Dome Homes and Communities

Thomas Edward Lawrence wrote, “All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day [believing] that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”

Buckminster Fuller was a dreamer of the day.

Fuller had the dream of providing a solution to the world’s housing crisis. And against all odds, he ventured forth in the late 1940s to design the geodesic dome.

Since then, there have been many variations on the dome structure. Besides the geodesic dome, there are domes made of foam, monolithic domes, seadomes, and deep-ocean domes. Dome villages, like the Dome Project for the Homeless in Los Angeles, have sprouted up around the world, and there are plans for floating ocean communities made of seadomes, and deep-ocean domes — all part of the Celestopea Project.

Life in a dome

When I asked several dome dwellers why they liked living in a dome structure, they explained that they felt a kind of freedom that they couldn’t find in a box-shaped house. They also spoke of feeling a greater sense of limitless possibility in their live, and a stronger connection to their creativity.

Larry Knackstedt, General Manager of Geodesic Domes and Homes,[1] is currently working with people who are building dome residences in countries like Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, and the Philippines. He himself has lived in a dome for 18 years and is used to the expansive sense of space there. He says that he feels claustrophobic in box houses with low ceilings. Best of all, his living room has so many glass windows and skylights that he feels like he’s living in nature, and not separated from the natural beauty of the land.

David South, Jr., VP of Monolithic Dome Institute,[2] said that he grew up in both kinds of houses, but appreciates the sense of security that he feels living in a dome. As a child, he lived in a “box” house and could hear the house shake whenever there was a storm. But as an adult, when he lived in a dome, storms could be blowing 100 miles an hour, and he often would not notice.

South explained that his father once heard Buckminster Fuller speak, and that’s what started him on building domes.

The popularity of dome structures has increased over the years. Hits on Monolithic Dome Institute’s website have jumped from 1.5 million in January 2001 to over 3 million hits in January 2002. South notes that all kinds of people are building dome residences, from young people to retired couples, and they also are being built to function as schools, libraries, gymnasiums, and community centers.

Practical features of dome structures

Efficient use of energy and materials

A structure that is spherical uses the least amount of energy and materials. This type of structure conserves energy for heating and cooling because there is one-third less surface area in the walls and ceilings, as compared to square-shaped houses. Also, less heat is lost because the foundation of a dome house has a smaller perimeter than box-style houses.

Because of the spherical shape of the dome, air circulates naturally inside and this adds to energy efficiency.

The enduring nature of the geodesic dome

The geodesic dome is able to withstand a great deal of stress because all points of the structure share stress equally. When interconnected triangles are set in a spherical shape, the structure is inherently stable. Dome structures are not affected by the elements and hold up under the pressure of high winds and heavy rains, snowstorms, and earthquakes.

In Antarctica, geodesic domes have been used for radar towers, and they have been able to withstand winds of 200 mph for over 25 years. David South commented, “There’s a tremendous amount of safety and longevity in dome structures, and they will last for centuries and not just a couple of decades.”

The cost of building dome structures

Since geodesic domes can be built in all different ways, the exact cost will vary from structure to structure. The variables included different fixtures and finishes, and there also are different types of foundations — a concrete slab is less expensive than a full basement.

Timberline is a company that sells geodesic domes, and they estimate that domes cost from 10 to 15 percent less than a comparable box-type house. Timberline also notes that over 90 percent of their customers erect the dome shell themselves, which saves additional money.

Customers who do their own work and carefully choose materials are able to build domes for $60,000. Others spend as much as several hundred thousand dollars. The largest standard dome that Timberline sells is a 45-foot diameter, 5/8 sphere, and this can be assembled by three people in five days.

Our contact at Geodesic Domes and Homes explained, “We normally expect the cost to be between thirty-five and forty-eight dollars per square foot. This is dependent upon many things, such as steepness of the lot, whether it is owner-built, or contractor-built, and so on. And it can vary tremendously from area to area. For instance, towns and/or cities that are highly unionized reflect considerably higher construction costs than more rural or remote areas.

In short, geodesic domes can cost less than or the same as conventional construction. But regardless of how much you spend on your dome, you must realize you are ending up with a far superior product compared to conventional construction. It is stronger, more energy efficient, and more aesthetically pleasing than any conventionally built home.”[3]

David South Jr. notes that domes are cost effective, energy efficient, and very strong. “They are increasingly popular as schools and gymnasiums, because they provide tornado shelter for the students and the community. The school is low maintenance and has excellent energy savings that quite literally pay for the building itself.”

Dome shell kits

There are many companies that sell dome-shell kits, including Monolithic Dome Institute and Geodesic Domes and Homes (both located in Texas). These kits come with a blueprint for each specific design. Floor plans are created by licensed architects and structural engineers.

