The Dome
Hexipent Geodesic Dome cluster - 1979
Night view
From Dome to Dwelling...
The dome offers great promise along with a set of serious design challenges. One of these is how to bring it gracefully to the ground [link] - another, is how to utilize the basic round shape - which works well for some functions but not for others - in the creation of buildings that require multi-functional spaces.
The drawing, above, is from a 1979 project exploring how the Hexipent geodesic dome configuration, developed by Bucky, could be used for prefabricating modest scale, light weight, movable buildings. The dome is built in hexagon and pentagon segments that are shop built and assembled on site; thus, the entire superstructure is made up of a few easy to handle pieces that can be erected in a day or two. A standing seam flashing and counter flashing system between these segments facilitates quick waterproofing. Recently, a project in China [link] - one of much larger scale and higher technology, than shown here, - used the hexipent configuration as a basis for prefabricating components.
deployable_ domes
I call this dome design the “snowflake” configuration. Usually, a dome of this type (low-tech, employed as home or small office use) will meet the ground with a series of half hexagons where doors and windows are usually placed. This is awkward and ugly - the forms do not work together any more than carriage lanterns would be right on a modern automobile. This configuration also fails to provide adequate height for a comfortable two story layout with domes of modest size. There are thousands of such low-tech geodesic domes that fail to meet the promise of open space and who squat uncomfortably on the Earth and enjoy multiple waterproofing problems.
In this design, the pentagons sills are 3 feet above the grade and, in each half-hexagon, a horizontal hexagon roof segment forms a space off the main dome area - 5 per dome. This provides small rooms, entry areas, connection segments to other domes. It allows a more friendly meeting of the structure to the ground. In the illustration shown, berms come up to the dome structure sills. This provide the head height necessary for the hexagon areas and makes the dome, itself, high enough for a second level under the higher parts of the dome. Inside, this provides three foot vertical walls (below each non-opening hexagon and pentagon) useful for built-ins and furniture docking. The berm, on the outside, keeps the profile of the structure low and bridges between structure and ground with landscaping.
One idea of this project is that buildings for temporary use can be set up quickly almost anywhere. These can be used for schools, display and meeting facilities, offices, housing - what have you. As example, if we were to do an RDS [link] where no space was available, a complex like this could be set up in the parking lot of a hotel or shopping center - even an open field [link].
The structure can be erected (one day) the berm structure put in place using planter boxes and potted plants (one day; see: EcoSphere Greenhouse [link]) and a level floor of brick over sand provided for the interior spaces and the patios (one day). There would, of course, be no berms at the entries and patios. Any number of domes and hexagonal rooms can be provided in numerous configurations as required. Power, communications and waste management are provided in prefabricated self-contained unites that “plug-in” the hexagonal configuration. Properly done, a building like this can work for months with little or no maintenance required. Because the building is light weight - and the weight is so evenly distributed - the structure will easily sit on whatever paving, gravel or compacted earth that exists. Once this shell is set up, complete with windows and doors, interior components are moved in (two days).
For installations of greater duration on unpaved ground, wood foundations can be employed. An alternative is to put the entire project up on a modular wood platform, a prefabricated concrete footing, even compacted earth or straw bale construction - or any combination of these design strategies. Whatever foundation and base wall treatment is used, the idea is cause minimal disruption of the terrain (or built site) and maximum reusability of all materials.
The interior layout would use the same kind of set up of a typical AI/MG Taylor environment [link] with the domed areas used for large flexible work areas, the hexagonal rooms for more intimate, private spaces and the lofts for sitting and reading areas.
The dome and hexagonal room components are built of plywood over wood and steel frames and provide a combination painted and wood finish on the exterior and interior - much like a wooden boat. The windows-skylights are mostly in the hex shapes making most of the view up and out and into the landscaping areas. Entry doors, opening into patios, are made of wood and glass to provide horizontal views into the contained patios. In general, the language of the a typical Usonian [link] is employed. The interior spaces are large circular domed rooms with the smaller hexagonal rooms with lower ceilings (see: Schematic layout below). Second level platforms are optional. The skylights-windows can be placed to best make good views and appropriate natural lighting. These windows-skylights have built-in shades (see below) for control of view and light levels. There is no compromise with this approach between utility and architectural values. Most Pattern Language [link] values can be accomplished.
The EcoSphere [link] project uses the same dome configuration but employs a different site strategy than what is described here.
In all, great freedom of layout is accomplished that provides the flexibility to make extremely useful arrangements as may be required by many different uses of the building. The entire structure can be reconfigured if necessary. The nature of the structure and the way that it is built creates a composition of great strength. The structure is anchored to the pavement or ground with steel pins which are removed, and the holes filled, when the building is taken away.
The exterior finishes and waterproofing can be engineered to last, at least, between one year and 18 months without field work. In between deployments, the surface skins will be be refurbished - as a boat is on haul-out. This is likely a 30 day cycle at most.
The cost of deployment will be about 10% of the capital value of the structure which, itself, will be low compared to many other systems. This deployment strategy is practical in circumstances requiring time-to-value compression [link], when transportation is critical and/or when demand ebbs and flows. It also readily facilitates temporary use of land that is in “holding” waiting development. This concept of temporary development and staging the development of land through an economic cycle based on its urban context has long been a factor of our real estate development philosophy [link].
It should be clear that the same thing can be accomplished on undeveloped ground - the siting strategies would be somewhat different.
This system provides an attractive, useful, flexible, movable structure that will last for years as it is deployed from site to site - one that exploits the feature of the geodesic dome while mitigating its few but serious downside characteristics.
This can make you wonder why “permanent” building are so prized - and it should. In future years, the distinction between “buildings” and “vehicles” will fade. We will discover that buildings have to adjust to site and circumstances in a far more adaptive way then they do today - and, that vehicles are environments that have to support more kinds of activities than sitting on an uncomfortable bench, unable to work or relax, while passively watching the world go by.

