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The birth of the geodesic dome; how Buckminster Fuller did it. THIRD PART.
By Admin (from 01/02/2012 @ 15:06:04, in en - Science and Society, read 2825 times)

The Ford Dome

In 1953, Fuller and his geodesic dome were elevated to international prominence when the first conspicuous commercial geodesic dome was produced. That structure was erected in answer to a Ford Motor Company problem believed to be insoluble.  During 1952, Ford was in the process of preparing for its fiftieth anniversary celebration the following year, and Henry Ford II, grandson of Henry Ford and head of the company, decided he wanted to fulfill one of his grandfather's dreams as a tribute to the company's founder.  The senior Ford had always loved the round corporate headquarters building known as the Rotunda but had wanted its interior courtyard covered so that the space could be used during inclement Detroit weather.

File:Eden Project geodesic domes panorama.jpg

Panoramic view of the geodesic domes at the The Eden Project

Unfortunately -- but fortunately for Bucky -- the building was fairly weak. It had originally been constructed to house the Ford exhibition at the Chicago World's Fair of 1933, but Henry Ford had so loved the building that he had had it disassembled and shipped in pieces to Dearborn, where it was reconstructed. Having been designed as a temporary structure, the fragile Rotunda building could not possibly support the 160-ton weight that Ford's engineers calculated conventional steel-frame dome would require.  Under such pressure, the building's thin walls would have immediately collapsed.

Still, Henry Ford II was a determined person, and he wanted the courtyard covered.  Consequently, Ford management and engineers continued searching for an answer until someone suggested calling Buckminster Fuller.  By that time, Fuller's work drawing international attention, and although his geodesic dome had yet to be proven effective in an industrial project, desperate Ford officials decided they should at least solicit Bucky's opinion.  When he arrives at the Detroit airport, Fuller was greeted by a Ford executive in a large limousine who treated him like royalty, quickly escorting him to the Rotunda building for an inspection.  After a short examination of the 93-foot opening requiring a dome, Ford management asked the critical question: Could Fuller build a dome to cover the courtyard?  With no hesitation, Bucky answered that he certainly could, and the first commercial geodesic dome began to take shape.

The Ford executives next began to question the specifications of Fuller's plan.  When they asked about weight, he made some calculations and answered that his dome would weigh approximately 8.5 tons, a far cry from their 160-ton estimate.  Ford management also requested a cost estimate and advised Fuller that, because of the upcoming anniversay celebration, the dome had to be completed within the relatively short period of a few months.  When Fuller's price was well below Ford's budget and he agreed to construct the dome within the required time frame, he was awarded a contract.

The agreement was signed in January of 1953, and Bucky immediately began working to meet the April deadline.  The somewhat discredited Ford engineers who had failed to develop a practical solution were, however, not convinced that the obscure inventor's fantastic claims were valid.  Thus, they began working on a contingency plan that would prevent further reputations further, the engineers secretly contracted another construction firm to hastily haul away any evidence of Fuller's work when he failed.  The Ford engineers were once again proven wrong when the dome was successfully completed in April, two days ahead of schedule.

Building from the Top Down

Actual construction of the dome was a marvel to behold.  Reporters from around the world gathered to witness and recount the architectural effort as well as Ford's anniversary celebration.  Because the courtyard below the dome was to be used for a television special commemorating the anniversary, and because business at Ford had to proceed normally, Fuller's crew was provided with a tiny working area and instructed to keep disruptions to a minimum.

Ford management was also concerned with the safety of both the dome workers and the people who might wander beneath the construction.  They anticipated that problems would arise when Ford employees, television crews, reporters, and spectators gathered below to observe the construction workers climbing high overhead on the treacherous scaffolding, but once again Bucky surprised everyone.  Instead of traditional scaffolding, he employed a strategy similar to the one he developed in 1940 for the quick assembly of his Dymaxion Deployment Units.

