What Happened to Geodesic Domes?
Image by r3v on Flickr
Most Americans familiar with Disney World Resorts, in Florida, know Spaceship Earth. It’s the giant silver golf ball teed up near the front entrance of Epcot. Inside is a somewhat scary ride through human history, scary perhaps because you’re strapped down and forced to watch a corny history lesson in the dark. Aristotle, Michelangelo, Gutenberg, and other famous people are spending their afterlives not in heaven relaxing but instead working in small cubicles inside this precocious larger than life golf ball.
What people might not know is Spaceship Earth is a geodesic structure. It was built when these round triangular buildings seemed to be everywhere, a permanent fixture of the landscape. Since then, geodesic domes appear to have disappeared from the US landscape. This month, we’ll explore what geodesic domes are, where they went, and related questions. As with other Off Beat articles, I will use my super de duper online research skills to try and answer these questions. Detours will happen. And there may not be complete answers.
To begin, here are some questions about geodesic domes I’d like to answer:
- Is Spaceship Earth a geodesic dome?
- What are geodesic domes? Where did they come from?
- How hard is it to build a geodesic dome?
- Are there geodesic tents for camping?
- Is there math involved with geodesic domes?
My trusty Firefox web browser is fired up. Let’s get to work.
Is Spaceship Earth a geodesic dome?
Maybe, maybe not. Buckminister Fuller, the man who did the math and invented these domes was involved. The outside surface of Spaceship Earth is a series of triangles. But some websites make the distinction between a dome and a sphere. The formal Wikipedia entry for geodesic domes says Spaceship Earth is a sphere. Informal perhaps more sloppy sources like TripAdvisor.com call it a dome. Let’s say Spaceship Earth at least is a kind of geodesic dome but in the shape of a sphere.
This giant silver golf ball was opened October 1, 1982 and it took 26 months and 40,800 hours to build. Apparently it is two spheres, a mostly complete top sphere and a second sphere hung on the bottom. The skin panels and the skeleton have space between them for maintenance. Rain is collected with pipes on the triangular panels and channeled to the World Showcase Lagoon nearby.
And do you know what Epcot means? Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. You learn something every day.
What are geodesic domes? Where did they come from?
My head hurts. I spent the past twenty minutes or so reading through the math behind geodesic domes. Links are at the bottom of this article for those curious or brave enough. In general terms, a geodesic dome is a structure with triangular panels organized to distribute the weight of the structure across all panels. With traditional wooden frame buildings, the weight of the roof is distributed on to the walls and the cross beams that connect the walls. Geodesic structures, in theory, are more sturdy. The shape of triangles used in a geodesic building are derived mathematically. The basic shape is an icosahedron. Okay, I’ll stop. But, as you’ll see, real life geodesic dome panels usually are triangles and a pentagram-like triangle, much simpler geometric forms.
The first geodesic structure was a home planetarium built in 1926 by Walther Bauersfeld and installed in Jena, Germany at the Carl Zeiss plant roof. Bauersfeld patented his idea. Shortly after World War II, in 1948 and 1949, Americans Buckminister “Bucky” Fuller and artist Ken Snelson worked on projects to distribute building weight across the structure. Fuller is credited with taking Bauersfeld’s dome and developing the mathematics needed to make the buildings simpler to design and build. Fuller’s first prototype dome was built in 1945 at Bennington College and the first complete “continuous tension — discontinuous compression” sphere was built in 1959 with help from students at the University of Oregon Architecture School. This led to wider use of geodesic domes, for example, at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. That building still stands, now used as the aviary for the Queens Zoo.
Twice bounced from Harvard, once for partying too loudly with a vaudeville troupe and once for not being serious enough, Bucky Fuller was a classic non-conformist. In between his Harvard stints, he worked in Canada as a laborer in a meat packing company and a mechanic at a textile mill. During World War I, Fuller served as a radio operator, publisher, and commander of a crash rescue boat. In the latter role, Fuller developed a winch to pull downed planes out of the water fast enough to rescue pilots alive.
Fuller’s interest in houses reportedly stemmed from the 1922 death of his four year old daughter from complications of polio and spinal meningitis. He wondered if the damp and drafty home they lived in had somehow caused her death. This led to working with his father in law to start a company building lightweight, weatherproof, and fireproof houses. The houses were made of easily cut bricks with large holes to hold concrete. The business failed in in 1927. A year later, Fuller had moved from Chicago to New York City and Greenwich Village where he became involved in projects with the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The biggest project they worked on was the three wheeled Dymaxion car, what looks today like an early VW Bus. The windshield also uses triangular panels of glass with a rounded front.