Typical “Snowflake” cluster
of two domes and pod units

The schematic layout above shows the diversity of space possible with this configuration -it is a space rich in both prospect and refuge. A high variety of functional areas can be accomplished. This drawing is oriented the same as the partial top view (but is reduced in scale). The domes, using plywood construction, can range in diameter from 50 to 75 feet making the Pods about 15 to 20 feet across. The layout shown has three Patios, three Entry/Exits, two domes (one with a loft area) and 6 private Pods. In addition, 7 Pods are used for circulation and transition uses.
It should be clear that this same kind of configuration can be used for domestic living space or a combination of domestic and office. Even small shops can effectively employ this kind of configuration.
Addition to traditional house - July 1973
In addition to how the dome rests on the site there has been few uses that properly treat and fully make use of the interior space. In addition, getting in and out of the structure (gracefully), and fitting in with traditional buildings, has been a chronic problem with this structure. Another design problem is “fitting” the dome to more traditional structures. The Section above shows some design strategies for dealing with these intrinsic problems:
Surround the dome with a landscaped earth berm that intersects at the 2/3 curve plane of the dome - this joins the dome gracefully to the Earth and provides a landscaped band around the structure. This landscaping can be ornamental and eatable as is appropriate. Exact view points and privacy (view and sound) can be achieved with proper plant location.
Build a central core that houses mechanical systems, plumbing, fireplaces and electrical, vertical movement aids (stair, elevators, etc.) - penetrate the dome following the shape of one geodesic “hexagon.” No other penetrations (other than the entries) will be required. This takes advantage of the dome’s waterproof skin and maintains it’s integrity. From the horizontal center line of the dome, build a bridge (open or closed is optional), again following a “hex” shape. This should be designed to fit the second level of the traditional building (or other entry portal). In domes of greater size, it can be useful to provide and underground entry [link] tube for security and esthetic reasons. In the case of the dome shown, which has a partially underground floor level, build a descending stairway through one portion of the earth berm. Now, the two structures are connected and integrated but visually isolated with landscaping softening the negative space between their two forms.
Cantilever all the living space floor platforms off of the central core and avoid contact with the skin of the dome - leave this free to be expressed as an “environment valve.” This way, the geometry of the floor platforms is “resolved” by the negative space between the dome geometry and the platform’s. There is no way that these can be resolved with contact - a series of ugly, difficult shapes, expensive to build, is the inevitable result. Design privacy into the layout by the vertical and horizontal location of function spaces (going from “public” areas to more private and so on).
Design the solid and glassed sections of the dome with attention to sun and views. Light the inside from the outside thought these glassed areas which will provide shadows at night, like in daytime, and enhance a sense of privacy without having to pull the shades. Note that “unusual” viewpoints can be provided by this schema as shown on the section Traditional building hold viewing too much to the horizontal orientation, looking out “up” and “down” opens the mind [link] to new experiences.
In the illustration shown, there are several levels including a underground floor and platforms. The underground level is the greenhouse, kitchen and informal eating area. The next level up, the Entry, Living spaces and formal dining areas (food comes through a vertical lift which is a warmer). The platforms, above, are sleeping and private work areas. Of course, in this case, there is some program integration with the traditional building to which the dome is connected.
The dome shown is 25 feet in diameter. The useable space is the entire sphere. The full potential dynamics of the shape are used to the maximum and the usual problems associated with a dome (conflicting geometry’s, pie shaped rooms, stuff penetrating the dome at awkward places and other misdeeds) are avoided.
Again, these Design Strategies can be used for domes of various sizes and to house a wide variety of functional spaces.
Study - 1979
In a dome of 50 feet or greater, the interior volume of the sphere is such that the geometrical options become very great.
This illustration is a space study for a multi-level combined home/office and guest complex inside of a 75 foot dome.
It was conceived for a sloping site - the shaded area (in the upper left quadrant) is where the dome goes into the ground (Providing a heat sink). The rest of the structure completes nearly a full circle above the lower slope providing views of interest and a variety of access points to the exterior.
Spaces of great beauty and utility can be built this way. The exterior shell is one simple statement made of two elements: one solid and one “open” (glassed). the interior elements which make up most of the building do not have to deal with weather. Therefore, they can be designed to be light and simple - they address their own minimal structural requirements, and only have to deal with sight line and arrangement requirements, storage and acoustics; prospect and refuge.
Separating the shell (environment value) and the complexities of the interior, gives freedom to both. This a strategy, by the way, that can successfully be employed with structures of a more conventional kind. The result should be integrated - this does not means the elements have to be connected.
