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Wallace Neff's Revolutionary Bubbles Make a SoCal Comeback

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The prolific architect Wallace Neff designed scads of lovely SoCal houses (mostly Spanish) back in the Old Hollywood era (his houses include Judy Garland's in Bel Air and the famous Pickfair in Beverly Hills), but he also had a more populist sideline: he invented a type of cheap, easy construction he called Airform. LA Times contributor Jeffrey Head wrote a book on the subject called No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff; he explained the method in an article adapted from his book last December: "Neff's patented method called for a circular trench to be dug. Inside the trench, a layer of concrete was poured, forming the foundation and floor?a Goodyear balloon made of industrial-strength Neoprene nylon was placed, deflated, on the foundation. Grommets mounted on the balloon were attached to the bent hooks set in the foundation. Then the balloon was inflated through a valve at the bottom." The structure was sprayed in gunite, then covered in waterproof insulation, then more wire mesh and gunite. The resulting houses (often called bubble houses) went up around the world (they could be made in under 48 hours), and they were found to be "more resistant to fire, earthquakes and hurricanes than traditionally built structures of the era."

Several were built in SoCal--LMU had a couple, a huge 100 foot version was used as an industrial laundry facility Downtown, and Neff's own wife lived in one in South Pas during her separation from the architect. Neff lived in one in Pasadena with his brother; it's the last bubble left and a couple of lucky bastards have lived there for 14 years now. But over all, the round, open floorplan bubbles didn't catch on in the US (robbing the world of a collaboration between Neff and the also wonderful Paul Williams, who planned to design 1,000 of the structures for a public housing project in Las Vegas).

This weekend, though, there'll finally be a new bubble in town, a "garden folly" built for the AltBuild Expo (the eight annual gathering of green architects and building nerds) by local architect Douglas Stanton. He writes in a statement that he was inspired by the tough little domes after seeing the tornado destruction in Oklahoma last year (his parents live near Chickasaw): "Since the Joplin tornado, I have been designing (without commissions) many dome home types; both large, spacious homes; modest, efficient middle income homes; and multifamily designs. I feel that these homes can be of exceptional quality and beauty, and at a very reasonable cost." The dome will be donated to charity after the weekend's events.
· AltBuild Expo [Official Site]
· The rise and fall of Wallace Neff's bubble houses [LAT]
· Wallace Neff Archives [Curbed LA]