The horrific destruction visited upon Florida, Texas and islands of the Caribbean during the current hurricane season eradicated thousands of homes. Thus, the question arises: Is there an architectural design that enables houses to survive hurricanes and tornados? The answer appears to be the geodesic dome. A geodesic-dome home is composed of a portion of a geodesic sphere and is made up of triangular facets. Domes built for houses are customarily collections of triangles that form 3/8 or 5/8 of a geodesic sphere. The safest dome homes are concrete monolithic domes, which are structures cast in a one-piece form (the form may or may not remain as part of the completed structure).
Buckminster Fuller—poet, philosopher, environmentalist and designer of homes—viewed the composition of a structure composed of triangles as analogous to nature’s own designs, such as the spider’s web. In 1951, Fuller patented the geodesic dome with the aim of creating homes that are in tune with the environment and can better withstand the various onslaughts of nature. Indeed, The American Institute of Architects says that the geodesic dome is “the strongest, lightest and most efficient means of enclosing space known to man.” Geodesic domes can survive hurricanes because of the domes’ high strength-to-weight ratio. Currently, American Ingenuity, a dome builder, advertises “225 Wind & F4 Tornado Warranty on Triangle & Riser Panels. Fire Resistant Concrete Exterior. Save 50%-60% on cooling and heating costs.”
Fuller claimed that the spherical design of the geodesic domes covers the most living area with the least amount of surface area—approximately 30 percent less surface area than a rectangular home of an area equal to that of a dome. Thus, the dome home will use about one-third less lumber to build than a box house of similar size. Fuller said that when the dome’s diameter is doubled the square footage will be quadrupled and eight times its volume will be produced. Because a dome encloses the largest volume of interior space with the least amount of surface area, materials and cost will be reduced.
Fuller and other proponents of dome homes argue that these homes provide the best means of building a disaster-proof house, noting that over the years they have been shown to survive earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes. This is because the series of triangles, upon which the homes are constructed, are the strongest shape. The conventional home’s box shape can be twisted and bent, whereas the triangles cannot. Furthermore, the aerodynamic structure of the dome home withstands nature’s extremes.
Dome homes are cheaper to build because less surface area requires smaller amounts of building materials for construction. One-third less surface area means that there is one-third less heat transfer in and out of the house, thus reducing, on average, heating and cooling bills by 30 percent. In a single-level dome home, the open floor plan allows walls to be placed anywhere and without consideration of load-bearing. Openings to allow in light can also be placed as one chooses. Domes can be built on all types of terrain and can be erected quickly using simple tools. They can also be multi-story.
Geodesic domes are energy-efficient. Air and energy circulate unobstructed, thus enabling natural heating and cooling. Because of the dome’s lesser surface area as compared to a box house of the same square footage, winter cold and summer heat are decreased because of less surface area per unit of volume. Using return air ducts and taking advantage of the concave interior, a natural air flow is created; thus, hot or cool air can flow evenly throughout the dome. One design allows for the use of passive solar energy.
While geodesic dome homes can be of varying sizes and can be basic or lavish, clearly they are not for everyone. Certainly, they look out of place in a neighborhood of conventional box houses. Some homeowners’ associations will not allow them to be built. Some lenders may decline to finance construction loans and take mortgages because it’s hard to find comparable sales with which to establish the value of the domes. Therefore, lenders may demand that buyers put down a large down payment. Sounds carry around the house. Building codes may not allow the domes. Yet, dome homes exist in all of the 50 United States and in many foreign countries. Consider that most people around the world live in small homes and that many people cannot afford to build expensive homes. Because dome homes can be built in varying sizes (as small as 300 square feet, for example), they are embraced by the tiny home movement—especially since small domes are easy to construct, are relatively inexpensive and some can be portable. What does a dome home cost? I priced a 2000-square-foot home with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, complete kitchen, dining area, and living room at under $40,000.
If not for a principal residence, then consider a dome home for a vacation home. Build it elevated if it’s in a flood-prone area or near water. Put in a fireplace or, for heating, a wood-burning or pellet stove. Link domes together horizontally. Erect a garage dome for your cars. Dome homes look great—inside and out! The only limits are your creativity and your pocketbook.
By Vivian J. Oleen
Vivian J. Oleen is an associate broker with Sopher Realty.