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Architectural Arts: The House that Polyurethane Built

July 28, 2015

xanadu foam houseOne night, you dreamt that you were in an unfamiliar place — one that is entirely different from your home. You think you saw what seemed like a historic hotel mattress on one of the room’s beds. You suddenly got confused as you touched a part of the wall and you felt your hand sink a little in it. Looking around, you realize that the entire house is made of foam! Before you can even go further into it, you’re awakened by the nasty sound of your alarm clock.

Apparently, dreams do come true—there is a true-to-life house made of polyurethane insulation foam in the United States! The Xanadu Houses, built many times in different areas, have been obsolete for quite a long time now but are still popular. Though they are not anymore used for tourist attraction or residential purposes, the Xanadu house concept is very much alive.

History of the Xanadu Houses

The Xanadu Houses were a series of experimental houses built by Bob Masters. It is a white, domed structure built completely from insulating polyurethane foam.

Before the Xanadu House concept was conceived, Bob Masters designed and created inflatable balloons that were used for house construction. He was inspired by one of the first homes built from insulation by an architect named Stan Nord Connolly—the Kesinger House in Denver, Colorado. Masters went to work and built his first balloon constructed house, sprayed with polyurethane insulation foam.

He then decided to build a series of show homes across the United States, believing that his foam house construction could work well for others. “Xanadu” was coined by Masters’ business partner, Tom Gussell. He was referring to the Xanadu, the summer capital in Yuan, which appeared in a poem called Kubla Khan. Henceforth, the first Xanadu show house opened in Wisonsin, designed by architect Stewart Gordon and built by Bob Masters.

However, the most famous Xanadu house is the one located in Kissimmee, Florida, designed by architect Roy Mason.

xanadu house

The Popularity of the Xanadu House

When the second show house was built, Mason and Masters focused on ergonomics and energy efficiency. They took inspiration from other experimental houses designed by other architects such as the detachable buildings of Kisho Kurokawa, the floating habitat by Jacques Beufs, and the underwater living by Jacques Rougerie.

Mason wanted the Xanadu House to alter people’s views of houses. According to him, houses should not be viewed as merely protection against elements. “No one’s really looked at the house as a total organic system. The house can have intelligence and each room can have intelligence”.

So in 1983, Mason and Masters opened their futuristic Xanadu House to visitors. Commodore computers were used to run the rooms – a robot voice like that of the fictional HAL greets visitors in “the home of the future”.

The house brought in 1, 000 visitors a day, and then a third Xanadu house was built in Gatlinburg Tennessee.

The Inevitable Demise

A few years later, the technology of the Xanadu Houses quickly became obsolete, resulting to the demolition of the Wisconsin and Tennessee houses; however, the Kissimmee house continued operation until finally being closed down in 1996, became infested with mold, and was finally torn down in 2005.

Even before the Xanadu houses, architects and futurologists have tried cooking up designs of a home that can adapt to the ever changing world that we live in. Perhaps we do get to live underwater in the year 3000, or maybe refine the Xanadu House concept to suit the lives of people constantly bombarded by storm.

One thing is for sure, though: more “homes of the future” designs will come, and it is almost certain that polyurethane foam will still play an important role.