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The Frameless Geodesic Dome I currently live in (rigsomelight.com)
747 points by brucehauman on Sept 9, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 310 comments

If you want to live in a city, it's not the cost of the house that kills you: it's the dirt.

In Seattle, where I live, my property tax statement tells me that my (large, nice) house is worth roughly half as much as the land it sits on.

Given that these domes don't float, you still need a place to put 'em. If your goal is to opt out of the cost of housing - an evil which this blog post expounds upon at length - your first order of business isn't so much "what to live in" but "where is it going to be".

Exactly. This structure basically assumes you're living in the country somewhere. If you're willing to move out to the country, on a programmer's salary you could quickly save enough to pay cash for a smallish, newly constructed home with many modern comforts, such as "rooms".

I moved to Colorado from the SF Bay Area. I'm near Boulder and Denver, and can walk to a dozen restaurants, a grocery store, a bar, multiple cafes, and a big library with free Internet access (oddly enough, almost ALL of the above have free Internet access, now that I think of it -- even the grocery store). And if you like public transit, I'm really close to multiple bus lines, but the city I live in is also very bike friendly.

And I don't have a mortgage on my 2500 sq. ft. house. No living "in the country" necessary. ;) Similar house prices can be had in Denver proper as well, though I'm in more of a suburb.

Programmers can make a lot of money. If you don't waste it all, it's not hard to save up a lot. I only do paid work about half the time now; the other half I work on my own projects.

But you're renting, right? Isn't part of the point not to be wasting capital on rent? (I'm a CO man myself)

"Wasting capital on rent" may be the worst nonsense in our financial folklore. Always run the numbers. Rent vs. mortgage calculators and spreadsheets are readily available. Understand the factors they use, and perhaps tweak for your own needs and priorities.

I'm glad that I did, as I completely dodged the disaster that was the housing bubble as a result -- my rent always looked like a killer deal compared to nutso house prices. On the other hand, I know those who "had to have a house" who are now seriously underwater on their mortgages. But good thing they weren't "wasting capital on rent!"

The best online rent-versus-buy calculator I have found is the one created by the New York Times [1]. As others in this thread have already noted, in suburban-to-urban population densities, the cost of shelter is in the dirt, not the improvements. The wisdom of embedding wealth into dirt in a highly technologically-developed economy where the value chain is much, much more abstracted away from the dirt is lost upon me. Bidding up the cost of dirt just seems to me an easy way to factor away any incremental new wealth created by those living on and paying for the dirt.

Even lots of programmers here on HN eagerly brag up "good buys" they made on their houses, characterized as "good" because the house "went up in value".

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/business/buy-rent-calcula...

Personally I want my house to drop in value, as long as it doesn't drop faster than my repayments, and as long as other properties in the area also drops: I want to be able to trade up cheaply.

As for the "wisdom of embedding wealth into dirt": Long term, if property values drop, so what. You lose a little bit on your purchase vs. renting in that case, but you get massively cheaper housing from then on if you opt to switch back to renting and/or the value for money will be massively better if you decide to trade up to a bigger house. But if property values rises dramatically, owning a property is a very effective hedge against seeing your living costs skyrocket. See it as insurance.

In that respect people do make good buys when the house goes up value: It means they largely locked in their housing costs at a lower rate and their insurance is paying off.

"In that respect people do make good buys when the house goes up value: It means they largely locked in their housing costs at a lower rate and their insurance is paying off."

No, the rent vs buy question is a lot more complicated than that. Renting can be and often is financially better even over the long term when house values are appreciating at historic rates, or even faster. As just a couple more factors to consider, property tax and maintenance costs go up as property appreciates and along with inflation, respectively. Remember that renters don't make any downpayment, and that that money and early term savings over mortgage can be invested in assets that tend to grow at rates much faster than house values.

And the rent vs. buy issue that's hard to resolve is for comparable homes being rented or owned. The fact of the matter is that many people buy more home than they need, when they could have happily been renting a smaller home, and trade up only when necessary, skewing answer more toward side of rental being more cost-effective. (You could do this with a house, too, but people tend to buy more house than the need at the time, perhaps partly b/c of practical difficulties of selling a house and the large commissions that get paid to brokers.)

The "dirt" also acts as a proxy for location. What you're mostly buying is proximity.

Interesting the calculator includes utilities and tax bills as costs for the buyer but not the renter. Is this common in the US, for all bills to be included? In Europe here, once you factor in the additional costs of council tax and all utilities, the cross-over period reduces to about 4 years, as many people have commented previously.

It looks to me that the calculator is expressing the following rental situation: you rent from a landlord that includes for example, water and sewage utilities as part of the monthly rental fee. The fair way to account for this rental situation for the equivalent buying scenario is to add the true cost of those utilities to the buying scenario because when you look at buying the equivalent, you will have to pay for those utilities, and thus lengthening the break-even point when compared to renting.

Bubbles happen in many more things than just housing. It just happened to hit way more people than any of the previous bubbles.

I don't know much about the market conditions outside of SoCal, but here the housing seems to have recovered to 2005-2006 levels. It doesn't look like it has much fuel to go up for a long time, but those who bought 2009-2012 are definitely comfortably in the black. Some could be up as much as 50-60% from especially distressed properties. Doesn't sound bad to me...

Factor in ridiculously cheap borrowing costs (even a couple months ago, there were 30 yr. mortgages for around 4%), and you have pretty decent investment opportunities.

In an unbalanced market, one can always find ways to realize short-term gain. Trick is to not get suckered in and overplay the hand.

I also sat out the housing bubble and its insane prices, but now we have a house we love and very small mortgage. Of course capital invested during a bubble is wasted, but that doesn't mean all investment in that asset class is a bad idea.

But saidajigumi didn't say that buying is always a bad idea. He said "always run the numbers."

As long as you know how to factor in the costs if it turns out you were nowhere near the peak of the bubble, and you factor in the "lost" capital from paying rent rather than paying down on a mortgage. It can turn out to be extremely costly to wait out a bubble even if the alternative is buying a property that is guaranteed to drop in value at some point.

I bought right around the peak of the bubble in early 2006. Even with prices being what they were at the time, my mortgage wasn't much higher than rent was for comparable homes in my neighborhood. After having a couple of roommates move in I was paying very little to live. I sold the house early last year and actually made a small profit after doing a few renovations. I know my experience may not be typical but if you stay away from places with crazy inflated home values and are willing to deal with the headaches of owning a home, it's not too hard to turn a little profit. With renting it is a certainty that will not be the case.

I wonder how much your second job as a landlord (`headaches ouf owning a home') actually paid per hour.

Considering on a given month I was making 700 dollars while doing almost nothing I'd say I had a pretty good hourly rate!

Thanks. I just want to try to get an apples-to-apples comparison.

The downside to this is if you live in a place where the bubble didn't pop and are (seemingly) locked out of the housing market forever, or at least until the bubble does pop.

So that provides a reason for temporarily avoiding purchases when the prices are inflated and/or mortgage deals are bad.

See purchasing as a hedge. "Worst case" your property becomes worthless, and you're left with nothing when the mortgage is paid down and may have paid more per month on average until them (but if so, while you may have lost vs. renting, properties are now ludicrously cheap, so who cares?). Meanwhile, if prices skyrocket, your equity likely rises at roughly the same rate.

In the long run even those you know who are now seriously underwater are likely to do just fine as long as they can afford to sit tight. Of course people can "play the market" and do a good job timing when it's better to rent and buy again later, but as with anything it's very easy to mistime.

It's extremely hard to come out badly if you are prepared to hold a property long term, though, as long as you don't overstretch, and can afford to sit tight for a few years if you go under water early on.

Even if you end up paying more per month for a mortgage initially (I never did), chances are you'll be able to remortgage and bring the rates down to below rental costs within a couple of years once you've built up a bit of equity, and from then on save money every month on top of repaying the capital on the mortgage and be left living "rent free" apart from maintenance costs and insurance at the end of it.

I'll never go back to renting - if I'd bought as soon as I could, I'd had roughly about 200k pounds more equity today, and would have had roughly the same monthly costs for most of that time. As it is, I'm now paying half as much on a mortgage as I would to rent the same size property, and my debt is dropping in absolute terms, and my interest rate is below inflation, so in real terms I'm getting fantastic value.

"It's extremely hard to come out badly if you are prepared to hold a property long term"

You seem to equate some appreciation in house value with "not coming out badly". Well, if that's all you want, then fine. You can consider things as not having come out badly.

However, if your definition of "not coming out badly" is actually more like, "having done better financially than renting" then it's a much more complicated question. Renting can leave you with better financial outcome even in cases where a hypothetical purchased house appreciates greatly. Not always, of course, but appreciation in value of the house is just one among many factors in the rent vs. own equation.

