Domebuilder's Blues


Smart, But Not Wise

Want to build a model? Check out these kits

Refried Domes

It was the call last night that finally did it. “Lloyd, a friend of mine just built a dome in Big Sur and wants to know what to cover it with.”

A few days earlier there had been the call from a dome designer I’d met back in the dome glory days. He said there was so much call for information that now he was looking to republish a book he’d written on domebuilding.

— Deja vu, all over again. As Yogi Berra said.

I started building domes in Big Sur in 1966. Then in 1969 I spent two years overseeing a domebuilding program at an “alternative” high school in the California hills. We had to house about 50 students and a dozen or so teachers. We were inspired by Buckminster Fuller to work on solving “mankind’s” housing problems, and we took it upon ourselves to experiment with as many materials as possible. We built domes out of plywood, aluminum, sheet metal, fiberglass, ferro-cement, cedar shingles, asphalt shingles, and even nitrogen-inflated vinyl pillows.

With all the interest in domes and other alternative concepts of the times, and due to the extent of our dome design and experimentation, we soon became the focus and clearing house for the counterculture’s domebuilding movement of the late ’60s/’70s.

By 1970 it was obvious that there was enough information and interest for some type of publication. We borrowed the Whole Earth Catalog’s production facilities and in 1970 produced Domebook One and then in 1971 Domebook 2, which went on to sell 175,000 copies. Throughout this time we maintained a network of dome builders and designers.

By then we had built 17 domes at Pacific High School, and to tell the truth, the workmanship was less than exquisite. The time factor (just a few months to beat the rains), the age factor (teenage workmanship), the cost factor ($1200 per dome), and of course, the dope factor, all took their toll in the fine product. Yet we learned a lot.

Two years was about as long as the school lasted in full force. Things began to deteriorate on all fronts (for one thing, 50-odd teenagers do not make a good living situation) and I left the school in 1971 and bought a lot in a small coastal town. I wanted to try building one last dome on my own, without the constraints of communal living. This one I built carefully. It had a lightweight exposed wooden framework inside and was paneled with used reddish rough-sawn Douglas fir. The exterior was covered with redwood shakes that I split from driftwood logs and there was a long plexiglas skylight that focused on a pine tree outside. It ended up being featured in a two-page color spread in Life magazine.

By then I was getting even more calls and letters (and drive-by/drop-in unannounced visitors) and all the attention made me think very carefully about domes. I liked this dome far better than any I’d ever been in, but the problems of dome construction and dome living did nothing but increase. It had by now been five years of growing frustration and the disadvantages were overwhelmingly obvious. Domes weren’t practical, economical or aesthetically tolerable — at least for my life and sensibilities.

Finally, for a variety of reasons I sold the dome and dismantled it. At the same time we discontinued publication of Domebook 2, even though it was still selling well.

A cycle completed, a process carried full circle: mission impossible . . . .

We then went on to publish two more books on building: Shelter (1973) and Shelter II (1978). The first of these was even more popular than Domebook 2. It showed an intriguing variety of building methods from all over the world and a richness of human spirit in people providing their own shelter. Both these books outlined the advantages of rectilinear construction (and most notably stud-frame construction) for building one’s own home in North America. The disadvantages of domes were also well documented.

Yet since that time — in fact since Domebook 2 went out of print in 1973 — we’ve had a steady stream of calls and letters on domes: what do you think of them as homes, do they leak, where can I find chord factors, can I trust dome salesmen . . . We kept meaning to print something up, but the years slipped by.

As I said, the call the other night did it. The same old questions, 16 years later, but now increasing in frequency. (Maybe a lot of the bad ideas of the ’60s are resurfacing now along with the good ones.) Enough procrastination! Here’s our answer to all those dome questions. This hastily-assembled publication has a two-fold purpose:

  1. To present our hard-earned opinion of domes as homes. (They don’t work.)

  2. To reprint some long out-of-print mathematical information from Domebook 2. (Models do work.)

Along the way there are comments on plastics and “appropriate” technology, letters from readers, insights on mega-design and the little-known story of the world’s first geodesic dome.

The other day a friend asked what we were working on. “Well, this thing called Refried Domes, about why domes don’t worketc.

“Aren’t domes passé?” she asked.

No, I said, there’s apparently a whole new generation of people out there now asking questions again. And then it occurred to me that although we did publish most of the information herein 10-15 years ago, it was never assembled as a whole.

Here then are the results of an experimental voyage. The bitter and the sweet. The great idea (!) and the concrete reality. The ideological principle and the physical follow through . . . Mamas, don’t let your mathematicians grow up to become builders . . .

— Lloyd Kahn
October, 1989

See also: