Welcome to a World of Opposite Directions

Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 12:44 PM
Starting Points are important. When Buckminster Fuller designed a series of houses known as the Dymaxion Project, he started with the universe.

Later, he ended up with a prefabricated design.

When Nicolas Lacy designed Container City in London, he started with a box.

Later, it became a system of building that spread around the world.

The development of each of these projects can be traced in opposite directions.

The Dymaxion Project began with a set idea about the universe and the future, and became progressively more specific until it culminated in a prefabricated design.

Container City began with a prefabricated building block, and grew into multiple possibilities for the future.

In succeeding posts, these threads are picked up, woven together, and carried along to describe the development and results of Fuller's and Lacy's designs.

In the end, although "Bucky's" design did not enjoy the same kind of direct success with which Container City has been met, we are not passing judgment on his method or his views.

However, it does seem clear that big visions require a revolution in order to happen.

In the case of the Dymaxion House, Fuller's theory about the entire universe was to be encompassed in a single design, meant to be the beginning of a cure for all humand problems. He had to use prefabrication in a mass-produced way, designing every component of his houses from scratch. A whole new industry would have been required to put his ideas in production.

Small visions, on the other hand, based on things, happen in regard to situations.

Container City began with a single building block. Because there was a surplus of containers in the West, Nicolas Lacy's design was essentially using 'off-the-shelf' materials, rather than creating any new infrastructure. The plan worked at a small scale, and began to grow.

The pragmatic approach is not the only way, and there is still a place for visionary ideas. But in a postmodern world which changes constantly, beginning with things and situations is more flexible.

In any case, welcome. Welcome to a world of opposite directions.

Prefabricated Components of Dymaxion Dwelling Machine

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To examine the nature of the relationship between the structure and construction of the Dymaxion dwelling machine, including how these inform the overall shape of the building, it is crucial to understand the underlying objectives of the project. The dwelling was designed to be mass produced through prefabrication making it affordable, and to be easy to transport and assemble. In fact, the entire dwelling was designed so it would be only slightly more expensive then a car and could be assembled by a single person without any help. Both the shape of the building and its structural system work together to meet these criteria.

When designing the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine, Fuller took advantage of the tensile strength of steel. The entire structure is suspended in tension from a central mast which transmits the loads to the foundations. The benefit to this tensile structure is that it dramatically reduces the size and weight of the structural members: thin steel rods and aluminum sheets compared to bulky 2x4’s and heavy bricks. As a result of the tensile structure the building weighed a mere 2.7 tons, in comparison to a traditional 135 ton building, and with each piece weighing less than 10 lb. it could be constructed by only one person. The building was also incredibly strong standing to even the harshest of environments, to prove this the Witchita house was constructed under gale force winds. Additionally, when a tornado passed within 300 yards of the dwelling in 1964 the house emerged undamaged. It is also worthy to note that the structure is built primarily from the top down due to its tensile nature. The floorboards are erected first to provide a surface to work on following this the roof is assembled, hoisted in to place, and the remainder of the building envelope is built from the roof to the floor.

In addition the circular dome shape of the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine also allows for a significant reduction in weight by minimizing the envelope. The sphere contains the most volume in relation to surface area (the circle accomplishes this in two dimensions), this is why bubbles are always round: it is the most efficient shape. The dome shape of the building takes advantage of this property and minimizes the amount of building envelope needed to enclose the space. This results once again in a reduction of weight and cost. Furthermore the circular arrangement of all the structural members in the building allows for maximum repetition in all components allowing for much greater efficiency in mass production and a much lower cost.

It is clear that by minimizing the weight, size, variety, and amount of structural components including the building the envelope that the Dymaxion machine has met all of its objectives. The dwelling is very lightweight making it easy to transport and assemble. The building is also well suited to mass production and, if mass produced, extremely affordable.

Myles McCaulay

Existing Container Projects

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Below are links to a number of projects using shipping containers, many of which were inspired by Container City.

Shipping Container Renderings

Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 11:52 PM
Enter the Shipping Container.

The Future of Container Projects

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Below are several other container projects, showing ideas inspired by Container City.

Buckminster Fuller's Convoluted Journey from Philosophy to "Aeronautical-Engineering-Counterpart Dwell-in-able House"

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Those words are not mine. That's how Bucky described his Dymaxion Dwelling Machine. But we're not there yet.

Based on his views about the universe, Fuller began to sketch, and write, and design, and think. He worked with an implicit set of 4 main criteria:
i) He would design for the individual, not for the community.
ii) He would design from the inside to the outside.
iii) He would use materials and resources to maximum efficiency.
iv) His designs would have neutral and temporary qualities.

