7: Some thoughts on rectilinear dwellings vs geodesic domes

It’s too easy for me to get caught up in the magic and mystery of geodesic domes – what are the empirical components that make domes more than just “way-cool groovy structures, man” and actually a solid technology for supporting human endeavors and improving the social and material quality of human agency?

These pictures are taken from the Dome Council of America’s White Paper on Dome Home Energy Efficiency from 1986. Sadly I can’t find the NDC as an extant organization any more…

This first picture shows the wind pressure resistance that each type of structure exhibits – you can see that the rectilinear structure presents a flat surface to the wind “this combined action results in more infiltration of external air and in a greater exfiltration of internal air”* – basically cold air gets in and hot air is sucked out. Much less so with a geodesic/spherical structure:


This next picture illustrates the flow of warm air in a dome – warm air rises and then circulates back to the floor, creating a more even temperature throughout the structure. Not so with a rectilinear structure…:

IMG_5103Essentially, what the NDC was trying to demonstrate was that the dome home costs less to insulate to achieve energy efficiency – either allowing the homeowner to either uses insulation with a lower R-value, or by using a regular or higher R-value insulation use less energy to heat the structure – both methods resulting in a reduction of energy costs.

This last picture illustrates the disparity in surface area to living space in a geodesic dome home compared to rectilinear structures:

NDC picThis very simply demonstrates that geodesic structures require less material to construct for the same amount of livable area/floorspace. Which again results in a reduction of construction costs which means a lower carbon footprint.

Having toyed with multiple stories and linking domes, it is evident that much more thought and R + D needs to be conducted with regard to high-density populations. Fantastic dreams of arcologies aside http://www.google.com.au/search?q=arcology&safe=active&rlz=1RMBKJA_enAU583AU585&hl=en-US&espv=1&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=90VwU9C3OMaHkQW_8IC4Bg&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAQ&biw=1024&bih=672&dpr=2 this is the real question facing anyone who wants to make a substantial social change rather than just toy around with personal living spaces…


* “White Paper – Dome Home Energy Efficiency”, National Dome Council, National Association of Home Builders, Washington DC, 1986.




6: Struts, Nuts and Bolts – breaking it down to build it up

So say you actually wanted to build a wooden dome for habitation, and not just a chicken coop or plastic wrapped greenhouse – what are the materials you would need? Having worked as a carpenter building houses, I have fortunately participated in building from the ground up – from marking out a site/creating profiles, excavation of foundations, laying a floor, building/construction walls doors stairs, cladding all the way to lock up and finishing.  All while working in amongst the associated plumbing and electrical trades.

In terms of a wooden geodesic dome using the strut and hub method (see pictures here for the “doghead” strut/hub attachment method as pioneered and designed by Patrick Martin, though the upper hubs utilized a much more cut-out-shape-fitting round metal plate instead of the very minimum requirement square metal plate seen here):


your almost exhaustive shopping list looks something like this (note that lengths and amounts are not included as this is a universal list that will be individuated by exact specificity):

* antcapping

* hoop iron for riser walls

* nails, screws and other fixings

* dampcourse/alligator skin

* flashing

* plywood and/or corrugated iron

* gyprock/plaster/architraves

* bolts/nuts/washers

* thick wire

* timber (90×45 mm)

* insulation bats

* blue paper (insulating paper)

* windows/doors

* hinges for doors and opening panels/windows

* metal disc plates for hubs

* 1 x concrete slab 😉

* chemset bolts/dyna bolts/concrete nails

Beyond this are the materials required by the plumbers and electricians. It should be noted that the strut and hub method in wood provides an excellent cavity for electrical conduit and insulation bats, as you can see in this picture where the interior walls were never attached (plus you get to see a picture of the second story and the beautiful light pouring in from the raised flat roof/floor the cupola sits on):



though I do have an appreciation for external utility access (rather than internal, inside the wall cavity), I’m sure that unless such external conduits were very well integrated into the décor they would leave a lot to be desired in terms of aesthetics and interior design…

Plumbing likewise can, depending on the thickness of the struts, be accommodated by this cavity.

