How to Build a Dome for Cheap

No complicated math, no exotic materials, just some wood planks, nails, plastic, and staples. Read on if you want to know how to build a dome for cheap.

| July/August 1973

  • Turcot's Dome
    Exterior of the umbrella framework dome Turcot and his friends built.
  • 022-067-01
    Illustration demonstrates how to build a dome from board sections nailed into semi-circles and overlapped at the top.
  • 022-067-01A
    Cross-sectional views of the Turcot dome with plastic sheeting or skin applied and smoke hole at the top.

  • Turcot's Dome
  • 022-067-01
  • 022-067-01A

At least one wit has suggested that Mike Turcot's Indian name should be either " He-whose-lodge-falls-down" or "Thumbpounder" instead of the rather grand "Crazy Horse". Mike, however, claims that such jocularity is entirely uncalled for. At any rate, he and his friends made theirs for six dollars. (Inflation may have doubled or tripled the cost since 1973. - MOTHER EARTH NEWS) Here's how to build a dome for cheap.  

If you made it to Union Grove, North Carolina last Easter for the 49th annual OldTime Bluegrass Fiddlers Convention, you probably recall some of the unusual and innovative structures erected by the more than 100,000 campers who showed up to get high on the music. Among the unorthodox shelters, you may have noticed a clear plastic dome, over 20 feet in diameter and 10 feet high, known as the Umbrella. That poly bubble—the brainchild of the Umbrella Conspiracy: He-who-talks, Wounded Buffalo, Pete and myself—cost only $6.00 and took the four of us just three hours to construct.

The idea for the Umbrella came to us because we needed a cheap structure that could be erected simply, from readily available materials, by ordinary people with no special skills. Techniques such as conventional geodesics were automatically ruled out . . . first because none of us had a head for the necessary math, and also since we all felt that the precise regularity of a geometrically constructed shape—while perfectly acceptable to the computer that developed it—was rather boring and lifeless as housing for real human beings. In short, we wanted a funky shelter that would respond to the whims of its makers and would come out different each time no matter how many were built. We think our Umbrella Dome met those requirements.

The Umbrella's basic framework consisted of three arches made of wood struts that were overlapped and nailed together at their ends. Those supports were erected and lashed together at the top. No complex cutting or fastening is required. . .  just lay out the boards in the desired curve, with their ends resting one on another, and bang in a couple of nails at each joint. You don't even need a hammer (we forgot ours and made do with rocks and a hatchet)

The shape of the arch is what determines the shape of the finished dome, so—if you decide to join the Umbrella Conspiracy—take care when you lay out the struts for your bubble. You can use any number of boards and vary the curve to suit your fancy or the necessities of your living space. The only requirements are that the top of the arc be reasonably fiat and the bottom boards be more or less perpendicular with the ground. Each support should at least vaguely resemble a half circle.

You can be equally flexible about materials: We worked with five-foot struts of 1" X 5" oak, but just about anything will do. Don't use big heavy timbers, however . . . they weigh too much and aren't necessary.

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