A vast majority of Southern Illinois residents are familiar with R. Buckminster Fuller and his patented geodesic dome home, whether it be from local news stories, regional events and lectures, or research of unusual architecture. Fuller, who was a professor in the School of Art and Design at Southern Illinois University from 1959 to 1970, was passionate about designing practical and efficient shelters and the geodesic dome is perhaps his most well-known contribution to society.
While many enthusiasts of these efficient structures have toured geodesic domes, studied building plans, and researched Fuller’s legacy, Don and Sharon Laster of Jonesboro made the dome home into a reality by constructing one of their very own in the lush, wooded hills of rural Union County. What began as a search for a unique home design after purchasing a piece of land turned into an unforgettable journey constructing the architectural rarity.
What type of home to build?
In 1981, the Lasters bought five acres outside of Jonesboro and began the process of deciding on what kind of home to build. Two of Don’s brothers had built unique homes in the area — a log home and an English Tudor style home — and he wanted to follow suit.
“I knew I wanted something different. We considered earth homes and didn’t really like that idea,” shared Don.
While speaking with a colleague at the school where he taught construction trades and welding, Don learned that this fellow teacher lived in a geodesic dome and he asked if he could bring his family to tour the distinctive piece of architecture. Don and Sharon loaded up their two young sons and visited the home that would soon become their dream.
“We walked into the living room and immediately we knew this was what we wanted to do. We just fell in love with it,” said Sharon.
The teacher who owned the dome home also worked as a representative selling the geodesic dome kits, one of which she purchased to build her own abode. Don and Sharon priced a kit for the dome best suited to their needs and realized the sticker price was just a bit above their budget. But this didn’t stop the ambitious family. Don’s brother, Kenny, who works as a carpenter, encouraged Don to build the geodesic dome on his own. With his own vast skillset and knowledge of the building trade, Don decided that he, along with his brothers and close friends, could combine their knowledge of carpentry, building, and design to create a more affordable geodesic dome.
While Don’s brother, Kenny, got busy performing the excavation, making a suitable building site out of the two hills on the property, Don employed the help of a close friend who drew the plans, figured the dimensions of the components, and computed the compound angles involved in the construction of the dome.
The structure of a geodesic dome is typically made up of sixty triangular panels that fit together in groups of five and six to create the finished spherical shape most of us are familiar with. Once Don had the plans for his own home, he built a twelve-foot model to test the dimensions. Following that successful test run, he then got busy cutting out the sixty triangular pieces. Working at the shop his brother, Kenny, owned just down the street, Don spent countless hours in 1981 measuring and cutting the pieces and moving them to the building site. Once the walkout basement was poured and the framing for the outside of the dome was erected, the process of putting the pieces together began in 1982.
It takes a village
The Lasters were fortunate enough to have not only the help of Don’s family but also several friends in the area who volunteered their time to help assemble the building. While going through a photo album of the building process, the excitement is evident in the photos as well as in the voices of the men involved, as they start to tell the tale of building the home. Photographs of the process, from start to finish, show the amazing transformation. Wells were drilled, poles set, the back wall of the basement was built, then the floor was finished and then the breathtaking photos of the dome itself being constructed.
“They had scaffolding up working on the structure and they had the music going and were dancing on the scaffolding,” said Sharon.
Every other weekend, Don would work with close friends Jerry Miller, his son, Scott Miller, and George Thodoropoulos, putting the triangular pieces together and attaching them to the frame in the prescribed order. The work was too intense to work on continually, so on the off weekends, Don would help Thodoropoulos with the construction of his own home.
“It was so intensive to work on. Don would say, ‘Now remember, I just have a one-inch strip to cover that space,” remembered Thodoropoulos.
The building crew worked as much as possible that winter until the structure was near completion, with just the uppermost, final piece left to install. The pentagon at the highest point, which is twenty-five feet from the floor and nearly thirty-five feet from the ground outside, was the final test of the accuracy of the original design, the measuring and cutting by Don, and the piecing together of the fifty-five other triangles.
The men bolted the final five triangles together, lowered the pentagon into place, and rejoiced as the piece fit snugly in place.
