Geodesic Dome Homes: The Good, the Bad, the Awesome

Hi! This is a popular post. Seems like a lot of people are interested in domes. We’ll be building ours in 2019…we hope. We’ve had many delays, so we’ve focused on making a home out of our metal polebarn first in order to move to our land and take the time we need to build the dome the way we want to. If you have questions you think we can help with, please contact us – or comment on Facebook or Instagram. We welcome the conversation and hope your dome experience is stellar!

by Beth

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.

Geodesic dome in the Cherokee National ForestWell, almost a mystery. There’s a reputation for leaks and noise, financing can be a challenge, building materials are made for traditional houses, and contractors may be 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.

What’s Up with the Dome?
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. These days, they’re stuck in the housing hierarchy with other non-traditional housing like earthships, yurts, and rondettes. You might see domes in neighborhoods without HOAs, but often, dome homes live on the outskirts where zoning and building codes are less stringent.

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 have many benefits to society as well as to you.

DSC03123.jpg
This dome has over 3,000 heated square feet

They’re roomy and efficient. Spheres enclose more volume under less surface area than any other shape. This means fewer building materials and less surface area to affect internal air temperature. Plus, they’re strong. The dome shape is resistant to wind and can withstand heavy snows and trees falling on it.

Geodesic vs. Monolithic
When we first moved in to the dome we rented for 3 years, we were curious about why the builder kept saying “geodesic” before “dome.” It’s a lot of extra syllables, and aren’t all dome homes geodesic? Nope.

There are two main types of dome homes. Monolithic domes are fortresses of concrete and polyurethane foam sprayed over round forms. Geodesic domes are made of 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 to the eye, while a monolithic dome looks smooth like a mushroom cap.

The geodesic dome is our personal preference for two reasons: construction is less specialized, and they look less bubbly.

On the flipside, monolithic domes have the reputation for being more sealed against the elements and less prone to leaks. Either type of dome home is as strong as a bunker, which brings us to our next section…

Top 3 Reasons to Go Dome
1. Safety. Being round makes dome homes strong against wind, including tornado and hurricane 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).

If weight is applied to the dome, like snow or a tree, it won’t cave in because the outer shell of a dome home distributes load evenly. It supports itself (which means the sky’s the limit on how you design your interior, 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.

Interior of geodesic dome
Plenty of materials from the land: wood and stone

2. Responsible living: energy efficiency and ephemeralization. Spheres enclose more volume with less surface area, meaning slower loss of indoor temps (as long as insulation, doors and windows are well installed). Geodesic domes are designed to be highly insulated and use 30% fewer building materials. All of this translates to lower energy consumption.

Buckminster Fuller was a deep thinker who imbued dome homes with his philosophy whether we like it or not, including ephemeralization. Put oversimply, this is the concept that society can perpetually do more and more with less and less: 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 recycled, salvaged, and repurposed materials.

While you’re free to make your dome’s interior from fresh-out-of-the-box materials, a true domie will cruise Craigslist and consignment shops for creative solutions to fixtures, doors and countertops. They’ll mill any timber they cleared for use in staircases, cabinetry, moldings, and mantles.

For a real-life example of some serious ephemeralization at play, take a gander at this creative vacation rental dome in Hillsborough, NC.

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. Geodesic dome under the Milky WayCombine that with elements like natural wood, stone, creative use of rescued building materials, and the fact that no two rooms look alike, 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 (the entire time, it was in its final stages of completion by the builder).
  • While in the 40′ dome, we also lived next door to a 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 realized that even poorly treated domes plunked in the middle of a humid forest can have a great shelf life, and they don’t have roofs to replace.

There’s a popular article 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,” which can deaden stray of ambient noise. If you’re in an existing dome, add rugs and tapestries to the walls. Our dome has a carpeted master bedroom/loft, polished concrete floors everywhere else, and warped, gappy interior doors. Noise levels are fine except when our dog sits at a specific window and does his “barking explosion” thing at whatever’s happening in the yard.

Master bedroom cabinetry
Mind your head – use acute angles wisely

Won’t I hit my head all the time? Probably not. Most residential domes have a few feet of flat wall rising up from the the foundation before they angle 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 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 a few extra odd angles, too. 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.

Kitchen drawers in a geodesic dome
Silly angles

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.

TIPIf 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 doors will be major culprits for leaks as well. Inspect paint on the exterior. If it’s blistering or chipping, leaks won’t be far behind.

TIP

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 hopefully pre-insulated), greatly reducing the waste that can happen while building the exterior.

TIPIf 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 that 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 live in a county with no building codes, besides very basic sewer and electric. Good kit vendors can talk through this issue with you, though. I know our dome kit is prepared to meet IBC regulations when assembled.

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. Research will make it easier to address any strict code issues up front and will 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 wrangle 6 figures after financing, we shifted gears and were extremely blessed to find private support. In addition, and this isn’t ideal, the build is taking so long that we’ve been able to boost our savings to reduce overall debt. We were saving furiously before, but now we have a tangible target to save for and a better understanding of the costs.

dsc03321Had 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 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 comparables to look to. 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 overly cautious. Our best advice is to avoid skittish lenders who try to bump up your rates.

TIPLook for your own private financing sources, or speak with kit vendors: they may have referrals to trusted lenders who work with domes.

If you have experience financing for a non-traditional house, we welcome your comments; you never know who else is reading who needs this information!

In Conclusion
If you’re creative 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, know that, durable or not, a dome home can be as much of a money pit as any house if it has fallen into disrepair.

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 the kits to eliminate leaks and building-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.

2 comments

  1. The most adult, straight-forward, comprehensive article on domes I have found. After my initial purchse of the original “Dome Book” in the 70’s, I have designed, re-designed, imagined and researched. As a retiree, I find Possibilty becomes Reality. Your insights have been valueable to further the goal.
    Thank you!
    Dave

    Like

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