by Beth, updated October 2022
Dome homes are energy efficient, disaster resistant, and generally awesome inside and out. After living in a geodesic dome, it became a mystery to Chris and me that anyone would want to live in a rectangular house.
On the other hand, domes magically capture natural light, and their interiors have a weirdly wonderful flow. From the moment we walked into what neighbors called the “round house,” a 40′ AI dome we rented for 3 years, we were hooked. We’re dome people.
Read on to understand why we say, “Right Angles? Bah!” and to consider if you’re dome people, too.
Domes are a part of nature and have been part of architecture since pre-history. If you’re looking, you’ll find them everywhere, from capitol buildings and churches to greenhouses, playgrounds, and of course trendy glamping huts. Dome as homes became marginally popular in the mid 20th century, especially in the 1950s after Buckminster Fuller patented his famous geodesic dome-home design. Side note that in Carbondale, Illinois, you can now visit the restored Bucky Dome, the geodesic dome Fuller built and lived in from 1960-71.
Dome homes never gained momentum. Maybe society wasn’t ready to shift away from the conventional modern home shape. Maybe round homes presented too many difficulties for builders seeking better profit margins with mass-produced, cookie-cutter buildings. Only a minority are compelled to push through the struggles associated with building something that doesn’t look like everything else.
That’s a shame, because dome homes are really cool. They’re surprisingly roomy. Spheres enclose more volume under less surface area than any other shape. Theoretically, this equates to fewer building materials and less surface area to affect internal air temperature (though in reality, building materials are produced for right-angle homes, and cutting those materials can lead to waste). 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 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.
Though monolithic domes are said to be far less prone to leaks (the seams between the triangle panels of geodesic domes can be weak points), we chose geodesic because we like the look of them and could more easily wrap our heads around the construction process. Of the domes we’ve seen, geodesics seem more airy and monolithics more dark and cozy, and we prefer 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 we now know that the minutiae of buttoning together the triangular geodesic panels costs oodles in labor.
Both styles share qualities that draw people to dome homes, and interestingly, when people contact us through this blog to discuss domes, we’ve seen equal interest in both types.
Top 3 Reasons to Go Dome
1. Safety and flexibility. The round shape of a dome diffuses wind, up to hurricane-force gusts. Depending on building materials and windows and doors, a dome home can also be fire resistant, which is desireable if your area is wildfire prone like ours. A dome shape distributes load evenly, so if weight is applied, like snow or a tree, it shouldn’t cave in. Since the dome shape supports itself, bearing walls aren’t necessary to support the exterior, which creates immense flexibility for your interior layout.
If you’re a person who fears things like being squashed in your bedroom by a falling tree during a nighttime storm and likes to danger-proof your life, a dome is a good choice for you.
2. Responsible living: 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 temperature, as long as insulation, doors and windows are well installed. The air flow in a round space can be leveraged to promote highly successful passive heating and cooling. A friend in Florida with a monolithic dome barely runs her AC in the summer. Lastly, dome kit companies say geodesic domes use 30% fewer building materials, which may or may not be true when it comes to the interior because of waste cut from standard-sized materials, but the open layout favored by domies can help as well.
- Ephemeralization – Buckminster Fuller linked dome home designs with his philosophies, 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. Repurposing windows from tear downs instead of buying new. Re-using plywood from other construction jobs to build concrete forms.
- Expertise – Bear with me on this one, because it’s part of a big shift in thinking that has occurred since Chris and I left life in the ‘burbs, and I’m not sure I express it well…Most of us really have no idea what our homes are made of, nor the impact of those materials on our health, the economy, and the environment. Dome homes are boutique structures that force even DIY-resistant homeowners like me to understand what’s behind our walls because contractors won’t. The more we humans outsource our core needs (shelter, food) to faceless, profit-based entities, the less whole we become as a society. Building awareness of the inner workings of your home is an act of responsibility that can ultimately help evolve a collective understanding around human habitats and keep valuable survival skills accessible to all.
If you’re into responsible, efficient living and are open to gaining greater understanding of the home around you, 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. Try renting a dome on vacation <–there are some excellent listings on this page from Natural Spaces Domes.