Window treatment - Snowflake Dome May 1976
Another generic design issue with domes is the appropriate treatment of the skylight/windows. In the Snowflake configuration, all the window areas are in the hexagonal and pentagonal prefabricated pieces (but not all of the hex and pent elements, of course). As noted, these window elements can be placed with great care - for profound effect, however, there remains a number of issues: sun control, privacy, night lighting and the proper framing of the window elements without complicating the inherent simplicity of the dome skin.
These configurations provide the ability to place windows exactly where required - something much more difficult to achieve in conventional structures.
The window treatment design deals with these issues by creating a valence unit that fits in the interior of the dome after the components are erected. The fixed glass of the dome is a triangle in each hex segment and is simply trimmed out as shown. The valence fits into the hex and slopes inward, toward it’s center, at the same angle as the dome elements slope outward. Around the hex perimeter of the Valence, an indirect light cove is built in that lights up this cavity at night. This can be supplemented with exterior light poles as shown on the “addition to a traditional house Section” (above) and illustrated by the MLU Dome below. In addition, built into this valence, is a series of triangular shades that “close” by pulling into the center (by electric motors). When open, they expose their tips as shown. This shade material is both insulating and shading. This careful combination of lighting and shades creates a number of options for dealing with light, views, temperature and privacy. Note that the MLU employs this glassing strategy and provides a built in ladder for roof access.
The MLU stand for Minimum Living Unit. I explored this project, in November 1975, as an attempt to define what could be the minimum cost and maximum living accommodation that would make up decent, graceful, affordable adaptable housing and small scale office and retail units. There was - and remains today - tremendous gaps in these arenas - gaps that are not being addressed by conventional architecture-building-financing institutions. Many prior attempts to use wood and other accessible means and the geodesic dome have a spotted record. Funk seems to rule. Some pieces of great charm have been produced but few of sustaining architectural quality.
To achieve a better result, a grammar has to be derived that intrinsically employs the shape of the dome in a useful way. In addition, a building method has to be created. I suggest that the boat building industry has long ago created the tools, practices and components necessary for this. Small, strong, endurable, beautiful wooden buildings are possible and they can be produced in clean, low production, low-scale, shops. Fine architecture can be produced that is affordable my millions, that today, have little choice regarding the quality of their environment.
Of course, it should be clear that a variety of alternative energy, food growing and waste-management strategies should be employed with the MLU. These will be documented elsewhere but have to be understood and an integral aspect of the idea. The cost of traditional infrastructure systems is not affordable by affordable housing.
These projects have intrinsic value in themselves. There exists other reasons for exploring their virtues, and the “shell as environment valve” design strategy, besides that of mobile and low-cost environments in today’s Earth-economy. Collaborative living as illustrated in Domicile [link] and Mega City [link], is one. The “Bootstrap to Space” strategy [link] is another.
Innovation is both evolutionary and discontinuous. What is necessary, today, is to combine these two - often competing - approaches into one harmonious method that integrates present needs and long-term goals. This is the “Getting HERE from THERE” strategy that is so intrinsic to the Taylor System and Method.
Our separation of low cost housing from large-scale building, from transportation, from work habitats, from computer technology, from our space endeavors, is precisely why we sub-optimize all of them and fail, again and again, to get the synergy we need for true advancement. The division of architects, builders, engineers, manufactures, developers, from one another further fuels this problem. Does it really take an army of organizations - each hostile to one another - to build a simple dwelling? Is is really efficient to treat, housing, offices, apartments, commercial structures, transportation and space units as if they were totally different arts? I think not.
The biggest barrier to building this way - other than social indifference - is the way building is conducted [link] today. This way-of-working [link] wastes, at least, 50% of the money spent and 75% of the time used in non-value-added activities. I demonstrated this in the 1960s [link]. It has not changed in the last 35 years - in fact, it has gotten worse.
The purpose of a system is it’s output. Want to change the result, change the structure of the process - there is no other way.
The EcoSphere Garden Project [link] is an easy way to get started exploring these ideas. Easy to build and productive; it should pay for itself, in produce, within a few of years.
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To MG Taylor Nashville Compound Project

Matt Taylor
Palo Alto
May 19, 1999


SolutionBox voice of this document:

click on graphic for explanation of SolutionBox

posted: May 19, 1999

revised: January 1, 2003
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note: this document is about 80% finished

© Matt Taylor, 1973, 1975. 1976, 1979, 1999, 2000, 2003
Certain aspects described are Patented and in Patent Pending

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