The Case for Round Buildings

There is an undeniable allure to a spherical building. How can the simplest of shapes replace the complex geometry we see in most modern architecture? It turns out that spheres are not only visually interesting, but incredibly functional. Spheres (and domes) are stronger, use fewer materials, and are more energy efficient than rectangular buildings.

Geodesic Dome By Erik16 at Wikimedia Commons

Our Minds Love Curves

“Nature doesn’t use squares”

The mere sight of ordinary buildings tends to make us sad. This was demonstrated by Dr. Roger Ulrich, an architecture professor in Sweden, who tested the psychological effect of viewing nature scenes versus pictures of retail and industrial buildings on students. The nature scenes increased positive mental states such as playfulness and friendliness, while the scenes with buildings tended to increase sadness, anger, and aggression.[1]

Of course, not all buildings are created equal. Given that nature tends to have an uplifting and restorative effect on mental state, buildings with more natural features may tend to share this quality. Perhaps this is what the buildings in this study lacked: as the famous engineer, Buckminster Fuller liked to emphasize, nature doesn’t use squares.

“The feeling inside is magical. Those who live in domes (and roundhouses) most likely never live in boxes again.”

Another study examined how interior spaces with strictly angular design schemes compared in their emotional effect to curvier spaces. When participants were shown 3D renderings of similar interiors that only differed in their degree of curvature, they rated the increased curvature as “more pleasant, elevating, relaxing, friendly, personal, safe, mysterious, complex, and feminine”.[2]

By Joe Tordiff (originally posted to Flickr as Domes--Genola, Utah) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Monolithic Domes in Utah by Joe Tordiff via Wikimedia Commons

Anecdotal reports from builders and residents of dome-shaped houses tend support these findings. Dr. Owen Geiger, an experienced builder and designer of “Earthbag” domes, says “The feeling inside is magical. Those who live in domes (and roundhouses) most likely never live in boxes again”.[3] A resident of a domed house on Slashdot says “I can’t begin to explain how wonderful it is to live in a sphere. I love the geometry and the womb-like feeling”.[4]

Domes are Stronger – Way Stronger

“On our street we were the only ones who were okay…we didn’t have a penny of damage”

This monolithic dome in Iraq remained standing after being hit by a 5,000 pound bomb.

This monolithic dome in Iraq remained standing after being hit by a 5,000 pound bomb.

Round homes and buildings are more aerodynamic and better at distributing loads that rectangular structures — thus, they better withstand natural disasters. Nader Khalili, a pioneer of modern earthen domes, subjected his buildings made entirely of natural raw earth to standard building code tests. They exceeded the requirements by 200 percent for conditions that simulated earthquake, wind, and snow loads.[6]

The company, Deltec, ships modular round homes to places with high winds or prone to catastrophic events. An owner of such a home reported after a hurricane, “On our street we were the only ones who were okay…we didn’t have a penny of damage”.[7] Another company, Monolithic, creates dome buildings claimed to meet or exceed FEMA standards for providing “near-absolute protection”. Indeed, it was a dome-shaped building — the “Louisiana Superdome” — that was used as a “shelter of last resort” for residents of New Orleans unable to evacuate the city before the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.

Domes are More Efficient and Economical

It takes less energy to heat a round building than a rectilinear building. It has nothing to do with materials or insulation, but the mathematical properties of spheres and rectangular prisms. The ratio of volume to surface area is always greater for a sphere than for a box. This means that for equal volumes of interior space, a sphere will have less wall area through which heat can escape.

This can greatly reduce and simplify the required mechanical equipment. Years ago, green builder Carter Scott began installing simplified HVAC systems in homes in a way that flew in the face of conventional building science wisdom; he guessed that for a compact, well insulated home, you could pretty much ignore all of the fans and ductwork we all use for distributing heat.

He was right: in all of the homes he built, there were virtually no issues with heating or cooling. In fact, homeowners raved about the steady, comfortable temperatures.[8] This is only possible with a compact design, which is most achievable using a sphere or dome.

Round Buildings are Nothing New

Nomadic cultures have lived in yurts in Central Asia for at least three thousand years

Author Becky Kemery states “Across cultures and through the ages, the circle remains a symbol of the unity of all things, the wholeness of life with all its interconnections. Rectilinear structures naturally separate and compartmentalize, fitting things neatly into square rooms and boxes”.[5] The philosopher Alan Watts also spoke of the irrational compulsion of modern people to “live in boxes“.

Yurt in Turkestan in 1913

Yurt in Turkestan in 1913

There are undoubtedly some challenges in adapting current building practices to dome structures. Building code officials and material suppliers generally tailor their services to rectilinear structures. However, different cultures have lived in round buildings for millennia.

Nomadic cultures have lived in yurts in Central Asia for at least three thousand years. Among the many types of housing employed by Native Americans, many, such as the wigwam, were round or dome-shaped.  Inuits in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland have traditionally lived in their iconic dome-shaped igloos. If we want to maximize the strength, material efficiency, and aesthetics of modern buildings, we may do well to look closely at what we can learn from traditional housing.

A Somali hut, similar in appearance to a Native American Wigwam. By Charles Roffey (http://www.flickr.com/photos/charlesfred/61781643) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

A Somali hut, similar in appearance to a Native American Wigwam. By Charles Roffey, via Wikimedia Commons

 

References

[1] Eva M. Selhub MD, Alan C. Logan ND. Your Brain on Nature (Page 13-14)

[2] Mind-shaped Box: Straight versus Curved Lines in Architecture – The Importance of Forms for our Well-Being

[3] Instructables: How to Build an Earthbag Dome

[4] Slashdot: The Life and Times of Buckminster Fuller

[5] Becky Kemery. Yurts: Living in the Round (Page 5)

[6] Kaki Hunter, Donald Kiffmeyer. Earthbag Building (Kindle Edition, Location 409)

[7] News Press: Round houses fare best against hurricanes

[8] Musings of an Energy Nerd

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