Wallace Neff at an Airform construction site. Courtesy: Huntington Library / No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff by Jeffrey Head. Princeton Architectural Press.

Wallace Neff at an Airform construction site. (Huntington Library ) Image from “No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff” by Jeffrey Head. Princeton Architectural Press.

Wallace Neff was a “starchitect.” He designed houses for the wealthiest tycoons and biggest Hollywood stars of the 30′s 40′s and 50′s, including Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland and Groucho Marx.

But Wallace Neff didn’t live in a mansion himself. He lived in a 1,000 square-foot bubble made of concrete. And he believed that this simple dome was one of his greatest architectural achievements. He called it the Bubble House.

The story of the “bubble house” began with Neff in his bathroom shaving, when he looked down and noticed a small soap bubble. He reached out and touched it. The bubble held firm against his fingertip and the idea struck him — build with air.

Neff saw the Bubble House as a solution to the housing shortage that plagued America at the end of WWII. But Neff’s vision went beyond America. He wanted to provide industrialized low-cost housing to the world.

Bubble houses were cheap and could be built incredibly quickly using a new method of construction that Neff invented. He called it Airform construction.

A giant balloon was inflated through an inlet valve and then coated in Gunite, a special type of concrete which was shot out of a cement gun at high pressure. The stuff was more than twice as strong as regular concrete.

Once the Gunite dried, the balloon was deflated and dragged out the front door so it could be reused on the next house. Two workers could turn a bare patch of soil into a bubble house in less than 48 hours.

A worker applies the first of two layers of gunite to the inflated Airform balloon. (Huntington Library) Image from

A worker applies the first of two layers of gunite to the inflated Airform balloon. (Huntington Library) Image from “No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff” / Princeton Architectural Press

After Neff fine-tuned the Airform process he went in search of a client. He found one in the U.S. military, which was looking for low cost housing for employees. In October of 1941 Neff built 12 bubble houses in a forest in Falls Church Virginia. The experimental community was known as Igloo Village.

“There was no lighting of any kind on the street and we arrived in the daytime,” remembers Kathy Miles, who grew up in one of the Falls Church bubble houses.
“But it was still quite dark because there were so many trees,” she says.

When she was five years old her dad drove the family into the forest to show them their new house. He hadn’t told his wife and two daughters that they would be living in a village of igloos in the woods. It was dark and damp and isolated.

“When we got to the house there was a cleared area with many trees and very little grass, if any, and there was this house,” says Miles of the first time she saw her future home. “It didn’t look like a house to me but there was something rising up from the ground.”

Visitors at the Falls Church, Virginia bubble houses also known as “Igloo Village,” 1942. Photo by Wallace Neff. Image from from "No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff" by Jeffrey Head. Princeton Architectural Press.

Visitors at the Falls Church, Virginia bubble houses also known as “Igloo Village,” 1942. Photo by Wallace Neff. Image from from “No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff” by Jeffrey Head. Princeton Architectural Press.

 

One of Neff’s patent drawings for a double-bubble house. Courtesy Huntington Library. Image from "No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff" by Jeffrey Head. Princeton Architectural Press.

One of Neff’s patent drawings for a double-bubble house. Courtesy Huntington Library. Image from “No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff” by Jeffrey Head. Princeton Architectural Press.

Igloo Village was a failure. But despite this, a few dozen bubble houses were built around the U.S. and thousands more in other countries. But eventually everyone in the United States moved out of their bubbles and they were all demolished.

Except for one, which happens to be in Pasadena. It’s owned by Steve Roden, who says he was compelled by the cheap price tag and the weird photo on the listing.” He was fascinated by the way the bubble house looked and by its history and especially by the idea that he could live in a house that built by air. “We are essentially living in a space that was formed through air. It’s pretty profound”

Roden also makes sound installations and the bubble house’s acoustics surprised him. “This is not a perfectly smooth very precise shape. It was concrete resting on a balloon being supported by air so in the areas where there’s a little bit of disruption of the surface you get these pockets” says Roden, pointing up to the pock marked surface of his curved ceiling. “So once in a while depending on where you are standing you have a parabolic where you have sound coming directly down into your ear but no one else can hear it.”

When Kathy Miles and her sister were growing up in Igloo village they also discovered these parabolic imperfections in the walls. And they used them to send secret messages to each other. “I remember conducting experiments to see where we could not be heard” recalls Miles.

Steve Roden loves his bubble house. And being inside it with him it’s easy to appreciate the house for its strange beauty and its historical significance. But there are plenty of people who think they weren’t well thought out.

Street view, Dakar, Senegal. Photo by Wallace L. Neff. Courtesy: "No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff" by Jeffrey Head. Princeton Architectural Press.

Street view, Dakar, Senegal. Photo by Wallace L. Neff. Courtesy: “No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff” by Jeffrey Head. Princeton Architectural Press.

 

An Airform residence with garden. (Huntington Library, Maynard Parker Collection.) Image from "No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff" by Jeffrey Head. Princeton Architectural Press.

An Airform residence with garden. (Huntington Library, Maynard Parker Collection.) Image from “No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff” by Jeffrey Head. Princeton Architectural Press.

“It was a bad idea” says Pasadena architect Stefanos Polyzoides. He says the houses don’t blend into their surroundings “It did not vary in form by region, by culture or climate or any way.”

Stefanos works in a Spanish Colonial building in downtown Pasadena that he says is an example of great architecture. “This building is magnificent because of the thick walls. It’s perfect for a hot dry climate,” says Stefanos. It’s also built by Wallace Neff.

