Undone by the dome.

Strolling through the town of Bowman, North Dakota last summer (which is how one gets around if one finds oneself in Bowman…obviously), I came across a pretty slick looking geodesic dome home.IMG_5617 We see these from time to time. After all, they were quite the fad for a few years, peaking around 1970. While I suspect they enjoyed a somewhat greater prominence in the West Coast, we clearly could stumble upon them just about anywhere. Like a town of 1,600 in the southwest corner of this sparsely populated state.

What struck me as strange about this particular geodesic dome wasn’t the structure itself, but how it stood unassumingly within a standard small-town residential context. Here’s the housing on either side of it:geodesic dome north dakotaIMG_5619Pretty conventional stuff. In fact, by almost every other metric, Bowman is a typical Midwestern small town, with few other (if any) visually distinct structures beyond this dome. And the dome doesn’t really assert itself: tucked in the middle of a block on an exclusively residential street, it only catches attention because the physical form is so different. But it’s hardly a centerpiece to the town, and most passers-by would never notice it.

I can only speculate on the context of this dome in particular. Was it an infill development, built at a later point than most of the other housing nearby? Does it have a particular story? Is it controversial? No doubt I’m projecting a bit of my own prejudices into the narrative by presuming that the dome defies Bowman’s otherwise conservative aesthetic. But it’s hard not to wonder if it required special approvals to get beyond local zoning regulations, if the City of Bowman even has zoning. (Turns out it does.) But there’s my bias popping up again. Why should the massing, shape or physical form of a house matter, as long as it complies with existing zoning for setbacks, height, or building/impervious coverage? A house is a house, regardless of how idiosyncratic it may be. And, during that brief period when architectural impresario Buckminster Fuller popularized the dome, drawing attention to its incredible load-bearing capacity and resistance to high winds, they really did become a household term.  In that respect, a town in the American Great Plains, where powerful winds are an almost daily occurrence, the ability of a geodesic roof to deflect wind shear might make it particularly apt.

Simple as it may be to zone for the geodesic dome, they face a greater crucible when it comes to internal operations. Chimneys, sewer vents, and window placements offer huge challenges to local building codes, particularly if the dome is large. And, although typically structurally sound—as they typically are—the sheer number of “omnitriangulated” seams (where each triangle joins its neighbors) can radically increase the likelihood for water leaks. Since most people don’t demand triangular shaped sheathing material, much gets wasted in the cutting process. But the real clincher—which probably explains far more than anything while geodesic domes remained a short-lived fad—is the tremendous waste of space on the interior, when placing conventionally rectangular furniture along curved walls, which is always a problem if the corners of rooms don’t meet at right angles. And who wants to get a vacuum cleaner back in that wasted sliver behind the couch?

This home in Bowman may be the only geodesic dome for a 200-mile radius, not only because of their scant popularity, but because this part of the country is uninhabited in general. The domes that survive probably retain value due to their novelty, but they suffer the same meteoric sociocultural ascendancy as an innovation in fashion: the trademarked Hypercolor t-shirts come to mind. As writer, publisher, green construction advocate, and former geodesic dome resident Lloyd Kahn noted, they’re “smart but not wise”.  Kahn also notes, as is often the case, the yawning disparity between the integrity of the principles governing such a design and the checkered results of the physical follow-through.

It remains to be seen whether the burgeoning passive house movement will revolutionize construction or will ultimately stand in as the geodesic dome of the 2010s. For the foreseeable future, at least, Bowman has a well-maintained relic of the 1970s, and if a tornado ever sweeps through town, it’s probably one of the best places to bunker down. Finding room for a nightstand beside the bed is an entirely different story.

9 thoughts on “Undone by the dome.

  1. Alice

    The only geodesic dome that Bucky and his wife ever lived in is located in Carbondale, IL. He was a research professor in the School of Architecture at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (my alma mater). I think the dome was built in 1960 and Bucky lived in it until 1971. Here’s an article from 2014 about the restoration of Bucky’s dome:

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks Alice! Glad to know it’s still standing and that there’s enough appreciation to keep it looking good. I have to admit, though, for ease and convenience of living, you’re probably not much better off living in a teepee (tipi).

  2. Katie Zappe

    Nice piece! 2 questions, what were you doing in small town North Dakota and did you try to knock on the door to talk to the residents? (Related side note, I feel like a fraud living in a cookie cutter townhouse when my passion is midcentury modern.)

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hi, Katie, I’m a big fan of midcentury modern too. It’s a good thing they’re enjoying a comeback. As for your questions, it was part of a tour of the Badlands (though the ones in SD, not the ND badlands) but I wanted to make it up to North Dakota to check that state off my list. Didn’t see any residents, I’m afraid…. But that’s a common theme in the Dakotas–southwestern ND and northwestern SD are both almost completely empty–less than one person per square mile!

  3. Chris B

    The conventional stoop roof and modern white front entry door (with half moon lite) juxtaposed with the “alien spaceship” windows and brown/tan paint job…no words. It appears to be some kind of sheet roofing, which does look better than the shingles and ball of ridges one normally sees on the type.

    I always thought that a more conventional square or octagonal base, bermed or sunken, with a dome on top (more like a squat Midwestern grain bin) would have been the ideal configuration. Smarter (earth banking is more energy efficient), and wiser to allow for use of the height/volume, easier partitioning and for standard rectilinear doors and windows to look right.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Chris–would your recommendation reduce the problems of getting furniture to fit in the interior spaces? Certainly a square base would achieve the results; what about an octagon? Maybe not ideal, but better than circumferential/

      To be honest, I thought this was among the more effective designs I’ve seen, especially when I compared it to geodesics that I saw online. It compromised much less on the original Buckminster Fuller ambitions. Though I agree that the Mayberry-style front entry is a bit jarring. Regardless of the overall aesthetic, it’s hard not to appreciate how a full-fledged geodesic or the hybrid you mentioned might help against those powerful prairie winds. They really are like nowhere else I’ve experienced in the country. I can’t help but wonder if, because of the winds, geodesics might actually be disproportionately common in the Dakotas.

      1. Chris B

        Re winds, probably so. There’s a reason Uncle Sam built all those Cold-War-era geodesic radomes in windy locations along the coasts and on hills and mountains.

        The “hybrid” idea is not original to me. There’s a modified octagonal (not geodesic) earth-banked house just off I-74 where it passes out of Marion County into Shelby County. It is not visible from the road any longer; it was built in the 70s or 80s and was originally in the middle of a windswept field and pretty exposed from all directions. It has a bit of tree screening now: https://www.google.com/maps/@39.6640122,-85.9517048,297a,20y,41.59t/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

  4. Jay C. White Cloud

    Great article and observations!

    In a nut shell…Domes just don’t work. They are a great concept, but even Bucky gave up on them in the latter half of his life as well. I was fortunate enough to meet and sit in on a few lectures before he pasted. Lloyd’s views went along the same path as he studied and documented them…”Round” architecture of any geometric curved shaped structure is either ceremonial in nature or transient (aka tents) for the most part in our species history of designing and building architecture…

    Round living is fun, but is an art of its very own!

    Thanks for writing this.


    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the comments, Jay. I guess Fuller tried to buck the trend (pun fully intended) by living in a geodesic dome for a time, but you’re right that he eventually gave it up. They just aren’t practical for everyday living, particularly when it comes to interior spatial organization. Bad feng shui, perhaps. “Ceremonial” seems like an apt descriptor. At least maybe these homeowners in North Dakota are showing a greater commitment than the average geodesic dweller.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. You are not required to sign in. Anonymous posting is just fine.