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The Science Behind Geodesic Domes

  • 5 min read

A geodesic dome’s basic spherical design is based on a complicated math, which allows multiple triangular frames to form a dome-shape framework, in such a way that each face has a straight, flat surface. So, in other words, the struts of a geodesic dome are joined together in triangles, with the points of the triangles creating the sphere’s “surface.” The edges of the triangles form geodesics over the dome’s surface. The word geodesic refers to the shortest distance between two points on a curved surface, and it is a Greek word that means “earth dividing.”

The idea is by relying on the strength of the triangles, these structures can be constructed of more affordable and sustainable materials, such as aluminum, instead of steel and concrete. Because the framework creates a self-reinforcing roof and siding system, the necessity for any inner supports or “load-bearing” columns is eliminated. Besides, up to half of the triangles in a geodesic dome’s lowest row can be removed with no harm to the structure’s strength. This allows a designer to open doors and windows when planning a geodesic dome building. Skylights can be installed on any surface within the basic triangular frame. Dormers, copulas, and flat-roofed wings can also be built.

Because the geodesic dome resembles a sphere, it has a relatively low surface-area-to-volume ratio, which means that its volume is larger than its surface area. So it can enclose a massive amount of volume when compared with the size of the structure itself.

A quality geodesic dome structure is airtight and structurally reliable. These are the factors that lower energy costs, a primary concern when building a geodesic dome home. Because the frame is basically airtight, condensation can be a problem. Usually, it is managed by the heating and cooling system, but moisture can build up when the dome stays closed up for a few days. This can be easily solved by leaving a door or window open.

Geodesic domes range in size from the 460-ft (143-m) Poliedro de Caracas sports arena in Venezuela to temporary shelters that are 15 ft (5 m) or less in diameter. Typical domes for residential applications range in size from 26′ to 39′ in diameter. More massive domes for commercial and institutional applications can span up to hundreds of feet in diameter. At 530′ in diameter, the Tacoma Dome is the biggest public Geodesic Dome in the world.

Tacoma Dome Construction Drawings

The construction materials vary as well. Depending on the size and purpose of the building, geodesic dome frames can be built of PVC pipes, galvanized steel or aluminum struts and covered with various materials such as glass, plywood, cedar shingles, fiberglass, plexiglass, acrylic, metal, or plastic sheets, again depending on the building’s size and purpose.

Geodesic Domes have been used for just about every building type, from playground equipment to military radar stations, arctic research stations, civic and recreation buildings, tourist attractions, and single-family homes. While thousands have been built and are still being manufactured today, the use of Geodesic Domes achieved only limited popularity. Because the underlying math and engineering always have been a significant burden.

Although the instructions have been widely available since ’60s-’70s, the quality of materials used and the skill of do-it-yourself builders have been inconsistent. The founder of the hippie dome movement, Lloyd Kahn, encouraged do-it-yourself dome making from “natural” or even found materials. This approach didn’t work well. A dome has a huge number of edge joints, all of which are exposed to the weather. Making them leakproof is hard. Making them leakproof without tight tolerances is very hard. A more subtle problem was discovered later. If the sunlight heats one side but not the other, large internal stresses develop, and this cycling from relative expansion tends to cause leaks at joints.

Amateur-built domes leaked when it rained, insufficient insulation limited their energy efficiency, and inadequate window and skylight opening left interiors dark. So these kinds of failed individual attempts demotivated many people.

Even Fuller’s own dome once failed to succeed. In 1953, Fuller was commissioned to build a dome in Woods Hole by the architect and restauranteur Gunnar Peterson. Fuller built the dome over two weeks with a group of his students at MIT, and it was all done without using any scaffolding. Today, it remains the only surviving geodesic dome in which Buckminster Fuller supervised its building. However, even on its heydays, the building had several problems when it used to be an upscale fine dining restaurant. The glass windows heated the restaurant up like a greenhouse, so the owner installed fiberglass over the dome, which blocked the ocean view. And the dome leaked constantly, so it was also difficult to maintain. The rain still gets into the vacant building and leaves a pool of water on the ground, leading to a continuous mold stink.

The Dome Restaurant in Woods Hole, now stays vacant

Actually, the basic geometry of geodesic domes is simple. It probably has been waiting for the right time to make a comeback, with a little support from the technology that Bucky, Kahn, or others couldn’t have. Today, thanks to the geodesic dome constructor website, we can easily calculate the dimensions of the edges and the triangles, with just one click. The remaining problems are only choosing the right materials and having good skills of labor.

We have solved it all. Our patent-pending game-changer design will eliminate all the problems that you might encounter when building geodesic domes. Are you interested in learning more? Simply subscribe here, and we’ll keep in touch. 

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