And so, as usually happens when one begins with philosophy, he came up with a crazy idea. He began to sketch designs for what he calls his "Lightful Towers", also known as "4-D House". They were designed as portable, 10-story residences which a zeppelin would be able to lift and take to wherever it was to be placed. The zeppelin would dig the foundation, of course, by dropping a bomb onto the site to create the hole.
At this point, Fuller's designs were loose and conceptual: his ideas about the universe were clearly expressed in them, but they hadn't quite 'come to earth'. During this time, he made a revision, and the tower changed to a two-story house - it would be more practical, he thought. It became known as the 4-D Dymaxion House.

We will examine each of these in terms of Fuller's criteria.

i) He would design for the individual, not for the community.
Although Bucky recognized the importance of community, his ideas about the dangers of passively accepting the beliefs of others caused him to place more emphasis on individuals, not groups. He wanted to create places where people could learn from their own experiences.

He saw the sheltering house as a mediator between humans and their universe: a tool, a lens, for understanding and viewing the world.
The house was also designed to be completely independent from city infrastructure - it would be off-grid. However, at this early stage, he didn't know specifically how this might be done.

He had some ideas about that, though. The drawing above shows two possibilities: one a wind turbine on top of the tower, which would generate electicity for the building, and the other a rotating streamlined shield around the structure, which would reduce wind-drag, and thus heat loss.
ii) He would design from the inside to the outside.
The first thing to happen at this stage was that Bucky decided that right angles were evil,
and set out to desecrate rectilinear geometry.

Let's not judge him too harshly: he wasn't just saying that he didn't like squares. Bucky was working from the universe onward, and so it was important to him to generate forms using only the principles of nature. Right angles were clumsy and unstable, rarely found in the natural world. The earth didn't operate on the basis of x, y, and z axes, which lacked direction and subtlety. Words like "up" and "down" offended Fuller's precision of language - everything was really either "in" or "out" from a centre of gravity.
Everything on earth fanned out from a central point. And so, in the design of the Lightful Houses, three axes changed to multiple rays springing from a central point - a mast, a column - something that would stand tall, and rise above the surface of the world.

Aside from the geometry, this seemed quite natural to Bucky. Humans stood upright. Why should their architecture walk on four legs.

In the next stage of his ideas - the 4-D Dymaxion House - Fuller realized that the hexagonal shape also allowed him to use the efficient strength of the triangle to maximum advantage. Eventually, he developed "synergetics", a whole system of geometry and mathematics based on triangles and tetrahedrons. Bucky was sure he had found the generating process used by nature to create its forms.
As a practical application of designing from inside to outside, the house was based around its central mast, with its services centred there, and living areas fanning out around it.

In both houses, naturally, the circulation also moved literally from the centre and outwards.

iii) He would use materials and resources to their maximum efficiency.
Bucky was extremely upset at the waste generated by construction and building. Because of his ideas about all of humanity being together on a finite "Spaceship Earth", he determined to waste nothing. This is why his towers spread upward and not outward - he was saving finite land.
More importantly, he developed a system in which metals could be used efficiently in tension, rather than compression.

He would use the central mast as the only loadbearing part of his structure - the rest would hang, supported by tensile cables (red), and held rigid by compression rings (blue).

This system of separating the tensile and compressional members later became known as "tensegrity".
iv) His designs would have neutral and temporary qualities.
Fuller's emphasis on mass production will become clearer in posts regarding the culmination of these designs - the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine. However, even in these early examples, he planned to be efficient by producing houses much as cars are produced - using prefabrication and assembly lines.
Aside from making good houses affordable for everyone, Bucky wanted to make the houses a backdrop to life, rather than an expression of individuality. He said that they were like musical instruments - utterly silent and lifeless on their own, but able to play any melody the performer chooses.
The temporal nature of his designs can be illustrated by a section of the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine:
The only things touching the ground are the anchors of the tensile wires, and a single plate foundation for the mast.
Fuller's earliest house designs stood in isolation, balanced on a slim, compressional mast, while the rest of their structures floated gracefully down in tensile poetry.

From Then To Now : Shipping Container Homes

Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 9:07 PM

The idea to use shipping containers for housing first came about due to the surplus of empty containers around the United States. America imports finished good; it seems to have given up on manufacturing it's own goods. Their goods are imported using container ships which are emptied and then refilled with the exports. However, the number of imports far out way the exports so empty shipping containers are filling the ports.

The idea came about to use the containers as living spaces, something that seemed to be developed only because of its novelty, and experiential qualities. Places like Container City, London and the Amsterdam student housing projects were a perfect example of this. They probably wouldn't have been as successful if it wasn't for their novelty. However these projects should our human ingenuity; we were faced with a problem and we came up with a reasonable, economical and logical solution. Which seemed to benefit all those involved. People had houses, ports were cleared and there were clear ecological benefits.

