Dome-Shaped Homes Offer A Safe, Cheap Remedy to Severe Housing Problem In India

Release Date: November 18, 1993 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Residents of some remote villages in India may soon be trading in their thatched huts for geodesic domes.

In an effort to minimize the loss of life that occurs from monsoons and natural disasters such as earthquakes, a University at Buffalo student group and leaders of a grass-roots movement in India are using Buckminster Fuller's ideas to develop a cheap, modular home suitable for severe climates.

With construction costs of about $150, the new homes are providing villagers more than just affordable, sturdy shelter. The dome shape and cement construction also will provide protection from sun and rain, as well as give residents a new sense of permanence.

So far, five new homes based on this design have been constructed in villages surrounding Vishakhaptnam, a city in southeastern India, midway between Madras and Calcutta.

"As the recent Indian earthquake showed, the problem with housing in many parts of the country is that villagers use the cheapest materials they can find to build shelters," said Alok Baveja, Ph.D., a lecturer in the UB Department of Industrial Engineering and president of Gurukul, a UB group that contributes money and technical assistance to promote literacy and better economic conditions in rural India.

According to the Sri Vidya Trust, an Indian community development organization affiliated with Gurukul, the problem of providing adequate housing for the country's population of 900 million has become severe, necessitating a fast and cheap method for building permanent housing.

"Earthquakes and other natural disasters serve as tragic reminders of the absence of proper housing in India and other Third-World countries," said Baveja.

To build their homes, Indian villagers typically use stones connected with very weak binding material, or mud and dried palm fronds to make thatched huts. These homes often do not last through violent storms or monsoons. In an earthquake, the walls of stone houses come crashing down, causing injury and sometimes death, Baveja said.

"With this new type of construction, we've tried to address that," he added.

Designed to be constructed by the villagers themselves, the domed house can be built in four days.

The key to its safety is its domed shape.

"To build earthquake-resistant structures, you try to make the building symmetrical around its own center of gravity," said Don McKenna, a Rochester, N.Y., architect and a member of Gurukul, who will travel to India this winter to help build some of the homes. "The footprint of the dome in the ground is absolutely symmetrical, so it's structurally very efficient. Earthquake and wind loads are distributed through the structure and taken safely to the ground."

To make construction economically feasible in a region where families typically make about $300 a year, the original geodesic design, as conceived by Buckminster Fuller, had to be modified. In the new design, a cement mortar is mixed with locally available gravel materials and industrial wastes, then pasted onto steel mesh attached to a temporary framework of geodesic triangles. Once the mortar sets, the triangle framework is removed, leaving a shell of ferro-concrete, a homogeneous mixture of concrete and steel.

"Ferro-concrete has long been recognized for its economy of material and excellent strength-to-weight ratio," said McKenna.

He added that because of their shape, these houses also will be somewhat cooler in the summer than traditional designs, and will better deflect wind and rain.

In addition to providing permanent housing for villagers, the new geodesic homes are expected to have another, less tangible effect on people who live in them.

"Because their current homes need to be rebuilt almost every 7-10 months, people cannot think beyond that period," said Baveja. "We want them to begin to think ahead and to establish strong roots in their villages."

"In the long run, the cost is justified, but right now, the villagers don't have the capital," said Baveja.

Gurukul is teaming up with UB's campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity to raise money for building the new homes in India and for continuing Habitat's work in Western New York. In addition, Gurukul distributes to interested students and staff members at UB yogurt containers into which they are instructed to deposit one dime per day. Money collected at the end of each month is sent to the Sri Vidya Trust in India, which then allocates funds for development projects.

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