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

by Beth

Dome homes are disaster resistant, energy efficient, 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. Building materials are made for traditional houses, contractors may be easier to hire to build a house of right angles, there’s a reputation for leaks and noise, and financing may be a challenge.

On the other hand, there’s safety from disasters, natural light, potential energy efficiency, a weirdly wonderful organic flow from room to room…from the moment we walked into the “round house,” as the neighbors call it, we were hooked. We are a 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. Being spherical, they enclose more volume under less surface area than any other shape. This means they require fewer building materials than traditional houses and have less surface area for losing air temperature. Plus, they’re strong. The dome shape is resistant to wind and can withstand heavy things falling on it.

Domes show up everywhere, from capitol buildings to igloos. They rose to popularity as homes in the early 20th century, especially in the 1950s after Buckminster Fuller patented his famous geodesic dome home design. But “popularity” is relative. Whether because society wasn’t ready for them or their round shape presented too much of a challenge to builders, dome homes never gained momentum. They’re stuck somewhere in the housing hierarchy between traditional homes and non-traditional housing cousins like the earthship or yurt. You might see domes in neighborhoods without HOAs, but more often, dome homes live on the outskirts where zoning and building codes are less stringent.

Nowadays, the challenges of code, locating contractors and, more importantly, fair financing, may scare people away from building dome homes. These factors are daunting to us as well (besides code, of course: there are no codes in east Tennessee), and we welcome comments from anyone who has faced down these challenges and won.

Geodesic vs. Monolithic

When we first rented the dome we’re in now, we were curious as to why the builder kept saying “geodesic” before “dome.” It’s a lot of extra syllables to say, and aren’t all dome homes geodesic? Nope.

There are two main types of dome homes. Monolithic dome homes are generally fortresses of concrete and polyurethane foam sprayed over special round forms, and geodesic dome homes are made of triangular panels bolted together. If you’re staring at a dome right now and wondering which it is, the underlying 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 bubble-like.

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

Top 3 Reasons to Go Dome
1. Safety! Being round makes dome homes nearly impervious to wind, including tornado- and hurricane-force gusts. Depending on your building materials, a dome home can also be fire resistant (helpful if your area is wildfire prone).

If weight is applied to the dome, like snow or a tree, it won’t cave in like a traditional house because the outer shell of a dome home supports itself. This also means the sky’s the limit on how you design your interior, since bearing walls aren’t necessary.

If you’re a person who regularly fears everything, like being squashed in your bedroom by a falling tree during a storm, a dome is a wonderful 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 elements like insulation, doors and windows are well installed). Geodesic domes are also 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 will be able to perpetually do more and more with less and less. In one way, it’s resistance to the fact that earth’s resources are finite. With domes, ephemeralization can play out 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 features from countertops to flooring. They’ll mill the timber cleared to build the dome to use in staircases, cabinetry, moldings and mantles.

If you’re into responsible, efficient living on a non-tiny scale and enjoy DIY projects, a dome may be right for you.

3. Just plain good energy. Light multiplies on the internal angles of a dome. Plants love it. 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 magic energy.

Of course, not all domes are funky, arty delights. Like any home, they can be too dark or have weird juju. But for some reason, the flow of a round house makes it harder to be gloomy. Not something that can be put into words.

If you’re a sensitive, energy-aware human, step into a dome to see if the round thing is your thing.

Are Dome Cons Really Cons?
There’s a popular article out by a former dome builder that describes why domes suck. The author’s tone is so negative that the article literally makes me sad. I won’t link to it because of that, but salient points can be combed out from in between his grumpy grouses.

We’re renting a 40′ geodesic dome in its final stages of completion by the original builder. It sat unfinished and unloved for a decade. Assisting with the issues of a teenaged dome has given us perspective on the aging process of geodesic domes. Our conclusion is that with good building-material choices – windows, doors, plumbing and electric – domes have an excellent shelf life. They usually don’t even have a roof to replace (in the 70s and 80s, builders used shingles to prevent leaks, but a good dome kit can prevent leaks without shingles). So, let’s explore each downside one by one.

Isn’t it noisy? Domes do have a cool acoustic effect. If we stand in certain places on the different floors with the doors open, we can have a conversation like we’re next to each other. I love this because I can move from room to room getting stuff done while we talk. We don’t hear each other with the doors closed (and by the way, our doors don’t exactly seal true. Our builder took ephemeralization too far).

Domes with few interior walls and doors, carpet or rugs will probably have problems with noise, especially if a toddler or barking dog is involved (yes, similar to what happens in a traditional home without doors or rugs). If you’re building your own dome, spring for the quieter cast-iron pipes and probably carpeting in a few rooms. Our dome has a carpeted master bedroom and loft with polished concrete floors everywhere else, along with the aforementioned not-quite-true doors, and noise levels are fine.

Master bedroom cabinetry
Mind your head. Using acute angles wisely.

Won’t I hit my head? Probably not. Most residential domes have a few feet of flat wall coming up from the the foundation before they pitch into the dome shape. Your main floor should keep the tilted walls well out of your headspace. Your upstairs will have slant to it; plan the content of your room accordingly, like by closing the acute-angle areas off into closets.

So what else do we do with all the acute angles? A well-planned dome will have plenty of right angles, but all domes will necessarily have a few unusually shaped spaces. Little storage closets and custom shelves are great for those 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
One of the only areas we notice our angles.

How do I furnish it? Without complications. Our furniture  moved seamlessly from a traditional home to a geodesic one. Again, in reality, successful domes have plenty of flat walls.

Won’t it leak? Yes, and also: so will traditional homes. The dome we live in was not carefully constructed and has been sitting open in National Forest for over a decade, yet it has only 3 minor leaks. That’s the same for the last traditional home we lived in. Leaks in geodesic domes often happen at the joints between their many triangles, and dome builders have been working to improve that issue for years and years.

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 probably waste that 30% as you saw it off traditionally shaped materials. Kits come pre-cut, greatly reducing the waste that can happen while building the exterior.

Truly, if you’re building a dome, your 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 group that gives you the most confidence and addresses your questions directly (i.e., doesn’t answer the question they wish you had asked instead).

Waste of interior materials to the dome are another issue, from drywall to wiring. Back to the reputable-dome-kit point: they should have architects on staff to help you design an efficient dome and steer you away from making costly or wasteful mistakes when it comes to dome design. 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 that vast experience.

Will a dome have difficulty meeting building codes? Like fire escapes and sewer vents? Of this list, Chris and I know the least about this topic because we live in rural east Tennessee, where there are no codes. (None, seriously.)

If you live in an area with regulations and restrictions (hey, fancypants!), do your research, talk to your dome-kit company and to builders who have constructed domes before you dive in. Addressing code issues in a non-traditional setting takes planning.

Can I finance this like a normal house? Ahhh, we can’t answer this yet. Initial worst-case calculations have us needing to come up with 6 figures on our own after financing. So, financing may be the one issue on this list that keeps us from our home sweet dome.

I know, it’s surprising that we’re considering other structures, given that this whole website is called “Earth to Dome” and not “Earth to Rondette” or “Earth to Hemp House.” We’re realistic, though, and our overarching need for a home is, unfortunately, greater than our need for a dome.

There’s also a rule for situations where you’re a pioneer: be flexible. Coming into this dsc03321without any experience, we knew our plans would be bouncing back and forth quite a bit before floating down to earth. Most weeks, we tweak our plans daily.

We’re not throwing in the towel on the dome dreams yet for two reasons: 1. we believe we’ll make the numbers work by applying our standard total lack of understanding mixed with the normal heavy dose of problem solving, and b) we LOVE domes. They make beautiful homes, and we want one.

Financing any structure on raw land can be dicey. The financier signs off on only the amount they believe the funded item would be worth if they had to sell it off. Though domes can have stellar resale, sometimes they don’t, thanks to people who go too far into DIY territory and ephemeralization, and this ruins it for those of us wanting to venture into the world of domes from scratch.

We plan to save a good chunk of change by taking our time and having reasonable DIY approach, but we’re going to need seed $.

We’re out of our element when it comes to financing. If you have experience with financing a non-traditional house, please comment below.

In Conclusion
If you’re creative and love natural light, tall ceilings, good energy and feeling safe, look into dome homes.

Do your research. Using a reputable dome-kit company will mitigate most of the dome home’s major issues. The best dome-kit companies have been around since the 70s and are run by dedicated people with an unparalleled passion for dome-shaped things. They’ve honed the kits to eliminate leaks and building-material waste and will spend hours helping you plan foundation, excavation layout and features to lower costs and lifetime maintenance.

Whether or not we are ultimately able to finance a dome on our earth, we live in a dome now and so do our neighbors, so please feel free to comment below with questions about what geodesic domes are actually like.

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