We Were Promised Dome Homes

Inside the small, dedicated community of people who live in dome-shaped dwellings.

|
Jul 7 2017, 12:00pm

A view of Ray Moulton’s “dome home” west of Ottawa. Image: Joanne Beaton

"Any time I'm standing under a domed roof, I think about how fun my life would be if I lived in a dome or sphere," said Ron Kelly, a 45-year-old Toronto resident. As a science fiction fan, Kelly has been influenced by the likes of Superman comics and Kurt Vonnegut books, where people live in dome-like structures. He also recalled the 20th century visionary and inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller waxing poetic about geodesic domes transitioning into the homes of the future.

"I like the idea of something being mathematically balanced on all sides," he said. "Tension and support that are totally evenly distributed. But also, they're round homes! How cool is that?"

Despite their energy efficiency and sci-fi look, which has had people calling them the "next big thing" for decades now, dome homes never really took off. Still, there's a small and dedicated community of people who wouldn't trade living in a dome for anything. They congregate online, on Facebook groups like such as I Love Geodesic Domes, and even in groups on LinkedIn.

One Facebook group member even gushed that he was born in a dome home and wanted to design one himself, asking for tips on the best dome builders for his dream home in Colorado.

The most well-known geodesic dome in Canada remains the Montreal Biosphere, built by Fuller for Expo 67. Its influence can be felt south of the border at places like Epcot's Spaceship Earth dome at Disney World, whose structure was designed with the help of the late sci fi author Ray Bradbury.

Dome homes have enjoyed incarnations in science fiction and fantasy, from Star Wars and Luke's Tatooine dome to J.R.R. Tolkien's riff on the shape for Hobbiton's spherical-roofed homes. A terrible Pauly Shore film Bio-Dome gave Fuller's vision the Hollywood treatment in 1996.

To someone like Kelly, going full dome feels fantastical, but, as he put it, it's an attractive idea for those with a penchant for unique architectural design. "Heck, I even like treehouses," he said.

Domes might not be dotting the world, but some are experimenting with the shape, such as a British Columbian boutique "hotel in the trees," which lets you literally live in a sphere-shaped tree house.

Free Spirit Spheres, found near Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island, offers three spheres bedecked with furnishings for singles or couples. This Middle Earth experience lets you sleep in a sphere strung up 15 feet high, supported by three Polysteel ropes tethered to surrounding trees.

One of Free Spirit Spheres' rooms, suspended 15 feet high up. Image: Kerry Maguire/Free Spirit Spheres

"The sphere is nature's packaging unit, like a seed pod," said the company's 65-year-old founder, Tom Chudleigh. "It's the perfect shape."

Chudleigh said their accommodations can barely meet demand: Free Spirit Spheres is fully booked well into 2017, having turned away 3,000 prospective clients since January, according to him. With two additional spheres ready to go, Free Spirit Spheres plans to move locations in the coming months to a larger area close to Campbell River in B.C.

For others, living in a dome year-round is more appealing than just a brief sojourn overnight.

"I like living in a dome," said Ray Moulton, 47, whose unique home lies around 50 kilometres west of Ottawa, near forests and farmland. The curved room could be something you see topping a church or family attraction, like Disney's Epcot Center Spaceship Earth. "It's like living in a cave," he added.

Eleven years ago, with his children and then-wife, Moulton decided to make their next home a monolithic dome, a structure cast in a one-piece form, similar to an igloo. (Unlike geodesic domes, which often use conventional wood studding separating insulation and are then sheeted with wood and shingled, monolithic domes are built in seamless layers, with protective skin on the outside, insulation inside of the skin built on top of a combination of rebar and concrete.)

Most dome homes are constructed by specialty builders like Great Lake Domes, which has built 22 monolithic domes for Canadians in the past 13 years. Moulton's 2,200-square-foot structure features three connected domes, all on one level. Each dome's 16-foot apex is crowned by a round skylight. Its windows, at five feet wide by nine feet long, flank several walls.

"Let's not forget how cool it looks," Moulton said. "Think of where Luke Skywalker lived with his aunt and uncle on Tatooine—that moon base-type structure. It's not that much different here."

Curved walls add a distinctive look to Ray Moulton's dome home. Photo via Joanne Beaton

Moulton said what first attracted him to the idea was its energy efficiency: thanks to using a geothermal pump, he saved hundreds on his utility bill. The spheric roof also allows cold wind to zip over the curved surface, especially helpful for Canadian winters.

In the US, a dome-maker based in Virginia tallied the total energy savings over five years for a monolithic dome and found energy savings of $2,500 USD over that period, compared to traditional Virginia homes, a 2016 report found.

Moulton's youngest daughter, now 16, didn't like living in a dome when she was in senior kindergarten, but then she "came around to enjoying it and appreciating its uniqueness," Moulton recalled. "And then there's the mailman. He was so amazed when he first saw it, he had to bring his wife over the next day to take a look inside."

One of Great Lakes Domes' construction, found in Holland Landing, Ontario. Photo via Sunny Cushnie

For Kelly, living in a dome home is something he wants to make happen, if only he had some financial luck. "If I had Drake's money, I'd build a whole network of interconnected domes of varying sizes, and that would be my geodesic mansion," he said. "Hmm, I wonder if there are any on Airbnb."