Are Dome Cons Really Cons?
And who are we to say? Our credentials are…
- We’re ensconced in the long, slow build of our own geodesic dome from a kit sold by AI Domes* in the final days of their business.
- *Note that the AI Domes website isn’t supported by AI Domes anymore, so you shouldn’t contact anyone through the AI Domes website. This Reddit post by a former owner says the website is fraudulent, but we’ve clicked through countless times without issue, because that old website contains a lot of dome-building insights. Another post says the intellectual property of AI Domes was purchased by a different group working to address long-time issues with AI’s dome design, which matches what we’ve heard through word of mouth, but as of October 2022, we’ve not heard any updates on that company’s status.
- We lived in a 17-year-old, 40′ AI geodesic dome for 3 years, perpetually in its final stages of completion by the builder, and we lived next door to a 30-year-old 27′ AI dome and watched it age.
The dome we rented for 3 years had sat unfinished and unloved for a decade. After assisting with the issues of 2 neglected domes, 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 (and I haven’t even been able to find that post lately), but between the author’s complaints, they highlighted a few salient points. Let’s explore accusations leveled at dome homes by the haters…
Aren’t domes so noisy? Dome walls have a cool acoustic effect. If we stood in our rental dome in certain places on different floors with doors open, we could have conversations like we were next to each other. I liked that because I could go from room to room, getting stuff done while we talked. With doors closed, we didn’t hear each other more than in normal houses (and those doors weren’t exactly plumb, Bob).
But yes, domes with too few interior walls and doors, carpets, or rugs will be noisy, especially with a toddler or barking dog. 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 doors. Noise levels were fine except when our dog sat at a specific window and did his “bark-plosion” at whatever was happening in the yard.
Won’t I hit my head all the time? Probably not. Most full-scale residential domes have 4-6′ 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 angles 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 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.
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 a humid National Forest for over a decade, yet the shell only has 3 minor leaks; standard roof neglected in the same conditions might need total replacement. 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. As we’ve been building our dome, we’ve taken even more measures to prevent cracking and water penetration. Here’s hoping it works.
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, too. Inspect paint on the exterior. If it’s blistering or chipping, leaks won’t be far behind.
When 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 structure! Have it fully inspected, including the wiring and plumbing, before you make an offer to avoid potentially life-changing 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, it’s probably much easier to 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 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 have been extremely helpful.
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 inspections besides basic sewer and electric. I know our dome kit is prepared to meet IBC when assembled, there’s ample room in the design for necessities like vents, 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 there, fancypants), do your research. Talk to your kit company and to builders who have constructed domes. Good kit vendors can put you on the path to success with permits and inspections. Research will make it easier to address 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 blessed to find private support. In addition – silver lining – the build is taking so long we’ve been able to boost our savings enough to continue the build.
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 homes, and pre-fab log cabins, because lenders seem less freaked out when there are more right angles. However, in the end, by combining our 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 if you defaulted.
Domes can have stellar resale in the right market, 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.
Where can I find a contractor? We no longer know, but we’re not sure if that’s the dome’s fault, for being such a custom project, or because we live so far out.
At the start of this project, we were pleasantly surprised to find several general contractors interested in handling the whole thing. While the housing market was still gaining steam in the late 20-teens, construction professionals were still apparently hungry enough to be interested in unusual projects like ours.
By the end of 2020, we could barely convince subcontractors to even quote pieces of it, like pouring a slab or painting the exterior. These days, if a contractor does come out, they often return with totally outsized pricing or never call back. Having our highly connected general contractor’s help has been a saving grace. He’s been able to supply a small team to push the build forward every few months, but his updates about labor and supply fluctuations do leave us feeling empty inside.
It’s a toss up as to whether our problems are more because the dome is weird or because we live too far out and have snakes (seriously, a crewman quit after encountering black snakes in a stack of lumber). Multiple contractors have said they have so much work nearby that they won’t consider driving more than 20 minutes each way to a job. Plumbing companies can’t find enough parts to pull together reliable custom quotes. Our lovely, family-run window/door source stopped pricing take-offs except for anybody ready to purchase immediately at inflated prices and wait 8-10 months for their orders. When we asked our painstakingly vetted geothermal HVAC company to come back in 2022 for an updated quote, they informed us they’re doing maintenance only, no new installs. They couldn’t find enough staff to cover new installs, and HVAC maintenance was paying the bills.
