Pimp my dome

Sep 14, 2005 at 12:00 am

Leo Gillis stands on top of his double geodesic dome home, pointing to the ghost that remains of his beloved neighbor, the Michigan Central train depot. On the other side of his southwest Detroit home the smell of fresh steamed corn wafts from a tamale shop. The Gillis home is hard to miss, snuggled into a drab city intersection like a giant blue igloo in the sand, in a neighborhood where virtually nothing is modern. Leo, a musician, lives there with his wife, an artist named Parkii, their sons Zachary, 16, and Ari, 10, and a rat, a cat and two fish. The only dome house in Detroit, it’s may be one of the strongest structures in the city. Made of steel-reinforced concrete, domes are famous for Herculean attributes — able to withstand fires, earthquakes and winds of 150 mph (on a rounded surface, there’s simply nothing for the wind to catch) whether from hurricanes or tornados. Dome company literature says you could stack four cars on a dome with nary a dent.

Leo and Parkii’s house is popular. About 800 people have stopped in for a tour since they built the structures from a kit purchased from American Ingenuity (aidomes.com) nearly five years ago. They don’t mind, as long as proper notice is given. They say the domes were intended to make a philosophical, artistic, architectural and environmental statement.

“We love this neighborhood, we’re from here and we wanted to make a statement that things are happening here, innovators live here,” Leo says.

Designed by philosopher, inventor and mathematician R. Buckminster Fuller in 1948, the geodesic dome is said to be the lightest, strongest, most cost-effective structure ever devised. Fuller advocated sustainable living and creating maximum space with minimum materials. He was an early proponent of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. “There is no energy crisis,” he said, “only a crisis of ignorance.”

The Gillis residence is certainly a testimonial. The main dome is merely 45 feet in diameter, the side dome 35 feet, but the structure provides 4,000 square feet of living space. The main dome kit cost just $20,000. All told, the cost of building the domes was less than $90,000, and they’re worth more than double that now, Parkii says. The couple says the structures were fairly easy to assemble for novices with scant construction experience.

They’re cheap to maintain too. According to the Monolithic Dome Institute, domes use 50 percent less energy per square foot than regular houses. Last year, the Gillises spent $100 a month in winter to heat the house at a constant temperature of 70, with help from plastic tubes that pump hot water through the dome floor.

In the wake of the tragedy wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the domes’ strength makes them pertinent as the devastated Gulf Coast faces the staggering task of rebuilding.

For years, media reports have documented domes that survived storms while neighboring homes were ravaged. MSNBC tested the claim, sending a reporter to stay in a dome on the Florida beach during Hurricane Ivan. Built specially to survive hurricanes with pilings deep into the ground and a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), it survived untouched. The dome structure has been adopted by the U.S. Marine Corps and is used to house sensitive radar equipment in the Arctic, where winds hit 180 mph.

It’s hard to imagine the elegance of New Orleans architecture replaced with domes — but the structures are no longer the funky projects of hippies that were seen in the 1960s and ’70s. Look online at domeofahome.com and domehome.com for some breathtaking examples.

Leo says the federal and state governments should look at incentives, such as tax breaks, to encourage domes in hurricane zones like the Gulf Coast: “They should build something they won’t have to turn around and rebuild the next time a storm hits. In 100 years, no matter what happens to this neighborhood, these domes will still be here.”

A harried receptionist at FEMA said officials are too busy to comment on non-dire matters such as dome construction. While, for the moment, her point is taken, the question remains: Why not encourage storm-proof homes in the hurricane zone?

In some instances FEMA has tried to encourage domes, says David South, president of the Monolithic Dome Institute in Texas, and some cities have considered it. In Arcadia, Fla., the City Council discussed requiring dome construction in a locale hit by three tornadoes in three years, but scrapped the plan, he says.

For decades Americans have built flimsy housing in storm areas only to rebuild after a catastrophe. The phenomenon is referred to at FEMA as hazard amnesia, South says. “One day the trailer park blows away. People say they’ll never move back. But three days later, the trailer park is filled. If I were king, I’d say, ‘You don’t build in hurricane country unless you build up to the standards of a dome.’ There are other structures that are as strong, but they’re more expensive.”

