Geodesic Domes: From EPCOT to Everest Base Camp, Hippie to Yuppie
How the utopian design concepts of Bucky Fuller informed iconic outdoor gear and launched the modern glamping movement
In 2020, after years of dreaming of owning a cabin, I decided it’s now or never. So like so many others, I developed a habit of checking Zillow with my first cup of coffee each morning (and doom scrolling Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, Zillow, Realtor.com, etc each night before bed). And well, exactly one year ago in early January 2021, I found something really interesting: a geodesic dome home on an abandoned ski hill in the eastern Catskills, complete with un-plow-able access road, a rather harsh outdated interior, and untraceable roof leak.
With an asking price of $225k, it was sorta within my price range, so I called the realtor and got the skinny. Minutes later my partner Gaby and I jumped in the old rig for a quick jaunt north.
Turns out—and this should come as no surprise to anyone who’s even tangentially looked into real estate during Covid-times—I was one of about 15 people interested in the house/cabin. In the end it sold almost immediately for $305,000, and not to me. Now a year out, I may have dodged a bullet. (Shout out material prices hitting an all-time high and contractor availability an all-time low.)
Good news is, on that visit we found a secluded acre nearby for $40k and had an offer accepted shortly thereafter. Bad news is, while waiting for snow to melt to clear an engineer to perform a perc test (to confirm septic compatibility) the neighbor hit up the owner directly and bought it out from under us for double. Good news is, the county probably woulda made me put in an above ground septic anyway and those things are a major eyesore, not to mention cost an arm and a leg. So maybe that’s another bullet dodged. *Insert terrible Matrix reference here* Either way, it definitely provided a valuable lesson—it ain’t yours till the deed is in your hand!
Photo courtesy Airbnb | screenshot courtesy my iphone
So anyway here we are, a year later and I’m still on the hunt. Only now, I’ve become obsessed with geodesic domes. Sorry, Gaby!
And that’s what we’re here to dive deep into today: geodesic domes, the pride of old Bucky Fuller himself. With the first Deep Dive issue of Cabins Etc, the #1 newsletter for cabin dreamers and lovers of leisure architecture, celebrating the A-frame, it seems only fair we swing the pendulum to the other side of the funky shaped shelter spectrum and see what we can find on geo dome homes.
Let’s get to it, starting with the basics then coming around to the many wild geo dome examples and contemporary use cases.
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Photo courtesy FDomes
What is a geodesic dome and why should I care?
Ok, first, you should care because geodesic domes are literally incredible. Like, it’s fact. It’s math. They are by definition both unique and cool. That’s at once very and also not-at-all descriptive, but hear me out.
Born of the same wave of post WWII hope, optimism, and modernism that gave rise to America’s A-frame obsession, the geodesic dome ascribes to the “do more with less” principle of architectural thinking. And boy do they. Geodesic domes enclose the largest volume of internal space with the least amount of surface area, thus minimizing materials and cost while maximizing living space and structural strength.
To illustrate the phenomenon, consider this: When you double the diameter of a sphere, you quadruple the square footage and produce eight times the volume. That’s wild!
L to R: Buckmister Fuller, photographer unknown | Expo ‘67 Worlds Fair Montreal courtesy Rodrigo Maia
Shout out Bucky Fuller
The geodesic dome was invented by R. Buckminster Fuller, the infinitely influential architect, author, designer, inventor, and futurist. Only, it wasn’t—technically some German dude did while working as chief engineer at Carl Zeiss optics in the mid 1920s, which is also a pretty cool story tbh. And eons before that, indigenous people around the world built adobe domes and structures of the like…
But Bucky did coin the term “geodesic” in the late 1940s and received the US patent a decade later, and is fully responsible for any one of us knowing about these things nowadays. He dedicated his entire life to promoting the utopian potential of his revolutionary designs. So shout out Bucky Fuller, the spiritual inventor of geodesic domes. A man so confident and audacious that he once proposed covering midtown Manhattan with a three kilometer geodesic dome to regulate weather and reduce air pollution.