Fuller also designed and built a Dymaxion house in 1929 and redesigned in 1949. As with his company in the 1920s, his goal was to create healthy affordable housing. These homes were to be built in factories and included rain recycling into cisterns and toilets where waste could easily be composted. Today the Dymaxion house designs look like shiny bullet shaped Airstream trailers which, in turn, became wooden mobile homes built mostly in factories and delivered on site.
Also interesting, the word Dymaxion was coined by a department store marketing department where a model house was displayed. The trademark was given to Fuller. The term was a mashup of dynamic, maximum, and ion. He used the term for many of his project. And the term became synonymous with the idea of doing more with less.
Fuller believed his work with geodesic domes would lead to a sustainable future where humans lived on renewable energy and efficient structures. Today his domes are more often used at radar centers and the odd home in the countryside. However, the tiny house movement has led to a renewed interest in geodesic domes because they’re easier to build, low cost, and offer more interior vertical space.
In researching the tiny house movement, which happens to be a topic I follow online, I came across this amazing picture of people building a house with straw walls. Reminded me of the three little pigs. (remember? There will be detours.) Even better, you have to use a weed whacker on the straw walls before you strap the bales in with a wire mesh.
Having worked with hay bales, this must be hot dusty work with lots of cuts to the hands and exposed skin.
How hard is it to build a geodesic dome?
Probably faster than a straw bale house. The number of parts required to build a geodesic dome can be high with all the connectors and edges. Building a dome is faster than on site construction. But there are ways to speed up the process. And there are home designs that do not require struts. The panels are connected edge to edge and joined at the corners of the triangles.
Are there geodesic tents for camping?
I wondered because, having bought a cheap tent for camping a few years ago, tents now use flexible tension poles. This reduces the number of solid poles and ground pounding of stakes. Tension poles are similar conceptually to the structures used in geodesic domes because the weight is distributed across the length of the pole. Geodesic tents distribute the weight across their frame structure instead of long bending tension poles.
However, geodesic tents turn out to be so sturdy they become inflexible in high winds and thus likely to break poles or fly away. You must use pegs to attach the tent firmly to the ground. North Face turns out to have an 8 person tent, 51 pounds to hump it into the back country, for $5,000 USD. Heimplanet sells an inflatable geodesic tent for three people with thick pole frames for a more reasonable 549 EU. The white frames look straight out of the game Portal. Their inflatable tent is called The Cave.
It appears the issues with tent camping are still the same: the taller the tent, geodesic or not, the more surface exposed to wind and the more likely the tent will come down.
Is there math involved with geodesic domes?
Boo yah! I stopped cold upon reading this sentence from one of many online geodesic dome calculators:
All the lengths of pipe for the triangles that make up a geodesic dome are not the same. There are trigonometric equations used to calculate the different lengths, but to make it easy, we’ve incorporated all that into the simple calculator on this page.
Can’t remember if I took trigonometry in high school or possibly college. Calculus proved difficult for me. Perhaps I never got to trig. Below I’ve linked several math-related pages from Wikipedia for those interested. And some of the calculators include the math they use to calculate the panel sizes based on the size of geodesic dome.
This same calculator site (SonoStarHub.com) wins the prize, however, for this note that appears when you select their 6V calculator:
This project is only for serious (and possibly deranged) domophiles. Altogether, there will be 750 parts that go into this dome (555 struts and 195 geohubs), and hours and hours of work cutting pipes and gluing the parts together. It is the strongest of all the domes, and it is the closest to a sphere in overall roundness. It is more than impressive to behold, and your friends will likely start putting a "˜Dr.' in front of your name when they address you. If you're married, you'd better plan to live in it. If you're not married, you probably never will be.
At least they are honest. 6V turns out to be about the frequency, and thus shape, of panels used to build a dome. The higher the number, 6V the highest, the more edges and connectors and complexity.
In summary, it appears geodesic domes are American igloos by way of Germany. As for their disappearance, perhaps their focus on sustainability and efficiency grew out of date in the 1980s with Reagan, Thatcher, and other trends in the opposite direction. Bike lanes in the US, at least, disappeared around the same time in the 1980s. The good news: the ability to create geodesic domes is doable and cost effective for people interested. You can even build a house from straw strong enough to spare the cutest little piggy from the huffing and puffing of any wolf with big lungs.
R. Buckminister Fuller
Geodesic Dome Calculators
Tiny House Movement
Straw Bale Houses
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