Buckminster Fuller believed that geodesic domes have the power to change the world.
The architect’s lightweight dome structures, which could be easily assembled and shipped virtually anywhere, seemed to represent freedom and a creative, cost-effective approach to home building. In the 1960s and ’70s, domes sprouted up in a variety of remote outposts, from New Age hippie communes to military weather observatories.
While the domes never totally caught on with the American public, Fuller’s dream lives on today in many ways — including the heated “igloos” that have popped up outside several bars and cafes in Logan Square this winter.
Matt Obal, founder of Logan Square-based company Thunder Domes (1934 N. Campbell St.), is the man behind the new geodesic dome structures at Middle Brow Bungalow (2840 W. Armitage Ave.) and Pilot Project Brewing (2140 N. Milwaukee Ave.).
Working out of a Logan Square warehouse space that’s half-skate park/half-workshop (Obal likes to skateboard on his lunch breaks), the 31-year-old shares Fuller’s vision and is engaged in a variety of projects — from building geodesic dome saunas to designing a massive “dome home” in Wisconsin — that would make the famous architect proud.
“I Was Always Hustling on the Internet”
Obal got his start making metal conduit domes a few years ago in the search for a free-standing hammock stand that he and his friends could take to music festivals.
He was employed as a design engineer at the time, working on projects that involved things like 3D modeling, sheet metal design and computer numerical control (CNC) machines. While he was learning a lot in this work, he wasn’t totally happy, he said.
“I was in a cubicle all day,” said Obal. “I wanted to design and work with my hands.”
In his free time, he continued to experiment with design-build projects, something he’d done since he was very young.
“We did a pretty sketchy two-story treehouse 30 feet in the air when I was a kid,” said Obal. “In high school … we would build [skateboard] ramps in wood shop and ship them out on eBay.”
“I was always hustling on the internet. I always had little side hustles,” he said.
Buckminster Fuller Would Approve
Obal’s dome-like hammock stand ended up being such a hit with his friends that he decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to make the product, called “Hang Solo,” more widely available.
“With the lack of trees at most campsites and festivals, we’ve always been asked if we made single-person hammock stands, so we decided to make one that even Buckminster Fuller would approve of,” reads the description on Hang Solo’s Kickstarter page.
The minimalist hammock stand, which consists of just seven hubs and 14 aluminum struts, was designed to be assembled in under 5 minutes without tools. The 12-pound stand collapses into a camp chair-like carrying case and is light and easy to carry, but still strong enough to support the weight of a 250-pound person.
Apparently, the product filled a need. As soon as it posted to Kickstarter, financial pledges from backers rolled in. The campaign quickly surpassed its $8,000 goal, eventually securing more than $15,000 in funding.
While hitting the Kickstarter goal was a huge win, the project also suddenly became real for Obal, who realized he was on the hook to build and ship out nearly 100 hammock stands in a very limited time frame.
With friends helping, Obal worked 12 hours a day, building and shipping stands as his team raced to the finish line. During the process, he made the call to quit his job and focus on Thunder Domes full time.
Building Off the Grid
Obal and his team were able to fill all the Kickstarter orders by late last fall and have since moved on to other projects, such as building dome enclosures for local bars and other businesses, including a “glamping” resort on the West Coast.
Orders for the hammock stands continue to come in — from customers in the U.S. as well as Japan, Germany and other countries around the world — as well as for a variety of 12-sided geodesic shadow lamps that Obal makes in his apartment using four 3D printers.
“Going full time with this was a little bit of a leap,” he said. “[But] a week goes by, and a week goes by, and I’m still able to maintain it. Everything I make is going back into the company.”
Obal has several new products in development, including an aluminum dome that can be totally enclosed and a geodesic dry sauna dome, which has a relatively small footprint “and heats up faster and is more efficient than room saunas.”
At the top of the list, however, is his dream project — a real “dome home” that Obal plans to build on property he recently purchased in Wisconsin. The house, which he describes as resembling three interconnected domes, will also include a treehouse dome, a geodesic sauna space and a domed fire pit.
Obal recently spoke with producers for the DIY Network television series “Building Off the Grid,” who may be interested in featuring the project. He said he hopes the home can serve as a demo space to interest people in building similar dome dwellings of their own.
“Building this property in Wisconsin hopefully finalizes everything for us,” he said.
Featured photo: Tom Vlodek