John duSaint, a retired software engineer, recently bought property near Bishop, Calif., in a rugged valley east of the Sierra Nevada. The area is at risk from wildfires, severe daytime heat and high winds – as well as heavy winter snowfall.
But Mr. duSaint is not worried. He plans to live in a dome.
The 29-foot structure will be covered with aluminum shingles, which reflect heat, and are also fire resistant. Because the dome has less surface area than a rectangular house, it is easier to insulate against heat or cold. And it can withstand strong winds and heavy snowpack.
“The dome shell itself is essentially impenetrable,” Mr. duSaint said.
As weather grows more extreme, geodesic domes and other resilient house designs are gaining new attention from more climate-conscious homebuyers, and the architects and builders who serve them.
The trend could begin to remove the inertia underlying America’s struggle to adapt to climate change: Technologies exist to protect homes from severe weather — but those innovations have slowly trickled into mainstream home construction, leaving most Americans increasingly exposed to climate shocks, say experts. .
Riding the storm
In the atrium of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, volunteers have just finished reassembling “Weatherbreak,” a geodesic dome built more than 70 years ago and briefly used as a home in the Hollywood Hills. It was avant-garde at the time: about a thousand aluminum struts bolted together into a hemisphere, 25 feet high and 50 feet wide, evoking an oversized metal glue.
The structure has gained new importance as the Earth warms.
“We started thinking about how our museum can respond to climate change,” Abeer Saha, the curator who supervised the reconstruction of the dome, said. “Geodesic domes have emerged as a way that the past can offer a solution to our housing crisis, in a way that has not received enough attention.”
Domes are just one example of the innovation underway. Houses made of steel and concrete can be more resistant to heat, wildfires and storms. Even traditional timber-framed homes can be built this way greatly reduce the probability from severe damage from hurricanes or floods.
But the costs of added resilience can be about 10 percent higher than conventional construction. That premium, which often pays for itself in reduced repair costs after a disaster, presents a problem, however: Most homebuyers don’t know enough about construction to demand tougher standards. Builders, in turn, are reluctant to add resiliency, for fear that consumers won’t want to pay extra for features they don’t understand.
One way to bridge that gap would be to tighten building codes that are set at the state and local level. But most places don’t use the latest codeif they have any mandatory building standards at all.
Some architects and designers are responding on their own to growing concerns about disasters.
On a piece of land that juts out into the Wareham River, near Cape Cod, Mass., Dana Levy watches her new fortress of a house go up. The structure will be built with insulated concrete forms, or ICF, creating walls that can withstand strong winds and flying debris, as well as maintain stable temperatures if the power goes out – which is unlikely to happen, thanks to the solar panels, backup batteries and emergency generator . The roof, windows and doors will be hurricane-resistant.
The whole point, according to Mr. Levy, a 60-year-old retiree who worked in renewable energy, is to make sure he and his wife don’t have to leave the next time a big storm hits.
“There’s going to be a lot of people spilling into the street looking for scarce government resources,” Mr. Levy said. His goal is to ride out the storm, “and actually invite my neighbors.”
Mr. Levy’s new home was designed by Illya Azaroff, a New York architect who specializes in resilient designs, with projects in Hawaii, Florida and the Bahamas. Mr. Azaroff said using that type of concrete frame adds 10 to 12 percent to the cost of a home. To offset that extra cost, some of his clients, including Mr. Levy, choose to make their new home smaller than planned — sacrificing an extra bedroom, for example, for a greater chance of surviving a disaster.
Building with steel
Where wildfire risk is high, some architects are turning to steel. In Boulder, Colo., Renée del Gaudio designed a house that uses a steel structure and siding for what she calls a fireproof shell. The decks are made of ironwood, a fire-resistant wood. Below the decks and surrounding the house is a grass barrier topped with crushed rock, to prevent the growth of plants that could fuel a fire. A 2,500-gallon cistern could provide water for hoses in case a fire gets too close.
Those features increased construction costs by up to 10 percent, according to Ms. del Gaudio. That premium could be cut in half by using cheaper materials, such as stucco, that would provide a similar degree of protection, she said.
Mrs. del Gaudio had reason to use the best materials. She designed the house for her father.
But perhaps no type of resilient home design inspires devotion like geodesic domes. In 2005, Hurricane Rita devastated Pecan Island, a small community in southwestern Louisiana, destroying most of the area’s few hundred houses.
Joel Veazey’s 2,300-square-foot dome was not one of them. He only lost a few shingles.
“People came to my house and apologized to me and said, ‘We made fun of you because of the way your house looked. We should never have done that. This place is still here when our homes are gone,'” Mr. Veazey , a retired oil worker, said.
Dr. Max Bégué lost his house near New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina. In 2008, he built and moved into a dome on the same property, which has survived every storm since, including Hurricane Ida.
Two features give domes their ability to withstand wind. First, the domes are composed of many small triangles, which can carry more load than other shapes. Second, the shape of the dome channels around it, depriving that wind of a flat surface to exert force on.
“It doesn’t blink in the wind,” said Dr. Bégué, a racehorse doctor. “It sways a little — more than I want it to. But I think that’s part of its strength.”
‘Looking for something different’
Mr. Veazey and Dr. Bégué acquired their homes from Natural Spaces Domes, a Minnesota company that has seen demand jump the past two years, according to Dennis Odin Johnson, who owns the company with his wife Tessa Hill. He said he expected to sell 30 or 40 domes this year, up from 20 last year, and had to double his staff.
Most clients are not particularly wealthy, Mr. Johnson said, but have two things in common: an awareness of climate threats and an adventurous streak.
“They want something that will last,” he said. “But they’re looking for something else.”
One of Mr. Johnson’s newer clients is Katelyn Horowitz, a 34-year-old accounting consultant who is building a dome in Como, Colo. She said she was attracted by the dome’s ability to heat and cool the interior more efficiently than other structures, and the fact that they require less material than traditional homes.
“I like weird,” Ms. Horowitz said, “but I love sustainability.”