Doomed Dome: The Future That Never Was

In the bright and shiny future, we all live in green, gleaming communities, monorailed shuttles at the ready, climate-controlled at all times — a sort of Logan’s Run, but without the forced euthanasia. It almost happened in, of all places, an old mill town in northern Vermont.

Winooski and its 7,000 people lie just north of Burlington, Vermont and next to Lake Champlain. The name means “wild onion” in the language of the Abenaki Indians, for the plants that grew along the river of the same name, whose rapids powered the mills that sustained the town for decades. But by the 1960s the mills had lost to modern technologies, and Winooski became a kind of poor and overshadowed cousin to its progressive (some said socialist) neighbor.

Vermont, the saying goes, is nine months of winter and three months of bad skiing. Winooski’s January lows are -20 Fahrenheit or lower, and winters see 75 or more inches of snow. Residents shovel the stuff for months, and then unshovel it in the spring, spreading the high piles across their driveways to encourage melting. Getting from your car to the store can at times feel like the Iditarod.

In the late 1970s the U.S was in its second energy crisis of the decade and roiled by double-digit inflation. Oil was at a then-shocking $38 a barrel ($107 in today’s dollars), having risen eightfold in the previous ten years, and Jimmy Carter went on television in a Cardigan sweater to urge Americans to turn down their thermostats. Few towns were hurting more than frigid Winooski, whose residents spent about $4 million a year to stay thawed.

One night in 1979 a group of its creative young city planners went to dinner and Mark Tigan, then the city’s 32-year-old director of community development and planning, decided that not enough attention was being paid to energy conservation. Then, in the way that only a few glasses of wine can facilitate brainstorming, someone said, half tongue-in-cheek, they should put a dome over the city.


The next morning it still seemed like a good idea — or, at least, not necessarily completely absurd.

At the time, Winooski was second in the amount of federal money received per capita, and was favored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as a place to pilot new ideas. Tigan had his staff prepare a white paper on the dome. They wrote that a one square mile dome would reduce resident’s heating bills by up to 90 percent. Tigan presented the idea to the city council.

Winooski Dome Exterior. Designer John Anderson

Clem Bissonette, then on Winnoski’s city council and now its ex-mayor, asked Tigan, “Are you nuts?” But when Tigan explained it could mean millions in HUD money, Bissonette and the rest of the city council quickly signed on, and a young reporter named Jodie Peck who was covering the meeting wrote about it for the next day’s Burlington paper.

The following morning, Tigan recalls, three satellite trucks were parked in front of city hall, and within days the town was receiving 20 bags of mail a day from enthusiasts all around the world. Companies were calling, wanting to build the Winooski Dome.

The city’s request for $55,000 for a feasibility study went to Washington, and enthusiasts pushed it up through channels. A deputy assistant secretary at HUD named Bob Embrey said he would fund it.

“I didn’t hear one organized voice against it,” said Tigan. “The Woodchucks loved it,” he said, referring to the city’s long-time French-Canadian residents, “since it meant that they’d never have to shovel snow again. They thought of it as their little piece of Tampa Bay.”

Naturally the media was full of questions, and Tigan and his staff had few real answers. Basically, he says, they made it up on the fly. “They asked how high it would be, and we said 250 feet, so it wouldn’t block planes but clear the town’s highest building (eleven stories). Would it be clear or opaque? ‘Of course you’ll be able to see through it,’ we said. What about automobile exhaust? ‘Oh, we’ll have electric cars or monorails inside.’ By the time the media was done constructing it, we had a picture in place.”

Naturally, the media was full of questions, and Tigan had few real answers. Basically, he says, they made it up on the fly.

Tigan contracted with John Anderson, a Vermont conceptual architect, to produce drawings of the Dome. Anderson’s vision was not a hemispheric shape, but more like the top half of a hamburger bun. He colored it whiteish yellow and eschewed any inside support structures.

