Wallace Neff – Airform Dome Pioneer

In the history of balloon forming, there are many people that have influenced my learning and appreciation of the possibilities.Wallace Neff was one of the most influential Southern California architects in the 1940’s. He designed numerous homes for Hollywood legends like Cary Grant and Groucho Marxs that are still deemed Neff’s in today’s star market. Putting Hollywood aside, it was Neff’s work in air forming that caught my attention. Over the years, I have spotted little pieces of his work in magazines and around the net. I am still searching for specific information on the construction methods and steps. By looking at the rubber, the form appears to be a  relatively high pressure form. The dome formed homes were also referred to as: The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company Balloon House.

Wallace Neff portrait
Wallace Neff, Architect (1895-1982)
Wallace Neff - Airform Dome Pioneer
First Balloon Form (1941)

Awareness of balloon formed concrete home was first introduced to me through our local newspaper.  When I was in high school, I spotted an article featuring a balloon formed home by Norman Waterbury of Utopia Designs in Eugene Oregon. It was the first time I had cut something from a newspaper, and taped in on my wall. I made a commitment to build one. I had no idea that it was the beginning of a life long interest in building thin shell structures.

While getting to know Norm, I learned about Lloyd Turner and his low pressure construction method using home made Tyvek balloon forms for construction. Lloyd is known by many as one of the fathers of balloon forming but there were earlier Pioneers and Wallace Neff stands out as one of them.

When you consider the 1940s and what it took to build a rubber form and then spray concrete on it, this stands out as a large achievement for air formed structures. A new and exciting resource I found is the Wallace Neff airform archive. It has several pictures of the Neff concrete domes that I had not seen before. Steve Roden, the writer of the blog found the archive in an odd way that is interesting to read about. I hope he will be sharing more of the pictures soon.

This blueprint of a dome cabin illustrates one of the challenges of mixing an organic shape with straight lines. Many people today still struggle with how to put conventional walls into a dome. The best solutions I have seen have come from Lloyd Turner with using blended bubbles and Steve Korhner who uses totally sculpted shapes.

Wallace Neff - Airform Dome Pioneer

Air form model.

After you have designed your basic floor plan, a model is a great next step. When building with airforms, you need to plan in3D. Make sure that the shapes you choose will fit how you want to use the space. Questions like can you stand next to a wall, set a shower in a bathroom, place the furniture…….. can all be explored with simple models.

<p”>Wallace Neff - Airform Dome Pioneer

Note the chicken wire that is being wrapped around the base of the balloon form. The wire can easily be secured by hog rings. In addition to providing some of the tension reinforcement, the mesh can give the form support like a girdle. Also of interest in this picture is the cantilever scaffolding to allow the workers better access to the top of the dome.

In some of our experiments, we went to the next step and had a round platform inside the form. This let us use an arched movable platform that we could use between the platform and cantilevered scaffold. One of the challenges of spraying concrete on the outside is how to have good access to all of the formwork.

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Here is a more recent picture found on the net. It shows the home as it sits now in a comfortable setting with mature landscape.


Wallace Neff - Airform Dome Pioneer


This interior picture shows some of the skill that Wallace Neff possessed. Note how much nicer the interior feels with the curved interior walls.


Interior dome

If you are interested in thin shell formwork, a good book to have is Formwork for Concrete by M.K. Hurd. The sixth edition includes some information on balloon forming and also has some of Felix Candela’s work.

Back to the thin shell concrete construction page.

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