The Dome Builder's Handbook

On New Year's, a book fell into my lap via some friends that felt like a good omen going into promising year: The Dome Builder's Handbook, by John Prenis. It sits right in a narrow vein of 60s and 70s-era design writing that I've written about here many times before, dense with hand-drawn illustrations, DIY promises, and anti-establishment ethos.  It may, in fact, be a peak example of the type, second only to the Whole Earth Catalog in its complete adherence to the conventions of the form. 

I haven't been able to find much information about John Prenis or the circumstances of its publication, which only adds to the mystery. This was Prenis' first book; he wrote seven more, with the last coming out in 1990.  The Dome Builder's Handbook came out in 1973 as one of the first titles for Running Press. The publishing house still exists, with the name surviving a 2002 merger with Perseus.  All of Prenis' subsequent books were also published by RP, but their current catalog doesn't list any of his work. In general, their selection seems to have pivoted away from craft and DIY titles and into children's and cookbooks. 

The book follows a loose structure common to the type -- a general introduction by the author, then a series of unedited, rambling, newsletter-like entries that were mailed in by various contributors. The essays are accompanied by half-toned black-and-white photos on now-fading yellow paper. Each contributor lists a P.O. Box somewhere, heavily clustered in Northern California, Washington, and Oregon. (Emerald Triangle territory for those playing along at home)  While the authors are different, the tone is consistent: earnest, punny, conversational, vaguely evangelical. Midway through the book, excerpts from Ed Cooley's piece "A Tube Dome Frame," kind of sum up the through-lines:

"Some basic information -- Our dome is a 4 frequency alternate 26' diameter icosahedron. The foundation is 11 concrete footings poured into the ground. We used aluminum lawn edging sewn together with wire for forms above the ground."

Three sentences run together with a kind of breathlessness, crammed with both a nerdy sophistication about dome geometry and a sly jab about repurposing an artifact of mainstream middle America for a subversive architectural act.

"Also in this new dome, we're using a window/vent designed by Jerry Kernoshak of Eugene. It opens in three directions and doesn't depend on hinges or sealants."

A namedrop of an obscure member of the dome cognoscenti paired with a humblebrag about the ingenuity of a new window design. This is followed by the obligatory recounting of costs and man-hours: about $4,500 in today's dollars and 500 hours. 

"What all this adds up to is the most beautiful place I've lived in. There's nothing better than a round clear house for feeling one's part in the environment and its cycles. You don't have to go to a window to see the sky or the river -- it's just all right here.

I hope all this rambling is useful to someone. -- Ed Cooley, Star Route, Marcola Ore. 97454"

At the end comes the earnestness with a hint of evangelism, capped off with a self-deprecating appeal for validation. It feels like a direct line into Ed's imagination in a way that only unedited, confessional writing can convey. It also feels a lot like the early days of blogging, or the more obscure corners of Tumblr, 30 years before either existed. 

To put this all in context, 1973 was the same year Domebook 1 by Lloyd Kahn came out, and became an alternative press best-seller. Domes were still thought of as a bit problematic but essentially solvable. By 1989, however, Kahn had left the building and repudiated the craft, calling domes "smart but not wise" is his follow-up book Refried Domes

A cardboard dome?! Be still my heart!

A cardboard dome?! Be still my heart!

I have now amassed quite a collection of these books, a genre I am tentatively going to categorize in the emerging (but rooted in the past) genre of solarpunk. It is an earnest, Tumblr-driven phenomenon of optimistic Doomsday millennials who came of age in an era of debt, war, recession, and looming climate catastrophe. In many ways, while the writing and images are obviously more current, the same conversation parallels the late sixties. The similarities are startling: racial turmoil driven by police brutality, a failed war, and a riven national political scene; an interest in organic, local, and sustainable food; economic movements like Occupy Wall Street, the emerging maker economy, and Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign; and a fringe, fluid, open-source, hackable design culture arising in response. 

Most of these authors are resolutely radical, in both word and deed.. Many lived on communes or inside of their experiments, testing the boundaries of their practicality. A great deal of their ideas of failed outright or in painful slow-motion, but they are still out there, kicking ass and taking names. I find a hint of wistful sadness in reading them today -- all that hope, 40 years ago, and the world still mired in many of the same struggles. May the hippies inherit the earth, and inspire a new generation in their stead.

In no particular order, here are the titles I've found by laterally wandering through this proto-solarpunk school of thought. The authors are not terribly diverse, which many explain some of the homogeneity of tone and viewpoint. This is also by no means comprehensive; please tweet me links if you know of other good ones! I've read most of them, and the few others are aspirational, either because they're out of print or I just haven't got to them yet:

Shelter by Lloyd Kahn

- Arcology: City in the Image of Man by Paolo Soleri

More Sun Spots by Steve Baer

Earthship: How to Build Your Own  by Michael Reynolds

How to Build Your Own Living Structures by Ken Isaacs

The Whole Earth Catalog by Stewart Brand

The Kid's Whole Future Catalog by Paula Taylor

Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by Buckminster Fuller

The Journal of the New Alchemists by various authors

Nomadic Furniture by Victor Papanek and James Hennessey

Dome Book 1 by Lloyd Kahn

The Integral Urban House: Self-Reliant Living in the City by Helga Olkowski, Bill Olkowski, Tom Javits, and the Farallones Institute Staff

The Good Life by Scott and Helen Nearing (collected volumes)

The Passive Solar Dome Cookbook by John Fontanetta and Al Heller

The Hydroponic Hothouse by James DeKorne

The Prodigious Builders by Bernard Rudofsky

- Autoprogettazione by Enzo Mari