Besides being famous for Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston’s purchase of one of his Hollywood homes, Wallace Neff is known for his Mediterranean- and Spanish-style contributions to the California style of architecture.
One of his lesser but equally influential ideas was the “bubble house,” a concrete and rebar structure formed like a giant piñata around a balloon. While the house never gained popularity in the United States, the idea was used all over Africa and Brazil as the basis for low-cost housing solutions. The Los Angeles Times recently wrote about the last known balloon house in California, in the city of Pasadena.
Sari and Steve Rodenadored are the owners and occupants of the home and liken their life in the bubble house to living in modern sculpture.
Bubble houses used a process Neff described as “Airform.” It’s illustrated in the book No Nails, No Lumber:
“After the foundation was poured and the re-bar set as hooks, 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.
With steady air pressure, inflation took about five minutes. Wooden frames for windows, doors and other openings were placed outside of the balloon, which was coated with powder and covered with reinforcing wire mesh. A cement gun then sprayed gunite onto the balloon, from the top down, forming the ceiling and interior wall of the house.
After the first layer hardened (about eight hours), a 1-inch layer of waterproof insulation was applied. That was followed with another layer of wire mesh and a second layer of gunite, which formed the roof and exterior walls. After 24 hours, the balloon was deflated and removed through one of the wood-framed openings. The powder applied early in the process prevented the gunite from sticking and enabled the balloon to be reused.
The bubble house, free of interior load-bearing supports, was completed in less than 48 hours.”
A photo gallery of the book and the houses can be seen in an associated Times article.
Photograph by f_r_e