Also included are dome extensions, triangular skylights, cupola kits, and other specialized dome hardware. To save money, most people usually buy items locally, including roofing material, insulation, lumber for the interior, electrical, plumbing, doors, finishes, and fixtures. This saves on shipping costs.

Additional rooms can be added to the main floors by extending outwards from the dome. Timberline offers extension kits to adjoin domes, and to build entryways, solariums, and covered porches.

Other advantages of dome homes include the freedom of creating almost any kind of interior floor plan, cathedral ceilings, and the amplification of light. It is often brighter inside a dome, even without interior lights, than it might be outside. There is also an even distribution of sound and heat inside the dome.

Foam domes

Polyurethane foam is integral to dome construction kits supplied by Monolithic Dome Institute. David South started using foam in the early ’70s, and once was the largest foam applicator west of the Mississippi.

To work with foam, first you inflate a balloon and spray polyurethane foam on the exterior. Then you attach steel, and spray concrete on the interior surface.

Because the polyurethane foam is on the outside, it isolates the concrete on the inside from thermal changes. The concrete absorbs enormous amounts of heat from inside the building and operates like a battery for heat. The polyurethane foam is its protection. On warm days, it absorbs heat from the room. At night, when it cools off, it gives the heat back into the room. That’s the key to saving money and this is the beauty of foam-dome technology.

Monolithic Dome Institute offers workshops in Italy, Texas, four or five times a year, at $750 for a week of training. David South considers this a bargain because people get to do real, hands-on construction.

Dome Village for the Homeless

In 1993, Ted Hayes, an activist for the homeless, first founded Dome Village in Los Angeles. He set up over 20 omnisphere domes to create housing and support for 18 to 24 individuals and their families.

An innovative solution to homelessness, Dome Village is a project of Justiceville / Homeless, USA. They offer a structural alternative for homeless people who are unable or unwilling to live in traditional shelters. “The domes are used as a stabilizing tool to provide affordable transitional housing which is nonthreatening to the chronic homeless person and to the neighborhood. We try always to create a positive and innovative approach to housing homeless people. We try to achieve the goals of alleviating homelessness and reducing unsightly encampments in our city.”[4]

Things of beauty

The architectural structure of Dome Village is a powerful visual that forces the general public and government to acknowledge that housing the homeless can and should be done. The domes stand as a symbol of innovative solutions to a long-term housing problem that exists across the nation. In contrast to the surrounding areas of downtown Los Angeles, Hayes considers the domes “things of beauty.”

“Currently we live in over twenty domes. Eight are for community use and include an office, kitchen, community room, separate women’s and men’s bath facilities, laundry, and a gym. The remaining domes are residential domes, partitioned in half. They provide private living space for two individuals per dome.”[5]

The goal of Dome Village is to help the homeless learn skills and self-esteem so that they can become productive citizens in society and transition into permanent living situations. Dome Village also hopes to establish dome villages in needed areas around the country.

Permanent eradication of homelessness

The Dome Village is “a dynamic system that delights in creating and providing fresh approaches to solving homeless issues.” Hayes believes that it is the most innovative approach to homelessness in the United States. “When perfected, it will stimulate further growth and development of other creative concepts to eradicate homelessness, and not further industrialize it.”[6]

Seadomes and Deep-Ocean Domes

Dream Homes of Celestopea

Recently, I spoke to Jesse Love, one of the founders of the Celestopea Project. Celestopea is “the planned ecological colonization of the earth’s oceans through a series of self-sufficient, semi-autonomous floating communities, located in international waters and incorporating innovative new technologies, industries, and social organizations.”

Celestopea was conceived in 1973 as the Atlantis Project. Over the years, there have been a number of new ideas that have carried this project forward, but it wasn’t until 1996 that Love began to share this dream with others, adding many new elements to it.

“The Celestopea Project,” Love said, “is quite different in almost every aspect from the original idea.”

Love explained that if the Celestopea Project planned to build floating cities using conventional techniques, it would be cost prohibitive. Therefore, they have chosen to employ a new technology to create dome structures that will house the Celestopeans. The architectural designs are a compilation of the work of many people, including architects and naval engineers.

An 11-dome community in a Costa Rica Bay

“Our first goal,” Love said, “once we get approval from the government of Costa Rica, is to build a permanent 11-dome community. It will be in a protected bay, and would contain seven family units. We’re hoping to begin that next year.”

In the second phase, they will build communities on seamounts. “There’s a place off Costa Rica that we’re negotiating rights to,” Love said. “Unlike the 11-dome one, it will be a totally autonomous community.”


