The Future is Now, Again

October 27, 2015
Dymaxion House at Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Detroit

New technologies are fueling a wave of innovation in building design and construction. But are these really break-through technologies that will have lasting affect on the shelters in which we live and work? New materials and manufacturing techniques fueled a similar boom in the mid-twentieth century.

Buckminster Fuller was ahead of his time. The eccentric designer/inventor/author/dreamer is best known for popularizing massive geodesic dome structures and promoting the principles of “ephemeralization” – a self coined term for doing more with less – through writings and inventions. Fuller was an early believer in renewable energy and sustainable building construction.

He also applied his concepts to a home for the masses that he called the Dymaxion House. Dymaxion stood for dynamic, maximum, and tension. One of the few prototypes ever constructed is preserved in Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. I walked through the quasi-futuristic abode several times as a child while visiting family in suburban Detroit. But it didn’t make an impression until I returned as a practitioner in the building industry.

The Dymaxion house is a yurt-like circular building. An all-aluminum structure cantilevers from a single central core. A system of steel cables reinforces the structure laterally and ties down the thin roof. The utilities connect through the core such that the kitchen and bath abut through the axis of the building. It has the character and functionality that today’s tiny house seekers would appreciate, but with a comfortable amount of space accommodating separately partitioned kitchen, bath, living, and bed rooms. The interior decor is definitively of the quasi-futuristic style of its day, but contemporary updates would certainly be possible if the historic preservationists would allow it. The home beats a lot of one-bedroom apartments in Chicago.

3-D Print of Printed Concrete Prototype Segment for "Office of the Future"

3-D Print of Printed Concrete Prototype Segment for “Office of the Future”

Still today, designers are innovating the “home of the future.” A Chinese company seems to have the lead in a race to delivering printed concrete homes. They print concrete in the same print-by-layer fashion as a conventional 3-D printer. Their latest collaboration with western consultants (including my company) yielded a modern office complex. The aesthetic is like something out of Tron, but without the neon. The goal of the venture is to deliver custom printed configurable modules with integrated mechanical systems. Much like the Dymaxion House, the site preparations would only require utilities running to one centralized location and a few cast-in-place concrete footings. After the precast printed units arrive, it’s only a matter of days before the tenants move in.

The era of low-cost mass-produced housing units may finally be upon on us. Fuller considered taking advantage of the aluminum fabrication factories demilitarizing to rapidly produce his homes. The industry changed over faster than his prototypes could be put to market. With concrete printing, the factory is brought to or near the site. Mobile factories would reduce supply chain costs and perhaps ultimately lead to more sustainable construction.

Waste Digestors at Bulitt Center, Seattle, Washington

Waste Digestors at Bulitt Center, Seattle, Washington

Buckminster Fuller took some heat for using a high-energy intensity material for his building structure. Perhaps the longevity of the material would serve to outweigh the initial cost (in terms of embodied carbon – to use the currently accepted unit of global warming potential). But in other ways he tried to fully implement his green ethos. An original feature of the Dymaxion House was a packaging toilet. The idea was that the toilet would fill compostable baggies suitable for composting. It appears that the prototype was unable to operate in that way, but today the technology for compostable plastic is cheaply available. I use them every day to pick up after my dog.

The Bulitt Center in Seattle bills itself as the greenest office building in the country. I had the opportunity to tour the facility during a recent meeting of the Carbon Leadership Forum. The building features a large solar array, improved mechanical system performance, motorized shading and window operation, procedures for reduced plug loads (like electrical plugs), and compostable toilets. Waste is consumed by several large digesters located in the basement. They are still working out balance of processing the solid and liquid waste, but I can vouch that the bathroom experience meets western cultural norms.

Some of Buckminster Fuller’s ideas were ahead of their time; other ideas just needed a new application. Which of today’s ideas will be lasting? Perhaps only time will tell.

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