It's not unusual to talk about construction schedules in terms of years or even decades. A Gantt chart that spans just seven hours sounds simply outlandish today. However, this blip of time is all it took for contractor Ira Parrish and his crew to assemble the world's first geodesic dome house for R. Buckminster Fuller and his wife, Anne Hewlett Fuller, on Apr. 19, 1960, in Carbondale, Ill.
On Saturday, 54 years later to the date, the local community along with architects, preservationists, contractors, and more will come together to celebrate the groundbreaking of a roughly six-month restoration of the historic dome structure at 407 S. Forest Avenue. R. Buckminster Fuller Dome NFP (RBF Dome NFP), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving Fuller's work and legacy, welcomes all members of the public to the free event.
From 1959 to 1971, Fuller and his wife lived in Carbondale during his 12-year tenure as a research professor at the School of Architecture at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIU). Though he was committed to teach for only two months of the school year and traveled for much of the remainder of the time, Anne Fuller stayed in the dome home frequently.
Fuller patented the dome home in 1954 as a low-cost, safe, and accessible housing structure, which aligned with his mission to "make the world work for 100 percent of humanity in the shortest possible time ... without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone." The geodesic dome in Carbondale is the only dome in which the Fullers lived and owned.
Spanning 39 feet 1 inch in plan view, and rising 16 feet 6 inches in height, the dome structure comprised 60 isosceles-triangle plywood panels with edge lengths ranging from 6 feet 10 inches to 8 feet, says Thad Heckman, RA, the project architect who's also a senior lecturer at SIU's architecture school and proprietor of local design practice Design Works.
At its perimeter, the white geodesic structure was surrounded by five blue trapezoidal plywood wall panels—the building's only vertical surfaces—which allowed for fenestration. Inside, the ground level featured a kitchen, dining room, living space, and master bedroom. An upper loft space was reserved for a study and a custom, curved, built-in bookcase.
The house's straightforward design and construction were matched by simple detailing and material choices; Fuller reportedly wished to use more advanced materials, but was limited by the state of the art. "The original roof, we think, was nothing more than a heavy, waterproof coating painted directly on the wood," Heckman says. Celastic tape sealed the panel joints, he says, but the "prevailing discussion was that the joints leaked." A couple years after its completion, the dome was believed to have been re-roofed with spray-on foam, whose performance was likewise unimpressive. Finally, the dome was covered by layers of asphalt shingles, which remain to this day.
After the Fullers left the university in 1971, the dome home was rented as student housing for approximately three decades, during which it fell into a state of disrepair. Though the building's foundation, slab, and radiant heat flooring appear to be sound, the cork floor finish in the pugblic areas has long disappeared (remnants remain in the loft and bedroom). More critical is the dome's overall geometry. Though many of the original triangle panels are intact and will be reused, previous ill-gotten attempts to repair and replace some of the panels have altered the structure's curvature. As a result, the southern half of the dome has a slightly flattened, egg-shaped profile, Heckman says. "Domes are very strong, but if one vertex or area becomes loose or weak, they can get rickety fast."
In 2001, H.F.W. "Bill" Perk, now an SIU professor emeritus who also taught at SIU during Fuller's tenure, purchased the dome home and its site property. After building an outer fabric dome to protect the building from the natural elements, Perk donated the dome to RBF Dome NFP in July 2002. The organization has since been committed to raising funds for the restoration, which Heckman along with Jon Davey, AIA, president of the RBF Dome NFP board and a professor of architecture at SIU, envisions occurring in three phases: exterior and building envelope restorations, interior finishes and furnishes, and finally, site restoration.
The first phase of the restoration will preserve much of the original building components as well as Fuller's design vision for the dome, which was recognized by the city of Carbondale as a historic landmark in 2003, and by the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. The project will retrofit the building with contemporary construction materials such as double-glazed skylights to replace the 10 existing and mostly missing lites, and a white, thermopolyolefin membrane both to protect the roof and to mimic Fuller's vision for the upper part of the dome as the white sail of a ship. Dome Inc., in Dayton, Minn., is contracted for the $179,000 project.
Upon the completion of the first phase of renovation, RBF Dome NFP hopes to use the dome for receptions and meetings. However, Davey has big plans for the dome house when, at some unknown point in the future, both the exterior and interior renovations are completed. "We plan to have a docent live there, and we'll set up multimedia presentations (about tensegrity and Fuller's global initiatives) that use the triangle panels as screens," he says. The building will also become a museum.
In 2011, the project received a Save America's Treasures Grant, which will match up to $125,000 in grants that RFB Dome NFP raises. Heckman and Davey estimate that the second and third phases of the project will cost between $200,000 and $300,000. As part of Saturday's event of educational games, food, music, presentations, and fundraising efforts, the RBF Dome NFP board will introduce Friends of the Dome, a group dedicated to fundraising for the dome's regular maintenance, insurance, taxes, and utilities, which cost about $8,000 per year.
Heckman, himself a former SIU student who often sat in on Fuller's lectures, acknowledges that the historic dome structure is currently "dilapidated and a little disappointing." He believes that the initial renovation will draw attract attention and support for subsequent restoration. "Bucky is a world-renowned figure," he says. "To see [the dome home] again brought back up to its true geometry, with its shining white-sail dome and its ocean blue perimeter will be exciting, and the [local] community will start to acknowledge the contributions that Bucky's made."
Note: This article has been updated since first publication.