Anderson’s picture was the first tangible view of the Dome. Thinking ahead, he envisioned a vinyl-like material attached over a network of metal cables, ranging from transparent (on the southern side, to allow in sunlight) to opaque on the northern side. Air would be brought inside by large fans and heated or cooled as necessary. The Dome would be held up by air pressure just slightly above atmospheric pressure. Entrances and exits would consist of double doors, akin to an airlock. The homes inside would require no individual heating or cooling — “you could grow tomatoes all year-round” he said. If the Dome were punctured it would come down slowly, allowing for ample warning. Anderson now recalls it as a “totally fun” project, though he did occasionally get insulted in restaurants by some local residents. “What will happen to our children?” they asked.

Enthusiasts organized an International Dome Symposium, held in March 1980. Buckminster Fuller, then busy assisting in Brasilia, the planned capital city in Brazil that had been hacked out wholesale from the Amazonian jungle, flew in to express his enthusiasm. Fuller (naturally) proposed a structure of multiple geodesic domes, but in any case declared the engineering “not terribly difficult,” and pointed to already existing structures like large airport terminals in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Fuller had built the “US Pavilion” at Expo Montreal in 1976 — three-fourths of a sphere consisting of 1900 molded, transparent Plexiglas panels, 200 feet high and 250 feet in diameter, covering 1.1 acres. Winooski’s dome would cover nearly the entire town, 800 times that area. He stressed that the biggest challenge was not keeping the dome up, but holding it down against the force of rising warm air.

Winooski Dome Interior. Designer John Anderson

Tigan and his staff waded deeper into the idea. Someone calculated that it would make economic sense if heating oil rose above $1.25 a gallon — it was then at $0.99 per gallon. (Today it sells for about twice that, in current dollars.) And then there was the money saved on snowplowing. They applied for HUD money, not so much to study the feasibility of the engineering, but to learn how people might react to such a unique living situation, and to refine the economics and the environment.

Everyone had an opinion. The New York Times editorialized against the Dome, saying it would ruin the view. The financial pages of Saudi Arabian newspapers feared it for the precedent it might set. Tigan appeared on the Letterman show, McNeil and Lehrer, and others. Then, Senator William Proxmire from Wisconsin, famous (and some said, short-sighted) for his “Golden Fleece Awards,” given monthly to a project he deemed a waste of federal funds, got wind of the idea. President Carter, struggling for reelection in a terrible economy with Americans being held hostage in Iran, personally called up Embrey — the project backer at HUD. In May, 1980, HUD turned down Winooski’s request for funds.

After Ronald Reagan won the autumn election, money for such projects dried up very quickly. Peck, the reporter who broke the story and who is now a realtor in Vermont, called it “wonderful publicity for the town, but it was a great idea that would never work.”

Tigan, now an associate professor of Community Development at the Clark University, disagrees. “Economically it’s a slam dunk,” he said. The biggest issue, he believes, would be the public taking of land via eminent domain to secure the area around the edges, illustrated by the 2005 controversial Supreme Court decision in Kelo vs. City of New London. Such issues, Tigan expects, will become more common in the future as environmental sustainability and even survival become economic issues.

“You could have had year-round fly-fishing,” he says with a bit of a sigh. “If I had stayed in Winooski, it would be under a dome now.”

David Appell is a freelance science journalist living in St. Helens, Oregon.

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74 Responses

  1. reldred79 says:

    I love the people here that quote the greenhouse effect as a way to solve the problems with the dome. As if the greenhouse effect magically stops working during the hot summer, or that it continues during the winter nights.

    I sell and install solariums for a living, and I’ve seen the technology for making a four-season room come a long way. We get people at homeshows all the time that want to design a “passive solar” room. They usually change their mind, and end up wanting a more livable space, when we explain what that would mean. It means large heat sinks to store heat for the off -sun hours, or the ability to close off the room at night. It means investing in the insulation and reflectivity of the glass, and adding good venting through the top (where the heat goes) to live in there in the summer. It means putting highly reflective glass in the roof, to bounce away the high summer sun, and less reflective glass in the sides, to gain heat in the winter when the sun is lower. It means engineering for Vermont snowloads (indeed, I live in Winooski, Vermont, full disclosure) . It means heating the room, even when it is closed off, if you don’t want condensation.

