Dome homes are energy efficient, disaster resistant, and generally awesome inside and out. After living in a geodesic dome for a year, it’s a mystery to Chris and me that anyone would want to live in a rectangular house.
Well, almost a mystery. There’s a reputation for leaks and noise, financing can be a major challenge, building materials are cut for traditional houses, and contractors are easier to hire to build a house of right angles.
On the other hand, there’s natural light, energy efficiency, and a weirdly wonderful flow…from the moment we walked into the “round house,” as the neighbors call it, we were hooked. We’re dome people.
Read on to understand why we say, “Right Angles? Bah!” and to figure out if you’re dome people, too.
Domes are a part of nature and have been part of architecture for forever. If you’re looking, you’ll see them everywhere, from capitol buildings to churches. Dome as homes became marginally popular in the 20th century, especially in the 1950s after Buckminster Fuller patented his famous geodesic dome-home design.
Whether society wasn’t ready for them or their round shape presented too much of a challenge to builders, dome homes never gained momentum. The challenges of code and securing financing and contractors may scare people away from building dome homes. It’s extra work to build something that doesn’t look like everything else. That’s a shame, because dome homes are really cool.
They’re roomy and efficient. Spheres enclose more volume under less surface area than any other shape. Theoretically, this means fewer building materials and less surface area to affect internal air temperature. Plus, the dome shape is very strong, resistant to wind and able to withstand heavy snows and trees falling on it.
Geodesic vs. Monolithic
When we first moved into the dome we rented for 3 years, we were curious about why the builder kept saying “geodesic” before “dome.” It’s extra syllables, and aren’t all dome homes geodesic? Nope. There are 2 common categories of dome homes.
- Monolithic domes are fortresses of concrete and polyurethane foam sprayed over round forms.
- Geodesic domes are made of interconnected triangular panels.
If you’re staring at a dome right now and wondering which it is, the triangles of the geodesic dome will be visible, while a monolithic dome looks smooth like a mushroom cap.
We chose geodesic because we like the look of the triangles and could more easily wrap our heads around the construction process. Of the domes we’ve seen, geodesics seemed more airy and monolithics more dark and cozy, and we preferred the former. We also worried (reasonably or not) about finding someone to take on monolithic construction, because it’s so specialized. However, there are many resources on monolithic domes, and had we been dedicated to erecting one, it may have been comparable in cost or even more affordable than a geodesic, since the minutiae of buttoning together the triangular geodesic panels costs oodles in labor. Additionally, without the seams between the triangles, monolithic domes may be less prone to leaks.
Both styles share qualities that seem to draw people to dome homes.
Top 3 Reasons to Go Dome
1. Safety. Being round means domes diffuse wind, up to hurricane-force gusts. Depending on your building materials, windows, and doors, a dome home can also be fire resistant (helpful if your area is wildfire prone like ours).
A dome shape distributes load evenly, so if weight is applied to the dome, like snow or a tree, it shouldn’t cave in. A dome shape supports itself, increasing your interior-layout options since bearing walls aren’t necessary to support the shell.
If you’re a person who regularly fears everything, like being squashed in your bedroom by a falling tree during a nighttime storm, a dome is a good choice for you.
2. Responsible living: energy efficiency, ephemeralization, expertise. Dome homes (and a lot of alternative housing) are often the domain of people who value conscious living. Here are 3 reasons that may be:
- Energy efficiency – Spheres enclose more volume with less surface area, meaning slower loss of indoor temps, as long as insulation, doors and windows are well installed and sealed. Dome kit companies say geodesic domes use 30% fewer building materials. Additionally, the air flow in a round space can be leveraged to promote passive heating and cooling.
- Ephemeralization – Buckminster Fuller was a deep thinker who imbued dome homes with his philosophy, like ephemeralization. Put oversimply, this is the concept that society can perpetually do more with less. It’s a kind of resistance to the fact that earth’s resources are finite because the applications of recycling are infinite. For movie examples, think about the costumes in Mad Max or Kevin Costner drinking his own pee pee in Waterworld. With domes, ephemeralization can play out less traumatically with the use of salvaged and repurposed materials, like using an old whiskey barrel for a bathroom vanity or milling a tree from your property for your cabinet doors.