"It's extremely hard to come out badly if you are prepared to hold a property long term"

This is a major sticking point for many people, particularly once you factor in opportunity costs.

True, though it should be pointed out that "hold a property long term" may not necessarily involve living in that property long term.

After grad school, I shopped around all the sawmills in the state, bought the materials, designed and built a 2500 sqft log home. No mortgage, awesome house. It is out of town, on a great 5 acre wooded lot. I love the woods, with the deer, birds, etc., but it is a 20 minute drive to the office. On the other hand, the only debt I have is a student loan.

European here! Here in Germany a great deal of people are renting instead of buying houses including me and I never felt it harming. To the contrary, I could freely relocate within the country several times in the past years without hassle. Owning properly in my mind seems like a chain holding me down which would have been very restrictive in my early adult years. I also see people that did buy a house and now have 3-4 hour commutes every day as their job is at a different location that their house. Buying just seems so inflexible. Are renting conditions here in Europe that much different that in the States?

Yes, renting in Germany is very different to the USA or UK. In Germany, if you pay your rent the landlord pretty much can't legally get rid of you. Similarly, the amount they can increase your rent is legally capped. It's very much set up to encourage long-term rental and your rights while renting are extremely strong and well-protected.

In the UK (and I assume the USA) the landlord can (with a few months warning in most cases) throw you out, raise the rent arbitrarily, pretty much whatever they want. It's their property, after all!

When I moved to Germany there was significant cognitive dissonance when I was asked to provide a copy of my work contract to prospective landlords, to prove I was worthy enough to pay them money. It turns out even if you stop paying them it's extremely difficult for them to legally evict you, hence the caution.

wow that's interesting - didnt know that its different in germany.

The rental policies there must then suppress house prices because its much more cost effective to rent than to buy, especially if you can put the extra money you didn't spend (on purchase of a house) into another form of investment.

I wonder if that system is better long term than the ups and downs of the market like the US/UK's.

> The rental policies there must then suppress house prices because its much more cost effective to rent than to buy

It's not that straightforward: Someone have to buy the units that goes onto the rental market as well, so it depends on how attractive property investment is vs. other investment opportunities.

In the UK, cheap access to "buy to let" mortgages coupled with high returns as people were unable to afford to purchase and thus bid up the rental market certainly helped push prices up during the bubble (thus pricing more people out of the market).

how is it possible to have both cheap access to mortgages, and yet have houses be unaffordable - that seems contradictory to me - and yet it does happen. Economics baffles me o_O

Cheap access to mortgages encourages people to buy. Lots of people. You are not acting in isolation. The price of housing jumps.

Adding good new stock takes time. Its not simply a matter of the time to build a new house. Its the time to develop the new area, zoning, commercial properties people want close, infrastructure, etc. It can easily take a decade in highly regulated areas.

So supply can't shift to meet demand. Prices rise because lots of people see mortgages they can afford, and jump on it. Then speculators get in the game, and tie up stock without anyone living in it. Flippers are fixing up houses, instead of letting them out. So a bubble is formed because people with good intentions made mortgages too easy, and prices climb.

Why is rent wasting money? I am not entirely sold on that idea. If you have a lot of cash that you do not need to access in a foreseeable future then maybe.

>Why is rent wasting money?

It's isn't. The idea that it's wasting money, or that you're paying someone else's mortgage, or whatever other argument is thrown out there are part of one of the biggest financial misconceptions going.

Do the cost/benefit of renting vs ownership, accounting for maintenance, taxes, interest rates, macro-economic conditions and whatever else and the costs should be very similar. Of course, it ebbs and flows with the markets, but at the margins is where the decision should be made. Owning is never a clear winner in all circumstances.

That said, with the drastic drop in house prices since 2007 and historically low interest rates, buying has been (in the US at least) a financial gift from the heavens for the past few years. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed.

> The idea that it's wasting money, or that you're paying someone else's mortgage, or whatever other argument is thrown out there are part of one of the biggest financial misconceptions going.

That I believed this was assumed, and that I was comparing _renting to purchasing a house_ was also assumed (but probably not so clear!). I was comparing renting to what the dome-builder was doing. With that said, renting vs. ownership is obviously situational.

To live 2 miles (walking distance) from downtown Denver:

~650 for rent ~150 for a garage w/ electricity ~100 for utilities

$900 month.

When I looked into buying in Denver anywhere in the same distance, I was looking at $1250 month w/ no garage, unless I lived in the Arts District (a bit rougher), and most of those houses needed to be torn down.

Sure, if you're looking at the final dollar amount.

Other factors need to come into play when you own a home. My rent was about $1000/month with utilities for about 1000 sq. feet. I now pay a mortgage of $1375/month + about $75 in average monthly utilities. But with that I get a home with 1600 sq. feet living space, not including the finished attic or the unfinished basement and the 7500 sq. foot lot I now have to mow, minus the garage and house space. Per sq. foot of space, you're likely to do really well, if space is what you need.

There are three main reasons I bought: 1) I have a young daughter and I thought she might like a yard. 2) I'm tired of the noise from apartments and 3) the interest rates were about as close to free as I think they'll get for a long time and I plan to stick around here for at least the next decade or so.

In your case, you might not need the space or want the hassle of maintenance.

Personally I think making the rent vs. buy argument into an investment argument is ultimately worthless. There are better investments out there, like your time. Shelter is not an investment, it's a basic human need. Buy/rent exactly what you need and nothing more. It's a lifestyle choice. Put your money to work in real markets.

Living in a geodesic dome will probably ruin your social life, but if you don't need a social life, great!

What does space have to do with renting vs buying? You can rent whole houses, too.

Slightly OT, but when renting a house you don't generally have a lot of security. At the end of your lease (which is typically only a year long), if the landlord wants to move in or rent to someone else or sell the place, you've got to pack up and get out. Moving every year or two can quickly add to the cost.

Note: This obviously applies more to renting an entire house than an apartment in an apartment building.

Perhaps you could expand the agreement, and not piss off your landlord.

You'd probably kick you out too if you'd caused enough trouble to overtake the cost of finding and inducting new tenants.

Why does this `obviously' apply more to houses than to apartments?

Sorry, I am not from the USA, so I don't know the peculiarities of your peculiar housing market.

Couldn't you just negotiate a rental agreement that gives you more protection?

He means that the owner is more likely to sell a single-family home than an entire apartment block. If the apartment does sell, it is 99.99% more likely that the buyer will want to keep the tenants in place.

As for negotiating a better rental agreement? Why would the landlord give you more protection? He has nothing to gain and everything to lose by doing so. The reality is that if you're a good tenant (don't trash the place, pay on time), no landlord will want to kick you out if he doesn't have to. I've been a landlord; good tenants are money in the bank!

> As for negotiating a better rental agreement? Why would the landlord give you more protection?

That's why it's called a negotiation. You have to give the landlord something they want in return. E.g. slightly more rent is the most obvious choice.

As for a sale: Just negotiate in your rental agreement that the new owner is bound by the same terms as the old one.

I'm talking about the tradeoffs, with space being one example. You can certainly rent a whole house, at what will most likely be more than the owner's mortgage so if you want to compare apples to apples on the final dollar amount, you're going to have to give up a few things.

The owner is taking on some risk, and hassle. So mortgage plus makes sense.

For the curious, it looks like in this situation it is always better to rent given the following assumptions:

- $900 rent - Rent increasing 3%/year (default) - $356,000 home with 3.5% down (FHA minimum), closest I could get to a $1,400/mo mortgage since the parent said $1250 didn't get the amenities of a $900 rent - Home values increasing 2%/year (default) - 3.75% mortgage rate (my current rate) - 1.25% property taxes (default)

From the NYT Rent v. Buy calculator: "If you stay in your home for 30 years, renting is better. It will cost you $209,282 less than buying, an average savings of $6,976 each year."

At this point it's a lifestyle decision. Either you want to own a home or you don't.

Lots of good discussion about financials and which option is cheaper. But I think one major point not being brought up here are all the subjective benefits of homeownership, which--for me at least--were much more important than a few thousand dollars this way or that way on the TCO. Some thoughts:

* Landlord can decide to sell the house any time

* Improvements and diy projects are a pain, have to negotiate with landlord (if possible at all)

* In the category of standalone house type properties, rental inventory is vastly inferior to inventory available for purchase

* Hard to do any lasting improvement or landscaping with the axe of eviction via rental sale hanging over one's head

It's a waste in capital _relative_ to what this chap's doing. Now, in terms of _experiences_ or _ease_, it's not necessarily a waste. Plus, rent usually comes with deposits. I've had the experience of rarely getting back deposits. So, there's some overhead right there.

