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Geodesic Dome Was One of the Structural Advances of the Twentieth Century


Innovative Dweller-built House Is Torn Down by Order of Code Official

By Carol W. LaGrasse
March 2008

Photos: David Greathouse

Anyone who still labors under the misconception that building codes help people of modest income to live in safe, affordable homes that they actually own should look at these photographs telling the story of the geodesic dome house that David Greathouse built near Craig, Colorado.

A geodesic dome has inherent strength and structural stability. It is also inexpensive to construct, because it uses a minimum of materials. The structural members, which form a triangular latticework, are light, but comprise a whole that has the combined advantages of the inherent strengths of both the triangle and the dome. The famed innovator Buckminster Fuller introduced a wide range of uses of the geodesic dome during the twentieth century.

One use is to build a single-family house. The dome is stronger against wind or snow load than the ordinary rectangular shape of a house and allows for openings for doors, windows and the chimney in the spaces created by the triangles, and, in fact, larger openings, according to the design. The materials that can be used to close and finish the exterior and interior surfaces, as well as the insulation, where needed, are as flexible as with standard construction. The lattice-like construction lends itself to enclosure materials ranging from pre-finished wood to stucco or ferro-cement, which are the ultimate in low maintenance, fireproof, and inexpensive construction.

A small-scale geodesic dome takes shape in a field in Colorado.

David Greathouse built a compact geodesic dome for his one-room single family house in a rural area of Moffat County, which borders Utah and Wyoming in the southwest corner of Colorado. After doing research on geodesic domes, he designed the dome and made the frame from 2 x 6 lumber, connected with 2.5-in. diameter steel pipe brackets. Working from these inexpensive raw materials to build the frame, he kept the cost low. He enclosed and finished the exterior with chip board siding that he coated with a weatherproof elastomeric roof paint. Hand-made windows, which were each divided by a continuous horizontal member of the dome framework, formed a row of sources of light, ventilation and an outside view.

The neat truss-like frame for the dome allowed for skylights within the chip board siding. The photo illustrates the warmth of the interior effect of the finish of the chip board. Mr. Greathouse can be seen standing in the middle of his construction work. When the floor was finished, it held his tools while work progressed.

The overall effect of the building was that of a little balloon popping out of the ground in the field. Mr. Greathouse's new home should have been hailed by local architects and "housing experts" as a solution to the cost of "housing," a perennial source of politically inspired tear-jerking.

The finished house. With the exception of the walkway to the door, all of the exterior elements of David Greathouse's finished geodesic dome house are visible in these photos: the diamond pattern that results from the triangular latticework for the framing, the windows cut into the siding, the door that extends over an altered pattern of the latticework, the skylights, and roof ventilation opening.

But the innovative low-cost house "violated building codes," according to the Moffat County building inspector, Pat Mosbey, as Mr. Greathouse wrote to me. It was torn down in July 2007.

Mr. Greathouse moved to a different location, this time in rural New Mexico where it was possible to build "without benefit of codes," as he wrote. By October 2007, he had used the same structural members to frame up a new geodesic dome of the same overall dimensions. But, because he could not reuse the elastomeric paint-coated chip board from the original house, he used recycled one-inch thick boards to close the spaces between the framing members.

Mr. Greathouse commented, "And where are the benefits of code? Houses still burn down, pipes freeze. What codes do is reduce the supply of houses, and set it up so would-be homeowners must hire a contractor to get their home built."

"There are a lot of hoops to jump through if one decides to construct their own dwelling. So the regulations make it harder to build," he pointed out.

The selection of materials was dictated by the code officials, he remarked. It is widespread that codes are extremely unfriendly to recycled materials and reused components. Mr. Greathouse built a foundation of 15 rammed earth tires for the house. The floor was dirt, which would have been quite serviceable in the dry climate. He was considering putting in a concrete floor, but that was not necessary, he concluded. However, he learned that the use of tires for construction was prohibited.

What is the solution to this decades-long assault on dweller-builders of low-cost homes? Reduce the residential building codes to the bare bones necessary to protect health and safety in urban and rural environments, with different codes for each. Codes should be refined further for multiple dwellings, which was historically the case in New York State, where I reside. Until 1984, except for multiple dwellings, New York State was a non-code state for areas outside those municipalities that chose to have a building code. Rural New Yorkers were socked with a uniform statewide building code more suitable for urban New York after legislation was passed in reaction to the deadly Stouffer's Inn fire in 1980 in Harrison in Westchester County, a short distance from New York City.

With the bare bones codes in place, then, when individuals choose to build a higher quality dwelling, the government could certify professionals who would grant and file "Quality Built" code certifications that the building meets high quality code requirements, just as today it is possible to obtain "Green" certifications or "Energy Efficient" certifications from private organizations. However, the "Quality Built" certifications would go one step further, being filed with the building code office. But the person of modest means, or anyone living in a private home, for that matter, would have the free assistance and the "benefit" of enforcement by the code officials only for a short list of health and safety requirements, such as those that FEMA should have enforced before doling out trailers it purchased for Hurricane Katrina victims, where poisonous off-gassing of volatiles from chemical-containing interior components made the trailers uninhabitable.

Until the states that have adopted statewide building codes rethink their defacto assault on homeowners who cannot afford to meet quality codes or who chose other building methods and standards, the code enforcement attack on low-income, independent-living people, women, and the elderly will not abate.

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© 2008 Carol W. LaGrasse
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