Episode 89: Bubble Houses

If you were a movie star in the market for a mansion in 1930s Los Angeles, there was a good chance you might call on Wallace Neff.

Neff wasn’t just an architect–he was a starchitect. One of his most famous projects was the renovation of Pickfair, the estate owned by the iconic silent film actress Mary Pickford, and her husband Douglas Fairbanks. When the couple moved into Pickfar, the house sat on a nameless street in an empty neighborhood called Beverly Hills. If you were lucky enough to be invited to dinner at Pickfair you might find yourself seated next to Babe Ruth, the King of Spain or Albert Einstein. Life magazine called Pickfair “only slightly less important than the white house, and much more fun.” Neff designed estates for Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland and Groucho Marx. His Libby Ranch is now owned by Reese Witherspoon.

But at the end of his life, Wallace Neff lived in a 1,000 square foot concrete bubble. And Neff believed that this simple dome was his greatest architectural achievements.

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(Wallace Neff at an airform construction site. Credit: Huntington Library. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

Near the end of World War II, architects were anticipating the post-war housing shortage. Neff wanted to create a solution that would not only meet this demand, but address the need for housing worldwide.

The idea came to Neff one morning when he was shaving. He looked down and noticed a soap bubble that had formed on the sink. He reached out and touched it. The bubble held firm against his fingertip. That was the moment the idea struck him. He could build with air.  He could make bubble.

And Neff wanted to build them by the thousands.

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(One of Neff’s patent drawings for a double-bubble house. Credit: Huntington Library. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

Neff never intended to make money from the bubble houses. Having already made his fortune as an architect for the rich and famous (and his grandfather was Andrew McNally, founder of Rand McNally publishing), Neff say these bubble houses as a way of fulfilling a social responsibility. He wanted to engineer a new way to provide low-cost housing.

For the record, dome-shaped living structures was not a new idea. The indigenous Acjachemon of Southern California had wickiups, the Ojibwe had wigwams, and the Inuit had (and still have) igloos.  And even during Neff’s lifetime, Buckminster Fuller was creating his own circular solution to the housing shortage: The Geodesic Dome. (See Episode #64). But Neff’s design was something completely different.

The process was called “airform.” First, a big slab of concrete was poured in the shape of a giant coin.

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(Credit: Huntington Library. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

Next, they inflated a giant balloon in the shape of a grapefruit, with the flat side down. This balloon was tied down to the foundation using steel hooks.

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(Credit: Huntington Library. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

After the balloon was inflated it was coated in a fine powder. And then it was cover with a magical substance called gunite–the product of water and dry cement mix combined at a high pressure and shot out of a gun.

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(Credit: Huntington Library. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

Two men with a balloon and a gunite machine could turn a bare patch of soil into a bubble house in less than 48 hours. And after the gunite dried the balloon was deflated and pulled out through the front door so it could be used again on the next house.

When the gunite dried it was more than twice as strong as regular concrete. Wallace Neff was so confident in his design that he would invite people to bash the walls of the bubble  with the back side of an axe. The axe would just bounce off.

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(Courtesy of Steve Roden and Jeffrey Head.)

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(Courtesy of Steve Roden and Jeffrey Head.)

In October of 1941, Neff began construction on a community of twelve bubble houses in Falls Church, Virginia. The project was paid for by the federal government, and was used to house government workers.  The neighborhood would eventually take on the nickname Igloo Village.

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(Credit: Wallace Neff. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

Life in a bubble house could be problematic. Their round rooms were difficult to furnish, and the concave walls were not conducive to hanging pictures.

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(Credit: Huntington Library, Maynard Parker Collection.)

 

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(Courtesy of Steve Roden and Jeffrey Head.)

Igloo Village was in the middle of the woods,  cut off from the rest of the town. And because it was so damp, mold would appear inside the house. And to make matters worse, kids from neighboring towns would drive into their community to ogle these weird buildings. There were no streetlights in Igloo Village, which served to make the headlights of the intruding cars all the more ominous and penetrating.

Wallace Neff was able to land a few more clients for his bubble houses. The Southwest Cotton Company hired him to build a desert colony of bubble houses in Litchfield Park, Arizona. Loyola University in Los Angeles contracted Neff to build a bubble house dormitory. And in 1944, the Pacific Linen Supply Company commissioned a bubble structure 100 feet in diameter and 32 feet high–the largest ever built.

Eventually everyone moved out of their bubbles. With the exception of a bubble in Pasadena that Neff himself lived in, every one of Neff’s bubbles in the United States have been demolished.

But if there was one good thing about the bubble houses, it’s that they are incredibly cheap and easy to build–qualities attractive to much of the developing world. There have been, or still are, bubble houses in Pakistan, Egypt, Liberia, India, Jordan, Turkey, Kuwait, South Africa, The Virgin Islands, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, and Brazil.

The biggest collection of bubble houses–a community of 1,200–was built in Dakar, Senegal.