Rent is generally quite cheap in Colorado, at least it was when I lived around Boulder. I remember seeing this interactive map, but now I can't read it on my phone to justify my claim:


At some point, buying is definitely the best investment, often times if you rent, you are basically paying the mortgage without any of the incentives of owning.

Buying vs renting is definitely not the best investment. You must consider that the down payment put into, e.g., stocks can earn a serious return (perhaps enough to pay the rent), while you avoid property taxes, maintenance, etc.

From Shiller himself: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/14/business/owning-a-home-isn...

In fact, a study (I can dig up the source if requested) found that owning a house vs renting has very, VERY rarely made financial sense in the last 50 years in the USA. Yes, real estate exploded, but so did many other investment vehicles. Keep in mind you can rent a ranch-style home in the suburbs, not just metropolitan apartments.

You are not building equity when renting. If you plan to be in a location for more than a year, it's worth buying a home. Mortgage payments (minus interest) are then just going back into your own pocket vs. rent which is going into your landlord's pocket. Even if you never want to do your own maintenance, you can pay a handyman and still be far ahead in cash.

You are not building equity when renting.

If the net cost of renting is lower than the net cost of renting money to own a mortgage, then you've still got the option of investing in other assets which may appreciate over time. Say, a business. Which represents real net economic growth, not merely asset inflation.

If you plan to be in a location for more than a year, it's worth buying a home.

Stating that as a blanket recommendation is so false it's not even wrong.

A buy-vs-rent decision depends on a great many factors, including transaction costs (high for real estate sales), moving costs, appreciation risks, etc. There are many areas where even a 10-15 year tenancy may favor renting over buying.

Mortgage payments (minus interest) are then just going back into your own pocket.

Not if your property's under water. Haven't we learned anything?

wait, is under water here to mean literally under water - as in sinking into the ocean?! Or is that jargon for something?

It's a figure of speech. The idea is that your apartment's current market value is lower than your outstanding debt (or perhaps the total price you paid for the apartment).

This is extremely optimistic. It's usually more like if you are going to stay in a place for 3-5 years then maybe it's worth buying. The first few years you are paying almost all interest and not much principle. In addition you need to factor in transaction costs (realtor fees, lending fees, etc.). Plus it can often take close to a year to go through the full cycle of buying and then selling a home. Using your one year rule just isn't realistic.

> If you plan to be in a location for more than a year, it's worth buying a home.

Even in the big inflation years I recall the over under on this as closer to seven years. Depends on your circumstances of course.

So run the numbers: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/business/buy-rent-calcula...

> If you plan to be in a location for more than a year

To paraphrase another response, this is so wrong it physically hurts. This type of nonsense is exactly what causes people in their early 20's to buy a $350,000 house and end up foreclosed on 18 months later.

Running any rent v. buy calculator for my area shortly before buying my home (at the end of 2010) told me that I needed to be in the area (e.g. within a 30-minute commute by car) for 7 years to break even on the purchase of a home. After that the benefits of buying quickly took over the benefits of renting, but for those first 7 years it is technically a financial loss.

This is just flat-out dangerous and wrong "advice."

I would say more than three years to recoup costs of buying.

I think the implication is it's paid off.

I missed that.


No, I own the house outright. There's an argument to be had over whether my money should be in investments rather than in home equity, but it's hard to argue with the fact that I'm only paying taxes & insurance on the house, which seriously reduces the burn rate.

I agree with your statement whole heartedly. There are trade-offs to everything. I hope that you don't think I am claiming to have solved the housing issue. I am simply offering an "alternative" alternative structure. But there is a place for them and it works for me.

Please see the tiny housing / simplification movement for discussion about the trade offs of relocating and living simply. It's not for everyone.

I used to live in a pretty small house. I loved it.

Then I had two kids =)

EDIT: added smileyface.

Yeah, as a father to three... all I could think of when reading the article was "The bliss of ignorance a 20-something, single kid-less person has... if only I could live in a Dome with no restroom"!

Well, ahem, you may be aware that in some places in the world some families have plenty of kids and no restrooms in their houses. Actually there is quite a lot of them.

Restrooms is not the problem here, the problem is this focus on frameless structure. Why not just doing a tent, like in so many traditional cultures? It must be easier to build and may even be more pleasing to the eyes.

SHHH - you're insulting my armchair activist! :-)

While I am well aware that ther are billions that live in lesser conditions than the hipster-dome under discussion, one of the points of the article was that there is "inefficiency" in the home rental/ownership paradigm; while this may be true - I do not see how this is solved by sacraficing something as crucial as a bathroom (or kitchen [I lived in my house during a kitchen remodel, and I cooked using my backpacking gear for 2 months, and that FARKING SUCKED])

So - Yeah - this would be a great fort, or cool guest room, I'd not want to actually live there.

Ever have to walk from your "room" to the bathroom when there is a monsoon-like storm outside which you must traverse (at 4am). No thanks

Exactly. My church helps build inexpensive (~$10,000) homes in central America, and this looks like an interesting option.

So can you tell us what you did for the land/property part? Your Twitter profile says Asheville. How far is this from the city? Were there zoning issues?

True, to an extent. But considering that some people still live in unkempt shacks, there is some room for improvement.

Mass producing the dome parts seem like a nice proposition. Might not even be for housing at first but as an addon for a existing house. Say you wanted to clear your garage and store your stuff somewhere else in the property. Maybe for government-sponsored housing programs.

Or, I don't know, Africa? There are places where shelter is more important than the land.

I know that a lot of the "unkempt shacks" you see in India are like that because they are on illegally squatted land, and if they build a more permanent-looking structure they will be forcibly removed. If you look from above you can see many with TV satellite dishes.

In that case, this kind of dome is easily demountable, and offers a lot more protection from the elements than a shack. On the downside, that would also make it easy for people to steal your walls.

It's not about making the dome easy to take down -- it has to look like a dilapidated temporary installation. Perhaps if you covered it with cardboard and corrugated steel it would be allowed to remain.

Africa would be an awesome idea, but you'd have to do a lot of work with the locals to get them to see this as a viable shelter.

I worked on a project that tried to bring new types of homes to Haiti. This was a HUGE problem because if the locals don't like it (no matter how cool) your idea won't take off.

The fact is that most Haitians thought that wood and corrugated metal were what a "house" was (assuming you couldn't afford a concrete home).

This isn't only African's. You could look at forward swept wings in a similar manner (I'm oversimplifying some of the technical difficulties there though).

i remember someone who did a lot of aid work in africa said something similar - various ngo's would come to a village and build stuff and the locals weren't interested - have heard similar in the amazon.

for instance someone had built communal latrines which were unused.

his starting point was asking the villagers what they wanted to do

they said "the chiefs house is a mess" - so they worked on that first, then built individual latrines for each house and made other improvements - they were able to do this by finding out what the locals wanted and working on that, if he'd just gone and built a bunch of stuff that he wanted to he would have been much less successful.

I'm interested in what types of homes were being tried in Haiti. Can you share a link or any info?

This is exactly my dilemma. I've come up with numerous novel ways to live cheaply but all of them require a plot of land which always ruins the budget. Further compounding the problem is few banks will loan money for unbuilt land. Strangely the land is worth more than houses but in the eyes of a bank the house is what you secure the loan against.

Not true! I purchased 5 acres in Southwestern CO (with mountain views!) for 2 grand in cash. I built a small cabin, and program out of it. But, it lacks luxuries for my many "projects", so now I'm building a house.


You obviously do not have the requirement of living close to Vancouver BC in order to maintain an income.

As said elsewhere if one is willing to move out into a remote area you can definitely pick up land for less money ($2k cash for your own land with mountain views is blowing my mind and making me cry on the inside). Unfortunately, so much IT work is centred around metro areas and property is very expensive.

This idea you need to live physically near a place to have an IT job needs to die. I'm working (at Red Hat) with a large team, several of whom I have never met, many of them I will only meet twice a year at most. We've got the internet - video conferencing, chatrooms, asynch messaging, distributed source repositories, distributed code review, remote shells. We all can and do work very well remotely.

Yea, you're absolutely correct on this one! I do drive to Denver (3 hours there) a couple times a month, though, and I work at my company's HQ while visiting/staying with friends, etc.

I started reading your blog because I love stuff like this. The cabin looks cool. Do you live in an area with building codes?

I live out in the country and have a bunch of building projects that I never seem to get to. I need to see stuff like this to get me off my ass :-)


Yes, there are building codes (which I meet). Colorado actually has some sheisty codes compared to Chicago (where I'm from), so in many places I went overboard, which I think is OK. It's still a bit like the Wild West out here!

