What Is a Geodesic Dome Home? History and Architectural Features

While efficient and beautiful, these homes can be tricky to build and maintain.

Geodesic dome home primary image

Jacob Earl / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Geodesic dome homes are structures based on geodesic polyhedrons. The word geodesic describes the shortest possible line between two points. Polyhedron refers to a three-dimensional shape with all flat outward-facing surfaces.

Buckminster Fuller, who popularized and wrote extensively about the benefits of geodesic domes, hoped that these unique structures would solve the housing crisis that developed right after World War II. While the popularity of geodesic dome homes did not last, they continue to fascinate many builders and homeowners today.

History of the Geodesic Dome

Though it was not given its name yet, geodesic domes were first unveiled right after World War I by Walther Bauersfeld, an engineer at Carl Zeiss optical company engineer. The first dome was used as a planetarium.

About twenty years later, Buckminster Fuller and an artist named Kenneth Snelson were working on architectural projects at Black Mountain College, and Fuller came up with the term "geodesic" to describe the structures under development. Fuller received a patent for the geodesic dome in 1954 after he constructed a still-standing geodesic dome with his students in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. That same year, he entered the 1954 Triennale architectural exhibition in Italy, constructing a 42-foot paperboard geodesic structure in Milan. He won first prize for his achievement.

Soon after, Fuller's domes were chosen for both military and industrial needs, ranging from factories to weather observatories. Resistant to wind and weather, geodesic domes were also easy to deliver in parts and put together quickly.

By the late 1950s, banks and universities were ordering geodesic domes, as well. Later still, one of the domes was featured at the 1964 Worlds Fair and Expo 67. Geodesic and other geometric domes have since been built for use at the South Pole, and a geodesic dome famously stands at the entrance of Disney's EPCOT Center.

Slow Decline in Popularity

Buckminster Fuller envisioned geodesic homes as low-cost, easy-to-construct housing that could solve home shortages. He designed the Dymaxion Home as a prefab kit that would include features like revolving drawing and wind-powered air-conditioning, but it never came to fruition. What did succeed was a more basic geodesic home he built for himself in Carbondale Illinois, where he lived for years.

During the 1970s, geodesic domes were built for backyard fun, and DIY versions of geodesic homes grew in popularity. But by the end of the 20th and the start of the 21st centuries, the fascination with geodesic buildings declined. Most likely, people recognized their practical downsides.

While Fuller's dream of prefab, helicopter-delivered geodesic homes was never fulfilled, architects and design-build firms have created unique types of dome homes based on his ideas. Today, geodesic dome homes can be found all over the world, either as full-functioning homes, "glamping" sites, or eco-homes.

Architectural Features

External views of the tropical dome of the Mt Coot-tha Botanical Gardens
External views of the tropical dome of the Mt Coot-tha Botanical Gardens. Marianne Purdie / Getty Images

The shape and structure of geodesic dome homes make them capable of withstanding strong winds. They have been built using every kind of material from Aircrete, a unique fast-drying combination of cement and foam, to adobe. Most rely on timber or steel and have coverings of architectural polyester, aluminum, fiberglass, or plexiglass.

Spheres are uniquely efficient because they enclose a great deal of interior space relative to the surface area; this can save money and materials in the building process. Because geodesic domes are spherical, the buildings have several other advantages:

  • With no walls or other obstructions, air and energy can circulate freely, making heating and cooling more efficient. The shape also lessens radiant heat loss.
  • With less surface area, there is less exposure to heat or cold.
  • High winds move around the curved exterior, reducing the possibility of wind damage.

Building a Geodesic Dome Home

Over the years, home builders and architects have come to specialize in dome homes, and many designers offer DIY dome home kits. However, while geodesic dome homes offer a range of efficiencies, there are some significant obstacles to account for before diving into the building process.

  • If you live in an area with specific building codes and restrictions, you may find it difficult or even impossible to get permission to build a geodesic dome home. Check with your local governing office first.
  • While a finished dome uses relatively little material, you can end up with a lot of waste as triangles are cut out of rectangular sheets of metal or plastic.
  • It's tough to find appliances and furnishings that fit well into a round structure, and jerry-rigging can lead to issues with codes and inspections.
  • Many homeowners discover that the many joints between triangles can lead to leaking windows and roofs.
  • Living in a dome can be noisy.
  • It's not easy to find or construct doors and windows that will fit a geodesic dome.
  • Dome homes can be hard to sell.
  • Depending on your location, you may run into problems with warm, wet air rising to the top of your dome, increasing the risk of mold.

Builders

There are many builders that specialize in building dome homes of various kinds, including geodesic domes. While the designs are innovative and beautiful, they can be expensive. Carefully research builders, visit models, and interview references before signing on. Some things to consider in your search are sustainable eco-friendly materials and energy efficiency.

Kits

Kits provide a nice balance between the cost of a design-build company and the uncertainty of a DIY project. There are many dome home kits available at a wide range of price points.

It's important to remember that home kits typically include only the materials needed to build the shell of the house, and not the interior elements you'll need to move in. Depending on your skills and available time, you may decide to hire a local construction firm to put together and finish your kit dome home.

DIY

It is possible to build your own geodesic dome without a kit—but unless you're building something quite small, like a shed, it can be a very big undertaking.

Because the basic structure is simple, however, it is possible to completely do it yourself if you have the skills, materials, time, and technology. The key is getting the permits you need to build, the help you need to electrify and plumb your home, and the approval of a building inspector once you're done. In many cases, dome owners start with a kit and then physically construct their domes on their own. This can save a lot of hassle, especially if you go with a reputable kit-maker.