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(Credit: Huntington Library. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

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(Credit: Wallace Neff. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

Many of these bubbles are still around today.

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(Credit: Candice Felt. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

Wallace Neff wanted a building solution to house the masses. So in a sense, Neff actually got what he wanted.

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(Credit: Candice Felt. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

Los Angeles-based reporter David Weinberg spoke with historian Jeffrey Head, author of No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff.  David also spoke with Kathy Miles, who grew up in Igloo Village; Steve Roden, an artist and current resident of the last remaining bubble house in the US; and architect Stefanos Polyzoides, who has his practice in a classic Spanish/Mediterranean-style Wallace Neff building. (Polyzoides personally hates the bubble houses.)

We also hear from Dakar-based producer Juliana Friend, who was nice enough to go check on the bubbles over there.

A different version of this story originally aired on KCRW as part of their Independent Producer Project.

David is also the brains behind Random Tape, an audio experiment in, well, random tape.

Music: “Memory Pictures”- Patten, “La Seine”- Hauschka, “Sunlight (Sequence 1 & 2)”- OK Ikumi, “Kamogawa”- Hauschka, “Until Then”- Orcas, “Happiness”- Hauschka, “Memory Pictures”- Patten, “Bubbles in the Forest”- Lullatone, “Scrambled (Forest World Remix)”- OK Ikumi

68 thoughts on “Bubble Houses

  1. I loved this episode, but was suprised that you said that this method of construction was dead in the US. There is a company in Texas still building these kinds of buildings, and judging from the examples on their site, they have built a substantial number of homes in the last couple of decades. The are monolithic.com. You can also find them by googling “monolithic dome.”

    • That is amazing! Personally I would think for a summer or hunting cabin it would be perfect. I am not sure if I would be interested in living in one for a long period of time.

    • I’m super happy to hear that as I live in Texas and this sounds like something that’s right up my alley! As soon as I heard this episode I was wondering if I could build one. Also considering an underground home too. Very economical and it’s amazing what you can do with concrete these days.

  2. Tatooine is right! :-) [Also, the country names are spelled: Nicaragua and Venezuela] One of these days, I’m going to have to drive through Pasadena to see the last Neff Bubble House. As usual, great show.

  3. Dome house designs are alive and well. Check out Iranian architect Nader Khalili’s ‘Super-Adobe’ parabolic dome houses at CalEarth.org !

  4. Great episode Roman.

    You have rather given the impression that Neff bubbles were an architectural cul de sac – a brief episode of innovation that was over before it really began. There is however, a second chapter to the story. The Bini Shell. In the sixties Dante Bini developed a concrete ‘bubble’ based on a modification of Neff’s technique. (Though I do not know if Bini knew of Neff.)

    The difference between a Bini shell and a Neff bubble is that the reinforcement and concrete are formed and poured flat on to the foundation and air pressure is used to raise and form the shell before the concrete sets. It was a remarkable innovation. Bini had to devise a system of rebar reinforcement that was connected by a system of springs to allow it to flex into the inflated form with the wet concrete.

    Bini shells were not a dead end. Though far from the architectural mainstream, the technology is still being used and improved. There is, of course, a web site: http://binishells.com/

    Fans of design will love the pictures at that site. The buildings are at once charmingly retro and futuristic. It mirrors the synthesis of nineteenth century aesthetics and contemporary technology we call ‘steam punk’. Unfortunately no one has coined a term for the particular re-imagining of futures past from the fifties that Bini shells conjure up.

    Finally, I am proud to say that the University I work for, Monash (Australia), has a rural campus which is the proud owner of an early Bini shell. That ‘bubble’ is eleven meters high and used 300 tons of concrete and reinforcement.

    It was inflated in one hour….

    http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5083/5368204827_19ec133225.jpg
    http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5050/5368814058_d87ea34eda.jpg

    And it still very much in use today…

    http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5047/5369390139_eb6d4939bf_z.jpg

    It would be interesting to know if Bini knew of Neff’s work and was building on it. In which case Neff bubbles were by no means a dead end. Just the first chapter in a long and still continuing story of architecture in which it is fiendishly difficult to place a wardrobe.

  5. Longtime listener, first time commentor.

    A friend of mine lived in this dome in downtown Phoenix.
    He tried to sell it on a couple of occasions, but no one could get a loan on it because the bank didn’t know how to value the house, no comps!