For me, getting down to the cabin full-time was the hardest part. 4 years of trying to build a small cabin and building myself up professionally took its toll on what I _wanted_ to accomplish with this project.

So, now the house design and CAD consumes my evenings - I want to be able to document it like the dome chap!

Unfortunately, so much IT work is centred around metro areas and property is very expensive.

So you need a satellite uplink and a second dome covered in video, wired to a telepresence drone made out of a cheap tablet on a broom handle stuck to a roomba.

Yes, I think you are right. I do work from home quite a bit but I don't think I could convince my current employer that telepresence is a viable option. Maybe I need to find a new employer...

All that said, to afford land without a mortgage in BC I'd have to move so far north that I it wouldn't be much fun at all.

The SLV! I am strongly considering buying a plot there but the lack of water is the trade off. Can you provide a ballpark for your construction costs? Are you drilling a well, burying a tank and hauling water, or something else? What's the nearest town? Have you had trouble with burglars/vandals while leaving your cabin unattended for long periods of time?

The finite numbers I have are thus:


I purchased 5 acres for $2,000 of Craigslist. It's worth about 5-6 getting it from a real-estate company.


4" deep, 8" deep around a 1' perimeter..1100 sq ft total

- 18 yards concrete, $2200

- Bobcat rental (days w/ gas), $450

- Rented tools (concrete blankets for cold, et), $150

- Rebar/tongue-groove insulation: $1000


Currently, I run off a generator, which was about $500. On the cheap end they seem to last a few years. Solar is cheap, though, and a decent setup from Arizona Wind Solar would cost about $2500 (4-5 panels, controllers, converters, wire, and extra batteries). You'd have to be careful with what appliances you used, though.


I purchased a wood stove for $200 for the small cabin. Eventually, a nice Morso one will run me about $1500.


- 16, 16' 13/12 gable trusses (building this by myself, so it's a modern pole barn), $1500


- 15 3'x 5' picture windows (it's fucking dusty here), $2500


$8,000 50' out, piped 4' down to the house.

That's as far as I've gotten on the new build costs and well forecast. The costs are in the _slab_ (which will be stained for the floor) and the _well_.

Initially, I did not know about the "theft" problem. In 4 years owning this property (and having an unfinished cabin w/ easy entry for about 2 of those), nothing has been stolen. I'm not sure there is one, but I have heard stories. That said, I'm 3 miles off the highway, and you can't see me from the road.

I'm half-way in b/t San Luis and Fort Garland, which are each about 15 minutes either way. Currently, I bring in water. It sucks!

How deep is the water table? Is that why the land was so cheap?

There is a large aquifer in the valley so wells do pretty well but the water rights are tight. A residential well permit is for interior water use only. With 35 acres you get the right to irrigate one acre. You aren't supposed to recapture grey water or rain. There's a lot of potato farming in the valley and the old farmers have most of the good water rights, the rest of the water is owed to new Mexico and Texas and has to be left to flow downstream. Rainfall is very minimal, sub-9 inches per year IIRC. Weather easily hits double digit negatives in the winter but is mild in the summer. Some land has Limited road access and public service are minimal with few sheriffs to cover a large amount of land. Some of the land was sold to hopeful retirees sight unseen in the past and has been let go extra cheap once they realize it is a tougher living than expected. All of those things said, I personally think it is worth the money and will probably purchase a small parcel just as a getaway and play space.

Why aren't you allowed to recapture grey water? That seems crazy. I guess rain makes a little sense since the water is supposed to flow to New Mexico and Texas.

You're absolutely right about the water rights; I don't _think_ I'll end up getting animals, but purchasing another 30 acres would be a good investment if I did want to homestead in that fashion and use water for other reasons.

The weather extremes are actually a good thing! Plenty of sunshine for solar-powered anything. That, combined with the 30 degree temperature difference in day and night helps ease the load on fridges running off solar; during the winter you just pull in cold air :)

Wells are drilled to 125'. Land is so cheap because you don't get trees, there's not really much commerce out here, and it's _quite_ rocky.

I truly honestly envy you. To be out there free from all the drama and crime of the cities. I dream of escaping to the country side myself one day.

Thank you. It is beautiful, and part of the reason I'm out here! I do love the vibe a good city can give off, though - getting lost in the mix and such. It's nice to be able to do that on occasion.

What about sewage/septic tank?

I'm currently on a simple compost system; not such a big fan of septic.

I dislike the current compost systems that are out there for under $5,000 - the toilets all are so flimsy. So, I've been designing one that uses a no-flush, wall-hung stainless-steel toilet. Because it's custom, I don't expect that to be done until at least Christmas with all the other building going on. I'm debating on a waterless urinal installation as well, but quite Frankly, peeing around the perimeter (as a male) keeps most of the larger animals away. Except cows.

Also, because I'm weary of introducing compost smells into the new house (in case I mess up the mix), I've designated a small walkway between the house and the 6x6 louvre room. The shower still sits inside the main unit, though.

Wow.. this is amazing. I'm kind of blown away by how cheap it is. Is this your permanent residence or a vacation home? Does it feel weird to not have neighbors?

As of this month, the cabin has become my permanent residence while I build the house throughout the rest of the fall/winter/spring.

I actually have neighbors...sort of. There is a permanent resident of _extremely_ poor individuals 1.5 miles from me (they're quite nice when I've run into them), and next to them is a vacation residence put up years ago inhabited by a retiree on occasion.

This land is "open range", and there is a large cattle farm I can see about ~5 miles away whose cows occasionally wander out this way and graze.

And the land is pretty cheap! But, costs anywhere in the mountains _do_ increase even the shittiest of goods, including labor, which is why it's as much DIY as I can.

Living out here means monthly trips to larger cities to visit friends, check in with work HQ in Denver, and pickup all the decent food I can (I can't stand the markup at Whole Foods, but they have the best bulk foods of anywhere I've been).

For those interested in buying cheap land in the US and constructing a permanent residence I also recommend checking out "earthships": http://earthship.com/

Will be more expensive than a dome, but they have ideas and systems for building a complete off the grid house.

See also: http://www.garbagewarrior.com/

Call me Victorian, but I have seen some earthships near Taos..and they just don't catch the eye like a normal house. I guess that's relative.

They _do_ have great passive qualities to them, but this _can_ be done with stick-frame construction, it will just cost you more (and be slightly less "environmentally friendly").

Nice. What do you do for connectivity/internet? Water?

15 GB Data plan, and I tether. Water is brought in until the well is dug!

We also have a thing called apartment buildings. Hundreds of homes stacked vertically and centrally heated is still the efficiency champion.

Being inexpensive is just part of what makes this cool, part of the simplicity. Another part is ease of building. It makes me want to participate. I really do feel like going out right now and tinkering.

This structure and the post about it is art.

Thank you for sharing.

If you live way out in the middle of nowhere the property taxes are TINY. $25/year for 2 acres. No building codes, tons of freedom.

My only issue with this awesome dome is that because of its shapes it wastes a lot of material. I'd like to see some kind of cube or cylinder shaped home built from square pieces that maximizes the material's use.

>Given that these domes don't float

This has been an idea I have been pushing around fro a while.

Building a living platform floating in the SFBay.

Admittedly, this has been nothing more than a day-dream - so I am unfamiliar with what imperial entanglements attach themselves to the reality of this....

But assuming that it can be done, what would be the barrier to entry for the following scenario:

* Standardized deployment platforms.

* Assume a Hex shape

* Standardized MEP+IT infra in the base of each platform.

* Set solar capacity for each platform

* A range of models of living spaces

* Communal-esque structure for shared work/meeting type spaces

* [a range of other options, I could go on and on]


I do not know the legal preclusions to an idea such as this... and clearly there are costing issues. But if you can have an open design for the platforms, figure out how to get them economically built - and provide the standards/spec requirements for the on-platform structures.. it may be viable, and while this has long been just a thought-exercise for me; I'll just ask the obvious: Anyone else interested in this type of thing?

> I'll just ask the obvious: Anyone else interested in this type of thing?


Don't forget Blueseed, the floating startup community


Knowing that you don't need a big house gives you a lot more flexibility in choosing where to put it.

Actually, not necessarily. A lot of zoning regulations in cities require a minimum square footage of a house.

And a lot of zoning rules also prohibit nonstandard construction. It's terribly frustrating when you're looking at alternative building methods.

In some states you're pretty mostly stuck building in either really rural towns or in unincorporated locations.

