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Building a PVC Geodesic Dome with SketchUp

Here on the SketchUp team, we’re DIYers at heart -- we like solving design problems and building things. For a while now, we’ve had a big presence at Maker Faire. We go because we truly enjoy nerding out with fellow makers and dreaming up our own design-build projects. At World Maker Faire in New York last month, we decided to cook up a pair of large geodesic domes, because, well, why not?

Who wouldn’t want to build a geodesic lair out of PVC pipe?

Actually, the point of our exhibit -- besides being a practice run for a future Burning Man trip -- was to prove that SketchUp makes planning and building team DIY projects easier and more fun. We enlisted the help of our good pal Eric Schimelpfenig of and set out to turn a pile of PVC pipe into two huge geodesic domes and some comfortable furniture. Here’s how we pulled it off:

After exploring geodesic designs on 3D Warehouse -- and a lot of discovery on Domerama -- we jumped into SketchUp for conceptual design. Satellite imagery for our site plan demonstrated that two twenty-foot diameter domes would fit perfectly, and a simple massing model proved that 3V ⅝ domes -- with their extra head room -- would provide plenty of height and floor space for people and furniture.

Once we knew the defining characteristics of our dome, we churned out the strut lengths using Domerama’s geodesic calculator and then advanced the design using Dynamic Components to create a fabricatable model. From there, we employed generate report and some spreadsheet magic to crank out a cut-list for our PVC stockpile from Home Depot.

Using the proportional math from Domerama’s 3V ⅝ dome calculator, we built a dynamic component that uses dome diameter and hub protrusion as inputs for automating a 3V dome. You can download this dynamic geodesic model on 3D Warehouse.

As our fabrication captain, Eric got to turn our SketchUp model into a collection of ready-to-assemble parts. Using some simple jigs to speed up the cutting and drilling, he churned through 1,600 feet of pipe -- about a quarter-mile of PVC -- from his workshop in Massachusetts. Rounding out the list, he ordered up the awesome purpose-built connector hubs from Sonostar and grabbed a giant bag of nuts and bolts to keep things from sliding apart. With just two days to go before assembly, he loaded 152 connectors, 322 pipes, two ladders, and a dozen hammers into a van we’re pretty sure he had permission to borrow.

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Two geodesic domes and enough left-over pipe to spit out a few of these bad boys...

On-site at the New York Hall of Science, the pipe-laden van was met by a jet-lagged assembly crew of SketchUppers who’d only ever seen the geodomes in our working model. Over the course of a few hours, we assembled the two domes according to these hilarious yet exceedingly clear build instructions, courtesy of Eric and LayOut.

Banging pipes together at World Maker Faire. See more photos of our geodesic dome build here, or watch the time lapse of our build here.

The next day, our team hammered together several pieces of SketchUp-designed PVC furniture (generously contributed by our friends at FORMUFIT), and fitted vinyl tarps to the roof. We had designed the tarps to be a modular shading system, so that we could leave some sections of the dome exposed or cover everything up in case of crummy weather.

To derive the tarps from our SketchUp model, we drew out some basic gore-like polygons over the dome component and then used the Flattery extension to derive their dimensions for printing. The tarps were manufactured with grommets that allowed us to join and secure them with zip ties.

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Our tarping system was one of those simple ideas that was meant to work, but not be perfect. We anticipated (and desired) stretching in the tarp, so we modeled our gore polygons for stretched-out coverage, then laid the geometry flat with Flattery.

Throughout the weekend, thousands of attendees -- attracted by the awesome sight of our booth and the promise of shade -- wandered through our domes, where they were pumped full of SketchUp knowledge and slapped with these bracelets before being sent, disoriented, but not sunburned, back into the Faire.

We introduced a lot of people to SketchUp and Buckminster Fuller (not bad company, right?) over the weekend, and now we have a pair of geodesic domes to keep us cool at the next team picnic.

The SketchUp team on good behavior at Maker Faire. We also did a lot of this.