As for the bubble house, Stefanos calls it an architectural bad hair day for Neff. The only thing good about it “was that it was one of the few modernist efforts to focus on industrialization. Architects even after 100 years have still not delivered on this idea.”

Architects still haven’t come up with mass produced low-cost housing that works as well in the Sahara as it does in Canada. Wallace Neff seemed surprised that the bubble house didn’t achieve that goal. In 1977 he told the Pasadena Historical Society, “I always thought people would come rushing in by the thousands to buy houses. But it never happened.”

 

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27 Comments »

  • Robert Brown said:

    This reminds me of a garden I'd seen before. It has one bubble house in the middle of the garden.

  • Boo said:

    I do think they have their uses – perhaps as cottages? Or maybe just brought up to date with new technologies that would make them more liveable. Spraying on foam insulation would help for both the northern areas for cold and southern areas for heat.

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  • Jason Trevor said:

    I think Wallace Neff was a true visionary and I'm sorry that his ingenious design hasn't caught on. Wouldn't it be amazing to see one of those igloo homes listed on Matheson or just popping up in the neighborhood?

  • Port Coton said:

    Sometimes I feel like I live in a bubble house, one that you would see in the background of a HargraveCustomFoundationRepair.com poster. I love the concept of bubble houses and I'm sorry it didn't caught on.

  • nicolas said:

    The house looks fantastic but I think that I couldn`t live their. I like my big house, with patio. I recently bought a sliding glass door at a very good price. I have to say that if you if you're looking for a patio door security bar you can find it on SlidingPatioDoorLock.com

  • ralet said:

    This houses looks awesome. I would live in a bubble house, for sure, just to make my neighbors look at me like I'm a hipster. But it looks good, and it's a shame people are not living in them anymore. I personally see it with a fire place inside. I would buy my entire furniture from Ashley and I would wake up in the morning in a place that says something about me.

  • mike said:

    It will be great to have a house like this. The shape it`s amazing. I could do miracles with the interior design. I love to redecorate houses. Recently I discovered on http://www.clockshoppes.com/mantel-clocks.aspx great interior design objects.

  • michael said:

    I would love to live in a house like this. It looks amazing. Right now we are moving in a new house but we have problems with heating, ventilation and air conditioning. We need to buy new parts. We found great offers on http://www.hvacpartsshop.com.

  • fixer said:

    I was also in a bubble house just like the one in the picture and I was pleasantly impressed. Although it might seem small I assure you that it's very spacious, has very nice furniture and practical sliding shelves.

  • steven said:

    I must admit that bubble house looks really great and it's more spacious than it seems. I heard that it's windows were bought from Allstate, they look really great.

  • stevenio said:

    I love that bubble house, it looks really great, but because it's situated in the woods, I can bet that they have problems with termites. I would recommend them to check http://www.anybuganypest.com/, I'm sure they will get help in this matter.

  • stevenio said:

    The location of this bubble house is great , it's all green silence is everywhere. I believe a nice custom pool from <a href="http://www.alderetepools.com” target=”_blank”>www.alderetepools.com would look awesome in the backyard.

  • rogero said:

    That bubble house looks really nice, I would also like to live in one of those. I'm wondering where do they wash their carpets because I would be glad to recommend them Westerkamp's Dry Carpet Cleaning.

  • rogero said:

    That is a very nice looking bubble house but it's a little bit too old and it might have some problems with the water system. That is why I would recommend to the owner if he wants to modernize it a little, he should check ballardwaterwell.net.

  • rogero said:

    These bubble houses look really awesome, I would love to live in one just like that. I saw a few similar houses last month in an advertise from Vistancia Homes.

  • rogero said:

    I saw a bubble house just like that for sale on http://www.pillsburyseniorcommunities.com/. First I was very skeptical regarding this type of houses but after I've read this article I changed my mind. Now I would also like to buy a house just like this one.

  • rogero said:

    That's a very nice house, I would love living something like that. It looks really special and it needs special furniture and special flooring, I saw something great which would really fit in on <a href="http://www.seflooringamerica.com/” target=”_blank”>www.seflooringamerica.com/.

  • alehandro said:

    Thanks for this awesome article, indeed that bubble house looks nice and I would also like to buy one. A friend told me that he saw something similar for sale on Blumre.com/.

  • alehandro said:

    I bought a bubble house just like that last year and now I want to decorate it. I want to install a special kitchen so I've chosen the best kitchen remodeling company in NYC to help me.

  • alehandro said:

    I recently bought a bubble house just like the one in the picture and now I want to redecorate it. I will do it all by myself, so I will need lots of tips and some good soldering tools.

  • alehandro said:

    I like these bubble houses very much and I would really like to live in one just like that. I saw something similar for sale on the homepage of a real estate agency.

  • alehandro said:

    This bubble house has a great location , it's all green silence is everywhere. I believe a nice custom pool from <a href="http://www.alderetepools.com” target=”_blank”>www.alderetepools.com would look awesome in the backyard.

  • alehandro said:

    I like this bubble house a lot and it's location is great, it's all green silence is everywhere. I believe a nice custom pool from <a href="http://www.alderetepools.com” target=”_blank”>www.alderetepools.com would look awesome in the backyard.

  • gigig said:

    These bubble houses are very interesting, I'm sure that many people would like to buy one. I recently saw houses like that for sale on this website and they aren't so expensive.

  • johnny b said:

    I like this kind of houses a lot although they have a strange shape. The only problem is that because of their strange shape you need special tools and accessories to renovate them. You can find all these tools at http://www.americanstorefixture.com/pegboardhooks….

  • Happymeall said:

    I love so much the shape of this bubble house that I decided to build one exactly the same but to be perfect I needed help from professional builders. A friend told me that I should click here to see more info.

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