A checkup turns into surgery – repairing the Dymaxion House

A planned two-week checkup inspection of the iconic house of the future – Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House – turned into a two-month long “surgery” to repair extensive fatigue cracking of the thin aluminum beams that form the deck of the house. The cracks were visible from the underside, which is only accessible by sliding on your back on the museum’s teak floor in about 18 inches of workspace.

Dymaxion House - axionometric view - Henry Ford Museum

Axionometric view of the Dymaxion House

Thorough inspection indicated that the damage was happening only in areas where the public walks. There were no cracks in the living room, which has never been accessible to visitors.

The cracks were developing due to the flexing of metal at the sharp edge of L-shaped brackets supporting the beams. Remember, there was no precedent for the use of aluminum in this architectural application, so we guess that Bucky was never aware he had allowed this fundamental design flaw. The house was a prototype in process – so it’s understandable.

Dymaxion House repair tune-up - Henry Ford Museum

Tim Brewer and Clara Deck open the floor to expose the beams for repair.

Our first look at the problem set off a flurry of activity to plan for repair. Fortunately, we had most of the expertise and labor required right on staff. Tim Brewer was there every step of the way when we put the house together the first time in Oct 2001; he knows every bolt and cable of the complicated dwelling machine.

Dymaxion House tune-up repairs - Henry Ford Museum

Jill Maki carefully removes the floorboards.

Our dedicated volunteer Richard Jeryan, a retired engineer from Ford Motor Company, knew the best local firm to jump in and manufacture repair patches for us. Metro Technologies, located in Troy, Mich., made and helped install the necessary patches using high-tech adhesive and large rivets.

Most of the conservation department had a role as well. Some of our part-time staff – notably Fran McCans and Jill Maki – put in many extra hours to see this fascinating project through in good time.

Dymaxion House tune-up repair - Henry Ford Museum

A technician from Metro Tech applying adhesive

Just getting at the problem required the removal of hundreds of fasteners – the stainless steel bolts, wood screws and aluminum rivets that hold the whole house together. Removing all those rivets while working in such tight spaces was challenging.

Dymaxion House tune-up repairs - Henry Ford Museum

Clara Deck, Richard Jeryan and Tim Brewer move a pod to get to the repair work.

We lifted and moved the closet “pods” to open up more of the floor.  We shored the structure with lumber and removed the offending brackets. We pounded-out the floor-boards to access the bolts that retained the brackets.

Dymaxion House tune-up at Henry Ford Museum

Tim Brewer drills a crack with magnification. The workspaces were very tight.

Then we drill-out the ends of the cracks to arrest their progress in preparation for the addition of thicker aluminum patches custom-fit to the tapered U-shaped profile of the beams.

Dymaxion initial installation

This photo was taken during initial installation of the house in the museum. You can see some of the floor beams in place.

Dymaxion House tune-up repairs - Henry Ford Museum

MetroTech workers installing a patch for more stability.

Two Metro Tech guys came in to apply the patches. Then we closed the first half and repeated the whole process for the second half of the deck.

Meanwhile, we worked with staff carpenters to make a new “over-floor” of plywood to install under the carpet.  This serves to spread the load of visitors’ foot-falls, reducing that flexing stress that causes fatigue in metals.

Dymaxion House - Henry Ford Museum

Exterior view of the Dymaxion House.

After reassembly and the carpet is relaid, the change will go unnoticed by most visitors.

Those of us familiar with the house can feel a distinct difference: it feels much more solid. Bucky meant for the house to hang from the mast.  He described the deck as “pneumatic” in some publications…but he had no idea that his prototype would become one of Henry Ford Museum’s most loved exhibits one day, with hundreds of thousands of visitors walking through it every year.

We think our work has preserved this house for another couple generations at least.  Only time will tell.

Clara Deck is a Senior Conservator at The Henry Ford.