5: The Pitch and afterthoughts

5: The Pitch and afterthoughts

During the pitch Joana and Sandi asked plenty of pertinent questions, and Joana’s architectural eye flipped the dome on its side to demonstrate the spherical possibilities and the modular nature of the structure. It was clear to all that I had a lot of passion and experience with the theoretical and practical applications of the technology, but also evident that perhaps there was too broad a focus for what I was actually pitching. Sandi, ever the sensible head when it comes to my more expansive flights of fancy wanted to know exactly what materials would be involved in the “chassis” (struts? If so, what material? panels? If so, again, what materials) and what the exact function and purpose this pitch had for the dome.

I would have to admit even to myself that this is always something I have struggled with – in essence the domes are a possibility until there is a reason to create them. I have built domes out of wood salvaged from transport pallets, cardboard, finished pine, steel, reclaimed Hills Hoists, small iron bars, tent poles, plastic conduit bamboo; and clad them in plastic sheeting, tarps, corrugated iron, “for sale” signs, laserlite, canvas, canvas dipped in cement, wooden wallboards – sometimes for a distinct reason, other times as part of research and development.

Here again is a picture of the wooden frame dome Patrick and I built, covered in plywood and sitting on a 900mm riser. This dome has a second story inside with stairs and a wooden floor, and a small cupola on top reached via a ladder. Kept warm by a wood fire I lived in it (on the second floor) for about 6 months during the winter of 2009. It ain’t pretty, but it was definitely a proof of concept…


So, for me, the problem has been marketing a distinct product that does the technology justice, and fills an absolute need. A need that will determine the exact physical characteristics of the dome itself – is it a greenhouse? A chicken coop? A composting toilet? Disaster shelter, akin to this: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=410219009117833&id=236486913157711&ref=m_notif&notif_t=mention

Where will the raw material be sourced from? Once sourced, how will the “product” be manufactured and by whom? Once manufactured, how will it be transported? Once transported, who will assemble it? Once assembled, who will clad it? Once finished, what maintenance and after supply service will be required? Are all of these questions auto-assumptions, or are some of them unnecessary – if the purpose is disaster shelter, then perhaps the raw materials can be sourced in the disaster zone, and the assembly could be completed by the survivors? If the purpose is a sustainability-minded chook-shelter, is the “product” merely the instructions and a YouTube video on how to manufacture the struts and assemble the dome from cast off recycled timber or discarded Hill’s Hoists and some tire wire?

4: Pre-pitch hi-jinks

Considering the plethora of geodesic domes I had constructed out of panels (cardboard, plywood) and struts and hubs (metal, wood) I decided to stick with a strut and hub model to present to the class. This model has a number of advantages – is small and easily transportable (though it weighs a little bit when bringing it to class on a train), is simple to erect and break down, has a built in doorway to illustrate innovations (changes) possible within the triangular 2-frequency dome, and is incredibly over-engineered (read strong!!!!)…

The proof of the level of engagement domes have was easily represented by the immense and immediate interest the class had with the structure, even though it was less than a metre high. Vennessa threw herself into helping me assemble the dome, and caught on to the construction technique extremely quickly – the base dome I brought is what is known as a two-frequency geodesic dome.

[This means simply that there are two types of struts – an A strut and a B strut. As can be seen from this diagram drawn by Dave Breakspear, the A strut is roughly 62% of the radius of the final structure, and the “B” strut is roughly 89% of the length of the “A” strut (or about 54% of the radius of the final structure):


Interestingly, when building large domes on concrete surfaces, even unmarked you can tell which is which by dropping the strut and listening to the sound it makes – each “A” and “B” strut, corresponding to a “chord factor” in the drawing has a distinctive note. Though hardly a mathematician and somewhat of a musical neophyte, I like that as each different strut’s “chord factor” (length) is different, this results in a different sound, though more likely more a note than a chord. Like I said, musical neophyte here… 🙂

That Vennessa, heretofore unversed in dome-building, was able to steam ahead with construction really proved the simplicity of the technology – there are virtually no tricky steps in constructing domes. The only trick came for us when I realised I had not brought one strut and had to tweak the open-door addition design to accommodate the missing strut.