    People end up doing these rooms with careful design, because the rooms are beautiful to live in, and the rooms almost always end up their favorite room in the house. They are not cheap, however ; and they don’t extend over a whole city.

    One of the most laughable claims by the original city planners in the 70s was about fishing in the winter. This monstrosity would have all kinds of unintended consequences on nature, and to suggest it would bring people closer to nature…is like saying people in rvs are interested in nature. They are interested mostly in novel camping gadgets, but in fact camping offers a great metaphor for looking at the dome idea : tents! Imagine a sort of Gulliver’s travels where the Lilliputians find one of our awkward dome tents, and attempt to put it up. They divert all of their resources to erecting the thing, maintaining it, bringing in hundreds of those cute Lilliput fans to stir up the stagnant air, keeping a permanent supply of French fries in a nearby spot to keep the seagulls from coming in after their food, and cleaning it after said seagulls sit on top and poop down the contours of the by now hateful structure.

    Ok, I’m done.

  2. not all of Brazil is jungle, really :))) lol

  3. There’s about a dozen books and more info on the Intertubes on this kind of stuff.

  4. I hope this will come into reality. I am afraid, like what the title said, the future that never was. I wish the DOME will have a new face.

  5. gary says:

    The Dome would be held up by air pressure just slightly above atmospheric pressure. webthesurfi rugs webdesign

  6. carter says:

    This is a good plan. The planned capital city in Brazil that had been hacked out wholesale from the Amazonian jungle, flew in to express his enthusiasm. Fuller (naturally) proposed a structure of multiple geodesic domes.
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  7. Ted says:

    This essay reminds me “The Simpsons Movie”, the scene when Bart and Homer trying to get rid of a ticking bomb:-) The idea of covering the town with a dome to reduce the escape of heat is Homer-style now. But maybe in the future this visionary dream will become the practical reality !

  8. Doug says:

    I would title this story “fun with other people’s money.” Subtitle: “one man’s love of mindless government funding.”

  9. Robert Linde says:

    Otherwise fascinating article, but sloppy, off the cuff factual errors about the rest of the world inevitably make the stated facts about the project suspect. Unfortunate consequence of careless craftsmanship by the writer.

    1. Winooski is not to the north of Burlington and next to the lake.
    2. The Montréal Worlds fair was “Expo ’67” in 1967.
    3. Brazilia is was never carved from a jungle.

  10. Michael Antoniewicz II says:

    Let’s see;

    Everyone check out the ‘Old Man’s River’ dome project for St. Louis. Study got very detailed and didn’t have any overcomeable problems (ie we take it into account during design, engineering, construction, and operations) that Fuller & Co. did.

    Check out Gerard K. O’Neill’s book ‘2081’. In it he had a “bedroom community” that was under a dome to moderate out the extreims of weather that the area experinced. It was just one of many that dotted the landscape to make comunities more energy effecent and comfortable.

    As an ‘unintentuall’ side effect it drove the ‘carbon & etc.’ footprint of homes into the sub-basement.

    There’s about a dozen books and more info on the Intertubes on this kind of stuff. Note that Project Eden was based off of both Fuller and later work on pillow domes. Many of the problems people are asking about were fundimentally solved years to decades ago.

    Instead of asking for answers, go forth and use your Google-Fu for all of 60 seconds and see what you find. If it’s interesting to you, keep on going. Post back with your references and informantion.

  11. Anonymous says:

    For anyone who has never been to the Burlington/Winooski area, this is a VERY liberal area and most of the older folks are old hippies. That should explain the vast majority of the article.