L to R: Burning Expo ‘67 photographer unknown | Expo ‘67 steel frame courtesy Richard Winchell | Manhattan dome rendering courtesy the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller
While the Manhattan dome didn’t happen, Bucky did succeed in building a number of truly incredible geodesic domes that captured the minds and hearts of postwar America as a modern form of sustainable, egalitarian architecture. His largest, erected as the United States Pavilion for the Expo ’67 World’s Fair in Montreal—voted #11 on the NYT list of The 25 Most Significant Works of Postwar Architecture—soared more than 200 feet tall with a 250-foot diameter before burning in 1976. Today, inside its steel skeleton the city of Montreal operates a public museum dedicated to environmental preservation and education known as the Biosphere. Thank goodness it didn’t turn into a gas station or some shit.
(Ed Note: Buckmister Fuller and his work were heavily informed by the “Spaceship Earth” worldview, which denounces reliance on fossil fuels, expresses concern for the aggressive use of Earth’s limited resources, and encourages everyone to act as a harmonious crew working toward the greater good. I.e. Earth is spinning thru space and has a fine amount of resources and cannot be resupplied. Check out his books Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth and Earth, Inc for more influential and perpetually relevant futurism. It’s good.)
Illustration courtesy Greenhouse Emporium
How do geodesic domes work?? Warning: extreme nerd sh*t to follow
It’s all about the triangle. (And a bunch of unbelievably complex geodesic math.)
The triangle shape is inherently rigid, especially compared to say, a rectangle, which is the most common building block for most modern buildings. And when connected to many other triangles to form a sphere (like a soccer ball, kinda) or hemispherical structure, the ingenious triangular elements distribute weight and stress evenly throughout, creating a structure with unparalleled strength capable of withstanding tremendous forces—be it wind, weight, or pressure.
To prove the point, take for example this wild 1954 experiment by the U.S. Marines, who had been testing geodesic domes for potential use as quick-strike outposts capable of being either prefabricated and deployed via helicopter tow or quickly assembled on-site from a kit by generally inexperienced soldiers. With an airplane anchored in place, they blasted its 3,000 horsepower engine at a standard 30-foot geodesic dome for 24 hours straight. Sustaining a force equivalent to 120 mph winds for the entire duration, the dome escaped unscathed.
Inside, geodesic domes create one of the most efficient interior atmospheres possible for human dwelling because air and energy (namely heat, but also, you know, ~vibes~) circulate without obstruction. Thus, heating and cooling a geo dome is extremely easy, regardless of environment.
In short, the geodesic dome is arguably the only structure naturally capable of existing in literally every climate on Earth, from Antarctica to the Sahara desert.
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L to R: photo courtesy General Design Co | courtesy @dwell_Sometime_climbing
From EPCOT to Everest base camp (or vice versa)
In 1982 Walt Disney World opened the EPCOT Center with a spherical geodesic dome acting as main focal point both literally and for marketing purposes. It’s still there today, and still really cool. For the sake of tying all this back to our core themes of cabins and outdoors though, let’s backtrack a decade to the early 1970s when The North Face approached Bucky with a unique challenge.
Could geodesic geometry be applied to a camping tent? The unrivaled strength and efficiency of geodesic domes was well known by thinking minds the world over at this point, but like I said earlier, the math is impossible for most to figure out on their own. Surprisingly (and reportedly) Bucky had himself considered the question long before being approached by then owners of TNF, and so he got to work. In 1975 TNF released the Oval Intention tent, and it changed tent design forever.
Now known as the 2-Meter Dome, the tent remains legendary today—a $5,500 icon trusted to withstand the most extreme conditions by the most hardcore alpinists (and one Japanese architect, who designed an entire weekend cabin around it, pictured above left).
More recently, TNF’s design team have updated the geodesic classic with an even more eye-catching design in the TNF Geodome 4. You might recognize the iteration from a certain living room photo (above right) that periodically circulates on IG cool kid moodboard pages.