My own favorite alternative building technique is a "monolithic dome." [1] You get a form (an inflatable balloon in the shape you want the house, effectively) and literally spray a concrete and foam mixture on the inside; you can make a small house like OP or a huge building. Insulation is amazing, and it's weather-proof. They're rated safe against tornadoes, for instance. As a bonus, it's also fireproof, so you can put one up in the mountains and not worry about forest fires destroying it.

The frameless dome is a neat trick and an elegant design, but there are a dozen other techniques I'd rather use to build a "simple" home. It's more art project than practical building method.

[1] http://www.monolithic.com/

I looked at (made and redacted an offer) on one that was (probably is) finacially 'upside down' in austin (burleson and douglas) built out of preformed foam blocks. They are hollow lego-like blocks that are assembled and pumped full of concrete. poor fellow roofed it with stucco and no drip rails, so quite a bit of roof runoff ran down his foundation walls that the PFB concrete skeleton was built on.

crying shame, I was excited to live in a monolithic dome, they're certainly cool.

i like the look of earthbag homes http://home.howstuffworks.com/earthbag-home.htm

Cool idea. Thanks.

A hybrid approach -- earthbag and shotcrete dome -- might be an interesting approach. A ring of earthbag construction as a foundation with a shotcrete dome on top could get you lots of interior space.

In some ways. The dome is great, but one thing it isn't is stackable.

Maybe it is. It's light. Maybe you could have giant shelves with domes on them.

But then you need structural supports to hold up the shelves, which is what the dome is designed to avoid. The low wall weight would help, I suppose, but you still need to hold up everything inside the units. Once you're pouring concrete onto rebar, it seems like you might as well just have an apartment block.

You could support a stack with scaffolding.

Depends where you live - if you're capable of working remotely, land can be incredibly cheap. AUD$49,000 gets you this:


"2.5 acres [10,117 m2 or 108,900 ft2] with a large flat area at the front of the block and some scattered timber at the back. Electricity at the front of the block and rural/town water available."

Just 2.5 acres? Here's 160 acres for $39,000: http://www.marktwite.com/Drexel-montana-hunting-land-for-sal...

Of course, that puts you in the middle of nowhere, but it's like $240 an acre.

Yeah, I was assuming that you'd want power and water to the property.

That Montana property is beautiful though. Sometimes I'm jealous of you folks in the US; not only do you get rain, you're allowed modern firearms as well.

The only way to scale it seems is for cities to go extremely vertical. Then if there were attractive choices for DIY housing that meets building code

The alternatives include taking on a longer commute or being farther from the action.

As an architect, I appreciate many of the ideas expressed via the design - in particular seeking a reduced footprint.

However, while many US jurisdictions might not require a building permit for this structure due to its size, it would typically not be exempt from building codes and as a habitable structure and more importantly as a dwelling, the design does not meet fundamental principles embodied in modern building codes.

While the principle of occupant safety is fairly obvious and its susceptibility to liberatarian objections predicable, the code embodies a further less obvious principle, that of first responder safety. Doors and windows have size and operational requirements to allow fire-fighters to get in and back out. Structural systems have structural requirements and combustibility limits for the same reason. Buildings need to be anchored to keep them from blowing into neighboring structures in a storm.

Most people are urbanized, and the structural problems of housing is harder than can be solved by tents in the wilderness. Anyplace that this is a viable alternative for long term dwelling, it is likely that so is a used trailer or a building of recycled and scavenged materials.

Again, I appreciate the design and the aesthetic effort and the ideas it expresses. I just can't get carried away over an academic exercise.

> While the principle of occupant safety is fairly obvious and its susceptibility to liberatarian objections predicable

As an extreme libertarian (an anarcho capitalist) and as a pretty experienced builder, I'd like to say that no libertarian I've met is against the concept of occupant safety. We are, however, fairly likely to be against the assertion that government regulations are the only way to achieve this, or the best way.

Underwriter's Labs is an example many libertarians invoke: a private free-market safety licensing firm that other firms voluntarily pay for, so that they can advertise to consumers the safety of their products.

I note that government regulation is subject to regulatory capture: one-pipe urinals (non flushing) are made illegal because it would result in less work for plumbers, efficient PEX pipes are delayed again because of concerns that it would lower housing costs, engineered lumber that is approved in one area is not approved in others, etc.

I build to code (and well above code, sometimes) because I care about safety and I care about craftsmanship, but there is a LOT that's stupid in government regulation.

UL exists in its incarnation because of government regulation - e.g. electrical components have UL listings because the NFPA 72(aka The National Electrical Code) requires electrical components to be listed. The same is true for the styrene panels used in the design of the structure.

The insurance under-writers (the "U" in "UL") were the driving force in establishing building codes and fire fighting as a public service. Of course the next turtle down is that property insurance allows banks to finance real property in accordance with financial regulations. [edit: the last turtle being legal title to real property recorded at the courthouse - and title to which in many places can be traced back to royal grant.]

Anyone active in the US housing industry ought to be aware that the current requiring fire sprinklers in single family dwellings is a direct result of insurance industry lobbying on the ICC. Or to put it another way, UL is part of the establishment and its members lobby heavily in favor of regulation.

Regulatory stupidity is hardly limited to the government though. Have you never tried to implement a Microsoft "standard"?

While UL is certainly nice enough, how many people know to look for it when they buy appliances? And how does this avoid in general the problem that if UL becomes too onerous, the affected appliance makers simply start their own voluntary licensing firm with better results?

"Oh, but people would never fall for that!" Sure they would, that was the whole point to the "Intel Inside" marketing campaign.

So while I deeply appreciate the types of examples you point out (getting to see them every day from within the bowels of Mount DoD), I worry that when people talk about the problems with "government _______" that they focus on 'government' and don't pay attention at all to the inherent problems with _______.

But just as government can't fix the issues inherent in problems, they are not always the inherent problem themselves.

(P.S. guess who is the only entity to ever tell me to 'look for UL'?... the government, that's who, during our yearly fire safety briefs).

> Regulatory stupidity is hardly limited to the government though. Have you never tried to implement a Microsoft "standard"?

Indeed, regulations can suck no matter who creates them.

The great thing about the non-governmental world is that there are CHOICES. I vote with my feet (and my dollars, and my contributions). I switch from MSFT to Red Hat, from Red Hat to Debian, from Debian to Ubuntu.

>>The great thing about the non-governmental world is that there are CHOICES.

I don't know about that. Where I live, the only Internet provider available is Comcast. I would guess that many people here have the exact same problem.

Sometimes regulation can eliminate choices, but at other times it can enable them. For example, when the government forces cab companies (via regulation) to not discriminate based on neighborhood income, what it is doing is creating more choices for areas people can live in comfortably without worrying about whether they will have a fairly essential service (i.e. transportation).

Tell me: how would libertarianism solve that problem?

While I disagree with its premises (which makes me a devil's advocate, I suppose,) the response to something like Comcast is that the government is involved in setting up ISP monopolies/duopolies.

Just like government setup Standard Oil?

Government is involved in regulating Comcast, for sure. But as far as I can tell the issues that make telecommunications hard for new entrants has more to do with the sheer cost of building-out a suitable network than any amount of government regulation.

No, usually the local government actually grants a literal monopoly to a single telecom for a period of time. Their justification is that the telecom is making a big investment in building infrastructure, and there's no way a company would take that risk without some assurances of profit.

Just remember there's sometimes a high cost of switching.

At some point the costs become so high that it's possible the costs become comparable to the costs to switch to an entirely different government, too.

AFAIK there are no such codes in Kansas, at least according to Lessman:


So you're basically free to build your own house (for better or worse).

Could you just claim it isn't a building but rather a "ridged tent", and cite the quick disassemble/reassemble capability as evidence of that?

Claiming it's a tent is one thing, convincing the fire marshal is another. Plumbing and electrical service probably won't weigh in one's favor.

Does it have plumbing? That wasn't clear to me from the article. Electrical might make it a bit problematic, but maybe you could have one of those RV-style electrical hookup posts?

As a practical matter, anywhere that you can get away with living in one of these is not going to be someplace where "first responders" are going to be close enough to make a difference.

I live in Florida, and my first thought was "hell no." Imagine the damage it would do when the first hurricane sends it flying through the air.

What would this need to make it permit-able?

Walls that can survive a moderate-to-severe thunderstorm would probably be a good first step.

This is awesome. I especially love his focus on reducing the complex down to the very simple. He put a lot of work into simplifying the design and the payoff was huge - only 3 shapes make up the whole thing!

From the article: "The three shapes we derived above amount to a remarkable simplification in fabrication and construction. We have decimated the complexity of the dome."

"Decimated" is the perfect word for it.

