Home sweet dome
Once a counterculture trend, geodesic domes are making a comeback on main street
KATE LUNAU | June 25, 2007 |
Michael Uyttebroek was first exposed to the geodesic dome as a teenager at Expo '67 in Montreal. He remembers riding the escalator -- at 40 m, then the longest in the world -- through the United States pavilion, a giant globe designed by visionary inventor Buckminster Fuller and architect Shoji Sadao. "It was big and spacious," Uyttebroek recalls of the 20-storey structure. "That kind of shape just has an attraction for me. It's like when you lie on the ground, and look up at the stars."
Forty years later, Fuller's famous dome houses Montreal's Biosphère, an environmental museum. And Uyttebroek, now 54, has a dome of his own -- a 1,500-sq.-foot home on 20 wooded hectares outside Penetanguishene, Ont., near Georgian Bay. "I thought it would be interesting to live in a round house," he says.
Uyttebroek isn't alone. First popularized in the 1950s by Fuller's futuristic designs, geodesic domes "started more as a counterculture approach to housing," says Robert Singer, president of Timberline Geodesics, a dome manufacturer based in Berkeley, Calif. Today, dome homes are increasingly mainstream -- Singer's clients range from retired couples to young families just starting out. "People are installing all the comfort features you would find in any kind of house, whether that's the high-end kitchen, Jacuzzi tubs, or media rooms," Singer says. Dennis Johnson, founder of Natural Spaces Domes in North Branch, Minn., has seen his production double in the last several years. Of the 50 or so structures his company produces annually, roughly one in six is destined for Canada.
Dome dwellers claim round homes are superior to square ones for many reasons, from the price -- a dome might typically cost 10 to 15 per cent less than a box house of the same size, Singer says -- to energy efficiency. Dick Spencer heats his three-storey, 2,600-sq.-foot dome home in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley "with a space heater the equivalent of a backyard barbecue. That's all year round," he says. The house's round shape naturally circulates warm or cool air, he explains. "They're just wonderful things," declares Spencer, who owns Domespirit Geodesic Domes in Summerland, B.C.
For some, the homes' unconventional look can also be a selling point. "I like the fact that my house is just startlingly different from the 200 or so that border me," says Dan McKinney, who lives in a dome in Center Valley, Pa., about an hour's drive north of Philadelphia. From the outside, his home resembles "a great big igloo, or an observatory, or a golf ball," he admits -- but once inside, "you get that feeling of expansiveness. There's just something about being inside one of them that feels good. I can't describe it too much better than that."
But the structures have their critics, too. Back in the "dome glory days" of the late 1960s and early '70s, Lloyd Kahn built several domes on the U.S. Pacific coast. In 1973, after publishing two books on the subject -- Domebook One and Domebook 2 -- Kahn abruptly became disenchanted with them. "I had a bestselling book on my hands, and I took it out of print because I realized they don't work. I didn't want any more domes on my karma," says Kahn, who tore down his own dome home. He lists off the many reasons for his frustration with domes, from their tendency to leak unless properly sealed -- "they're all roof," he says -- to the problem of furnishing a round space with rectangular beds and dressers. However, Singer insists today's manufactured domes have come a long way from their predecessors.
Despite a surge in popularity, geodesic dome homes, say some, may forever remain a niche market, no matter how many Jacuzzi tubs or media rooms. "People are used to what they're used to. You've got to be a little out of the ordinary to want one, because it just does not look like a house," McKinney says. Case in point -- when the design team on Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me needed a moon base from which Dr. Evil could plot global annihilation, they called Timberline. The geodesic dome's space-agey look was a perfect fit on the film set. "That was fun," Singer recalls.
Still, those who like them, like them a lot. "It's cool," says Uyttebroek. "When I wake up lying back on my futon, and I look up at the ceiling, it's 20 feet high. I'm going, 'Wow.' " In fact, his dome home is such a hit he's now building one for his ex-wife.