Across the pond in Germany, the brainiacs at Heimplant have taken the geodesic concept a different route—their inflatable octagonal tents do away with traditional tent poles and instead rely on engineered air tubes for increased stability. Their Mavericks group tent (above right), which boasts ~140 square feet of living space and six feet of headroom, is designed to withstand winds of up to 111 mph. Bucky would be proud.
L to R: photo courtesy Heimplanet | courtesy IGLU Domes
From utopian solution to yuppie vacation destination (aka the glamping boom!)
Though geodesic design does work wonders for expedition rated tents, Bucky and the early modernist enthusiasts that popularized the form in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s envisioned the geodesic dome as more of an everyday solution to the world’s housing needs. The utopian idea followed that if these structures could be manufactured in mass, for less, using fewer materials, they could play an integral role in solving the growing problems of resource depletion and climate change.
Of course that didn’t happen, cus you know, no one could figure out how to make ungodly amounts of money doing it. But the groundwork laid in that era has paved the way for a new, infinitely more bougie movement to emerge in recent years. I’m talking about, of course, glamping.
Glamping, aka glamorous camping, takes the comforts of home (a real bed, electricity, a real roof over your head) and combines it with access to nature by way of safari tents, canvas tents, and you guessed it, geodesic dome tents.
Long maligned by the “core” outdoorists as strictly for Starbucks girls and Instagram boyfriends, glamping has in recent years evolved into a new form of ecotourism that appeals to new outdoor enthusiasts, lifelong campers, and of course, cabins lovers.
Photo courtesy EcoCamp Patagonia
One of the most exciting examples of this surprising Venn diagram is Chile’s EcoCamp Patagonia, a collection of 33 geodesic dome slash a-frame tents in Torres del Paine National Park (ever wonder where the brand Patagonia gets its iconic mountainscape logo? Well there you go). Chosen for now-obvious reasons, their unique, hyper sustainable dome cabins host nature lovers year round. It’s high on my to-visit list.
More often though, geodesic dome glamping tents are made of less substantial materials. Think PVC coated polyester shells stretched over a stainless steel frame. A standard 16’ diameter dome glamping tent can weigh as little as 450 lbs fully built, and be erected or disassembled in a couple hours by just a couple people. They’re lightweight, portable, and still as efficient and awesome as ever.
All you gotta do is build a wood platform to anchor your dome to and you’re most of the way there.
(For lists of actually cool glamping locations, head over to Field Mag dot com)
DIY or DIE, backyard geodesic dome edition
With the glamping boom well underway there’s no shortage of companies offering backyard dome kits for DIY enthusiasts. We’re talking dome homes, greenhouse domes, event domes, yoga domes, etc. Prices range from $5,000 - $20,000. And again, often the only tools you need for assembly are a ladder and ratchet set.
For the sake of wrapping this beautiful-but-perhaps-too-thorough newsletter up nicely though, let’s quickly shout out a handful of legit dome mfgs still in operation and send you on your daydreaming way.
First up is Pacific Domes. Self-styled as “The Original Dome Company,” the woman-owned, Ashland, OR-based manufacturer has been designing and making portable geodesic dome homes since 1980. Their website is very scientific and nerdy. I love it.
Canada’s IGLU seems to be another reputable geodesic dome slinger—their sauna dome is def caught my eye. FDomes is much newer and much more slick—definitely riding the glamping the bandwagon—but seems solid, too.
Of course, plenty of smaller, more niche dome companies exist, too. Like Golden Trillium, a heady artisanal option that specializes in wood-frame domes (very cool).
And there you have it. Don’t forget the crystals!
Images courtesy Golden Trillium
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PS - *Living legend Lloyd Kahn of Shelter Publishing has mixed feelings on geodesic domes, after five decades of experience. Stay tuned to Cabins Etc for why, plus much more (like what it was like working on the Whole Earth Catalog) in a future Deep Dive w the legend himself.