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New book remembers original housing bubble, using concrete

The recently published No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff profiles the work of a concrete purveyor who developed permanent Airform-constructed buildings. Better known for his elegant Spanish Colonial-revival estates in Southern California, Neff had a passion for his dome-shaped “bubble houses” made of reinforced concrete cast over a rubber-coated fabric balloon.

The construction process began with a circular trench, based on the diameter of the Airform balloon, filled with concrete to form the foundation and floor. Before it set, steel rods were inserted and then bent to form hooks. Utility wiring and pipes were also installed at this time. Next, the non-inflated balloon was laid on the foundation, where mounted grommets allowed it to be roped to the bent steel hooks. The balloon was then inflated in about five minutes using approximately 1.5 lbs. of air pressure.

At this point, a temporary wooden scaffolding was built around the balloon to form the outline for windows, doors and other openings. Reinforcing wire mesh was placed over the balloon prior to a layer of gunite being applied in a top-down manner (to distribute the concrete evenly), as the mesh was manually lifted. This layer created the ceiling and interior walls. Insulation was applied after the gunite hardened, and the process was repeated to form the roof and exterior walls. Finally, after 24 hours, the balloon was deflated and removed from one of the house’s openings.

The cost-effective and speedy-yet-sturdy homes were built all over the world during the 1940s and 1950s. The first project using the Airform technique was in Falls Church, Va., in May 1942. Neff completed 10 double-bubble and two single-bubble units “as an experiment to determine the potential for building more, specifically for low-cost defense housing.” In South America, the first Airforms were built in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil. By 1947, there were nearly 300 one-bedroom and 200 two-bedroom bubble houses in Brazil. There was also an Airform gasoline station built for a navy arsenal. Unlike in the U.S., Neff did not use gunite, but instead employed local laborers to lay concrete on the balloon with trowels. He recommended this process for other areas where labor was cheap, such as India and China.

No Nails, No Lumber displays the versatility and unique design of Neff’s Airform method through previously unpublished illustrations, new and vintage photography, archival material, and an interview with two former residents of a double-bubble house.