Posted by Mark Harrison and Andrew Strotheide

Looking to build your own geodesic? Explore the links above, then download this dynamic component model and these build instructions to get started. Be sure to Tweet us the pics if you pull it off!

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Mike Nestle said...

I figured out a very rough cost using the 1600'of pipe mentioned in the article. All by itself, without adding any connectors or tarps, in my area (southern California, major city), using a local Home Depot as the supplier, the pipe alone is nearly #1,090. That might be cheap enough for corporate fun but it's a tad high for serious use. I was hoping a large company could come up with a competitor for the Hexayurts which are starting to be a real presence at Burning Man. They're temporary too but lots cheaper to start with and insulated. Plastic pipe is probably easier to transport.

Recruiting Officer said...

I like the intention of this, it's fun and demonstrates what Sketchup can be used for. However, do you have an environmental policy? PVC is a pretty grim material and you've used a lot of it. Perhaps you could consider wood, or another more environmentally benign material, if you do it again?

Mark said...

@Recruiting Officer, @Mike Nestle

Thanks for the constructive criticism guys. Actually, you're both hitting on two of our design objectives. We wanted our Maker Faire exhibit to be less expensive than last year when we built a WikiHouse out of plywood (, and we also wanted it to be much easier to transport/re-use. It's true that PVC isn't the most environmentally friendly material, but we felt strongly about re-using these geodesic domes at future events (we're rebuilding them this weekend in Las Vegas, actually). As it happens, PVC is a pretty good material choice for those constraints. Of course, we're open to other suggestions!



Richard Buckminster Fuller is turning in his grave! Watching the video of you guys putting that dome together was excruciating!
One of the main concept that makes the construction of geodesic dome more efficient and practical is the Top Down Construction Method. Hint: If you do this right you shouldn't need any ladders. Try it this weekend in Los Angeles!

Unknown said...

We've been doing PVC domes at burning man regional events for several years now. If you're willing to incorporate curves, you can use far far less pipe than geodesics. Here's some pics of some of the simpler domes, and models we've made.

I am curious about your tarp-ing system, and wondering if we could see more detail somewhere? As our system is modular, we rarely ever build the same configuration, and are sometimes 20' diameter, sometimes 30, with all sorts of strut patterns. It'd be nice to find a weather proof skin we could make from smaller tarps, instead of the our current "use one overlarge tarp and bundle it as best you can" method.

Would it be possible to see more on the tarps and how they are layered to stop rain?

chief.arKTK said...

Top down vs bottom up. This is a flexible pvc skeleton, not skinned panels like Bucky was using. FYI- from Sonostar - Hub supplier:
Wouldn’t it be smarter to start at the top and work down?
There’s a certain logic to this, but if you’re building a dome of 8’ radius or greater, you’re going to get to a point where you have to lift up the base to fit on the bottom rows. The torque on the joints could get extreme, and cause the joints to fail.

Mark said...

Re: top-down vs. bottom-up:

We also made a conscious decision to build bottom-up. With the top-down approach, there becomes a constraint around the # of people required to support the dome while also assembling it. (For assembly, we only had 4 team members on hand).

With bottom up, the only constraint is the requirement of a 12-foot ladder (which there happen to be plenty of at Maker Faire).


John Abella said...

We were at the World Maker Faire in NY and happened to be the exhibit right next door. It was fascinating to watch this project come together and it was awesome when finished. Great Job guys and gals!

nitpicker said...

So what was the actual cost of pipe, connectors and tarp covering? What was the minimum number of people required to build and time from laying out the PVC to completion for one? Finally I see one person standing on the dome in the pictures. With metal construction I can see that happening safely, but with PVC?

RonSchuster said...

Re: one person standing on the dome

Never mind one person. Download the build instructions file. There's a picture of nearly the entire team standing on it!

Jon Dietz said...

Note regarding Domerama's calculator: It's a good calculator for vertex-to-vertex (and it states that plainly), but when using the Sonostar Megahubs, you need to subtract four inches from the length of each strut, to account for the width of the hubs themselves. The Sonostar megahub calculator does that for you.