It’s yet to be seen whether this is about to change again due to the housing market dropping or if we’ve entered a new normal. The pandemic definitely sparked a society-wide memento mori attitude towards work. Standards for safety, comfort, and compensation are higher. The people we’ve seen finish full-size houses in our county in the past 2 years are either building themselves or building something conventional that comes in mass-packaged pieces builders can easily source and assemble without specialized staff, keeping their profit margins safe. Custom work is a totally different vista that requires more time, more expertise, and more quotes from people who don’t call back anymore.
The tempo seems different in neighboring counties, like Sevier, which is packed with generic second homes that builders can assemble in their sleep. Or Knox, where the population of Knoxville supports lucrative corporate and union construction jobs, with perks like air conditioning [and fewer snakes].
As much as I hate to say it, my 2¢ are that if you’re trying to use contractors to build anything right now, it’s wise to either go generic or buckle up for a mind-bending adventure through labor and supply shortages, and be prepared to take on substantially more of the build yourself.
If you’re building your own dome, a reputable kit company can mitigate many of a dome home’s concerns, like leaks and wasted building materials, but you’re still responsible for pulling together the crew to complete the build. From our contact form, we get the impression that kit companies are harder to connect with at the moment. AI Domes went out of business before the pandemic. The trusted Timberline Geodesics fortunately still seems to be in business, and Natural Spaces Domes advertises on their website that they’re having trouble keeping up with demand but are evidently still going strong. Since we’re no longer shopping for kits, we don’t have insight on newer vendors, but if we hear good buzz about any, we’ll be happy to update this post with their information.
My 2¢ on Domes and the Housing Market in Fall 2022
If you’re buying an existing dome home, no matter how much cash you have and how much you want that dome, it’s vital to have it inspected thoroughly before committing to an offer. It’s astounding how many shortcuts we’ve watched people take when purchasing real estate in the past 2 years, but rushing is an extra bad idea when it comes to unconventional homes like domes.
There always seem to be amazing dome listings floating around out there, but stay aware that domes can harbor unusual, hidden issues that are tricky and expensive to address. You may want to reach out to other dome owners to ask after specific problems they would look for (if you don’t know any domies, I’ve had luck in the past reaching out to people who own vacation rental domes<–this is the same Natural Spaces Domes page linked earlier in this post). Take the time to make sure a good insurer is willing to underwrite it. Domes may be more disaster proof than other homes, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t insist on an insurable house. For the record, we haven’t heard of people having trouble insuring domes, so if insurers won’t touch a dome, it’s worthwhile to investigate the reason.
If you’re trying to finance a dome home, prepare to face issues on appraisal if the bubble hasn’t burst in your area yet. Many markets have homes priced above what they’ll appraise for, and domes are notorious for having trouble in appraisal in the best of times. Realtor friends have shared with us that in the rush/desperation market, banks have been finding comparables for anything to push financing through. This would be fantastic news with the right dome, but just because a property appraises doesn’t mean it’s a wise purchase.
What people rushing into real estate purchases seem to be failing to understand, at least in our area, is the sheer amount of money and time it’s taking lately to complete significant repairs. Building materials and labor are in record high demand and astoundingly low supply. We’re starting to hear buzz about people abandoning building projects, which may mean a host of interesting listings may come back on the market soon. Anyway, with unconventional homes like domes, it’s common to fall so deeply in smit that you’re willing to bend rules and overpay to complete the purchase. Don’t. A bad home purchase can lead to a mental and financial abyss.
Speaking from 6 years of experience, a renovation or homebuild is only exciting for a certain amount of time. After that, it becomes more of a “learning experience” than a fun time. Speaking of which, we’ve chosen to keep the specifics of our progress private lately, but since we think it’s worthwhile to share at least the basics of this incredibly long journey, look for an update soon on how the dome is going. – October 2022