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Buckminster Fuller understood the need for a move to tiny houses. Unfortunately for Fuller (and the rest of us), he was 80 years ahead of his time.

IMG_0530In the past 10 years, tiny houses have become extremely trendy, and not without good reason. The real estate market has proven to be turbulent, to say the least. Down-sizing to live within your means is a concept that is increasingly popular not only among millennials, but with their aging baby boomer parents as well.

Tiny houses – compact, single family dwellings under 400 square feet– stand in stark contrast to the American trend toward larger and larger homes that started in the 1970’s and peaked in the early 2000’s. The current fad in tiny houses utilizes highly designed, compact interior spaces that include most, if not all of the modern conveniences, while maintaining a very traditional, cute cottage exterior appearance that makes them more enticing to tiny house newbies. Despite their small footprint, tiny houses retain a warm, cozy feel, which is key to their appIMG_0525eal.

This charm factor, or more precisely the lack of perceived charm, may have lead to the demise of an early 20th century precursor to the tiny house movement of today. In 1930, visionary architect R. Buckminster Fuller designed the Dymaxion House, an 1,100 square foot cylindrical aluminum yurt-like dwelling that is as radical today as it was in the last century. Built to house a family of four comfortably, the Dymaxion house was very much the house of the future, but unfortunately for Fuller, that future still has not arrived. Despite the positive public reception to the design, only two of Dymaxion houses were ever built. In 1945, after 15 years of development, the dymaxion design was finally prototyped, in in response to the post WWII housing shortage. However, the design never reached full production. The only intact Dymaxion house is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Fuller’s original design included features that are still considered futuristic, but it may be time to re-examine them as we move forward into the era of the tiny house. The Dymaxion house was intended to reduce water consumption by using a greywater system and a “packaging commode” which prepared waste for composting, rather than sending it to a central wastewater treatment facility. A “fogger” was designed to replace showers, using compressed air and a reduced amount of water to replace the traditional shower. The entire house was designIMG_0541ed to be shipped to the site inside the central support tube. The Dymaxion house was to be inexpensive enough to pay off within five years, like an automobile.

The word Dymaxion was coined by combining parts of three of Bucky’s favorite words: DY (dynamic), MAX (maximum), and ION (tension). Unlike the traditional stick-frame square construction of current tiny houses, the Dymaxion house was built on a central support with aluminum roof struts radiating out from the middle. This tension-based design is extremely strong and resistant to high winds. With factory-built components, the Dymaxion house could be erected quickly, and would withstand weather even in the harshest conditions.

Some of Fuller’s ideas about the industrial manufacturing of shelter were later incorporated into the home construction industry, but the beautiful design of the dymaxion house was never developed. Fuller’s later design breakthrough, the Geodesic Dome, did make it’s way into common use, but even now, is symbolic of a futuristic design concept that does not fit into the square, box-like aesthetic of the developed world. Perhaps it is finally time for the next generation of tiny home owners to reexamine the design breakthroughs of one of the 20th century’s design visionaries.

Buckminster Fuller in Conversation with Maharishi

The Dymaxion House at the Henry Ford

Rich Dana is the Sustainable Living Department's Director of Microenterprise Development. He works directly with students to develop ideas and implement projects. He is a serial entrepreneur, a freelance writer and partner in Plan B Consulting. He has served as an energy specialist at the National Center for Appropriate Technology, President of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association, and lobbyist for the Iowa Farmers Union. At 53, he still likes to climb on roofs and install solar equipment.


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