These Inflatable Disaster Relief Domes Are Blown From Concrete Balloons

In order to build low-cost, personalized housing, a crazy construction method invented in the 1960s could be about to have a comeback.

Long before the Chinese worked out how to 3-D print concrete houses, there was the Binishell. Developed in the ’60s by architect Dante Bini, the Binishell was, and is, a way of building by inflating balloons. Essentially, you put a big flaccid “pneumoform” on the ground, pour in concrete, place rebar on top, then pump. Soon you have a strong domed structure that’s the basis for all kinds of buildings. The Binishell method has been used for everything from museums to sports centers.


Following his father’s footsteps, Nicoló Bini is now focusing on two particular use-cases for Binishells: disaster relief and low-cost housing. His idea is to construct small family homes in places where cheap-and-cheerful is more important than four walls and elaborate styling. “We’re proposing an alternative to low-cost housing that’s better from both a environmental and humanitarian standpoint,” he says in an interview. “We have a permanent product that’s not only greener but faster to build than other systems.”

Bini points to the low energy and CO2 profile of reinforced concrete, and the inherent energy efficiency of a dome made of a single material (no holes). He also notes the low overall cost. Though prices vary depending on the development and the materials used for doors and windows, a home can cost as little as $3,500, he says. Moreover, the balloon can be reused up to 100 times.

As Joseph Flaherty said in Wired, there are drawbacks to living in a domed house (it’s hard to put up pictures, for instance). But then Binshells can be customized and given personality. The front section, which isn’t load-bearing, can be made of anything the owner wishes.

“It allows people to feel pride in their own homes because they’ve taken part in finishing it. They can also get what they want, rather than relying on some architect in Los Angeles,” says Bini, who lives in Los Angeles.

As yet, there aren’t any living examples of the Binishell disaster relief home (many Binshells are decades old, and their record isn’t unblemished). But Bini says he’s working on deals around the world. Expect to see more concrete domes appearing soon.


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.