I’ve shamelessly cribbed topics from my favorite podcasts before so I’ve got few reservations about doing it again. Last week 99% Invisible brought up Wallace Neff’s contribution to postwar housing, his “bubble houses”. You can listen to the podcast (and, ironically, see a bunch of great pictures) and skip the next paragraph, or read on for my cliff notes.
Wallace Neff was a star-chitect in the literal sense, in that he made much of his living designing upscale houses for movie stars. (Topic for a different day: why don’t movie stars hire famous architects?) As World War II drew to a close he decided he wanted to put aside the glamour of LA and contribute to creating affordable houses for returning soldiers. The result: inexpensive concrete domes. A big sturdy bubble is inflated with air over a circular concrete foundation and then sprayed with concrete. Once the bubble is deflated, the inside of the bubble can be lived in.
On paper, these houses hit all the sweet spots. They capitalize on an abundant cheap material. With the right equipment they’re not only easy to build, they’re fast (done in 48 hours). But the bubble houses never caught on. They looked weird. People couldn’t find a place for grandma’s hutch against the curved walls. And with Levittowns and other sister developments going up everywhere, returning veterans could eat their cake and have it too. The economy began to boom following the war and very cheap housing just wasn’t important to people who could suddenly afford a “normal” house in suburbia.
Abundance of natural resources makes it difficult to think outside the box. Not only that, the building industry has become so standardized to a 4’x8′ module that innovative solutions, while they may be cheaper in the long term, are expensive to start up. You can see this conflict in the pictures of the bubble houses above; rectangular windows and doors are awkwardly smashed against the round shape of the bubble. Now it’s not enough to be cheap, people want affordable houses but they also want them to be stylish (witness the 100k house and others). In architecture as in so many industries looking to reduce cost and increase energy efficiency, the insiders need to take a stand regarding industry trends. Be forceful against the trends that make the long term situation worse and be creative in establishing price and environmental responsibility.