  12. Gary Ansorge says:

    The problem with all those “small, insulated buildings” is that they have several thousand times the surface area of the dome and radiative energy loss is directly proportional to the surface area. Similar to the 6 square meter of surface area you have in your lungs, but they only occupy a cubic foot of volume..

    It’s simple physics, folks.

    Gary 7

  13. Anonymous says:

    Winooski is an over crowded shit hole these days. I can’t imagine what it would be like if it was an over crowded shit hole with a dome!

  14. georges says:

    One huge issue I see is what happens when there is 75 inches of snow on the dome.

    either it breaks, or it totally blocks light.

    How could they keep the project open for so long??? The idea should have been dismissed in less than a day.

    Of course if you’re looking for tax money …

    • LazarusUnbound says:

      Snow accumulation? Being from and in Winooski, we talked about the rising heat melting any accumulating snow, or else having heating elements, similar to those seen in car windshields starting in the 1970s, placed directly into the dome with the melted water used to provide fresh water for the community or directed into the Winooski River to end up in Lake Champlain. It is funny how people are so eager to shoot down the ideas of others without giving them very much thought, just blathering out an objection that can be shot down by any person without an engineering degree because the objector didn’t take the time to think for 2 minutes before spouting off.
      Even worse is your assigning greed as the motivating factor in the proposed dome- yeah, we just want to rob your wallet of tax dollars- you ass. It was actually hoped that this might become a pilot project that other communities across the nation might copy. On any pilot project you have to take into account that some unforeseen problems might occur as the project is developed, but I can guarandamntee that heavy snowfall isn’t a circumstance that would be overlooked on ANY dome built over Winooski. Just because you lack problem solving imagination doesn’t mean that we do. You would have a rather spectacular and good idea dumped in less than a day without even giving it an intelligent hearing- afraid that Winooski might get $50,000 out of the billions pissed away every day on things much less deserving of a hearing, and all because you didn’t take the time to think of the SIMPLE solution to your own objection. Hmmmm…I dismissed your objection in much less than a day using mere common sense and a general knowledge of modern technology

  15. F_D says:

    Actually the expression is: “Nine months of winter and three months of damn poor sledding.” And/or, “In Vermont we have four seasons: almost winter, winter, still winter, and construction.”

  16. Anonymous says:

    When it starts to fall apart and everyone is running for the exits, rapists will be there to grab women as they run by. It happened at the superdome after hurricane katrina. So much for a civilized future.

  17. Anonymous says:

    I ponder what will happen when air planes start crashing into it.

  18. jb says:

    Seems surprising to me that it’s 10x cheaper to heat a huge dome than to heat the individual buildings beneath. Can someone explain this to me?

    • Anonymous says:

      I think their thinking was because it is effectively a giant greenhouse; it traps the heat generated by the sun’s rays hitting the earth. Also because there is no wind, the houses inside won’t lose heat as quickly. But their numbers were basically made up. You still have to heat a greenhouse in the winter and that’s a LOT of space to heat. You could get away with it in places where winters mean 50 degrees but -20 and with little sunlight?

      • Anonymous says:

        The numbers are pretty solid. Heat dissapation over time from known sources in BTU have been around for ages (1800’s). It really depends on the surface area of the building and as this is high per volumn in a conventional 4 sided office building = more loss. The dome is second only to the sphere in terms of small surface area to largest internal volumn. It would only be a matter of refining the numbers and maybe a double skin dome if the budget allowed. The 2 layer dome is like Double glazing in windows, it helps greatly with insulation and stabilizes the structure. I can see one of these made in the future for a massive greenhouse (perhaps in Greenland) and it actually working over a long time. Forward thinkers, and those who use them, make the future.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Wow! If life sucks where you live, don’t build a dome! MOVE! Talk about over complicating a solution to a problem….

  20. Anonymous says:

    The only problem I see is instead of heating just the area inside of buildings, you’d be heating an area much larger, because you’d be heating the streets, parks, parking lots, and everything in between.

