Credit: Ben Gelman
Built at a cost of less than $8,000, the 37-foot dome seemingly lived up to the manufacturer’s claim that it “provided maximum space at minimum cost, in a revolutionary ratio.” Unfortunately for its inhabitants, it also leaked.
Credit: Ben Gelman
As the prefabricated plywood dome segments were positioned by workers, lumber framing at the perimeter was bolted to that of abutting segments. Clearly, OSHA’s residential fall protection regulations still lay far in the future.
Although R. Buckminster Fuller didn’t invent the geodesic dome—that honor belongs to Walther Bauersfeld, a German engineer who received a European patent for the concept in 1922—Fuller was unquestionably its most vocal and best-known champion. And in 1960, while teaching at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Fuller put his money where his mouth was by building a geodesic dome home of his own, where he and his wife, Ann Hewlett Fuller, would live until 1971.
But the famously pragmatic Fuller chose not to design a one-of-a-kind structure for his own dwelling. Instead—as surprising as this may sound today—he was able to purchase a stock plywood dome from a Hamilton, Ohio, company called Pease Homes and have a local contractor assemble it on Fuller’s own slab foundation.
Pease Homes was primarily a builder of conventional panelized homes, and its 1957 catalog depicts an assortment of modest ranch-style structures with evocative-of-the-time model names, including the Cliffwood, Dalewood, Fairwood, and Maywood. But sometime in the late ’50s, the company decided to prepare for an expected boom in geodesic structures by adding its own line of panelized domes.
Fuller’s personal 37-foot dome home was reportedly erected in a mere seven hours at a cost of less than $8,000, but things went less well after that. According to Carbondale architect Thad Heckman—who is active in a group (fullerdomehome.org) that plans to restore the dome later this year—the structure apparently leaked like a sieve from the beginning. “As far as I can tell, the only seal between the panel joints was tape and a coat of paint,” he says.
Because “Bucky,” as he preferred to be called, spent most of his time traveling, Ann Fuller presumably spent more time dealing with the leaks than he did. Perhaps at her instigation, the exterior of the dome was sprayed with urethane foam in an effort to make it watertight. That attempt apparently failed, because several years later the foam was peeled off and the plywood surface was covered with first one layer of asphalt shingles and then another.
In about 2003, the deteriorating dome was enclosed in a more modern dome, where it awaits structural repairs and a new TPO roof.
See a measured drawing of the original dome, including many key construction details.