What is a Geodesic Dome?

Designing With Geometry

Illustration of Geodesic Dome
Illustration of Geodesic Dome. Drawing by Encyclopaedia Britannica/Universal Images Group/Getty Images (crop)

A geodesic dome is a sphere-like space frame structure composed of a complex network of triangles. The triangles create a self-bracing framework that gives structural strength while using a minimum of material. The design allows massive interior space, free from columns or other supports. The term geodesic is from Latin, meaning "earth dividing." A geodesic line is the shortest distance between any two points on a sphere.

The the idea of combining triangles with the arch was pioneered by German engineer Dr. Walther Bauersfeld when he designed the world's first projection planetarium in Jena, Germany in 1922. However, it was R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) who conceived and popularized the concept of geodesic dome homes. Fuller's first patent for a geodesic dome was issued in 1954.

Geodesic domes are efficient, inexpensive, and durable. Corrugated metal dome homes have been assembled in undeveloped parts of the world for only hundreds of dollars. Plastic and fiberglass domes are used for sensitive radar equipment in Arctic regions and for weather stations around the world. Geodesic domes are also used for emergency shelter and mobile military housing.

Additional Definitions of Geodesic Dome:

"A structure consisting of a multiplicity of similar, light, straight-line elements (usually in tension) which form a grid in the shape of a dome."—Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, Cyril M. Harris, ed., McGraw- Hill, 1975, p. 227

In 1960, The Harvard Crimson described the geodesic dome as "a structure composed of a large number of five-sided figures." If you build your own geodesic dome model, you'll get an idea of how triangles are put together to form hexagons and pentagons.

About Space-Frame Structures:

Dr. Mario Salvadori reminds us that "rectangles are not inherently stiff." So, none other than Alexander Graham Bell came up with the idea of triangulating large roof frames to cover large, barrier-free interior spaces.

"Thus," write Salvadori, "the modern space frame sprang from the mind of an electrical engineer and gave rise to a whole family of roofs having the enormous advantage of modular construction, easy assemblage, economy, and visual impact." The geometry can be assembled to form all kinds of interior spaces, like I.M. Pei's Pyramid at The Louvre and the gridshell forms used for the tensile architecture of Frei Otto and Shigeru Ban.

Examples of Geodesic Domes:

  • Spaceship Earth, the AT&T Pavilion at Epcot in Disney World, Florida, is an adaptation of Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome
  • Tacoma Dome in Washington State
  • Milwaukee's Mitchell Park Conservatory
  • The St. Louis Climatron
  • Biosphere desert project in Arizona
  • Des Moines Arboretum, a self contained ecosphere
  • Biosphere, constructed for 1967 Expo in Montreal, Canada. Fuller claimed that it would be possible to enclose mid-town Manhattan in New York City with a two-mile wide temperature-controlled dome like this one. The dome, he said, would pay for itself within ten years... just from the savings of snow-removal costs.
  • Geodesic Dome Houses
  • Easy Outdoor Space Dome Climber
    Buy on Amazon

See Patent Drawings for the Geodesic Dome:

  • Geodesic Dome Patent 2,682,235 Drawing
  • Geodesic Dome Patent 3197927 Drawing 1
  • Geodesic Dome Patent 3197927 Drawing 2
  • Geodesic Dome Patent 3197927 Drawing 3

On the 50th anniversary of receiving a patent for the geodesic dome, R. Buckminster Fuller was commemorated on a US postage stamp in 2004.

Sources: Why Buildings Stand Up by Mario Salvadori, Norton 1980, McGraw-Hill 1982, p. 162;  Fuller, Nervi Candela to Deliver 1961-62 Norton Lecture Series, The Harvard Crimson, November 15, 1960 [accessed May 28, 2016]