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“The most amazing thing was the last triangle we put in at the top. It fit just perfect,” said Miller.
Nestled in the bluffs
Some thirty-seven years later, the Laster’s home is the picture of cozy, nestled in at the bottom of a small bluff on the property, surrounded by mature trees with a small creek on the west side of the rolling, lush green lawn. The long, shaded driveway leads to a parking area outside the detached two-car garage where English ivy grows abundantly on the back hill just behind the parking area.
A raised deck surrounds almost the entire home and Sharon has worked tirelessly on the landscaping to achieve a polished look to the grounds surrounding the dome. Planters full of pink and purple petunias and abundant hostas, planted among a decorative rock border, adorn the deck and the grounds just below it. Several containers and pallets are home to a hearty vegetable garden on the sunniest side of the deck, where tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers and squash are a testament to Sharon’s green thumb.
“We’re in the country and we enjoy it. It’s a lot of work but it’s worth it,” said Sharon.
Upon entering the rear door of the home, the kitchen and breakfast nook are a welcoming sight with crisp, white cabinets and rich, wooden countertops. True to the thrifty ways of the Lasters, the cabinets were built during the construction of the home and the countertops came from a company in Cape Girardeau that made truck bed floors and were purchased at a fraction of the price of traditional store-bought or custom counters.
“I was working on a teachers’ salary. We repurposed everything to save money,” shared Don.
Walking through the kitchen, the area opens up dramatically to the dining area and family room which boast twenty-five-foot ceilings in the expansive living space. With 2,400 square feet on the main level and the lofty ceilings, the home is relaxing in all its grandeur. A stairway leading to the second level acts as a wall between the kitchen and family room and was hand-built by Don using pine for the steps, railing and spindles. While some dome plans allow for dormer extensions, cupolas, and skylights to create more natural light in the rooms, Don was wary of these additions to his building plans.
“Some domes have skylights put in them but I wanted to stay away from them because they leak. A lot of domes also have extensions but to have those you have to cut through the main strength of the dome,” said Don.
The ceiling itself is a testament to the meticulous work of assembling a geodesic dome. Visitors can see the shape and size of many of the triangles, pentagons and hexagons in the ceiling and walls. While some owners cover the entire interior with sheetrock, Don and Sharon made the wise decision to keep most of the triangles exposed by covering them with one by eight pine boards, which were stained with one coat at the time of installation and have remained maintenance free, like most of the home.
“People ask 'how do you dust that?' Well, we don’t. Nothing sticks to it,” said Sharon.
The layout and practicality of the home are perfect for their family of four that originally inhabited the home, with the master bedroom and adjoining bathroom just off the kitchen and the two somewhat secluded bedrooms with a shared bathroom upstairs. Although the Laster’s two grown sons no longer live at home, the bedrooms on the second level now make perfect guest rooms for the couple’s grandchildren or friends from out of town. The windows in the two bedrooms are somewhat short but are wide and built into recessed nooks, where Sharon says both of her sons liked to spend time alone, relaxing and enjoying their respective spaces.
The pros and cons of the architectural rarity
There are numerous benefits to owning a geodesic dome home — from the lower cost of heating and cooling to having a more stable structure overall. Geodesic domes require very little surface area for the interior walls and therefore distribute air more effectively than a traditional home. The triangle shape used in the majority of the structure is extraordinarily stable and can withstand the pressure of wind, tornadoes, snow and earthquakes, especially when compared to the rectangular shapes used in the construction of standard homes.
“The neat thing about the geodesic dome is you can put your rooms anywhere you want because there aren’t any weight-bearing walls,” remarked Don.
When asked if they had any regrets in choosing the geodesic dome style of home, Sharon said the roof is the only challenge, saying that it is a difficult undertaking and that it is hard to find a good contractor, who knows what he’s doing and is willing to take on the challenge.
Beginning with the incomparable experience of building this architectural marvel, where the hands of several kind people worked to take part in the unique process, to the many years of happiness enjoyed inside the structure, the Lasters used their interpretation of Buckminster Fuller’s vision to create a masterpiece of their own.