictable.
Synergetics is commonly referred to as the study of systems with a strong regard of total system behaviour, and the function of interlinked components, just as Fuller did in building structures whose entire stability depended on the central mast, and from which everything was linked in a radiating triangle grid. All structure built under this theory were formed the inside out – evolving around a central mast, which supported the entire structure, and straying outward in a triangular grid. In comparison to other shapes, triangles were known to distribute weight and volume much more evenly over a given area, therefore creating a stronger and more stable structure. The repetition of the triangular grid also aided Fuller in his desire to create standardized living structures, as the components could be constructed in similar proportions and geometries based on this outline, lowering manufacturing cost and elevating its ease.


All the materials Fuller used were utilized in their optimal state of tension – as opposed to a less efficient compressive application. The central mast was the only loadbearing part of all the houses, and the rest was supported by tensile cables and held rigid by compression rings. This system, which dealt separately with tension and compression, became known as tensegrity – formed by tensional integrity. In short tensegrity is a structural principle in which compression and tension are isolated, and the compressed members (bars or struts) do not interact with one another, and the pre-stressed tensioned components (cables or tendons) define the system’s spatial confines.
Tension System within the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine (1944)
The Dymaxion House began as a hexagon but developed into a circular form, once technology in the construction of framework and coverings allowed it to do so. As described in other portions of this blog, the structure was held back from taking the optimal circular form by an inability to form double curved surfaced, but once the construction of such components was invented in other fields (mainly aircraft), Fuller used the development to his advantage and replaced the hexagon in his own design.
This system also allowed for lightweight materials to span greater distances without the need of heavy, loadbearing supports.
“Tensegrity describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviors of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviors. Tensegrity provides the ability to yield increasingly without ultimately breaking or coming asunder…Tensegrity structures are pure pneumatic structures and can accomplish visibly differentiated tension-compression interfunctioning in the same manner that it is accomplished by pneumatic structures, at the subvisible level of energy events.”

Authored by: Will Fu, Terry Huang, Justyna Maleszyk and Isabel Ochoa
Edited by: Isabel Ochoa