Updated: 4/18/03; 7:38:11 PM
    Documenting a personal quest for non-toxic housing.

Min-A-Max and other Space Frames

When I first began my quest for non-toxic housing I logically turned to an examination of existing housing of the type. Studying the few books on the subject, such as the well known Healthy House series by John and Lynn Bower, I quickly realized there was a critical problem with the architecture these books described. This was not housing most people could ever actually afford, let alone the typical EI sufferer whose income from SSI was inadequate to afford even conventional housing. This was just like the typical 'green' architecture of the day, designed for a market of primarily wealthy people for whom non-toxic living was merely the latest fashionable lifestyle choice. If I was going to find affordable non-toxic housing it obviously wasn't going to be made this way. It was more likely going to be the product of some alternative technology rooted in the ideal of efficiency. So I started to look outside the realm of craft-rich 'organic' architecture -beautiful as it may be- and this eventually led me to look at the controversial Biosphere II complex.

Biosphere II

The greenhouse-like structure of the Biosphere II was designed to meet a strict criteria of non-outgassing chemically inert composition so that it wouldn't contaminate the closed environment habitat experiments inside. At the same time the facility had to be, to some degree, cost effective because it needed to cover a large area and that called for a modular structure using prefabricated components. It also had to function as far more than a hermetically sealed greenhouse. It was intended to serve as a relatively comfortable home for a whole team of researchers. It seemed logical to me that, whatever this structure was built with, it should have much potential as a means to low cost non-toxic housing for people with EI.

After some lengthy detective work -the task complicated by the fact that the controversy resulting from the initial Biosphere experiments had tended to drive many of those involved underground- I learned that the structure had been built using a modular space frame system called Min-A-Max invented by architect Peter Pierce who at the time had owned and operated a company called Pierce Structures dedicated to the manufacture of Min-A-Max parts. A brilliant inventor and designer, Pierce's body of work had very little exposure and -like its chief architect and many others involved in the project- he took very little pride in his participation in the Biopshere II. But I eventually tracked down a copy of his one greatest published work; the book "Structure in Nature as a Strategy for Design" by MIT Press. This book was a revelation and I quickly became an advocate for the Min-A-Max construction system and its companion Universal Node System.

models of UNS based homes

Min-A-Max was one of the most sophisticated building systems ever devised. It evolved from a simpler structural and theoretical geometry system called Universal Node System based on a cubic derived geometry with a rhomibicuboctahedron node. Min-A-Max's name derives from its core concept; maximum diversity of structure from the minimum collection of prefabricated components. Though ostensibly no different in composition from space frame systems used since early in the 20th century, Min-A-Max's more sophisticated geometry afforded it a flexibility unknown to any previous space frame system. There was virtually nothing that could not be built with this system. And Pierce had found effective solutions to some of the most vexing problems of space frame building construction, in particular the chronic leakage problems associated with triangulated exterior sheathing panels and difficult passive thermal management. With this building system a simple kit of parts could be readily created and shipped anywhere in the world to build a home on any kind of terrain. Even floating structures or limpet-like complexes anchored to sheer cliffs were technically feasible with this technology. Furthermore, Min-A-Max offered the possibility that even a person with diminished physical ability like myself could effectively build structures of any scale due to the small size, light weight, and simple bolt-together assembly of the components.

I was particularly intrigued by the commercial potential offered from the design of specialized partition and cladding panels which could be equipped with various built-in equipment such as solar panels, fans, lighting units, and more. And there seemed an unlimited potential in developing a catalog of kit designs for an endless variety of structures. I imagined that not only could I solve my housing needs with this technology, I might also obtain employment from it by working as a designer and dealer of structures to others with my same needs, as well as the general market for modular building products. I became so enamored of this technology I was, for a time, it's greatest advocate and source of information on the Internet. Even now a cursory search of the Web will turn up mailing list forum posts I've written on it.

Unfortunately, the one flaw with Min-A-Max was its own creator. After the failure of his short-lived components manufacturing company -which he attributed to the rise in popularity of Post-Modernist architecture- Pierce's interest in his own brainchild slowly but steadily waned. The reason for this seemed, to me, to be his focus on the pursuit of high-profile large scale projects -magazine architecture- rather than making any concerted effort to exploit the flexibility of the system for a variety of more mundane utilitarian structures and novel applications. There simply aren't enough mega-projects in the world to sustain the continual manufacture of such components. It's the same reason why companies making exotic and ultra-luxury cars and yachts so routinely go bankrupt. The market for such things simply isn't sufficient to sustain such manufacture no matter how high the unit price. I later learned that this is a virtually ubiquitous problem with all manufacturers and developers of space frame structural systems throughout the world. They all waste their time chasing celebrity through big-ticket projects rather than demonstrating the technology in simple practical applications that lend themselves to the mass production economies space frame component manufacture requires to be truly cost effective.