    So yes, the heating bill for each resident would be greatly reduced, but then there’s a much larger heating bill for the city to actually heat the space in the dome.

    Basically the conclusion is you have a much greater area to heat and an inferior insulation keeping the heat in. I hardly doubt this would have saved money. Not to mention the other problems like air circulation, air purification, dealing with condensation, and finally dealing with UV radiation on the dome components.

  21. Richard Deniz, London says:

    It seems to me that you wouldn’t necessarily need to have a solid dome covering the area in order to manage the temperature underneath. Correct me if I’m wrong (I’m by no means an expert on the subject), but coudn’t you just have a bunch of high wind-powered towers projecting air into a set of vortices, carefully arranged to produce a thermally reflective layer of denser air? The increased air pressure could surely reduce heat loss by a substantial amount, potentially without any of the drawbacks of the above design. Or am I missing something?

    • Robert Linde says:

      That’s a fascinating and ridiculously sensible concept if it works. Please tell us more about it, for instance, what are these high wind-powered towers and how do they project air into vortices, and what is the nature of these vortices?

  22. Anonymous says:

    This reminds me of the Biosphere II project in Arizona, which was actually built. One of the most interesting things I learned when I took the tour was that the internal frame itself created the unanticipated consequence of condensation and precipitation. The result was that the environmental conditions did not favor the environments that the scientists were attempting to recreate. A “failure” in the mind of some, to others it was a valuable observation about the magnitude of environmental engineering and/or space colonization.

    The point is that few people see clearly all the consequences of their grand design, especially when they seek to improve on Mother Nature. Fewer still can afford the bill at the scale of these projects.

    But even if this particular dome had been built, and it failed to provide the intended benefits, the town’s people may have been able to market the whole thing as either; the world’s largest mall (remember it was at about this time Mall of the Americas was built), a universal training facility for the NBL, NBA, NFL & the NHL, or it could have become a refugee camp for all the subsequent catastrophic corporate bankruptcies of the ’90’s.

    What if the dome had acted like a lens and the entire area under it’s curve could be monitored as if it were under a gigantic microscope? Perhaps we could have used it as a new home for all of Congress, K Street and the Federal Reserve…

    Like Mayer Daley of Chicago said, “I want them all in one place where I can keep an eye on them.”

  23. Justin says:

    Sounds a lot like the Truman Show, except the whole ‘people acting around one oblivious person’ thing…

  24. John Morton says:

    I wonder if entrances would be better being open, but constructed so that they dip down under the surrounding ground level then back up inside (similar to an igloo, mimicking its heat containing properties).

    I can also imagine that given enough thought and creativity, the roof could be constructed out of a naturally grown material that could not only withstand atmospheric conditions, but might also breathe properly to avoid internal issues such as pollutants, fungus, etc. Something along the lines of spider silk, feathers, or eye corneas.

    Thanks for this article. It really captures the imagination. While not everyone would be willing to live under such a dome, it seems to be enticing to many. Plus the engineering challenges are fun to think about.

  25. Anonymous says:

    FTA: “They wrote that a one square mile dome would reduce resident’s heating bills by up to 90 percent.”

    Reducing the heating bills of one resident by up to 90%? I don’t know… It would seem like a better idea if they could reduce them for more than just one person. Perhaps the author (AND EDITOR) should know how to make a plural possessive?

  26. Anonymous says:

    Minnesota has had an air supported domed stadium for over 20 years. It had one small problem shortly after it first went up…problem free ever since. However it is NOT clear, never was.

  27. Anonymous says:

    The Letterman show mentioned must have been his short-lived NBC morning show that ran in 1980 and not the later Late Night, which didn’t start until 1982.

  1. November 4, 2012

    […] Winooski, Vermont. Anyone who intends to visit Winooski, which is so cold that the local government proposed enclosing the entire city in a dome to save on heating costs, should search this restroom for a […]

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    […] Back in 1979 the town of Winooski, Vermont was almost covered in a giant dome. Here is the incredible story as written in […]

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