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It's hip to be round

Fuller's folly? Nope - geodesic domes have finally come of age

Susan Fornoff, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, May 20, 2001, 2001 San Francisco Chronicle


On the one hand, you want a big house with a light, lofty feel. On the other hand, you don't want a big, heavy PG&E bill full of lofty figures.

Relax, you're not crazy. And neither, apparently, was F. Buckminster Fuller.

"Bucky," as he'd want you to call him were he still with us, saw this day coming as he furiously scribbled geometric formulas on his blackboard some 50 years ago. It was then that Fuller patented his geodesic dome design. But perhaps only now, in the throes of an energy crisis, are we finally getting it.

An idea that was regarded as eccentric in the 20th century looks darned good for the 21st.

"Fuller predicted that any designs in the housing industry that were radically innovative would require a long period of time to gain widespread popularity, however clever the innovation was," said Lisa Hassebrock, planning consultant for Timberline Geodesics, a geodesic dome manufacturer in Berkeley.

"This gestation period has now reached the period of time Fuller predicted for his design to be available to a greater portion of the population for residence construction."

We're not just talking moon base for Dr. Evil, the Timberline-constructed set for the latest Austin Powers movie. Timberline, a 30-year-old company, has achieved record levels for orders and shipments for its kits in the last two years.

While domes have always had their following among the nature lovers in the Golden State, Hassebrock suspects something else lurks behind a more recent surge in interest.

"Catalog package sales jumped 25 percent over the California average in March and were over 40 percent above the average in April," she said. "It is probably fair to assume that at least a portion of this increase is due to the recent energy concerns. It's been kind of busy these last few months."

The dome is actually a series of triangles, over which plywood panels are placed to create a sphere, usually enhanced with skylights. It's a design that has fared well in earthquakes and hurricanes when others haven't, and the acoustics are said to be outstanding.

Multi-talented Fuller

Fuller, who died in 1983 at age 88, was a two-time dropout at Harvard who is today remembered as a man of many talents: architect, engineer, inventor, poet and futurist. He was certain that housing and energy would become critical issues for future generations, and much of his research was devoted to addressing those issues before they came to be problems in need of solution.

In 1986, 35 years after Fuller first applied for his geodesic dome patent, the National Dome Council compiled a white paper that outlined the energy efficiency of Fuller's design so that geodesic domes could qualify for increased financing from Freddie Mac. The premise is that the lower the ratio of a house's outside perimeter to its enclosed living area, the less energy is required for heating and cooling.

A 1,590-square-foot rectilinear T-shaped house that measures 206 feet around has a ratio of 0.130. A square house of the same square footage measures 159.6 feet around, for a 0.1 ratio.

But a circular house of 1,590 square feet has a perimeter of only 141.4 feet, making its ratio 0.089. So heating and cooling bills can be one-third less than those for a conventional house.

Of course, if all the calculations serve only to remind you of the last time you played hooky, you are not alone. "You gotta know how to do trigonometry," said Barbara Fooshee from her Bedford, Texas, offices. "And not many people do."

Financing specialist

Fooshee has become known as "The Dome Lady" (see for specializing in financing and refinancing geodesic domes worldwide. She loves the efficiency and the looks of the geodesic dome and has carved a niche doing 10-12 mortgages a year.

"They're more work, so most lenders don't want to fool with them," she said. "I make it a point only to do them with people who have good credit."

Real estate agent Marsha Jackson made a point of sending buyers Fooshee's way when Felicia Collier decided to put her Oakland dome on the market in February. With three bedrooms and two baths, plus a killer view of the Bay from its wraparound deck, the Patridge Avenue looked like a bargain at a $325, 000 asking price. But not until this month did Jackson find a buyer, a Mills College science professor.

"I had the house open twice, and everybody who came through ooh'd and aah'd, 'This is so unusual,' and of course they loved the view," Jackson said. "But that issue about the loan and appraisal scared them off. Because if you ever have to make a quick sale, you can't do it. And not being able to get out when you want to is something to think about."

There are a few other domes sprinkled in the Oakland hills, but most of the structures appear in more rural areas, where neighbors aren't so fussy about architectural uniformity.

If there's another drawback to the geodesic dome, Marsha Jackson has seen it in action on Partridge Avenue. "It feels wacky because you only have maybe two straight walls in a room, and it makes it very difficult in how to arrange the space," she said. "There was a tenant here who had quite a knack for it, and another one didn't have a clue."

E-mail Susan Fornoff at

2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page 1

-- Swissrose (, May 20, 2001


There's a geo home near me for sale--it's been up for sale for 8 months--it isn't the location and it isn't the price. I think it could be looks and space.

-- CAkidd (, May 20, 2001.

I have been in one of these as a guest. They are so strange inside that I could see why nobody would want to buy one.

-- R2D2 (, May 20, 2001.

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