- Expertise – Bear with me on this one, because it’s part of a huge shift in our thinking that has occurred since Chris and I left life in the ‘burbs, and I’m not sure I express it very well yet…Dome homes are boutique structures that force even non-DIY owners to understand what’s behind their walls (because contractors won’t). Most people have no idea what our homes are made of, or the impact of those materials on our health, the economy, and the environment. Owners of unconventional homes, however, are tasked with figuring out how to apply age-old practices in novel situations. People with this kind of awareness can help society evolve thinking around human habitats and keep valuable survival skills accessible to all. It’s an act of responsible living to learn the bones of basic human needs like how to build shelter and raise food, because the more we outsource those core activities to faceless, commercial industries, the less whole we become as a collective, IMHO.
If you’re into responsible, efficient-but-not-necessarily-tiny living and enjoy DIY, a dome may be right for you.
3. Just plain good energy. Light multiplies on the internal angles of a dome. Plants love it. Musicians say the acoustics are divine. Combine that with elements like natural wood, stone, and creative use of rescued building materials, and you have magical energy.
Like any home, some domes can be too dark or have weird juju, but for some reason, the flow of a round house makes it harder to feel gloomy. Not something that can be put into words.
If you’re a sensitive, energy-aware human, step into a dome to see if round is your thing.
Are Dome Cons Really Cons?
And who are we to say? Our credentials are…
- We’re currently ensconced in the long, slow build of our own geodesic dome.
- We lived in a 17-year-old, 40′ geodesic dome for 3 years, perpetually in its final stages of completion by the builder.
- While renting the 40′ dome, we lived next door to a 27′, 30-year-old geodesic dome and watched it age.
The dome we rented for 3 years sat unfinished and unloved for a decade. After assisting with the issues of a neglected teenaged dome and spending time in the older dome next door, we’ve seen that even poorly treated domes plunked in the middle of a humid forest are resilient, and they don’t have roofs to replace.
There’s an article online by a former dome builder that describes why domes are terrible. The article is so negative that it can make you feel sad about life. I’m choosing not to link to it because of that, but a few salient points are highlighted between the grousing. Let’s explore the accusations leveled at dome homes by the haters…
Isn’t it so noisy? Domes have a cool acoustic effect. If we stand in certain places on different floors with doors open, we can have conversations like we’re next to each other. I like this because I can move from room to room, getting stuff done while we talk. With doors closed, we don’t hear each other more than in normal houses (and our doors aren’t exactly plumb, Bob).
But yes, domes with too few interior walls and doors, carpets, or rugs will be noisy, especially if a toddler or barking dog is around. This is similar to what would happen in a rectangular home without doors, walls, or rugs. If you’re building your own dome, spring for sound proofing in your interior walls, even if it’s just “the pink stuff” to deaden stray noise. If you’re in an existing dome, lay rugs and add canvases and tapestries to the walls. Our rental dome had a carpeted master bedroom/loft, polished concrete floors everywhere else, and warped, gappy interior doors. Noise levels were fine except when our dog sat at a specific window and did his “barking explosion” thing at things happening in the yard.
Won’t I hit my head all the time? Probably not. Most residential domes have several feet of flat wall rising from the the foundation before the ceiling tilts into the dome shape. The main floor should keep the tilted walls above your headspace. The upstairs will have a slant to it, so plan the content of your rooms up there accordingly, like by closing the acute-angle areas off into knee walls and closets.
What else do we do with all the acute angles? A well-planned dome interior will actually have plenty of right angles, though all domes will have stray odd angles. Storage closets, art, plants, and custom shelves are great for weird spaces. If this kind of conundrum sparks unhappiness instead of creative excitement in your heart, a dome may not be for you.
How do I furnish it? Easily. Our furniture moved seamlessly from a traditional to geodesic home. Again, successful domes have plenty of flat walls and right angles throughout.
Won’t it leak? Yes, and also: so do traditional homes. The dome we live in was not carefully constructed and has been sitting open in National Forest for over a decade, yet the shell only has 3 minor leaks. Leaks in geodesic domes often happen at the joints between their triangles. Dome-kit manufacturers have been working to improve that issue for decades. According to one dome owner/builder I spoke with, now, more than ever, kit vendors have vetted mortar and exterior-painting techniques that will prevent leaks if you follow the instructions carefully.
