One of the many benefits of attending an ASCE event, is the opportunity to check out the local sights. This year's Construction Institute Summit (cisummit.org) was held in St. Louis, offering no less than the Gateway Arch as an attraction. It was also here in the Midwest, where designer R. Buckminster Fuller found inspiration for his vision for affordable and efficient housing solutions as he spotted silos across the farmland.
Fuller (1895-1983) is best described as a designer, inventor, and author, rather than an architect or engineer as we define those roles today. A recognized thinker of his time, he was ultimately awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and honored with a postage stamp in 2005. In introducing the concept of Spaceship Earth, he influenced the counterculture of the 1960’s by promoting sustainability and regenerative design.
In seeking the most effective shelter, Fuller ultimately landed on the geodesic dome, a design he patented in 1954. Thus, when offered a faculty position at Southern Illinois University Carbondale in 1960 it was only natural for a dome residence to be constructed in the neighborhood adjacent to campus for him and his wife, Anne. The dome was furnished as a kit by Pease Woodworking Company under license from Fuller and built by local contractor Parrish Construction. There, they lived for just over a decade while Fuller realized his greatest concepts of geometric thinking and design, most notably conceiving the USA Pavilion for Expo ’67 in Montreal and publishing Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in 1968.
Fuller’s influence reached far beyond the SIU campuses, as he frequently made the two-hour drive from Carbondale to St. Louis airport, Lombard Field, to lecture around the world. Other universities engaged in research and dome building exercises as part of what was known as the Geodesic Student Revolution. It is noted that my alma mater, the University of Rhode Island participated in 1966 and 1968. Fuller was issued several patents related to geodesic and truss structures during this time, many of which continue to be cited in new patents to this day.
I was greeted at the dome home by Professor of Architecture Jon Davey, PhD. We toured the 360° layout of the first floor. A small vestibule opens to a spacious living room, followed by a kitchen featuring the original range, and bedroom with his and hers bathrooms tucked under a loft platform. A small, odd-shaped closest for Bucky within the remaining potion of the floorplan completes the circuit. The dome is furnished with period correct mid-century pieces and authentic items and models from Fuller’s travels.
The loft was used by Fuller as a study where Professor Davey and I settled into Eames chairs to discuss the history of the dome home and Fuller’s impact on curriculum. The dome home is in its final phase of restoration and has likely never been more comfortable.
Domes in general tend to be prone to leaks due to the roofing material and seams, and Fuller’s home was no different. The seams were originally sealed with Celastic tape, which failed under thermal fluctuations. To Fuller this was part of the iterative process of invention. After several other failed remedies, he conceded to conventional shingles, which remained problematic until restoration to its current state. The roofing solution using modern materials was derived by architect Thad Heckman and is composed of new plywood, recovery board, and a thermoplastic polyolefin membrane. A new design for the ten troublesome flush skylights has also been integrated, although one still needs attention!
After the Fullers left Carbondale and the new owner left the state, several tenants (often students) occupied the home offering varying degrees of attention to maintenance. Water damage compromised much of the structure, until ultimately an interior strut had to be installed to prevent collapse of the dome. Ownership was eventually acquired by Bill Perk and the R. Buckminster Fuller Dome Not-For-Profit with the goal of restoring and protecting history of the dome home.
It took over two decades for the team of Fuller scholars, collaborators, and practitioners to not only restore the dome to its original appearance, but enhance it with modern, unobtrusive features. The history being preserved is not the state of the dome as it was in the ‘60’s, but rather the story of a 60 year-old home that is a physical embodiment of Fuller’s ideas. The improvements made to reinforce the structure, weatherproof it, and dial in the climate control for all-seasons would have been acceptable to Fuller as natural evolutionary innovations. The dome home is now embraced by the local community and on track to become a National Landmark.
Bucky & Anne's Kitchen
In speaking to older generations of engineers, they will note that Fuller was inspirational and a popular figure of his time, but his concepts remained just outside the classroom. Much of this is attributed to Fuller’s advocacy for generalized thinking, when engineering and architecture was becoming more and more of a specialized practice.
In the final paragraph of Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth Bucky outright challenges engineers to fully cooperate with each other, maintain curiosity of the universe as a whole in an effort to design a better world. A generalized statement, backed by a prolific breadth of knowledge of which a visit to Bucky’s home can be an introduction to.
Cary O'Dell & Thad Heckman, "Bucky's Dome," America Through Time, 2020
Daniel Lopez-Perez, "Pattern-Thinking," Lars Muller Publishers, 2020
R. Buckminster Fuller, "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth," Lars Muller Publishers, 2008