As of late the idea of using shipping containers as suitable housing has further developed. Some companies have now taken this idea and applied it to the redevelopment of underdeveloped parts of the world. A company that started out as a college design competition is now set to produce instant houses for poorer folks in Mexico.

The idea is simple, they get surplus cheap shipping containers from the U.S. and retrofit these containers into instant houses that they can ship anywhere. Their idea is to give people something better than the pallet and cardboard shacks they have now, but it is still affordable for them.

Recently, due to the Haiti earthquake, there have been talks about using shipping containers in order to cope in emergency situations. Clemson's School of Architecture collaborated on the project to create a method to convert the shipping containers into homes. The original idea was inspired by the housing crisis that have followed large hurricanes in the Caribbean and United States. However the lead professor believes that the shipping containers would work in earthquake prone areas. He says, "because of the unibody construction they are also very good in seismic zones and exceeds structural codes in the United States and in any country in the world."

The faculty and students' main idea was to find a way to put displaced people in emergency housing that could be both sturdy and safe on a permanent site. But, putting families back on their own land quickly is still the key objective. This shows that something that was first seen as a novelty and highly experimental, has become something so much more. The shipping containers went from being a nuisance to being used to aid those in need. The progression of this prefab housing idea in such a short time illustrates how far society can come in such a short time.

Dymaxplosion: Prefabricated Systems of Dymaxion Dwelling Machine

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For Don - here is an exploded perspective with shades and shadows. It shows the component systems of the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine separated vertically.

And... something isn't right about that sky.
The prefabricated components can be seen in the following rendering, beginning from the top and moving down:
1. Ventilation cap and aluminum roof gores.
2. Carlin drainage channels.
3. Web of tensile cables.
4. Compression rings.
5. Interior partitions, created from utility pods.
6. Wrap-around glazing and aluminum wall-cladding.
7. Central mast and foundation block, with floor structure.

General Rendered Views of the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine

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Below are views of the roof of the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine and its ventilation cap.

The image below is a stripped-away rendering of the tensile structure in the Dwelling Machine.

The following is a rendering of the dwelling machine with some of the roof sheathing cut away.
This image shows a general rendered view. Note the tensile cables still visible behind the glazing, and the points where they meet the ground to anchor the suspended structure.

A Tour of Container City

Monday, January 18, 2010 at 1:24 AM
The characteristic of shipping containers that enables their use as structural building blocks is their standardization. From the specifications in ISO 1496-1:1990, the most common standard single container has a length of 40 feet, a width of 8 feet, and a height of 8 feet. Common variations include an alternative height of 9.5 feet, and shorter containers of 20 feet long, and the standards also allow for 30-foot and 10-foot long containers. Their durability is a product of the welded, 2mm Corten steel construction.

Container City I as erected in 2001 consisted of 15 uniform containers, each at 40 feet long, providing a total floor area of approximately 4800 square feet. Each floor is composed of 5 alternating, parallel containers. A later expansion project added 5 containers directly on top, creating a 4th floor and resulting in a total area of roughly 6400 square feet.

Container City II was constructed in 2002 with 30 40-foot containers in a more varied configuration creating 22 studio spaces over its 5 floors, providing approximately 9600 square feet. This project is in a sense an expansion of the more conservative Container City I; containers are not limited to rigid, vertical stacks and whole floors cantilver up to 24 feet with support columns.

While the USM project site for CC1 refers to the fourth floor addition providing "three additional live/work apartments," Eric Reynolds, USM managing director in 2001, says they are "aiming to create cheap but stylish workspaces in a modular fashion." (in an article by David Taylor in the February 8, 2001 issue of The Architects' Journal) The rest of the unfortunately brief article also consistently refers only to workspace or studios. My conclusion then about the distribution of spaces is that the first 3 floors are entirely work/studio space and the new fourth floor is a combination of work and living space.

Also, wrt "How it is Made" in Sean's post below, I can confirm that at least for the first three floors, "the scheme is welded together." (ibid.)

Container City 1 is structurally straightforward: each layer is square, composed of 5 parallel, alternating 40-foot containers. The layout of each floor is evident in the above elevations (ibid.), and the fourth floor addition is externally identical to the second and third floors.

The USM FAQs document states that approximately 300mm pad foundations are necessary at the nodes. The characteristic circular windows visible on both Container Cities is in fact a result of structural engineering: the circular shape doesn't introduce any stress on the structure. Roofing options range from standard flat roofs to green roofs; this accounts for the various rooftop surfaces visible in the following aerial photos, as well as the appearance of the roof of the nearby Riverside Building (the yellow building with a glazed facade facing the river, another USM container building project).

    (Images courtesy of Virtual Globetrotting)

    The following set of photos move in a general clockwise direction around the combined Container City project, starting from the east side, facing Container City II.

    (Image courtesy of Flickr)

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