If you’re considering buying an existing dome, look for stains on paint along the inside of the outer shell to detect leaks. Remember that, like any house, windows and entryways can be culprits for leaks as well. Inspect paint on the exterior. If it’s blistering or chipping, leaks won’t be far behind.
If you’re buying an existing dome, hold it to the same standard you’d apply to a rectangular house, no matter how much you’re in love with the dome!! Have it inspected fully, down to the wiring and plumbing, before you make an offer to avoid major surprise expenses after you move in.
Wait, if domes are so efficient, what am I doing with all this wasted drywall? The dome structure purportedly takes 30% fewer building materials to build, but if you don’t go with a kit, you’ll waste that 30% as you saw traditionally shaped materials into triangles. Kits come pre-cut and maybe even pre-insulated with wall covering already applied, greatly reducing the waste that can happen while constructing the exterior.
If you’re building a dome, life will probably be much easier if you go with a reputable kit company. Like with any big decision, make a lot of phone calls and go with the vendor who gives you the most confidence and addresses your questions directly (i.e., they don’t answer the questions they wish you had asked instead).
Waste of interior materials in the dome are another issue, from drywall to wiring. Back to the reputable-dome-kit-company point: they should have architects on staff to help you design an efficient dome and steer you away from making wasteful mistakes. Don’t be a DIY hero.
Dome builders are a dedicated bunch who tend to be big on sharing knowledge and empowering other domies. Take advantage of their experience. The domeowners and builders we’ve spoken to throughout our journey have been extremely open.
Will a dome have difficulty meeting building codes like fire escapes and sewer vents? Chris and I know the least about this topic because we’re building in a county with no codes besides basic sewer and electric. I know our dome kit is prepared to meet IBC when assembled, and our choice of construction team will ensure we steer clear of perilous, code-breaking modifications.
If you live in an area with regulations and restrictions (hey, fancypants!), do your research. Talk to your kit company and to builders who have constructed domes before you dive in. Good kit vendors can help set you on the path to success with permits and inspections, and research will make it easier to address any strict code issues up front and help you budget for those extra sets of engineer-sealed plans.
Can I finance this like a normal house? Ahhh, maybe. After encountering one scenario that required us to come up with 6 liquid figures after financing, we shifted gears and were extremely blessed to find private support. In addition – silver lining – the build is taking so long we’ve been able to boost our savings.
Had we not found private support, we may have had to switch housing styles. This journey is all about flexibility, so we did research hemp houses, modern modular, shipping container, and pre-fab log cabins, because lenders seem less freaked out when there are more right angles involved. However, in the end, by combining our normal total lack of understanding with a heavy dose of problem solving, we found a way to progressively and flexibly finance the building of a geodesic dome.
In reality, financing any new construction can be difficult and expensive, especially on rural land with few area comparables. The financier signs off on only the amount they believe the funded structure would be worth if they had to sell it off if you defaulted.
Domes can have absolutely stellar resale, but the unknown makes many lenders terribly jumpy. Our best advice is to avoid skittish lenders who want to bump up your rates.
Ask kit vendors for referrals to trusted lenders who work with domes.
If you have experience with financing for a non-traditional house, we welcome your comments.
If you’re creative; patient; a problem solver; and love natural light, tall ceilings, good energy, and feeling safe, look into dome homes.
If you’re buying an existing dome, have it inspected fully before! making your offer. No matter how much you fall in love with a round house and feel the need to purchase and live in it right now, know that, durable or not, a dome home can be as much of a money pit as any house.
If you’re building your own dome, a reputable dome-kit company will mitigate many of the dome home’s concerns. Many kit companies have been around since the 70s and are run by dedicated innovators with an unparalleled passion for domes. They’ve honed kits to prevent leaks and material waste and will spend hours helping you plan foundation, excavation, layout, and interior features to lower costs and lifetime maintenance.
Do your research. Message us. Move forward flexibly and optimistically. And such as that.