Less is More, is Less, is More

By Sheep T. Iconoclast, 10 September 2000
Image: Dymaxion Car No.1, Courtesy Design Museum

Sheep T. Iconoclast on Buckminster Fuller, a man way before his time

When John Prescott announced the need to build one million new houses in the next five years, many in the building industry believed this could not be done. If R. Buckminster Fuller had seen his vision fulfilled, though, Prescott might have been announcing a record in the number of buildings exported.

The Dymaxion house was one of Buckminster Fuller’s first quests and in many ways defined the kind of thinking he was going to develop over the next 70 years. Its core idea was simple: if you want to make a house attainable for everyone, you have to mass-produce homes like automobiles. The Dymaxion house seems more like a ship or aircraft (both significant influences on BF). A mast in the centre holds up wires that spread out to hold up the floors by tension. Fuller realised that mass production must take advantage of modern materials. Things like steel work well in tension, in contrast to Victorian materials like brick, which work well in compression. This technical tension’s influence can be seen in many ‘futuristic’ buildings like the Millennium Dome, the London Eye and Waterloo International Station.

In the 20s and 30s Fuller pronounced that a house like the Dymaxion could be built in a factory, erected in a day and cost around 3000 dollars. To do this, he behaved like an engineer, reducing the weight of a normal house from 150 tones to just three – a process he dubbed ‘ephemeralisation’. While wandering though Your Private Sky, the Design Museum’s exhibition of Fuller’s life, you cannot help wondering whether Fuller succeeded or failed in his global ambitions.

Modern domestic building design is little more than the selection and assembly of mass-produced components. The process is still a last haven for pre-industrial craft construction. This combines the worst aspect of mass production (mindless repetition) with the worst elements of craft (expenditure, quality problems, low design input per item, slow delivery). Imagine a car being built the same way a house is. The car architect tries to work around your requirements. Next he orders many predefined components (wheels, seats, engine) from lots of different manufacturers. One day some men turn up in your drive and spend the next month fitting all these components together. Most of their time is spent waiting for things to turn up in time and discovering that this crankshaft won’t actually work with this gear box as planned. It seems like we have not understood the message of the Dymaxion house.

Fuller’s vision was that ephemeralisation was enough, so no one had to compromise their standard of living to let others reach it. Yet the distribution of energy and material consumption is still skewed (according to F. Krause, W. Bach and J. Koomey, authors of Energy Policy in the Greenhouse, 25% of the world’s population use 66% of the energy); despite a lifetime of promotion the message of Dymaxionisation never got through. Alternatively, the modern economy is becoming the conceptual economy. The UK now exports more music than steel (in terms of value, at least); we earn more from consultancy than mining. This is a perfect example of the Dymaxion – doing less with more.

Perhaps John Prescott should visit the design museum to get some pointers on how to get everyone housed.

Sheep T. Iconoclast <>

The exhibition ‘Buckminster Fuller: Your Private Sky’ continues at the Design Museum until 15 October 2000. <>