Concrete construction is a must — and windproof domes must follow certain design standards. The Superdome in New Orleans is an example of domes that don’t stand up to the wind, and whether to tear down the storm-damaged arena is now under discussion. Conversely, the Pantheon in Rome, a concrete structure built nearly 2,000 years ago, still stands with its dome roof intact.

For many years, domes got a bad rap because materials weren’t developed to make their construction practical, Leo says. Now, materials are easily available. Seven inches of Styrofoam lines the interior between the Gillis’ concrete shell and plaster walls. Most of the materials, except for the concrete, are provided by the dome company.

Domes are starting to catch on. Usually, they cost a third less than common wood-frame homes. Many companies sell kits, from inexpensive to highly dramatic wood-and-solar-panel domes in the half-million-dollar range. Dome companies provide floor plans and materials to build second and third floors that hang by steel rods from the dome itself.

So why aren’t there more domes?

“It’s still way different,” South says. “They don’t look like the house down the street. Once people live in them, they really love them. In 20 years, a school building that’s a monolithic dome will pay for itself in energy efficiency. And they’re automatically a hurricane and tornado shelter. We’ve built them in 48 states and 40 countries. But they’re still a secret.”

Parkii and Leo, lifelong Detroiters, broke ground the day the Hudson’s building was imploded. “We wanted to connect the city’s past with its future,” Leo says. The Gillises got a tax abatement, a 60 percent break for 12 years, because their property is in an Enterprise Zone. And they set out to make a statement.

Leo says he’s not yet had time to paint land masses on the domes, now painted blue to mimic oceanic Earth as seen from space. Mosaics by Parkii surround the doorways. Pewabic tile above the entrance reads, “Celebrating 300 years of life in Detroit.” Inside lies a futuristic retreat, with sloped two-story cathedral ceilings.

“I think there’s something to be said for not living in square rooms,” Parkii says. “It opens up your creativity. We noticed a change in the kids right away.” Leo adds, “People live in boxes. But the empty space we have is more powerful, because it has more potential.”

The interior design is Parkii’s pride. The artist, fond of vibrant visuals, makes photographic collages of color and shapes in concentric circles, a play on Tibetan sand sculptures called mandalas. The front room is adorned with glittery stars, blue candles, cobalt and slate tile and a long steel dining table. Triangular skylights with reflective glass dot the dome, allowing a wash of light by day and star-gazing at night.

A family room in gold, brown and red is behind the kitchen. Upstairs, the loft master bedroom is purple and the bathroom green. The secondary dome serves as a two-car garage, with winding metal stairs leading to Leo’s recording studio. His alternative rock band, Catalyst, recorded there, as did his punk rock group, The Teenage Alcoholics.

When the Gillises began construction in 1998, nobody was building homes in Detroit. Since then, there’s been a surge of construction, with hundreds of new homes in Southwest Detroit.

“I like the fact that they built the houses,” Leo says. “But I don’t like what they built. We’d love to see someone build a couple blocks of dome houses, or something innovative.”

Parkii and Leo are the type of folks who try to live natural, sustainable lives. They feed their kids organic foods, care about saving energy and are looking at hybrid cars. Zachary will soon be going to college and the family won’t need such a large home, Parkii says. They’re contemplating building a new dome that would incorporate solar, wind and geothermal energy. Parkii says, “we’d like to generate our own energy. We love living here. We love looking at our home. But we’re looking at the next step.” Leo agrees: “We’d love to get off the electrical grid.”

“We intend to sell this house, to get a place that’s just for us,” Leo says. “This place was about the community. We wanted people to realize that, hey, there’s something happening here. Not to say, ‘Look what we did,’ but to say, ‘Look what you can do.’”


Check out the Buckminster Fuller Institute at bfi.org; American Ingenuity at aidomes.com; and the Monolithic Dome Institute at monolithicdome.com. Fuller’s Dymaxion House — a precursor to his dome — is on display at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.

Lisa M. Collins is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]