I recently re-read an essay written by R. Buckminster Fuller called “Universal Requirements of a Dwelling Advantage.”

As a designer thinking about houses in 1939, Fuller asked the most important question that every manufacturer should ask about their products and every architect should ask about the buildings they design:  What is this product for? More specifically, what are the critical functions this product needs to perform for its users (or inhabitants)? Based on the answers to those questions, products and buildings should be redesigned to deliver their desired functions with the least amount of resources possible.

Fuller saw the house as a sophisticated tool that needs to be designed as an integrated whole, as opposed to a traditional structure with a lot of different things in it.  The dwelling tool performs critical functions to keep people safe, healthy, comfortable, and give them access to a variety of services.  It serves two primary functions: boundary and node.  The boundary is a protective function that separates outside and inside conditions, separating inhabitants from extreme temperatures and adverse weather conditions, human intruders, non-human predators, invasion of privacy, and so on.  As a node, it connects the house to critical social, technological, and economic networks.  It connects to regional electric and other energy systems (through electric and gas lines), the water and waste systems (through water pipes and sewers), the global food system (through a kitchen and its fridge, pantry, stove, etc.), and transportation systems (through sidewalks, a garage, and the driveway).

As far back as World War II, Fuller felt strongly that our system of building, distributing, and financing of housing was completely out of sync with what was technologically possible.  He argued that designing dwellings as integrated systems meant we could make them work more efficiently, safely, and inexpensively, and at the same time less destructive to our ecological environment.  He advocated for using state-of-the-art aircraft technology to build dwellings.  He believed we could build houses that protected and served more people, more effectively, and more reliably than any houses of the times for a fraction of the cost.  His goal was to design a shelter that could be paid for with one or two years of an average citizen's income, which would eliminate the financing system that keeps people in debt for a lifetime.  His efforts were truly about designing the most house with the least resources and cost.

Presently, a 2000 square foot, two-story American house weights about 250 tons (not including appliances, cabinets, HVAC systems, etc.).  That house takes a year to build, involves major excavation to install a concrete foundation that holds it up, is extremely ineffective at resisting hurricanes, earthquakes and other acts of nature, and is inefficient in processing water, energy, and waste.

In the 1940s, Fuller's experimental Dymaxion house built at Beach Aerospace Corporation in Wichita didn't require all that mass.  Rather than deriving its strength from the ground through a massive concrete foundation, his building had structural integrity.  It could bounce around in an earthquake but not be affected in any way.  Rather than fighting the wind that would blow a normal house apart in a severe hurricane, his dwelling was aerodynamic and split the wind like an aircraft wing.  His house needed only to be held down by cables, not held up by thicker walls.  Rather than requiring a major excavation process that involved digging up the earth and disturbing the local ecology, his dwelling required only one vertical mast inserted into the ground.  The rest of the house hung over the mast like a donut.

Some of the ideas in his house ideas are still advanced.  Others are commonplace.  But overall we still continue to build most of our homes based on 19th century techniques and skills.  That is why materials like wood, concrete, and heating fuel cost so much.  We are tying up materials in dwellings for a few, while the costs are too high and steadily climbing for others.  There are oppportunities to improve performance for all - to get more benefits from fewer resources, making housing more functional and more accessible.

Somehow we need to break out of the current pattern, for housing as well as the full range of products and infrastructure.  I believe we can start by going back to Fuller’s first question: What is this product for?


For more on integrated design, see “Are You Financing an Energy War in Your House?