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Exploring the Fuller Dome as a Biosphere Home

By Peggy Bradley | Last updated: June 28, 2021
Key Takeaways

In 1965, architect Buckminster Fuller designed a futuristic dome that today could be used as a greenhouse on Mars or as a home here on Earth made from recycled plastics. Peggy Bradley explores Fuller’s visionary designs and their uses.

Fuller’s Dome as a Biosphere Home

American architect and visionary Buckminster Fuller developed a structure for housing called The Fly’s Eye Dome. Fuller patented the design in 1965 under the title “Geodesic Structures.”

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Several years after obtaining the patent, Fuller partnered with John Warren, a surfboard manufacturer to develop a 12-foot diameter Fly’s Eye Dome from fiberglass structural members. After it was completed, Fuller commissioned prototypes of a 24-foot and a 50-foot dome.

By 1980, the 50-foot prototype was completed and used in the Los Angeles 1981 bicentennial celebration. Before he died five years later, Fuller visited the dome, sat on an opening and said, “Now that I am sitting here, 83 years of age, thinking back how 52 years ago I committed myself to spend the rest of my life trying to develop environment controls for humanity, give the most possible advantage, with the least cost, then I think about all the different kinds of structures we’ve tried out, coming to the great simplicity of this one. Here I’ve suddenly realized that we were doing a very very great deal with very, very little. The dream is really coming true.”

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Figure 1. Fuller’s patent of 1965 shows a sphere with openings that have less than 25 percent of the surface in window spaces.Figure 1. Fuller’s patent of 1965 shows a sphere with openings that have less than 25 percent of the surface in window spaces.

After the exhibit, the parts were dismantled; the pieces left in a cow pasture in Northern California. The parts of the dome stayed in that field until 2013, when an architectural historian, Robert Rubin, bought the pieces. He had them restored and then displayed at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, AR. The museum built the dome in its gardens, where it sits with the window spaces left open.

As a greenhouse, or a biosphere house, the Fly’s Eye Dome is a new concept for possible mass manufacture. Fuller envisioned the 50-foot structure as a “place for gardens, trees, and a pool — a Garden of Eden.”

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Philosophy of Design

Fuller wanted to design a structure that could be made of parts, bolted together, with only a few types of structural members. His original patent designs and description show a sphere made of one building block for the whole structure. The amount of dome allowing in light is determined by the sizes and shapes of the structural component.

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(Read also: The Best Hydroponic Systems for Space Optimization)

The dome patent has illustrations of the structural members being larger, to create smaller windows, or thinner, making more of the space light emitting. The design can be adapted to accommodate more or less sunlight into the dome.

The 50-Foot Fly’s Eye Dome

When Fuller and Warren completed their Fly’s Eye Dome, several things had changed from the original patent. Rather than a full sphere, the structure’s bottom was cut to fit on the ground, so it is now about 5/8 of a sphere. The equator of the structure, the 50-foot diameter, 10 feet above the ground, has 1,964 square feet of floor space. The ground level has a diameter of 42 feet and the floor space is 1,430 square feet. The third-floor level at 20 feet above ground has a 42-foot diameter with another 1,430 square feet.

So the entire floor space, if floors are built all the way across the dome, is 4,824 square feet. The structure is 34 feet tall.

Figure 2. The Fly’s Eye Dome 50-foot prototype at Crystal Bridges now has a bottom structure row that sits on the ground.Figure 2. The Fly’s Eye Dome 50-foot prototype at Crystal Bridges now has a bottom structure row that sits on the ground.

The 5/8 of a sphere is now cut off at the ground so it rests flat. The bottom row of structural parts is cut in half, or truncated, to create a full foundation row. The prototype at Crystal Bridges has six different shapes of components, instead of just one. The 135 individual parts are bolted together to form a structure with 61 eyes or openings. There are six different shapes of components, 75 larger panels, 30 smaller panels, and 30 truncated panels for attaching to a foundation.

Structural Materials

In 1966, when Fuller chose fiberglass to construct the structural members, the material was relatively new. During the 1970s, as they worked on the design, the techniques of constructing with fiberglass improved.

Today there are a wide variety of materials that could be used for the structure. Structural foam is one possible material that could be molded on site. A thicker layer of foam could also provide insulation.

