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Four-star Living at Burning Man: The Dome

Why didn't Buckminster Fuller's dome-a brilliant innovation of design-ever take off?

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Why didn't Buckminster Fuller's dome—a brilliant innovation of design—ever take off?

A few months ago, I spent a wonderful week living in a dome. For a total investment of about $250, I acquired over a 100 sturdy, shaded, weather-proof square feet of residential real estate. At Burning Man, this was four-star living.


My circular pad was not the only one in the Nevada desert that week. The dome is as characteristic of Burning Man’s Black Rock City as the Brownstown is in Brooklyn. Parts of the festival can take on the look of a moon base. This wouldn’t surprise Buckminster Fuller or any of the many boosters and designers of domes who had their heyday in the middle of the last century. What would surprise them is the sheer number of domes in one place at one time.

Domes were supposed to be the houses of tomorrow. Judging by their virtues—they are structurally strong, with the efficient ratio of surface to volume making them cheap to build and easy to heat and cool—a dome should still be on our list of building options. Shouldn’t domes have become a disruptive innovation in housing, displacing old-fashioned gables over the last 50 years? Perhaps, but they haven't.

Housing’s environmental impact is huge. The land claimed, the construction materials, the energy and water and chemicals used over the life of a home, and the activities humans undertake (such as driving) in order to access their housing add up to one of the most important drivers of environmental damage in the world, and in any one person’s lifestyle.

If conventional housing, especially single-family suburban housing, is negatively impacting climate change and biodiversity, what innovations will disrupt this and bring to market a new dominant, sustainable housing form? Understanding why domes failed in that regard might point us to the right solution.

Domes represent a whole new way of building, with an outcome that looks completely different from a conventional home. Their low cost should—despite the trade-offs of an awkward shape for furnishing, and weird acoustics—make them classic low-end alternatives to the norm. Would you be as likely to find a buyer for your dome as you would a conventional home? When making a purchase that will become your biggest expense over the coming years, taking a risk on the resale value seems imprudent. Further, in many places, neighbors or home owners associations might fight the development of a dome-next-door in order to protect the character of their neighborhood, which has something to do with their daily aesthetic experience but much more to do with their property values. Though domes have great disruptive potential, it appears that they are not disrupting the right thing, or, to use the language of disruptive-innovation theory: They are competing on the wrong terms.

According to Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation,” we should ask what “job” does a house do for you? The answer is that housing does much more than put a roof over your head, give you nice neighbors, and locate you in a good school district or near your job. Since the creation of the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae, and other means of boosting ownership, it has also been, in some cases primarily, making you money. So while Fuller thought he was shaping the future with his geodesic architecture, the government and the financial services industry were implementing a more compelling design.

Fast forward to the recent housing crisis, which shows us that the guarantee of getting rich from borrowing all you can to buy a home may have reached its limit. House prices will still rise in many places, eventually, but some of the brightest minds in the country created the financial engineering techniques to keep those home “values” rising fast, and the slope got too steep for us to keep climbing. That these techniques were predicated on the construction of fairly standard homes that could be easily valued, mortgaged, securitized, tranched, and sold as something very different from a place to live shows us that the present unsustainable construction techniques that dominate in America today were as much a product of an investment strategy as they were of mainstream tastes and of trade union influence on building codes.

Now that the housing bubble has popped, will we allow ourselves to build homes that break the mold, both in terms of aesthetics and sustainability? That are more habitat than they are investment? This is not an armchair question. With the US housing market in crisis and receiving billions in subsidies, and China and India being reshaped by urbanization and rising middle classes who are building millions of new homes, this is the moment to change course. We could:

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  • Reform the national building code to allow for passivhaus and pre-fab’s efficiencies in factory-built components, rapid on-site construction and energy efficiency in any state in the country.
  • Allow people to deduct the mortgage interest on an RV that is their primary residence, allowing them to live where they drive, eliminating one commute and vehicle per household and reducing land use.
  • Legalize AirBnB to make it possible for people to move from apartment to apartment without ever needing a rental agreement
  • Improve urban schools to attract more people back to cities with their efficient and multifamily residences.
  • Prohibit neighbors from blocking innovative construction in their midst, in order to spur new ideas and experimentation in how we build and live.
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The money pay for these ideas could be found by eliminating billions of mortgage interest tax deductions on luxury housing and second homes that promote waste and only benefit the rich. And all of these ideas have the potential to disrupt conventional housing forms and reduce housing’s environmental impact significantly, but only if housing is seen first as a home, not as a stock pick.

Note: This is the fourth and final post in a series I have contributed to irregularly over the past year. The goal of the series was to get people to think critically, using one of the most important theories of technological change, about how important it is to know the difference between what is “greener” and what is really “green”. I will continue to blog on this and related topics at http://michaelburnskeating.net.

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