As you can see by these pictures, much fun was had before the pitch, as Mark investigated the womb-like interior* (see the squarish doorway and small struts that create a more vertical plane – my innovation on the basic 2 frequency geodesic – note that this innovation is largely unnecessary with a dome on a riser as the removal of a base strut still allows comfortable ingress/egress through the created pentagonal portal):


Mark making himself at home/at dome with an acrobatic Catherine*:


Meanwhile, while I demonstrated the incredible strength of the structure by standing on it and trying (and failing) to look nonchalant and not at all like I was some guru of the nouveau*:



* special thanks to Vennessa Harney for these photographs and assisting in assembling the dome in record time for the pitch, and to Mark and Catherine, my dome-loving models.

3: Collected sketches, cuttings, pictures and genesis of a pitch


Here is a picture of my assembled cuttings, sketches and musings on geodesic domes and alternative building technologies:

IMG_5101You can see there is a fantastic element to some of the designs, especially the aquatic domes – as an outlet from the mundane task of actually manufacturing geodesic domes, it became clear that the possibilities for inhabitation were endless. With my mentor Patrick Martin, I spent hours theorising, modelling, dreaming and philosophising about the practical applications of dome technology. I’d like to stress here the term practical – while the term “practical application” may seem a little less than fanciful, this is merely a tacit appreciation that once constructed, the built environment is completely open to the inhabitant to inhabit as they see fit.

You may also note the pamphlets by Oregon Domes, an American company that builds pre-fabricated domes to order. Their catalogs are very comprehensive, and make use of combinations of domes of different sizes, riser walls and regular rectilinear architecture to ease the customer into thinking they aren’t completely buying some crazy hippie dwelling. Great for looking at pictures of American decor of the 1970s…

During our dome-building, Patrick and I fielded numerous queries about the domes we built, and were often given options for what the domes could be used for – as we rarely used them for any one identifiable thing (often they were a mix of workshop, hangout, recording studio/practice, sleeping space, “men’s shed”, studio etc etc depending on the time of year, visitor/guest requirements and current personal orientation/interest) this seemed to prompt people to “fill in the gaps” as if we really hadn’t considered giving them an actual “use”. We heard that they could be soundproofed as recording studios, used for workshops, meditation cells, granny flats, dojos/physical training, crèches, artist’s studios, greenhouses, chicken coops, libraries/studies, cafés, market stalls, barracks, disaster shelters, motor workshops, stables for livestock, planting sheds. Our favourite reply when people told us what domes might be used for was “ how about a composting toilet?”

It was as if because of its unusual geometry, the dome somehow needed to be filled with interesting ideas – as if it wasn’t an interesting idea just as it was, or rather, to put it another way, that rectilinear buildings are assumed to have all manner of uses without remark, whereas these strange objects of architectural curiosity need to be somehow quantified or qualified with all manner of urbane or esoteric purposes.

Patrick likes to characterise dome-tech as “spaceship kindy” – these are the tools and habitats that are perfectly suited to extra-terrestrial and orbiting/vaccuum environments – modular, incredibly strong and able to be constructed from super-lightweight materials.

My favorite comment came from Patrick’s then teenaged son who summarised a dome as a “demountable cave”. This perfectly sums up the span of human technological innovation in architecture, and captures the simplicity and source of my fascination with domes – from caves to the stars…

And here are some photos of domes I have built…

This is a wooden frame on a 900 mm riser:


which became this – clad and including a floored second story with adult headroom:

WM9 and then this with a cupola creating a third story:


Here’s the dome used at the reception of my wedding:

WD5looking somewhat bedraggled here:


A tiny, tiny greenhouse, used years later in my pitch for this course:


Our workshop getting a riser put on:


to look like this:


The two post-apocalyptic trash domes “blending in” to the neighborhood:


A more people-sized propagating greenhouse used at my brother’s house for a number of years before being removed to make way for a deck:



My nieces and nephew spent a lot of fun hours in this:
CD5 and my son regularly makes us go and eat lunch/breakfast/random meals in this – frame manufactured by Adam “Art” Hughes, cladding, external blister and floor by yours truly:

photo-2 copy


Here’s a cardboard dome that shows the possibilities of a panel approach – it is possible to remove the corner area of each panel without losing structural integrity, this also provides welcome opportunities for air vents or insertion of utilities:domelampshade I even take time to turn playing with my son into dome tech tinkering like this, recreating a scene from Cars:


or this:


And finally, here’s a random pic of a wistful niece at the threshold of a beautifully accessorized dome, and perhaps the threshold of a bright future of geodesic architecture:



2: Domes in popular culture

 So, Domes are obviously way cool, but does popular culture think so too?