Here's a related gratuitous simplicity quote from Rich Hickey (of Clojure fame):

"Simplicity is hard work. But, there's a huge payoff. The person who has a genuinely simpler system - a system made out of genuinely simple parts, is going to be able to affect the greatest change with the least work. He's going to kick your ass. He's gonna spend more time simplifying things up front and in the long haul he's gonna wipe the plate with you because he'll have that ability to change things when you're struggling to push elephants around."


Actually, "decimated" is not the perfect word for it. He's done much better than mere decimation!

(Decimated means "reduced by 1/10th" ... not, as is popularly believed, "reduced to 1/10th")

While that is the origin of the word, to pretend it still only means that is pretty delusional.

Words change meaning based on usage.

sure, I'm being pedantic. But, if it's called out as "the perfect word" I assume the OP would want to know (just like I welcomed the correction when I first learned it).

If we are going to be pedantic I will point out an accepted dictionary definition of 'decimate' is as follows:

> to destroy a great number or proportion of: The population was decimated by a plague.

If the acceptance criteria of for use as 'the perfect word' is that it matches as precisely as possible to its definition then I think the OP was on track.

I think it is interesting trivia that the origins of the word come from the violence of the Roman army, but to assert that is the only way the word is used in modern English is wrong. I blame Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast for the recent surge in smug people 'correcting' the use of this word.

Such as "the value of this conversation has been decimated by pedants"?

Of all the words in the english language, it was the worst. Latin too.

Or even to pretend that that meaning is anything but a remote secondary meaning (except perhaps in the context of Roman history).

While we are splitting hairs, it means execute one in ten (determined by fair dice roll).


Thanks for letting me know! I had no idea, though I probably should have guessed given the word root. Very interesting, that gives me a new perspective on the word :)

Either meaning is within an order of magnitude, so if we assume a spherical house...

Only if you're the worst rounder in the world.

To decimate: to spoil or destroy something


p.s. I want to put in a plug for Bob Ware's dictionary gateway site www.onelook.com -- a front end to multiple general and specialized dictionaries, and a great time saver.

It comes from latin or the french verb decimer. If you break it further it becomes cime, which means top (ex: as in top of a mountain). So you're essentially destroying that which is as high as a mountain top - not easily attainable.

I always thought it came from a Roman Army disciplinary practice.


Stack ranking: Not so new after all.

Loved this post.

I think my favorite part was "I have iterated on this idea a bit." where you post the fails.

It can get discouraging looking at all the beautiful stuff posted and thinking it just sprang out of nothing. Clearly this is neat because you put a lot of work into making it so.

Thanks for taking the time to write it up and share it.

My favorite line was "Housing is a major expense that is ripe for pruning."

How does it fair again strong winds in a storm and occasional hail? Is the isolation good enough to provide comfort in environment ranging from 35°C to -15°C ?

What is your solution for a bathroom? Where do you shower?

This. I'm curious as to how the bathroom is laid out, where you go for any and all of those purposes.

This "house" is missing a lot of viable (standard) infrastructure to be considered what we usually call a house in North America. It's closer to that of a very small travel trailer, or a tent. All in all I still love the idea.

This doesn't have a bathroom, it's just a place to sleep and work. Think of it like a workroom, or greenhouse. It was built on a foundation of masonry blocks and 2x4s If you wanted plumbing, you could certainly add it. That's the idea, you build it yourself.

I wonder at what point the structure would become non self-supporting though, in terms of scaling up the size.

I'd actually try going green in one of these - a composting toilet (http://www.letsgogreen.com/index.html) and plumbing that collects rainwater, then drains into a gray-water tank to be used on the gardens.

I suppose standard infrastructure is out of scope.

"If you are considering a canvas dome, teepee, or yurt you should consider building a frameless dome"

For bathroom activities, I would suggest some kind of humanure solution.

looks to me like it doesn't have a bathroom and you are supposed to go outside (or in an outhouse).

I'm also curious how this will hold up against strong weather conditions... heck even light weather conditions

At the low cost for that dome I'd be pretty tempted to stick another one on and divide it in two for kitchen and bathroom.

What land is this put on? Did you buy it or is it a friend's? Maybe I missed that part, I didn't read the whole article closely; it's kind of an important question because it may change your project price from $2,100 to $302,100 depending on your location.

A search for "toilet" "bathroom" and "poop" yielded no results however, as did searches for "kitchen" "cook" "stove" and "range." Assuming OP eats food (hackers still do that, no?) and poops, it seems there is more to this living arrangement than is described in this article.

I don't know the situation but put a gun to my head and force me to speculate and I'll say "This guy is living on a friend's land & relying on the resources in his friend's house." There's no shame in that but it's disingenuous to sweep it under the rug and pretend your abode is an "alternative" to a house when it in fact relies on a house.

The author comments elsewhere that there's no plumbing[1], and that this is in the mountains of North Carolina[2] (presumably near Asheville, which his twitter bio lists as a location).

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6355787

[2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6355875

It's got to be something like that. Either that, or he's living on public land somewhere -- and if so, he's probably in violation of at least a few laws, and is in danger of getting kicked out (or even arrested) if found. Alternatively, he owns some land and simply built this dome on it instead of a traditional house. The latter shows a remarkable amount of self-discipline, restraint, and delightful eccentricity, but it hides what is probably a major cost, i.e., the land itself.

Don't get me wrong; I found the article really cool. Really cool. Inspiring, in a way. And major props to the author for hacking this all together. But I agree: there's a side of this story not being discussed, and it's a pretty important side. Implying that someone can live on little more than $2,100 in building materials seems like a bit of a stretch, and I'm curious to know how much of one.

My little backwater hometown in Maine raged with ideas like this in the seventies, just before I entered the world. One or two families still live in buildings of similar feel. But most got normal walls with plumbing and lots of TV's once the children outnumbered.

A few of my generation picked up the torch in the nineties, and I happen to know of one off-the-grid dome lived in by a classmate of mine. Though he's married now and no matter how much "Little House" she has read, I find it's a rare wife that wouldn't prefer a conventional stove by year five or so.

So when I see these posts I smile for my own parents' optimism and naivete. And I also feel desperately, overwhelmingly homesick. That garden reads as Eden to my eye. So props to the builder. I hope you make lots of great memories there.

So... plastic + blue foam + blue foam + plastic.

This sounds extremely flammable. Are any of your materials actually code-rated for a living structure (as you're using them)? Last I checked, stuff like blue foam board needs to be used in specific ways, such as behind fire-rated walls. You cannot leave any of it exposed, or it's a fire hazard.

Flame retardant corrugated plastic sheets do exist (my brother used several hundred of them for an event inside a hotel). I'm not sure if it would be enough of a firewall for blueboard though.

In my country I'm not sure what the legal situation would be - as I understand it you can't just throw up a trailer park where you want. And a plot of land with permission for a permanent residence is worth about half the cost of a house. What's the legal situation in your country?

Have you ever invited girls home, and if so how did they react? I think your dome looks awesome and fascinating, but I don't know if everyone would be so enthusiastic?

> Have you ever invited girls home, and if so how did they react?

Some standup comediant joked that if women agreed to have sex in cardboard boxes, men wouldn't buy houses.

Actually what I'm wondering is how you conform to building and fire codes, etc.

Those things are largely ignored in rural areas, unless there is a complaint. Believe me I've seen people living in structures that violate every building, electrical, and plumbing code in the book, but out in the backwoods nobody cares.

I like geodesics but I don't think they are any more practical than a Yurt.

This link is written by somebody with quite a lot of experience with domes. http://www.shelterpub.com/_shelter/domebuilders_blues.html

Please read the post. My post is essentially a response to the many problems of building domes.

You ignored the vast majority of the practical problems pointed out in the parent link. Plumbing, roof pitch, acoustics, privacy, ventilation, insulation, etc.

I think plumbing was solved by not including it. Acoustics can be solved by not having a loud child living in there with you as can privacy. Ventilation, insulation, etc, all easy to deal with if you don't concern yourself with building codes.

You and the author are free to ignore these problems (at least, until the government evicts you from your own residence) but don't conflate ignoring a problem with solving it.

Does that happen with non permanent structures? I don't count the problems as ignored. They're actually not relevant for the intended use case.

From the article:

> If I want to spend my time writing blog posts, exploring new programming languages, and other things that I want to do but I am unlikely to get paid for, it’s helpful to opt out of certain common expenses. Housing is a major expense that is ripe for pruning.

I'd say "the intended use case" here is clearly to replace your primary residence, which is both what makes the project interesting and what casts the ignored topics in sharp relief.

You can replace your primary residence and at the same time change your lifestyle expectation.

From the article: "If you are considering a canvas dome, teepee, or yurt you should consider building a frameless dome as well."

