Thursday, November 28, 2013

Answer: Can you find the bubble houses?

People often ask me "Where do you get all of the challenges for SearchResearch?"  And the answer is short and simple:  Everywhere.  

I prefer authentic questions that people ask me--questions they've actually been trying to solve, and especially questions they've tried to answer... but have failed at finding.  (I have a long story about the director of research at Google asking me for help in searching for something--something that had eluded him for a while turned out to be a fairly simple search... for SearchResearchians!)  

And in truth, I first heard about Wallace Neff's bubble houses on Roman Mars excellent podcast, 99% Invisible.  In particular, he has a segment all about bubble houses that I first heard while driving through the Valley.  When I got home, I did some searching around, and could find everything EXCEPT the old houses in Dakar.  That's when it struck me that this would be a good SRS topic.  And thus it came to be.  

Linked from 

Our questions were: 

1.   Can you find a current streetview image of one of Neff's bubble houses?? 
2.  Extra credit:  Can you give us the lat/long of the bubble house complex in Dakar (in Africa)?

As you can imagine, my first search was for: 

     [ bubble house Wallace Neff ] 

and that led me to the podcast, which has a huge amount of information on the topic.   I'm surprised that only Rosemary mentioned this in the comments from yesterday's challenge.  (Did anyone else see that hit in the SERP?  I found it a great treasure trove, with nicely annotated links and lots of background information.)  

When you go to the 99% site, you'll see they've collected lots of archival images (see above) that are wonderful.  

But our challenge was to look for a CURRENT Streetview image.  And that took a little more doing.  

I like Fred's solution of searching on with a site: search.  

     [ "wallace neff" ]

That's a great method to use when you're looking for things that are probably on a map somewhere.  As Fred points out, this leads you to great map of "round houses," and a quick Control-F search finds you the Neff bubble house at 1097 S. Los Robles, Pasadena, CA.  (BTW, that same list of round houses also points to a blog about Round Houses, with another article about Neff's obsession with cheap, quick, sturdy (and round) houses.  

But we're looking for a Streetview image.  So dropping the address into Maps gives us this somewhat obscured image (as you see, I had to go around the corner onto Wallis street to get even this picture): 

And if you look carefully, there's actually a link to a Panoramio image of that building at that location: 
Panoramio image of Pasadena bubble house on Los Robles, by fstorer.

In my reading about the bubble houses (or "Airform" houses, as Neff preferred to call them), I also read that there was one still standing in Florida.  Curious, I did the obvious search: 

      [ "bubble house" OR "airform" florida ] 

which quickly took me to another blog, "Unusual Places" which has great photos of the Florida bubble houses in Hobe Sound, and directs us to 9096 Southeast Venus Street, Hobe Sound, FL.  

Now, what about the Dakar cluster of bubble/Airform houses? 

Going back to that map of round houses (from above), and zooming in on Dakar (which I'm sure you know is the westernmost point of Senegal, on the westernmost part of Africa), we see that there are 3 locations on the map. 

And by doing a bit of zooming and pin-dropping (easiest to do in Google Earth), we find that you can still see the uniquely rounded domes of the Airforms, and if you look carefully, you can still see the very regular grid pattern.  

Giving us the lat/longs of for all three locations as: 

    14°43'50.45"N  17°29'10.94"W
    14°41'49.21"N  17°27'28.15"W

    14°41'53.41"N  17°27'23.32"W

Search Lessons:  First, that the simplest possible search can lead to some great articles, even about some of the world's most obscure topics.  (See the 99% Invisible and the Unusual Houses blog posts above.)  

Second, that a site: restriction search on MAPS (as a content collection itself) can lead to great resources.  

A few people noted the book:  "No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff” by Jeffrey Head.  It's a fascinating read (or at least worth a scan), and is the source of most of the images from the 99% Invisible blog.  While it doesn't quickly solve the challenge, it's a great story of Wallace Neff--architect to the stars, who tried to solve a real-world housing problem.  His solution was ingenious.  (And although it didn't catch on, as Rosemary pointed out, there are follow-on solutions available today that are very clever in their own right.) 
Wallace Neff and one of his Airform houses.
From "No Nails, No Lumber" by Jeffrey Head.
(See above for link.) 

I would be remiss if I didn't point out that there's a kind of bubble-house that I see every time I drive up into San Francisco from Silicon Valley.  The "Flintstone House" is a delightful sight that has made kids happy for the past 4 decades.  While it's not a Neff Airform house, it's in the same style.  (Although I liked it better when it was white and looked like an igloo, but what do I know.)    

The Flintstone House, image from WikiMedia.

Search on!  

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