* Bob the Builder does: http://www.bobthebuilder.com/ca/english/flash/activities/Stories14.swf

In the BBC children’s television show Bob the Builder, Bob enters a competition to win a contract to develop Sunflower Valley – a nearby wilderness that he used to roam as a kid. We see some of Bob’s home movie footage – a younger, barefoot, unkempt tie-dye wearing Bob camping and enjoying the great outdoors. Bob’s competition is an architect who wants to plonk casinos, malls, high rises and motels onto the valley, which slightly perturbs Bob.

The theme for the Sunflower Valley run of episodes is Reuse, Reduce, Recycle, and it very heavy-handedly impresses these throughout the cycle. One of the architectural innovations and sustainable practices Bob implements is a geodesic dome, though sadly the dome is not exactly explained for its amazing properties per se as other sustainable practices are. Definitely a missed opportunity for educating the next generation of dome-dwellers.

* Disney does:


In the Disney movie Cars, the resident hippie in Radiator Springs is a stoner Kombi Van named Fillmore, whose fluoro psychedelically painted dome houses an alternative fuel still. This is classic dome-as-hippie icon, and even though the dome doesn’t feature heavily as a plot device, its striking colors and architecture is at sharp variance to the rest of Radiator Springs.

I’ve seen a dome in an episode of sci-fi Firefly, in the sci-horror Resident Evil 2, and of course the  terribad 1996 Biodome movie. In fact, if ever Hollywood filmmakers want to impress the viewer with a government/scientific temporary lab or research outpost – a fabric skinned dome is the way to go… They project a sense of futurism, of mystery and high-tech government or military materiel, made out of…material. This echoes the interest that the military had in Buckminster Fuller’s domes.



1: Domicile Blogs – geodesic history and my history with geodesics

The first geodesic dome was built in the 1920’s by Walther Bauersfeld in the early 1920’s for the Zeiss Company as a planetarium (http://www.physics.princeton.edu/~trothman/domes.html) – it opened publicly in 1926. Polymath, social thinker and inventor Buckminster Fuller popularised the dome and domes as homes for Americans and the world in the early 1960’s. Domes were also popular with the counterculture movement in America in the late 1960’s – the organic round shape achieved by simple triangular geometry obviously very conducive to leaving a “square” life with its rectilinear housing behind. The infamous Drop City artist commune (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drop_City) took Buckminster Fuller’s designs to heart, attempting to break away from societal norms and pressures and forge a new synergistic way of life.

I came across geodesic domes in the counter-cultural architecture bible Shelter (http://www.amazon.com/Shelter-Lloyd-Kahn/dp/0936070110) in the 1990’s as part of my interest in tree-changing, sustainability practices and alternative building methods and architecture in general. Geotecture ( http://www.bioreference.net/encyclopedia/wikipedia/g/ge/geotecture.html ) , temporary housing and nomadism equally interested me, and geodesic forms seemed to be the answer to all of these questions.

Fun story – I once manufactured a geodesic dome out of bamboo struts 3m in length, and pre-assembled the pentagonal faces for an Environmental/Activist fundraising festival in East Gippsland. A couple of the pentagons were slightly damaged en route to the festival site (transport by ex-army truck!) and it was there I learnt the name “Buckminster Fuller”. I was lampooned for having attempted to build the thing without even knowing about dear old Bucky.

Once on site, I had to wrangle the remaining pieces of bamboo (separately transported the day before) away from my fellow activists who had begun to pilfer them for every use imaginable. The dome itself collapsed under its own weight/poor construction, and the vestiges removed to a location closer to the main part of the festival as a “healing space”. Ironically, this mirrors the perhaps apocryphal story of Fuller’s own failed attempt to build a dome out of venetian blinds…

Moral of the story – make sure your structural integrity is… integrally structural. A bamboo constructed dome is not only a fantastic idea, but eminently possible, and need not be as poorly constructed as mine…