Because the sections of the dome were prefabricated and then suspended from a central mast, no dangerous scaffolding was required.  The construction team worked from a bridge erected across the top of the Rotunda courtyard.  Like Dymaxion Deployment Units, the Ford dome was then built from the top down while being hoisted higher and rotated each time a section was completed.  The dome was assembled from nearly 12,000 aluminum struts, each about three feet long and weighing only five ounces.  Those struts were preassembled into octet-truss, equilateral-triangular sections approximately 15 feet on a side. Since each section weighed only about four pounds and could be raised by a single person, no crane or heavy machinery was required to hoist them to the upper bridge assembly area.

Once on the working bridge, the identical sections were riveted into place on the outwardly growing framework until it covered the entire courtyard.  Upon completion, the 8.5-ton dome remained suspended on its mast, hovering slightly above the building itself until the mooring points were prepared.  Then, it was gently lowered down onto the Rotunda building structure with no problem.

To complete the first commercial geodesic dome, clear Fiberglas "windows" were installed in the small triangular panels of the framework.  Because Fuller had not yet developed or determined the best means of fastening those panels, they would eventually be a cause of the destruction of the dome and the building itself.

Since it was the first large functional geodesic dome, many aspects of the Ford dome were experimental.  They had been tested in models, but how the dome and the materials utilized would withstand the forces of Michigan winters could be determined only by the test of time.  The Rotunda building dome did perform successfully for several years before the elements began taking their toll and leaks between the Fiberglas and the aluminum began to occur.  Still, with regular maintenance, that problem was not serious, and convening corporate events under the dome became a tradition.  One of those events was the annual Ford Christmas gathering.

In 1962, numerous leaks in the dome were noticed as the Christmas season approached, and a maintenance crew was dispatched one cold late-autumn day to repair the problem.  The temperature was, however, too cold to permit proper heating of the tar they used for the repairs, and, in a common practice, the workers added gasoline to thin the tar.  They were warming the tar with a blowtorch when that potent mixture ignited, and the building quickly caught fire.  Since the building had never been planned as a permanent structure, it was not long before the entire Rotunda was engulfed in flames that destroyed the first commercial geodesic dome, the singular structure that, more than any other, had catapulted Fuller to public fame.

Doing More with Less

The notoriety provided by the Ford project resulted in an enormous amount of nearly instant public interest in Fuller and his ideas.  It also brought him to the attention of a group of scientists who were struggling with another seemingly unsolvable problem: protection of the Distant Early Warning Line radar installations throughout the Arctic.  Once again, Fuller and his amazing geodesic dome surprised all the experts as his hastily invented Fiberglas "radomes" proved more than able to handle that difficult task.

The proliferation of radomes in technologically advanced situations around the world moved the geodesic dome into its rightful position as a symbol of developing humanity doing more and more with fewer resources.  Thus, geodesic domes are now employed for diverse tasks such as providing a more natural structure for children on playgrounds, covering athletic stadiums, and being proposed for use in future space construction.

However, the true significance of the geodesic dome is most evident in the fact that it is often the dominant symbol employed at major future-oriented expositions.  When most people remember the 1967 Montreal World's Fair, the 1986 Vancouver World's Fair, or Disney's EPCOT Center, the first image they recall is the geodesic dome.

It properly stands as a monument to the work of Buckminster Fuller, who successfully shared his vision of a world that works for everyone.  He also inspired scores of people to work, as he did, to establish a network of equally significant individuals supporting humanity's emergence into a new era of cooperation.  That relationship between individual human beings, as well as that between humans and their environment, is not modeled by the rigid conventional buildings that fill our environment.  It is modeled in the amazing geodesic dome's network of lightweight, resilient struts, wires, and panels.

Lloyd Steven Sieden is an author, lecturer, and consultant whose primary concentration is helping businesses, organizations, and individuals apply Buckminster Fuller's ideas and solutions to practical issues.  His address is Sieden & Associates, 32921 Avenida Descanso, San Juan Capistrano, California 92675.

This article is adapted from his book Buckminster Fuller's Universe: An Appreciation (Plenum Press, 1989), which is available from the Futurist Bookstore.  See page 42 for details.



Source: insite.com