“The proposed seadomes will be very long-term structures,” Love said. “They are not like anything else you’ve ever seen. Since they will be subjected to the unforgiving marine environment, they must not only be uniquely resistant to corrosive elements, but also must be inherently stronger than similar, land-based structures. The challenge becomes to create floating homes that meet high structural engineering requirements while maintaining graceful and aesthetically pleasing designs.”

Love said that he preferred curved structures to homes with angles. “There are a lot of reasons that we’re building smooth monolithic domes rather than geodesic domes. You can build it in a semi-dome shape, which is easy to do in a monolithic format but not easy to do in a geodesic format.”

Floating seadomes made of ferro-cement

Construction of the seadomes will begin in late 2002 and they will be made of ferro-cement. It is much stronger than reinforced concrete, which can come apart over the years. “If you look at bridges that go across salt-water estuaries,” Love explained, “they’re falling to pieces because the concrete falls apart. In time, these bridges have to be torn down. This doesn’t happen with ferro-cement.”

Ferro-cement (also spelled “ferrocement”) is a mixture of wire, rebar, and concrete. These properties help it become a homogenous piece of material. Its strength is close to steel, but unlike steel it doesn’t rot or corrode. While other materials get weaker with age, ferro-cement actually gets stronger.

Jesse and Sumara Love write that ferro-cement has been in use for over 100 years. “Ships built of cement during the first decades of the twentieth century are still floating, while many others have rusted through and sunk to the bottom.”

Deep-ocean domes

The second phase of construction will consist of building deep-ocean domes on seamounts, 130 miles off the shore of Costa Rica. These are spheres, half below water and half above, that are 100 feet in diameter.

The Celestopea Project, according to the website, “involves the creation of a worldwide series of very prosperous, autonomous, self-sustaining, floating ocean cities with populations between 5,000 and 10,000 people. Each city is actualized with innovative technologies that create buildings and even islands from the minerals held in solution in seawater. This same technology, along with a worldwide construction of Ocean Thermal Energy Converters (OTECs), will also add new land mass to burgeoning population coastal areas, as well as provide abundant supplies of high protein food, pure water, and renewable, pollution-free energy to raise the quality of life throughout the world”[7] (for more on OTEC, see OTEC sidebar in heat pump article).

In the ’70s, Professor Wolf Hibertz at the University of Texas pioneered the process that Celestopea will be using. “We’re going to build homes in the same way that a shellfish builds its shell,” Love explained, “by using minerals that are dissolved in sea water. We can mold them into any form or shape that we want. The growth process of calcium carbonate is such that it is about half the weight of steel and often many times stronger than steel.”

Enhancing the biosphere of the earth

A big portion of the motivation behind this project is to enhance the biosphere of the earth as well as the ecosystem.

Perhaps the most ambitious and world changing undertaking of the Celestopea Project is its utilization of OTECs (Ocean Thermal Energy Converters (to understand the principle involved, please refer to our article on Heat Pumps). According to the Celestopea website, “OTECs take advantage of the perpetual difference between the temperature at the surface of the tropical oceans and the cooler temperature 3,000 to 4,000 feet below the surface. This temperature variation is used to generate totally pollution free electricity from an inexhaustible renewable source. . . . Only a small amount of energy is required to pump large volumes of water 4,000 vertical feet up from the ocean depths.

. . .The nutrient rich water Celestopean OTECs pull up from the ocean’s depths will instigate an explosion of new life in the oceans. The resulting micro algae and phytoplankton growth, continually fed by new nutrient rich water pulled up by the OTECs will become the base of a tremendous increase in many types of fish and higher forms of marine life.”[8]

As we bring up the nutrient rich water from below,” Love said, “we are reseeding water with life and will have a Garden of Eden in the form of sea life.”

A floating city of dreams

“Just as ‘the people’ built the great pyramids of Egypt which, centuries later, are still one of the absolute wonders of the world, let ‘the people’ build Celestopea. Let us bring our knowledge, talents and abilities together to build our ‘City of Dreams’ and, as prophesy decrees, let us be the heralds of peace, prosperity, and unity of all the people upon the Earth.”[9]

Dream the Future

In reading about the life of Buckminster Fuller and his vision of providing homes for everyone in the world; in listening to the passion of Ted Hayes who wants to stamp out homelessness with domed communities; in talking to Jesse Love about his vision of a domed ocean-community utopia called Celestopea: We are reminded that dreams can be realized and they can reshape the world we live in.

We can break out of the box of conventional thinking, reflected in the little boxes that most of us call home, and nurture the visionary powers of our mind in dwellings that encourage expansiveness and the pursuit of our highest dreams and aspirations. It is then, I feel, that we will begin to develop strategies that will move this planet beyond dog-eat-dog struggles for survival, toward a world focused on creating peace and harmony for all.

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