I'd say that if you're considering replacing your primary residence with a teepee, you're looking at certain lifestyle expectation that don't necessarily include building codes.

You're probably also looking at a lifestyle that makes it difficult to "explore new programming languages." For that, you'll need to live in a city, so you can go poop and charge your laptop somewhere nearby, in which case building codes are relevant.

This is a great post! it seems a lot of the shortcomings he points out stem from ALL goods and services available to home-owners being planned around square housing of standardized measurements. Besides that, there are some inherently 'different' aspects of a dome (acoustics, floor arrangement, extra length requirements in wiring & wall surface jointing, unusual structural stresses) that are both interesting, and probably hard to realize without having lived in and worked on one of these things.

Thanks for sharing this.

My parent's moved to the rural north west in the early 70's and knew people who attempted the dome lifestyle. By the time I was born in 1981 they had all moved on and built traditional houses.

There are issues with domes that aren't apparent to the novice builder. Besides questions about if being an efficient use of space the numerous angled joints make them very difficult to weather seal/roof so they tend to leak.

A simple, passive solar rectangular design from sips (structured insulating panels) is much more efficient and quicker to put up. You order the panels pre built and routed for doors/windows/plumbing. Rectangular panels means you need to bolt them together in fewer places.

I think david wright's high sierra cabin is a great example of what is possible using this construction method:


THough i have also seen simpler plans more in line with this dome.

Any concerns about living surrounded by all that polystyrene blueboard? Either indoor air quality or flammability? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polystyrene#Fire_hazards

This is definitely a consideration and a trade off. I don't advocate having a wood stove in this structure. I haven't done any tests for air quality. The polystrene isn't exposed that much on the interior.

But this is a really good question which applys to all structures that use this material.

I love it! I especially like that it is in fact a closer to a proper dome rather than a flat faceted solid since the panels are flexible. It reminds me of an igloo.

We get a fair amount of snow, so if I went about this, there would probably be a frame underneath. There are plenty of tutorials on the web for the assembly of geodesic structures.

This touches on another project that didn't quite take off called the "Icopod" http://eksith.wordpress.com/2010/01/06/icopod

The idea was very similar, but I think the original designer became disinterested and moved onto other things. The fact that you provided exact shapes and sizes makes me more hopeful.

I wonder how many people could make money putting a couple of these in their backyards and renting them out on Airbnb.

I say try it. The televised court proceedings will make excellent low-cost entertainment for me.

I really like having hot running water and a shower in my home. Lets say that I'm willing to pay extra for this.

@brucehauman Truly exceptional work. This post literally made my day; I can't thank you enough for spending the time to write and share it. I especially like the smart utilization of 4x8 panels with minimal waste and the tiny BOM required for construction. As someone with a fair amount of construction experience myself, the amount of engineering thought you've put into this project clearly shines through.

It's innovators like you who make this world a better place; keep up the great work and don't ever let the critics get under your skin!!

For those who want to work on their projects and live cheap, I've seen:

Live in your car and have a hackerspace and gym membership: http://www.quora.com/Would-becoming-homeless-be-a-good-strat...

Hide out at AOL office

Be homeless in Swedish forest

Move to foreign country where it's cheaper to live

Move to a dome

Added it to the list!

I love how manufactured homes aren't on this list.

Oh wait, I forgot this whole thing was about status and "conspicuous authenticity", not about actually living cheaply.

I noticed that "get roommates" also wasn't on the list.

Literal roommates — who share a sleeping room? Or flatmates who just share an apartment living room, kitchen, etc?

I've never not lived with the second kind of roommates (as an adult), but in a city like NYC or SF, that still is much more expensive than the stuff on the list.

Either would be appropriate, though I did mean flatmates.

In college I and many other adults had literal roommate, including some who lived in off-campus apartments. My father tells a story, back in the 1960s, of a place he lived for a few months where there were more people than beds. They used hot-bunking, since some worked nights.

In any case, if your reference is living in a city like NYC or SF then the item "Move to foreign country where it's cheaper to live" should be changed to the more generic "Move to a place where it's cheaper to live."

The emphasis on "foreign country" is why I agree with jquery's comment that the list is 'about status and "conspicuous authenticity", not about actually living cheaply.'

If you can work in a forest in Sweden, then you can also work in Buffalo, where the cost of living is about 1/2 of that NYC. Or for that matter, you can work from a forest in New York State, and save the price of airfare.

I'd definitely prefer the forest to Buffalo, but point made. :)

In SF, I have two roommates and pay 1250 in a non-trendy area.

My point was that "get roommates", or for your situation "move to Sacramento", and "live in the woods in California" should be higher on that list than "move to a foreign country that's cheaper" and "live in the woods in Sweden." The choice of those more exotic (and harder) options makes me agree with jquery that the list 'was about status and "conspicuous authenticity", not about actually living cheaply.'

When I lived in the Bay Area, during the dot-com era, people did actually camp in the state parks because it was so hard to find housing. There was a one week limit per park, so they would rotate through the parks.

"conspicuous authenticity" I like that.

I once rented out a garage space, pitched a tent inside, and parked my Jeep in there. Ah, the early days of a programming career in a new city :)

There's still a lot of bubble era housing available very cheap out in the western desert or in the swamps of Florida.

Beautiful and inspiring. Posts like this is what makes HN great.

Thanks man, I really appreciate that.

Bravo! Fantastic attempt (thinking way outside the box), with interesting results (low cost, rapid construction). Great step in the tiny house concept.

Not sure how to reconcile the shape with societal expectations, as we're trained to expect 3+ rooms with rectangular layout (even "tiny homes" adhere). Does look a bit tight inside, at least for usable floorspace juxtaposed with headroom. Cost is impressive (low), but might need something of a sales pitch to motivate living in the 4-digit expense.

I'm most impressed that you did it. Would love the opportunity to try it myself (alas, priorities).

One issue with deviating from the standard rectangular construction is that furniture is designed to fit in square spaces.

Beds, tables, chairs, etc. are mostly rectangular.

I live in tornado alley in a area with extremely summer temps and the occasional wild fire. These are the domes we recommend:


Monolithic domes are a wonder and a seeming paradox. You get an earthquake-proof, tornado-proof, bullet-proof, bomb-proof, collision-with-a-barrelling-semi-proof reinforced concrete structure that goes up almost instantly. But if you get a pin-prick in the vinyl airform, you have to deal with vapor-drive of water into the polyurethane foam, and your structure gets damaged.


That said, there are ways of protecting your air-form, and if you do that, these things look to be nigh indestructible.

what's the story on kitchen / food ? (oh right and plumbing, bathrooms, etc).

for this to scale up, we are looking to replace having a traditional house right nearby, right?

are you doing all takeout or something like a camping stove outdoors ?

I enjoyed his write-up, his discussions on motivations, as well as the pictures of his early attempts.

I'm a big fan of thinking outside the box (pun intended).

Somewhat related to his thoughts on home structures is the shipping container home movement that has been gradually picking up steam. Insulated shipping containers make great home frames and it would be nice to see similar grassroots discussions on the challenges of setting them up as well as success stories.

The efficient-home problem has already been solved. We call them manufactured homes. They're cheap, and are actually up-to-code for long-term living.

they're cheap to acquire, but long-term, not so good. They're also very flimsy, so everything sort-of goes at once.

Yes, you can spend a lot more on one and get nicer finishes, but the end state is the floor sags and none of the doors shut.

It depends on what you mean by long-term and probably how well you take care of it. Growing up, I lived in one for years with no issues. So did my best friend, for even longer (at least a decade, no issues with sagging or warping). And this was in the rainy, wet Pacific Northwest.

I dare say they are better built than the flimsy plastic tent we saw linked in the OP.

$36,000 / 120 months = $300/mo. If it lasts 10 years, that's a pretty good ROI.

No argument it's built better - and to code, no less.

Steward Brand, in "How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built", "asserts that the best buildings are made from low-cost, standard designs that people are familiar with, and easy to modify. In this way people can gradually change their buildings to meet their needs." (Quoting Wikipedia.)

One example was living in a trailer in New Mexico, which can be winterized by surrounding it by straw bales, then turned into walls, and expanded as needed. Another was living in an old wooden boat, on land, where it was trivial to cut a hole if you wanted it.

That's much in line with the philosophy behind this dome, which several others here agree with.

However, Brand also specifically dislikes domes, because they are difficult to expand, or to add internal divisions. For a single person, who does not need partitions or extra space, this is not a problem. (Nor would it be a problem if it were cheap to tear down and rebuild an entirely new structure.)

For a family or group of people, it is less tenable, as others here have also pointed out.

What kind of rvalue are you able to get from the structure? I'm wondering if this would be viable for colder climates.

