The Energy Efficient Geodesic Dome Design

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Photo: Paul Lowry

I was a young, naïve and impressionable college freshman in 1972. I felt like I’d been set free from the chains of high school and parents. There was so much to see, do and learn, I was like a child with eyes and heart wide open.

My housemother was six years older than me. That seemed like a huge gap back then, and her energy was very maternal. She took me under her wing, and I looked up to her.

In the spring of 1973, we visited some friends of hers who lived in a hippie community of geodesic domes. I had no idea what a geodesic dome was, but I learned this was an alternative, energy efficient, lightweight and portable structure. It was so different that it fit right in with the essence of the 60s.

I don’t remember the first time I learned about R. Buckminster Fuller, the engineer who invented the geodesic dome. At a very impressionable 19, I was still toying with the idea of becoming an architect, so I was thrilled to sit inside one.

The origins of the geodesic dome

Feeling stifled by the confines of traditional architecture, Bucky Fuller began developing the geodesic dome in the 1920s. He wanted to create lightweight, strong, comfortable and efficient housing for everyone. ‘Everyone’ is the key word. He believed everyone around the world was entitled to good housing along with transportation, education and a good wage – a good life for all.

Photo: Sookie

Fuller chose the spherical shape, because it holds the most volume compared to surface area. This was part of his ‘do more with less’ philosophy. He incorporated triangles, because they are twice as strong as rectangles. Five triangles in a pentagon shape put together in a sphere is very strong, dependent on tension between the parts, as opposed to compression. Bearing walls are not necessary, so the inside is completely open. The larger a dome is, the stronger, lighter and less expensive it is to build, the exact opposite of conventional construction.

Design advantages of Geodesic dome construction

Doing more with less consequently reduced materials and construction cost. Because of the rounded shape, energy costs are cut by roughly 30%. Good air circulation with no obstructions allows a natural airflow to evenly heat and cool the interior. This makes the dome suitable for severe climates.

The aerodynamic shape of a geodesic dome makes it wind and hurricane resistant. The even weight distribution and low center of gravity make it earthquake resistant. A dome is very lightweight yet incredibly durable. Parts were easy to ship to a site and assemble, making the dome a great temporary housing situation that could be moved.

Applications of geodesic dome design

The geodesic dome was patented in 1954, the same year Fuller began to develop a Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science, defined as, “the effective application of the principles of science to the conscious design of our total environment in order to help make the Earth’s finite resources meet the needs of all humanity without disrupting the ecological processes of the planet.” Being sensitive to the planet is not a new concept.

The military (oddly for rebel and out-of-the-box thinker Fuller) was one of his largest clients. They needed sturdy shelters that could be erected quickly for servicemen overseas. Domes have also been used extensively as radar covers.

Russell Township-ASM Headquarters & Geodesic Dome, designed by John T. Kelly in in 1958. Photo: Ohio Office of Redevelopment

Geodesic dome design and use in the 21st century

Today, there are hundreds of thousands of geodesic domes around the world from the Epcot Center at Walt Disney World to the Biosphere in Arizona to the humble solar greenhouse, The Growing Dome. The geodesic dome is one of the most cost effective and energy efficient structures there is, and it can be used in just about any building scenario.

I don’t know whatever happened to that dome community I visited, but I imagine those durable homes are still standing and have many good decades ahead!

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.