Engineering is the art of making what you want from things you can get. – Jerry Avins
Shortly after I graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Iowa State, I told my friend Jim Mackey “Cindy and I are going to build a geodesic dome home.” “Figures,” he said, “you living in a regular house would be like an architect living in a mobile home.”
I was reading The Dome Builder’s Handbook by John Prenis at the time and thought “Cool, let’s build one.” Thing is, I’d never built a regular house. Heck, I was a machinist, not a carpenter. Granddad was the carpenter. I kept thinking “Maybe it runs in the family.”
So in September 1980 my wife and I started building our first home: a round house surrounded by cornfields outside Sherrill, Iowa. Our neighbors were mostly farmers, in fact one asked (in a thick German accent – German was taught in the Catholic school right up until WW2) “What’re you building there … a corn silo?”
Like any engineer, first I read as much as I could (boy do I wish we had the Internet of 2012 back in 1980). Then Cindy and I met with Bill Sheston, a dome dealer in nearby Dubuque.
In the late 70’s Bill and his sons built a home from The Big Outdoors People and loved it so much they became a dealer. (Here’s a few pages from TBOP’s 1979 brochure.)
Cindy and I toured several other domes, but when we stepped inside Sheston’s dome home, we were sold. Wow! The open space, the warmth, the spiral wrought iron staircase … Jim Mackey was right, we HAD to build one.
At the time we were living in an old farmhouse, complete with mice in the walls. Sheston’s dome looked like a castle. The Bach model was 44′ diameter, 24′ floor to ceiling high, and 1/2 of a full sphere. We couldn’t afford a dome that big, so we settled on the Strauss: a 33′ diameter, 21′ high, 3 frequency, 5/8 icosahedron.
Up in 5 hours
With a $63,600 building loan in hand, on October 2, 1980 we ordered the TBOP dome kit.
Two weeks later a semi backed up to a friend’s barn on the north side of Sherrill’s Mound. After unloading the packed trailer, I watched it as it headed back down the gravel road – empty. There was no backing out now.
We contracted Bob Schulte to do the excavation work. He said that was the first (and last) round basement he’d ever dug. He became a good friend. One night I even drove him and his huge dump truck home after a few too many beers at Hinderman’s tap.
Cindy kept a diary. Basement capped, on October 25th we raised the dome. Snow flurries and five hours after we started, we locked the last strut into place (everyone signed it). Then Cin and I posed for a quick picture on a teetering 2-story high set of scaffolding. Smiling, I thought “That wasn’t so bad.”
The John Deere Dubuque Works newsletter ran a story about our home.
251 days later
For the next eight months – every day after work, every weekend, every extra minute – we worked on the house.
Friends would call asking us to go out on a Friday night. “Sorry, can’t. We have to work on the house.” After a while, they quit calling. Looking back on it that is one of my biggest regrets. It was before children; we should have been enjoying life more and working less.
Like I said earlier, I’d never done carpentry work. I learned quickly, so did Cin. After a while she could drive a 10d (ten-penny) nail into a 2×4 with 3-4 whacks of a hammer. We learned to frame, drywall, insulate, and run plumbing, heating, and electrical. We learned how to install windows, showers, toilets, sinks, kitchen cabinets and everything else that goes into a house.
There are SO many stories we could tell about those 251 days. Finally, on May 27, 1981 we moved in. No carpeting, no kitchen counters, and an unfinished basement, but it was a home. It was our home and WE built it!
Living in a dome
Over the next seven years we finished up the house. We wanted to build a garage, but that never got done. Iowa winters were cold, however with 8″ thick walls and windows that faced south, our heating/dryer bill ran less than $500/year!
Our oldest daughter, Erin, was born there in December 1983. Amber came along in July 1986. To this day, they laugh about how since the bedrooms were lofted – they could lie in bed and watch the TV on the first floor (it reflected off the round ceiling window in their bedroom).
We built the house as if we were going to live there until we died. We never thought about moving, but in November of 1988 I was promoted to John Deere corporate in Moline, Illinois. We moved from our dome home in the country – with pigs, cows, owls, and raccoons – to a 3 bedroom, split level home in a new subdivision of Bettendorf, Iowa.
I miss that house. So does Cindy. We put 8 years of our life into it. We started our family there, we learned, we laughed, we loved.
We also cried.
It was an amazing accomplishment, built with quality and TLC, but when the buy-out offer for moving came back from Deere – we had to pay to get out of the mortgage. Ouch. Negative sweat equity.
So what did we learn?
- Everything takes more money and time than planned
- You can figure anything out, just be resourceful
- A house is never finished, there’s always something to do
- It’s hard to put square furniture in a round house
- Do not confuse creativity with profitability; they’re different
Why did I tell you this story? Why should you care?
It shows how to use Kipling’s helpers (Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, and How much) for telling stories AND solving problems. They’re the first tools I grab when telling a story. They’re also the tools I’d use now when I need to figure out the impossible; like building a dome home.
If you wanted someone to remember you for a story that spoke about who you are, what you had done, and what you could do … what would it be?
More photos on Flickr
If you’d like to see more photos, I have them in a collection on Flickr.
R. Buckminster Fuller
R. (Richard) Buckminister Fuller was a man of many talents. I had a chance to hear him when he came to Iowa State University back in 1975. Unfortunately I passed on the opportunity – using the excuse that I had to study for a test. Looking back now, I SO wish I had gone.
While he is best remembered for the geodesic dome – Bucky, as he was often called – was a “Renaissance engineer” with endless fascination for wide variety of technologies and natural phenomenon.
In February of 2015, a one-man play about Fuller’s life, R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe was performed at the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center in Ashville, NC. Did I go? No. I didn’t know about it. But if I had, I definitely would have been there.
You can read the Wikipedia page on Bucky, but you might get a more personal insight by listening as WUNC The State of Things radio host Frank Stasio interviewed actor/storyteller David Novak who starred in the production.