The R value for two layers of blueboard foam is 7.5 plus the r value of the corrugated plastic. But the structure is pretty darn tight and the shape tends hold heat much better than I expected.

You can always add more insulation layers and get more R value.

What's really refreshing about this is that it opens up something we think of as completely static (housing) to the possibility of continuous improvement. I really appreciate the effort to refine the structure. Our concept of improving our immediate environment almost never extends to the walls themselves.

Clearly your approach is not for everyone, but it's great that you have taken the time to share your experience since it will likely push likeminded others towards experimenting as well.

As an aside, I have some limited experience with these: http://shelter-systems.com/ and it has been a fun and simple place to start. Since they're without a foundation I think they're considered 'temporary structures' in California so they don't require any permits.

Great work!

Can we get a PDF that's 164 pages long, that has each part on its own page that we could print on 8.5x11 paper (centering it, since you used 4x8 sheets)?

Then we could print out own version of what you created, and use some kind of fastener (tape? glue?) to put it together...

Actually I think this is a wonderful idea.

Cheap housing is good, but isn't a bigger problem the lack of property? OK, I can afford to build one of these, but where do I put it?

Seems we need a study considering the juxtaposition of property costs, property size, housing cost, housing size, and (oh, how to say this tactfully) social strata.

You know what would be awesome.

If everyone on Hacker News pitched into a fund, bought some land out in the middle a beautiful but isolated place in the rockies and created a weekend getaway for coders using something similar to these little Geodesic Dome houses.

Hacker paradise... with farming powered by Aurdiuno robots and a mini hyperloop that takes you anywhre on the property in a second haha

I'm working on it in New Zealand.

Dome houses are initially appealing but ultimately and practically have too many flaws to be useful. Single room houses may be an exception.

Read this http://www.shelterpub.com/_shelter/domebuilder's_blues.html and see how many of the concerns are addressed in this design.

Lloyd was passionate about domes, but came to realize their flaws. Most of these are applicable today despite the materials improvements over the last 30+ years.

I don't follow the opining for the "handcrafted" houses of yore, presumably ones that have been around for the aforementioned 5 generations. Have you lived in such houses? They are generally pretty crappy. Nothing is a standard size (making maintenance a nightmare), any and all building materials have started to break down, and the owners have almost always completely neglect updating the house. For example, replacing their old plate-glass single-pane windows.

Does it have plumbing?

No plumbing but it's certainly possible.

So do you live in this or is it just a workspace? EDIT: Duh, the title says "live in", so I guess you do :) Maybe I read too fast but I didn't see anything about cooking, bathroom needs, and showering, so I got confused.

Having lived in a 16' dome based on Fuller's bamboo dome for two years, my main interest in your Frameless Dome was how the bolt holes and seams were waterproofed. Also, how did you reach the outer panels for replacement? And how did that affect the waterproofing. You said it was easy. But how exactly.

Love to see people building and trying out things.

Some architect correct me but isn't a spherical-shaped house the worst case scenario for insulation? you have the biggest volume of air to heat/cool down with the largest surface to insulate and for heat to come in or go out, plus a pretty small surface footprint.

A sphere gives the most internal volume for the least surface area.

The reason geodesic homes didn't make it out of the 70s (except at Burning Man and radar installations) is that you can't build a structure more prone to leaking in the rain or even a heavy dew. Solve that problem and domes become a meaningful option. Otherwise they're a mental exercise.


And if you check the post carefully, you'll see that it is carefully designed so the pieces overlap like shingles.

I like how the plastic panels overlap to prevent leaking as framed geodesic domes often have leaking problems.

I really like this. I live in the country and I'm currently in a 2400 square foot house but I want to downsize. I could see having one of these as well as something else like a shipping container or Quonset hut (I live in a hurricane area so I'd need to have something I could ride one out in if necessary -- though I wonder if your design would have similar functionality to the geodesic radar domes in the far north). Do you have more pictures from when you constructed it? I'd like to see the individual shapes comprised of the corrugated polystyrene and foam insulation and a close up of how the bolts work. Where did you buy the large pieces of polystyrene? I have similar motivations as you, I want to live cheaply and learn new programming.

This is super fascinating! You mention snow, but I didn't notice what part of the world you're living in. I'd be curious about building something like this, but I'm in a part of Canada where -40 and LOTS of snow is a real possibility.

If you have lots of snow, then I would advise a sparse frame , imagine an outline of octagons and pentagons but not the internal triangles, more insulation would also be required.

I live in the mountains of North Carolina: A temperate but very wet area.

Excellent article, love the simplification. I recall reading about a guy who was building houses out of burlap bags and dirt and trying to get them approved as acceptable habitable structures in California and was running into all sorts of roadblocks.

This homebuilt dome might interest you: http://youtu.be/OQu_FaTKkiE?t=4m46s

This guy's a classic: "My name is Jamie, and I have decided to build a giant robot damnit!"

Absolutely loved this article. Very impressive! I really hope you go on to write more about this dome. I would be very, very interesting in reading more about its construction and some of the challenges you faced along the way.

Is this significantly cheaper than a standard frame structure with comparable amenities?

I priced out the materials for building a small "office shed" with no electricity or running water, and came up with a price tag of something like $2000 for a 10x10 structure, assuming completely conventional 2x4's, fiberglass insulation, and off-the-shelf doors and windows. I've not yet followed through on it, but I feel pretty confident that you could build a pretty serviceable pretty conventional structure for not-too-much-money in not-too-much-time.

I don't think there's many homeowners or wannabe carpenters on HN...

If you go to a typical Home Depot, at least around here, they have a wide variety of outdoor "garden sheds" on display for all price ranges from $1K to $6K or so. You're talking about one around the $4K size, just a little too small and underengineered to frame a garage door opening.

Then you need to add the additional stuff, insulation, windows, etc. You can add that as you go. Its cheap to frame in a window opening and later install a window.

My grandfather turned a very large garden shed into what amounts to a workshop when I was a kid. I guess a workshop with plumbing is a small house.

I would advise anyone making an outdoor workshop or whatever to do the substantial structural reinforcement needed to install doors at both ends. Not just for convenience of driving cars thru, but the incredible opportunity for shade and ventilation two doors provides. The structural reinforcement required was huge / amazing all I remember was multiple 2x10 beams.. without a cross member its susceptible to folding from wind unless the joints are ridiculously overbuilt, which they were... An a-frame would have been infinitely simpler structurally than trying to make something that looks like a conventional garden fence.

10x10 is half the floor space of this dome.

Yes. The structure I priced out was also only 8 feet tall.

About half the cost -- if I recall -- was doors, windows, and skylights, and the other half was the walls, ceiling, and floor. So you'd expect a structure with roughly double the surface area to be roughly $3000 instead of $2000. Depending on material choices, you would probably end up with a cost of between $2000 and $4000 by the time you put the last coat of paint on it. Again, having not actually followed through I don't have a final bill of materials. I could have over-estimated the cost of something, or forgotten something else entirely.

But the point is the same. Is $2100 really that cheap, when compared to a $4000 stick-frame structure with comparable function, or is it only cheap when compared to a $40,000 house with a bathroom, kitchen, furnace, water heater, and appliances?

And if you hit up your local Recycling yard you can often acquire a number of windows and doors at very economical prices. I once stayed at a house that had an entire wall made of doors of varying styles, salvaged building materials can lend a lot of character to a structure.

You can't plan, receive approval for, build, receive inspections on, and move in to a house for anywhere near as little as $40,000. Try double or triple for a bad one. Perhaps with the exception of a kit-home in nowheresville, NO.

You're more or less right, but I can weasel a technical victory.

The cost to build a house is essentially per square foot. In my area, about $140 / square foot for decent quality. Not the best quality, but good enough. So a small house (1000 sq ft) costs about $140,000 to build, and a large house (4000 sq ft) costs about $560,000 to build. That's parts, labor, permits.

But if you're willing to build what amounts to a studio apartment, you can totally build it for next to nothing. The smallest standard set of plans I found online was 213 square feet. Even adding in the $2500 they're wanting for that one (most standard plans are around $500), that still gives you a price tag of $32,500, which gives you a $7500 margin between the estimated budget and the stated $40,000, for cost overruns and furnishings.

Of course, the point wasn't "You can build a house for $40,000, that's totally cheap", it was "Now, a $2100 dome is 20x cheaper than even a minimal house, which is fantastic, but it's nearly half the price of a $4000 stick-frame structure with identical functionality. Is that cheaper-enough to declare domes the way forward on price alone?"

Bear in mind that a square, straight sided structure will have a higher ratio of usable to unusable floor space than a dome.

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