Children like Tess Clark (bottom) and Blanca and Mansaratt Figueroa (top) can tell their friends they grew up in an igloo in Texas. The top curves of the dome make for interesting interior spaces—and decorating challenges.
Pod Squad

Visionary David South’s eccentric dome houses are not stylish. But they are fireproof, impervious to tornadoes and earthquakes, and dirt cheap. They just might be the answer to Dallas’ crisis in affordable family housing. that is, if you don’t mind living under a gigantic pumpkin.

South of Waxahachie, the buildings scattered under the vast sky look tentative—a trailer under a few trees, a prefab church vaunting a Purpose and Destiny Center. A few miles down Interstate Highway 35, an unfinished house stands vacant in a field near pinewoods, all work obviously halted months, perhaps years, before. Even the wooden fence surrounding it, held up by angled two-by-fours, looks like what you’d see behind the false front on a movie set.

Take me, take us all, these slapdash constructions seem to be calling to the god of storms, and it’s easy to imagine, against these horizons, some feral, soot-black twister dragging its apocalyptic hunger along the land and consuming every jerry-built scrap of them.

Monolithic Dome Institute Founder and President David South. Like mushrooms or pumpkins, experimental domes of various sizes cluster on the Institute’s campus.
But keep going and you come to the strangest buildings of all: domes. Across the highway on the left as you approach the exit for Italy, Texas, a long, undulating building with caterpillar antennae and a painted face announces the campus and world headquarters of the Monolithic Dome Institute (www.monolithic.com), founded by a visionary named David South.

The campus contains nothing but domes and variations on domes, the whole of it an experiment in dome living, dome construction, dome use. Four times a year, the Monolithic Dome Institute holds five-day workshops ($975), “a combination of hands-on training and classroom instruction,” according to its web site, that result in still more domes on the campus.

What are they teaching? Thirty years ago, South made a breakthrough in building so profound that he calls it a new paradigm, and it’s hard to disagree. He devised a method of building inflatable forms—“airforms”—made of polyester impregnated with the thermoplastic resin PVC. Inside the form, workers spray on a layer of polyurethane, then build a grid of rebar inside it and spray it with a layer of concrete. The nonflammable airform remains as the outside layer, which protects the polyurethane.

Founder and President David South built these inexpensive, experimental domes on the campus of the Monolithic Dome Institute in Italy, Texas, which he rents for $400 a month, including utilities, to working people who would otherwise be burdened by high housing costs. He has more than 60 already built and rented in various sites around Italy. 
The resulting dome is fireproof, impervious to tornadoes (even earthquakes), and so efficiently insulated because of the qualities of polyurethane and concrete together that it requires only a fourth of the energy to heat and cool conventional buildings. South’s best guess is that it will last 500 years; even if you used bamboo instead of rebar, it would last a century.

But one impression drives out all the others. Left to itself, the basic dome is as homely as a beanie on a hat rack of Stetsons.

“The American housewife doesn’t want the dome yet,” South admits. “It can save energy and save lives, but it doesn’t look fashionable.”

And there, as Hamlet says, is the rub.

In the Odyssey, at the beginning of Western civilization, Homer made much of straight lines. Odysseus himself had a particular fondness for them: They got you somewhere. Rounded spaces like caves always evoked for him the natural and the womblike, a potentially stifling feminine enclosure, whereas for men like himself seeking immortal fame—not to mention the home he hadn’t seen in 20 years—the purposive straight line was the index of all accomplishment, like the arrow he sent through the holes in 12 axe-handles.

Because of the height of the main dome, open interior spaces like this one in the home of Larry and Marilee Byrne have a natural loftiness. But Larry, the chief designer at Monolithic Dome Institute, says aesthetics aren’t the primary reason for choosing a dome house. “The main reason to build them is protection from the weather. If the tornado sirens go off, we just go to bed.”
So why is it that domes, the perfection of rounded forms, dominate the landscape of accomplishment? Hagia Sofia, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Duomo in Florence come to mind, not to mention the Pantheon itself. Perhaps it’s because the majestic interior reiterates the dome of heaven itself and symbolizes in its wholeness the sweep of the cosmic powers.

The word dome derives from the Roman domus, house, by way of Medieval Latin, in which domus meant a church. From simple house, to house of God, to the most beautiful structures on earth.

The Monolithic Dome Institute builds churches, among other things. In the 14,000-square-foot caterpillar, by far the largest building on campus, workers cut out and seal the airforms for domes across the world—such as a Buddhist temple in the Himalayas. (“We’ve got the airform here for it now,” South says.) But what’s most fascinating is that the meanings circle back—in this other, plainer, Italy—to simple houses that would have amazed the first settlers on the southwest corner of the Palatine Hill in Rome, where tradition says the thatch-roofed hut of Romulus was.

South knows that his domes won’t appeal at present to the denizens of Strait Lane (unless they’re building beach homes where hurricanes hit). That’s not the market that most interests him. A few years ago, he happened to be listening to NPR, when Barbara Ehrenreich was talking about her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Hearing what she said gave him a mission.

Beverly Trlica takes a cigarette break and enjoys the outdoor space outside her rental dome. “I don’t do apartments,” Trlica says. “Four hundred dollars, all utilities paid—you can’t beat that.” 

“We have a huge portion of the United States population whose No. 1 problem is putting a roof over their head at night,” he says. In fact, one- and two-person households make up two-thirds of all renters in America. That’s a huge percentage, he says.

Forty percent of them, he says, make less than $20,000 a year, which means, according to his calculations, that they need a place to live that costs $450 a month or less, but only 16 percent of rentals are available at that price.

“So I’m saying to myself, how can we bring a rental down to the price that people can afford it? The single mom who’s got five kids, there’s nothing I can do for her, but that single lady who has one child? I started asking, what can I do to help her?”

His answer was to build domes with a 10-foot radius—314 square feet, if you remember “πr²” from geometry class—that could be built quickly and inexpensively.

“I built four of them in town. Bam! Filled up instantly. I charge $400 a month and pay all the utilities,” he says.

So far he has more than 62 around Italy, including a street of them on the campus, where each one has its own parking spot. They sit like igloos, unmelting, beneath the Texas sun, and people such as Robert Thurston, a bachelor, and Christie Isham, a woman with twin boys, live in them. Best of all, in a business sense at least, is that offering these rentals is not a financial sacrifice for him.

“I’m making really good money,” he says. “I’m doing a service for them, and I’m making more money than I’ve ever made at any other rental operation I’ve done.”

To hear him talk about it, you understand that the implications of his domes continue to unfold for him in surprising ways, and his excitement is highly contagious, except for one thing: their looks. But that’s the challenge. Somebody who can really bring aesthetic excitement to this new technology—a purposive line, among other things—will achieve something a lot more important than what Yul Brynner and Michael Jordan did for baldness. 500 years is a lot too long for homely.