    This link is a picture of it: http://goo.gl/maps/gDLGz

    Could it be a Neff?
    Loved the podcast,

    Matthew

  6. Great episode, Roman! It reminds me of a “bubble” house in Midland Michigan, where I live. This structure is Gunite over a Styrofoam dome construction. The technique was quick to erect, strong and well insulated. I have been through the Robert Schwartz designed home a few times and I still find it fascinating and beautiful. For more details try this link: http://retrorenovation.com/2011/06/15/energy-efficient-1964-dome-house-built-of-styrofoam-by-robert-schwartz-a-student-of-buckminster-fuller/

  7. As a child in the mid-early 1980’s I watched a tv show on a innovative construction technique from the USA. It used something like the gunite sprayer, but more chemically based, with a 2 part substance, and not concrete. It was more a spray the gunk onto rebar formwork and let it set, but it was amazingly curvy and beautiful, (though generally vertical walls!) It was a 2 story house I recall, and it came out very white.
    I’ve been trying to find it online to see what happened to the method since. Can anyone suggest possibilities?

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  9. Loved the show. A few months ago, my husband and I went on a tour of Spaceport America, in the desert of southern New Mexico. We had gone inside the operations center there (which is not the building usually shown for the Spaceport) and been told it was built using concrete over an inflated bubble. You can see a small picture of it at http://spaceportamerica.com/do-business/contractors/ , see last item under Design Team. Can’t find anything about its construction online though.
    Thanks for your terrific show!

  10. A variant of this style was built in Palo Alto in the last five years or so:

    http://goo.gl/maps/CwcWx

    It’s four cylinders with dome and flat roofs on each cylinder.

    It sounds like it uses the tech described in the story: balloons and spray. Quite the topic of the neighborhood when it was being built.

    It was started during the height of the housing bubble. Then the housing bubble popped and it was never finished. It’s sat there unfinished and unchanging for years.

    This is a fairly pricey neighborhood. We’re all kind of wondering what’s going to happen to it.

  11. I was a little disappointed to hear the way your dismissed these homes, saying “people don’t like to live in them”. When in fact some people do. The complaints that you “can’t hang pictures” is so ridiculous. Instead of trying to make the home like another home, take it as it is and love it.

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  15. These sound like they would be very stable in earthquake prone areas like Afghanistan or Pakistan. Has any one looked into this?

  16. you sound incredibly unimaginitive when you assume that the bubble house had to be all the same shape. This is idiotic!
    any combination of bubbles and shapes that can be inflated can be made. No two need to be alike. porches, head shaped, shell shaped, gaudiesque… you made me want to smash my speaker.

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  18. could this quick and strong way to make shelter be used in the Philippines to help house all of the displaced people from the typhoon?

  19. Great episode. A well crafted story. But… Your research neglects that these forms are very typical in vernacular architecture. They are indeed responsive to some climates and acknowledge a culture of building that is still typical in many parts of the world.

    Also, If Neff was interested in fulfilling a housing shortage, why shouldn’t he be deemed successful if these prototypes are still being used in other parts of the world where quick construction and limited materials are common building constraints.

    Your final line “maybe he did get what he wanted” suggests that success is achieved first and foremost for ideas that are relevant within the United States. The typological suburban, American home is an anomaly. In no way a global standard. Don’t be afraid to be a little less US-Centric.

  20. In the late 60s and early 70s whilst attending architecture school a lot of us were Bucky (Buckminster Fuller) freaks—an offshoot developed–the foam dome. An inflated plastic bladder sprayed on the outside with polyurethane foam—instant enclosure with a very high R value! Unless oversprayed quickly with some coating UV radiation turned them 70% cacao in a few weeks. One or two popped up in Boulder and as a matter of fact one of my classmates/buddies built quite a few in his fledgling practice therafter. Off-gasing? For quite a few weeks, a no-fly zone for small birds….Hey there Ski! What’s up?!

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  25. One is being built in Pinebluff NC 28373 on Pinebluff Lake Road near Pinebluff Lake. Town has approved construction, and it looks wild! 05/13/14

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  29. This is a fantastic episode! I’m currently saving up to purchase a house, and the prospect of affordable, durable, quick airfoil construction housing is incredibly attractive. Doubly so for the Bini shell designs and other creative forms.

  30. Monolithic domes are being built all over Texas and Oklahoma. I am involved in a project building a 35,000 sq ft event center using this design. They still inflate the balloon and spray the interior with gunnite. Roman should do a follow-up.

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  32. Modular pieces of BRITE coloured anti-mould polypropylene Mold injected plastic & sikaflex glued &pop rivited Inuit construction style dome shell with flue & light openings ,press stamped steelmesh outer covered by spraycrete with1.5 m deep basement 15 m dome diameter, 2 xdouble doors & annexes diametricly opposed openings at ground level though offset from centre to catch all available breezes, internal water tanks for rainfall, slow conbustion cooker & at least two levels of floorspace @ what$$$ is that worth if you do most of the work yourself.It would be bushfire proof,defensible,longlasting,defiantly stronger than current building techniques in material ratio quantities maybe it’s time to reinvent this ancient Inuit tech because I have been through 2 category 5 tropical revolving storms (300+km/h winds) @ Innisfail Qld. Aust. Global warming or just coincident that there was 2 in a decade on the same area coastline ??? My building is cracked, I think a dome wouldn’t have any problem accept rainwater blowing in sideways!

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