Today we also have the possibility of using recycled plastic that could be molded with an interior air gap to provide insulation. If a recycle waste stream could be implemented to feed our waste plastic into the structure parts, we could produce parts using less energy and help reduce the plastic load on the planet.

The idea of using our future buildings to reduce waste plastic is important to our environment. Right now, it is estimated that 150 million tons of plastic waste is in our oceans, with an additional 8 million tons added every year. The Mac Arthur Foundation predicts the ocean will contain more weight in plastic than fish by the year 2050.

There are also options such a carbon fiber, which could reduce the weight of the parts, but that’s an expensive option right now.

Figure 3. Fiberglass structural parts are bolted together on the inside.Figure 3. Fiberglass structural parts are bolted together on the inside.

Whatever the material, the 135 pieces can be nested together and shipped on a single truck. If we keep the parts in a bolted form, the entire dome can be disassembled and moved. It also could be made 100 percent recyclable.

There are climate control issues with any structure, and this has both assets and liabilities. When fiberglass is used as a structure there is little insulation, so insulation will have to be added. Structural foam could provide insulation as well as structural support.

Figure 4. The 61 dome windows are 7 ft., 6 in. in diameter. The window openings are formed by the fiberglass structural members.Figure 4. The 61 dome windows are 7 ft., 6 in. in diameter. The window openings are formed by the fiberglass structural members.

Window Coverings

Fuller envisioned the window coverings as a single or double film stretched like a drum across the opening. The Crystal Bridges Dome includes a lip on the outside of each opening that could be used to attach the film.

To be used as a biosphere, the covering of the opening should let in as much light as possible. One possible film is ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene), a copolymer of 25 percent ethylene and 75 percent tetrafluoroethylene, developed by Dupont in the early 1970s. Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene weighs about one percent of the weight of glass and transmits 95 percent of the light.

In 1981, Dr. Stefan Lehnert of Vector Foiltec invented a drop-bar welding technique that used high-frequency radio frequency that welded sheets of ETFE. Since that time the material has been used in several high-profile public buildings, including the new U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

(Read also: How to Cool a Light Deprivation Greenhouse)

The windows of the Fly’s Eye could be constructed of ETFE. Although the welding process is designed to weld long straight lines, it could be adapted to manufacture the more than seven-foot diameter circles. The use of a film shows a drawback to the design of the Fly’s Eye, as each round window will have quite a bit of waste. If they were rectangular it would reduce the cost of the building.

The ETFE can be constructed in a three-layer, air-filled cushion that reduces the outside radiation of 1000 w/m2 down to 60 w/m2.

This potential to control heat from the sun’s energy make ETFE a great choice for public buildings.

Figure 6. Fuller’s patent detail of the window clamps resembles a large hose clamp.
There is a special ETFE product made for greenhouses called F-Clean. The area of our 7-ft., 6-in. diameter windows is approximately 45.36 square feet per window. Cost of F-Clean is about $20 a meter so the cost of a window is about $90 for all the windows in F-Clean could be in the range of $5,490.00.

Fuller’s patent (Figure 6) shows a ring that would wrap around the windows and clamp together, like a giant hose clamp. If this type of device could be adapted to use with ETFE, film could be stretched across each window or eye.



Dome Structure as a Greenhouse

The ratio of 50 percent window and 50 percent structure is similar to a 50 percent shade cloth in a greenhouse or shade house. The 50 percent of surface allows plants on the floor to see 50 percent of the day’s sun. Sitting in the dome, you can watch the circles of sunlight on the floor move with the rotation of the earth.

Each type plant has an optimum sunlight for growth. Expressed in lumens, lettuce only needs 150 lumens, while wheat needs more than 800 lumens a day. During the summer, the dome is likely to see about 700 lumens on its bottom surface. This can be checked by measuring the lumens in the existing structure at Crystal Bridges.

Most vegetables require between 150 and 800 lumens. The estimated 700 lumens a day might not be good for fast plant growth, but it would be fine for regular, steady food production, however, extra light might be needed for the winter months.

There is enough room in the dome for a wide variety of food. The garden space can be used as room dividers and for ambiance.

In the tropics, the monthly sun path will be close to the center of the dome and plants could be grown all year without the need for additional light. In temperate climates, the sun path would range from over the center in the summer and to the southern side in the winter. The difference in year-round sun placement would likely make a difference in where plants would be placed in the dome.

