Alternative Housing: Geodesic Domes
Geodesic domes are one of the most efficient structures, could they become part of an alternative housing solution for some? Explore their benefits here.
When I was a freshman in college in the early ’70s, my groovy, hippie-ish housemother took a few of us to visit some friends in a community where all the houses were geodesic domes. My eyes were wide open! I was young, and I’d never seen a dome before. I was still itching to be an architect, so all things ‘home building’ got my attention.
Coincidentally, or not, I had an English class that semester that shined a light on unconventional thought and philosophies. Everything was unconventional back then, but Buckminster Fuller, known for bringing the geodesic dome to the public, was included.
Geodesic dome history
Fuller was not the original inventor of the geodesic dome. In the 1920s, Walther Bauersfeld engineered the dome as a planetarium in Germany. In the late ’40s, Fuller named it ‘geodesic’ with the help of artists at the alternative Black Mountain College in North Carolina. They developed and named the tension and strength created by the interlocking icosahedrons ‘tensegrity’, and Fuller received a patent in 1954.
He had been looking for a way to build affordable, durable, efficient, and comfortable housing. Triangles are at least twice as strong as rectangles. The sphere shape is a very efficient use of space, fulfilling his ‘do more with less’ philosophy. He embraced simplicity, even though the mathematics of the geodesic dome is complex.
Efficiency and durability
A dome shape has 2/3 the surface area of a conventional home with the same square footage. Fewer materials mean less expense to build and subsequently maintain. Without corners inside, air is allowed to move in a natural convective flow. Light, heat and sound are evenly distributed, so the interior is brighter with less lighting, and the acoustics are good. Heating and cooling bills are reduced as much as 30%.
When wind blows on a conventional, rectangular home, it finds a way to move right through it. The walls have created a block, and the wind forces its way into and through the space. The aerodynamic shape of a dome lets wind move around and over it. Reduced air leakage means less loss of warm air in winter and cool air in summer, and increased comfort.
The aerodynamic shape makes the dome a good choice for hurricane prone areas. A dome will withstand tornadoes and earthquakes as well, due to its overall strength.
A geodesic dome can be purchased inexpensively as a kit and put together by a homeowner. Savvy builders can ‘do the math’ and create their own structure. Aside from homes, domes have been erected for greenhouses, playhouses, botanical gardens, biospheres, and Spaceship Earth at Epcot.
Domes are sometimes hard to build to local code. Neighborhood covenants might not allow them. Financing might be difficult to impossible, making buying and reselling hard.
Other types of domes
A dome does not have to be geodesic to be efficient and durable. Monolithic domes are built by erecting an inflatable sphere-shaped form on a foundation. The interior is reinforced with rebar, and sprayed with foam insulation and concrete. It has the same disaster resistant and energy efficient qualities of a geodesic dome, but the insulation and concrete used make this not very eco-friendly.
Earthbag domes in Nepal were still standing after the recent earthquake. That’s quite a testimony to the strength of the shape!
Earthship style domes of tires and mud are durable, and easy to heat and cool. They are labor intensive to build, but they are the perfect DIY project.
Do your homework before setting out to build a dome
If a geodesic dome interests you, read books, talk to builders, go to workshops, or help build them with an organization putting them up after a natural disaster. Hands-on education is the best.
Start small with a greenhouse, shed, or a cardboard playhouse for the kids. Check your state and local building codes, and your neighborhood covenants. You might end up buying some inexpensive rural land where there are no restrictions.
Get involved with the Buckminster Fuller Institute for real-time learning!