Geodesic domes: 'Doing more with less'

A leading maker of geodesic dome kits advances Buckminster Fuller's vision. Photos: Domes for all occasions

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
ASHLAND, Ore.--Six years ago, several friends and I were putting together the infrastructure for our Burning Man camp and decided it would be great to house everything inside a geodesic dome.

After looking into making our own, we realized we didn't have the time. This being 2000 and pre-recession, we were still flush enough to buy one. So we pooled our resources and plunked down several thousand dollars for a dome from the place everyone seemed to say was the only one that sold what we needed: Ashland's Pacific Domes.

Geodesic domes

We bought a 30-foot-diameter frame, and shortly afterward tried setting it up in a schoolyard in San Francisco. We failed, but still thought we understood what we were doing. Thus, we felt we were in good shape for taking it to Burning Man and erecting it there.

Once in the desert, we found we had yet again failed to master dome construction. And magically, just as we were about to give up, the very person who sold us the dome wandered by and not only saved the day, but did it single-handedly.

Afterward, when he was explaining how he had managed to put the top of the dome together, all by himself, when 10 of us couldn't manage it, he said it was because he did it at least once a week, every week. In fact, he said, he often would lie outside at night, staring up at the sky, subconsciously connecting stars in his mind with dome struts.

Since then, Pacific Domes has frequently been on my mind. Not only because dozens of Burning Man groups use its domes, but because it seems like every big corporate event I go to these days--be it the Xbox 360 launch event in the Mojave Desert or Sony's party at E3--features one or more of their domes.

So I decided that as the last stop on my Road Trip 2006 around the Pacific Northwest, it would be appropriate for me to stop by Pacific Domes.

I found myself on Saturday afternoon in the home of Asha Deliverance, the company's co-founder. We talked about the iconic structures, sacred geometry and Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the modern geodesic dome.

According to the Buckminster Fuller Institute, domes are among the most efficient and strongest structures in the world.

"Fuller discovered that if a spherical structure was created from triangles, it would have unparalleled strength," the site states. "The sphere uses the 'doing more with less' principle in that it encloses the largest volume of interior space with the least amount of surface area, thus saving on materials and cost?.The spherical structure of a dome is one of the most efficient interior atmospheres for human dwellings because air and energy are allowed to circulate without obstruction. This enables heating and cooling to occur naturally."

Road Trip 2006

Practically speaking, Deliverance told me, people buy domes because they're sturdy, inexpensive and an efficient use of space. Many of the sales made by the company--it sells frames, covers and kits that can be used by people to build their own dome homes--are to individuals wanting to live in them. Thus, the 16-foot and 30-foot models are very popular.

Many companies also want to use the structures for corporate events, she said. Pacific Domes sells and rents a significant number of 44-footers, and the occasional 60-footer.

But, Deliverance said, there is no known limit to just how big a geodesic dome can be.

"I have a fearless nature, so I keep going for bigger and bigger domes," she said. "We're not sure (if there's a limit). We're taking it slow. We have engineering, and we can go bigger with heavier tubing."

The biggest the company has crafted is a 120-foot structure it built for a festival in Portugal. It has also built at least one 90-footer.

The company started in 1980 after Deliverance had been living in a monastery and built a rudimentary dome using Fuller's geometry because she needed a place to live.

"If a hurricane hits an area, the only thing left are domes."
--Asha Deliverance, co-founder, Pacific Domes

Quickly, she learned that others wanted them. So she ended up building a dozen. That turned into a business.

Flash forward to 2005 and the devastated Gulf Coast region, where relief workers in Biloxi, Miss., and in an area of New Orleans were using domes donated by the company as distribution centers for food and equipment.

Although making a home out of a geodesic dome can be inexpensive compared with building a traditional house, the structures are hardly cheap.

A 30-foot dome with cover can run as high as $16,100. A 44-footer is much more, at $31,600.

The company, which appears to be far and away the leader in the United States when it comes to building and selling geodesic domes, makes just three a week. So to give several away certainly took a chunk out of its bottom line.

"Even FEMA and the Red Cross ended up in our domes," she said. "We donated them for free, and it almost sunk our business because we wanted to help."

Deliverance thinks domes could be useful in areas likely to encounter hurricanes.

"If a hurricane hits an area, the only thing left are domes," she said, adding that the structures, when used with the proper tubing and staked down properly, can withstand hundreds of pounds of pressure per square inch from, say, snow accumulation or wind.

Meanwhile, as Pacific Domes continues as the leading purveyor of Fuller's creation to people desiring them for personal use, the company also regularly rents them--for rather fantastic sums of money--to companies and productions as diverse as Mars (which showcased its M&Ms brand with a bunch of domes colored to look like the tiny candies), the "Survivor" television series, Volkswagen, the Golden Globes and DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes.

But the mainstay of the business seems to be its consumer sales. In this regard, it's notable that Pacific Domes has stayed in Ashland rather than moving its operations overseas. Deliverance said she has gotten offers from companies in countries like China to build the domes there, but said she wants to remain an American company.

That, however, cuts into the company's profit margin. Deliverance said she isn't making much more per dome now than she did when the company was much smaller.

Still, her 20 employees are clearly the vanguard for what some people might not even recognize as an architectural movement. But with dome kits that can result in attractive and comfortable housing for a fraction of the price of a typical house, it's likely that we will see more geodesics.

There are a number of other companies that sell domes. Almost all sell completed dome homes, while Pacific Domes focuses on kits with frames that buyers must assemble themselves. But the company is likely to face more direct competition if one of her employees succeeds in opening his own geodesic business. In fact, she mentioned, that employee is the very one who saved me and my friends' bacon at Burning Man in 2000. So I can only give him my blessing.