Fly’s Eye Domes in the Future

As humankind begins its quest into remote spaces, such as the moon, Mars, or other extreme environments, a new concept will be needed for building construction. The cost of transporting any materials into space or remote areas is often prohibitive. So any strategy to reduce these costs will be important.

Fuller and Warren challenged fiberglass manufacturers to make a series of pieces that simply bolted together to form a complete shelter. A dome could now be transported on a truck to a site and assembled in a couple of days.

(Read also: Extreme Greenspaces: 21st Century Greenhouses and Urban Gardens)

While Fuller’s patent describes a single structural member that is used for the framework of the house, the actual prototype used six structural designs so it would require six molds. The components could be molded on site using local materials such as Martian soil or desert sand. The window film could be sent in a lightweight roll to be fitted across structural openings.

What Fuller left us was the basic design. In his book he says that he leaves it to others to complete the structure with windows and interior.

24-Foot Model

The 24-foot model found its way into the Miami fashion district and then two more domes were made to be used in the Miami area. The new domes rethink the structure, redesign some parts, and construct the domes using fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP) molded panels and hard polycarbonate lenses.

The 24-foot model uses larger eyes, so the structure parts are a smaller portion of the surface. The combination of polycarbonate panels and increased window area would make a dome that collects a lot of solar energy.


Figure 7. Fuller’s drawing of a 24-foot Fly’s Eye Dome. The stilts and bottom 3/8 of the building were removed in the actual prototype, leaving a building that sits flat on the ground.Figure 7. Fuller’s drawing of a 24-foot Fly’s Eye Dome. The stilts and bottom 3/8 of the building were removed in the actual prototype, leaving a building that sits flat on the ground.

The 24-foot model has a structural disadvantage in that the eyes are cut off right at ground level, reducing the strength of the foundation. If the eyes were made proportionally smaller, it could mimic the 50-footer and have a solid base.

The 12-Foot Model

The very first model, the 12-foot design, is now owned by the architect Norman Foster. Photos or drawings of it are elusive. If it is modeled as a smaller 50-footer, it will have windows of about 18 inches in diameter. The structure parts could be from 9-18 inches across.

The 12-foot dome can be envisioned as a temporary or disaster shelter rather than a home. Or it could make a beautiful, inexpensive greenhouse.

If the 12-foot dome could be made of waste plastic, perhaps molded from garbage heated over the fire, we could have people around the world setting up camps on the beach to grab waste plastic as it comes in, making home parts. Or better yet, some very brave young person could create a business making dome parts out of waste plastic — perhaps a Bill Gates of the future.

Traditions of Buckminster Fuller

On the 50th anniversary of his domes, Fuller said, “I began the prototyping of my Fly’s Eye dome, which embodied design attention to all that I had learned not only throughout that fifty-year development period but in all my 32 earlier years.”

The Fly’s Eye Dome is evolved from Fuller’s geodesic dome. There are an estimated 200,000 geodesic domes built in the world, but only a handful of the Fly’s Eye Domes. It is possible that the uniqueness of the structure has caused it to be largely ignored. With the new materials available, the dome becomes less of a challenge to build and more affordable. The fiberglass panels could cost $200 each or $17,000 for the whole structure. If the dome could be built out of structural foam pieces, it might cost about $75 per panel or about $10,000 for the structure.

(Read also: The Benefits of Geodesic Dome Greenhouses)

If the dome is built with structural foam and F-clean film is used for the eyes, it could be a biosphere home costing about $16,000 for outer shell.

Conclusion

The structures designed by Buckminster Fuller have found acceptance in the geodesic domes. His 50-foot Fly’s Eye Dome is a practical structure for a future biosphere home. His 12-foot and 24-foot domes also have uses as small home greenhouses or small shelters for a future world.

As Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

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Maximum Yield uses high-quality sources to support the facts within our content including peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, professional organizations, and governmental organizations.

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Written by Peggy Bradley | Engineer, Founder of Institute of Simplified Hydroponics

Profile Picture of Peggy Bradley

Peggy Bradley has a Masters degree in civil engineering and used to own her own hydroponics business until she switched focus and became the founder of the Institute of Simplified Hydroponics, a US non-profit. Since 1995, Peggy has worked on creating and teaching simplified hydroponic systems to help people living in impoverished nations.

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