Most frustrating to me was the difficulty I encountered communicating with Pierce. It took years to track him down and, once found, he acted paranoid about the fact that I had any interest in this technology for any reason. (peculiar but, alas, I've come to learn that this is rather typical behavior for architects... If I only had a dollar for every time an architect, engineer, or corporate executive acted surprised and annoyed that I'd contacted them via phone numbers and e-mail addresses they themselves published in books, articles, and web sites I'd have more than enough money to build the home of my dreams!) After explaining my interest and situation I was given details of how, sans his own company, he was getting these parts made for his own projects, what they were made of, and promised details on a Min-A-Max home he was supposedly building for his own family so I might consider duplicating it for my own non-toxic housing needs. But after that the fellow simply flaked out, the home never materializing and every subsequent conversation becoming increasingly frustrating as, no matter how many times I had conversed with him before, he could never remember who I was, resulting in the same game of suspicion and explanation over and over again. It eventually became clear to me that, as promising and powerful as this technology was, there was no realistic hope of employing it because there was no hope in getting the least bit of concerted cooperation from its inventor.

Reluctantly abandoning Min-A-Max, I turned my attention to other commercially available space frame products as an alternative, in particular the ball socket node space frames that have been around since the 1950s and are produced by a variety of manufacturers. Using these space frame systems required a different design strategy because these systems lack any standardized modular panel systems, or indeed any standardized component sizes at all. Min-A-Max had the virtue of being a space enclosing system -like a geodesic dome but not limited to that shape- with an integrated collection of standard sheathing and partitioning panels. Conventional space frames are space-filling systems used primarily in the manner of plane trusses and columns and functioning as a more-or-less independent support structure for cladding and partitioning.

Instant Glasshouse - Jan Benthem, Mels Crouwel, Amsterdam

Having already done much research on pavilion architecture by this time, that strategy seemed the most likely approach. To that end I developed a space frame version of my Simplicity house design (described in another section) which was based on a simple single storey pavilion composed of two rectangular plane trusses seperated by space frame columns siting on a matrix of pin-pier foundation modules. The structure used a module size matched to the scale of standard raised office floor panel systems so that the panel posts could be screwed directly into the space frame nodes, each space frame module hosting four panels. These floor panels are readily available in cement, steel, and aluminum and so are non-toxic. while at the same They are also available with integrated radiant heating systems, offering a turnkey heating system built on off-the-shelf parts. The roof would be composed of aluminum sandwich panel with a standard drop ceiling frame attaching to the space frame underside and hosting natural cork tiles. Standard store-front glazing would complete the enclosure while additional space frame parts frame-out the central 'super cabinet' which is a key element of the Simplcity home concept.

Simplicity - space frame version

As I collected information on available products I learned that a number of space frame structure homes based on pavilion designs quite similar to my Simplicity design had already been explored. But exploration was as far as the concept of space frame based housing had ever gotten, and that seemed to end in the early 1970s. The reason for this soon became apparent as I struggled to get space frame manufacturers down to hard numbers and dollar figures. Just as with Min-A-Max, the promise of the technology was only achievable in a manufacturing economy of scale, which in turn required standardization of component scales. But the companies which developed these systems have never had an interest in anything else but glamor projects worth millions of dollars for which they would custom engineer structures and manufacture parts to order. It's basically just like the automobile industry before Henry Ford and, no surprise, the rate of attrition has been very high for this industry. There may be today only a handful of viable space frame component manufacturers worldwide out of an industry which, at one time, may have had dozens of companies. My specifications were very simple but that meant nothing to an industry where everything is effectively custom made by hand. Price quotes for the simple structure -frame alone- were in the area of half a million dollars. And even at that outrageous price scale, most of these companies wouldn't talk to me at all because a project that small simply wasn't worth their time. It's quite easy to see why this technology has never gotten beyond corporate building facades and store displays in 60-70 years.

N55 space frame house

Though I have largely abandoned this strategy, I did eventually stumble upon a potentially viable alternative space frame technology made affordable by virtue of being home-made. The art and design group N55 in Denmark (http://www.n55.dk/index.html) developed an effective low-tech space frame system based on simple aluminum angle struts nested together and bolted at their ends, the combination of strut angle and end-cut angles resulting in a specific frame geometry. N55 is a design group following an ideal of Open Source domestic technology, the idea being to establish a growing catalog of systems which can be freely duplicated and refined by end-users around the world in the same manner of Linux development. But the community of people at N55 seem to be capable of much more sophisticated fabrication than the average DIY hobbyist -especially when it comes to plastics work. The N55 space frame system seems to have much potential but -as is- it is limited to small module scales creating a very high parts count. It requires several times as many parts per given area than a ball socket node space frame and there are no sources for pre-fabricated parts. Lacking space or tools for this fabrication myself, it seems unlikely I could ever use this, though it seems much more attainable than any other kind of space frame system. Limited to the octet geometry, it can only produce angled triangular columns and plane trusses in tesselations of equilateral and truncated triangles or hexagons, thus making it incapable of simple rectilinear structures. But it still is well suited to pavilion structures in general. They just have to conform to this more peculiar shape.

Copyright 2003 © Eric Hunting.