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Geodesic Glasshouses For Our Times

No discussion of greenhouses is full without recognizing that some of the great botanical gardens of the world are renowned for the geodesic domes at their heart.  I grew up with the Mitchell Domes in Milwaukee, and have a postcard of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s ‘Climatron’, the geodesic dome completed in 1961 that kicked off the installation of this must-have feature in other public gardens. And we owe it all to a 5’2” tall genius, R. Buckminster Fuller, or ‘Bucky’ as he’s affectionately known to dome aficionados, like Dave Falasco, proprietor of GrowDomes, LLC.

The Floral, Tropical, and Desert Domes comprise the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, an mid-century modern landmark in the history of American architecture. Courtesy of Milwaukee County Parks.

“Ah, Buckminster,” Muses Dave. We’re sitting in his backyard dome garden as I quiz him about the practicalities of geodesic domes in home gardens. “If more of his theories were put into practice, the world would be a better place.” Clearly a Fuller-fan, and Dave admits that his business exists in part to promote Bucky’s legacy (or Guinea Pig B, as the man preferred to call himself). I have to say, I’m an admirer, too.

Neatly tucked into the corner of Dave Falasco’s urban Colorado Springs garden is this comfortable geodesic dome. It can take anything the weather throws at it, and in the Front Range of the Rockies, that no little thing.

Fuller may have been far-out-there when his practice first was exercised in the late 1940s, but before long, in 1954, he patented the Geodesic Dome dwelling, and went on to create ‘Biosphere’ for the US pavilion at Montreal’s Expo ’67. In his career Fuller earned 44 honorary doctorates, but before success, failure and grief haunted him to the point that he considered suicide. Thankfully, Bucky decided that his life belonged to the universe, not to him, and went on to live it, he said, “as an experiment,” and thenceforth concentrated on developing ways to “do more with less.”

Buckminster Fuller and his 250-foot-diameter Biosphère, the US Pavilion for the Montreal Expo 67. The structure was originally covered in an acrylic skin that melted in a fire in 1976. CC.

Is it any wonder, then, that the 1960s counter-culture embraced Fuller’s philosophy? Curiously, one of the first hippy communes was established in 1965 in Trinidad, Colorado: Known as ‘Drop City’, it was dotted with scrap-built geodesic domes, garnering such attention that in 1966 Fuller awarded the commune his ‘Dymaxion Award’. The mutual admiration soon faded, with Fuller’s disenchantment with unfavorable notoriety the hippie’s anarchic posturing attracted.

That was then, and today in Colorado Springs I learn from Dave that his domes are constructed from a system of metal frames he developed, and glazed with polycarbonate sheeting; the polycarbonate, he explains is incredibly strong, gives good UV protection, and provides double insulation, while the frames are laser-cut for precision angles giving accuracy, simplicity, and strength to the framing structure. All that sounds a sensible choice for a gardener living in the Rockies, where the sun burns brighter, weather is unpredictable, and hail can smash car windows and destroy plants — and much else– in minutes. As Dave explains, “BIG hail can dent the polycarbonate, but otherwise, it just bounces off.” Thus speaks the voice of experience, as he’s been in the business for nearly a decade and built garden domes, hot-tub domes, greenhouse domes and counts the Colorado Springs Zoo among his many clients.

The interior of a GrowDome accommodates raised beds and a self-watering and, thanks to the pond fish, fertilizing aquaponics system.

Fuller was a big thinker and once postulated that mid-town Manhattan could be covered with a geodesic dome that would pay for itself in ten years thanks to the savings realized by eliminating snow-removal costs. Looking out my window on May 21 at my snow-covered garden, the damaged trees – this stuff is wet AND heavy — the smashed tomato plants and … oh dang…this is a repeat, to the very day in 2019, when the same freaky weather event happened. I wonder how big a GrowDome Dave can construct. Seriously.

Nine days shy of June, 1, my garden in spring. I console myself thinking big thoughts of a geodesic dome enclosing the entire property. Bucky would be proud of me.

“We are blessed with technology that would be indescribable to our forefathers. We have the wherewithal, the know-it-all to feed everybody, clothe everybody, and give every human on Earth a chance. We know now what we could never have known before–that we now have the option for all humanity to make it successfully on this planet in this lifetime. Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment.”

Buckminster Fuller. Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity. 1969.

©Ethne Clarke, 2022, text and photos unless otherwise noted.

To contact Dave Falasco, learn more about his company, the materials he uses and other styles of greenhouses he constructs, visit his website.

Long out of print, there are a number of editions of Utopia or Oblivion:The Prospects for Humanity available online, in all formats, including digital. Here is a selection.

The Buckminster Fuller Institute “seeks to expose today’s leaders to the conceptual models and tools necessary to design a future that works for 100% of life, without ecological offense.” We wish more of them would sign up to the Institute’s mission. Learn more here.