We’re All Astrodome Now: The Mile-Wide Dome Over Houston

Okay, Discovery TV engineers, we’re all on board with your idea of building a ginormous, 1-mile-diameter, 1500-foot high dome over Houston. Dibs on the thermostat!

Too bad, though: It looks like all that lightweight geodesic Buckminster Fullery goodness only gets you coverage over . . . Downtown. Isn’t that all air-conditioned already?

We’re especially looking forward to the next episode of Mega Engineering, where you describe that giant ring-moat bayou drainage bypass carved through swathes of Midtown and the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Wards they’ve gotta be planning to go with this.

So . . . how’s the Houston Dome supposed to work?


First of all, that’s a steel frame made of 369,000 narrow struts. Fitted into it: 147,000 hexagonal panels infilled with super-lightweight 3-ply Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene, or ETFE.

Think of it as a big half-ball of of chicken wire, fitted with triple-thick inflated plastic baggies. Except, you know, a whole lot stronger. ETFE was used to dramatic effect on the “Water Cube” built for the Beijing Olympics.

And all those blimps? That’s the “army of dirigibles,” used for scaffolding.

Images: Mega Engineering, Discovery Channel

28 Comment

  • I know these Mega Engineering shows aren’t about real projects and instead just talk about what a major project like this would entail, but I found myself laughing through most of this.

    They have a completely messed up view of Houston. It even used the line that millions of residents would live under the dome. HUH? There are barely any residents in the location of the dome to begin with!

    There were some interesting ground and aerial shots of Houston though.

    Remember, these programs are flights of fancy. Buckminster Fullery proposed the same concept for central Manhattan as the show mentioned also.

    These shows are good thought experiments though on construction techniques and future materials.

  • I think the Afton Oaks residents would object. This is just too close to their run down, mold infested, flood prone, and boring homes.

    The dome would have to be moved south of 59 to cover up the series of abandoned warehouses there.

  • This isn’t anywhere near Afton Oaks…..

  • Just curious, but how would this thing hold up to hurricanes?

  • According to the show, the concept was a structure that could isolate the contents from exterior weather including searing heat and hurricanes.

    The reason Houston was chosen for this episode was because of Hurricane Ike happening so recently. The CBD was pretty much out of commission for a week after Hurricane Ike. The in concept would have prevented the physical damage. The show depicted many pictures from downtown showing the damaged skyscrapers. Houston also having a relatively simple landscape make it easy to show the concept for TV.

  • Did they say what the temprature would be underneath it? If it’s nice and mild, that area could see a population BOOM!

  • A wonderfully comfortable 72 degrees….

  • JP is referencing their opposition to the rail line I believe.

  • Sure (although that was part of his point), kjb, but once I get into viewing my home as a nest egg as much as a nest, isn’t the definition of property values simply “that which can never become Too safe”? Weekend before last, I was weatherproofing an 1880s home in Galveston, one of efca crisis relief’s houses I guess, and I kept picturing 30,000 homeowners pouring four digits a year into these things over time on the island… and seeing how Buckminster Fuller could have been sickened by all the wasted energies – that he could very well have been right to use a minimum surface for a whole area – that it could very well pencil out to less than the current home-repair expenditures to just maintain a tensegrity structure that shelters the whole few square miles of central Galveston through storms and all. It’s nice that it’s come up now.
    This TeeVee show and Gus both imagine the enclosure extending all the way to the ground, in which case it has to withstand surges or deflect bayous or whatever, but Fuller did not: by WWII it had been discovered that a dome that was very open around the base, and vented at the crown, would actually set up a standing current that sucked cooling air into the top and expelled hot air at the bottom (counterintuitively). I believe this was used to turn Midwestern grain bins into instant comfortable barracks for GIs serving in Asian desert theaters of operation. As for whether it could work “around” here, my own scale model tests have been inconclusive, but I know that after the war Fuller set up something like a 30′ radius dome in Kenya and the visitors complained it was too cold – though probably not to the point of condensing the humidity and dribbling it on you.

  • Brian, Fuller is known for his geodesics, but what really interested him was a much broader idea of “synergetics” which fascinates some scientists and philosophers and rankles others. It is easy to imagine a rigid structure like this just cracking open when a train engine gets washed into it or a pecan tree gets thrown at it, or whatever. And the piecebuilt bunch of struts in the illustrations shown probably would. But in Fuller’s mind, the hex-grid is not supposed to be the primary part of the structure: the extensive lacework of cables act to dissipate stresses on one member across the entire network of members, what he called tensegrity.

  • If you thought it took a long time to replace the glass in the Chase building imagine how long it would take to replace all of the ETFE sheets in the dome after a hurricane.

    You’re right, these are interesting thought experiments but from an engineering viewpoint they are a clear example of creating the problem to fit the solution you’ve already got in mind.

  • Didn’t The Simpsons Movie teach you people anything about the dangers of domed cities?

  • Crap! I forgot about that RWB!

    Leave it to fiction to point out the problems the visionaries leave out!

  • I think I need to watch more TV!
    (read: Discovery Channel)

  • Before 1965, nobody could envision a completely enclosed domed sports stadium. You brats have no vision…

  • Actually, the CBD wasn’t out of commission for a week after Ike. Most buildings never even lost power. Yes, Chase and a few other buildings lost some glass, but that affected a miniscule portion of tenants. What shut down the CBD was the absence of gasoline for workers to get to downtown and the absence of power to much of the rest of the city.

  • Back when TV and radio stations were required to offer equal time to poltical candidates, I was working in electronic meedia and thus was required to invite every candidate for mayor- all 13 of them – to be on the air and one guy – do not recall his name- was running on the platform of building a dome over the city. What happened to all the truly interesting candidates?

  • I have been reading and rereading Fuller’s “Critical Path” over and over again during the course of the last two years. The man was an absolute visionary. Chapter Three, “Legally Piggily,” is one of the greatest, most concise, and well written works of the 20th century.

  • Oh yeah, those dirigibles would be GREAT! Never mind that they’re placed extremely close to the flightpath for arrivals landing on Runways 12L and 12R at Hobby Airport.

  • this is complete BULLSHIT

    enough said

    and P.S. how the fuck am i supposed to make my drug runs through this plexi glass bullshit

  • Houston now will be recognized not as the city of syrup but the city of dome and not the good kind my playas

  • This is great even if it fails, fukit we tried, but think, it works, we don’t have to run away on every fukng hurricane that hits the city we just hang out in mid-town, anyways we are not the ones spending any money on this, so I think we should go for it, this is the city where everything is possible specially the big things…. Viva Texas

  • It’s technically possible, but obviously rediculous. It’s just not desireable. And its very redundant to the buildings inside.
    I think the program far overestimates the benefits vs costs. The structure could easily resist any winds across it, but designing it to allow/vent for uplift would be the real challenge. Passively it could be no cooler than ambient air of course, but air movement might produce added cooling compared to still-air days.
    I’d guess active cooling would be totally impractical. You still need lots of fresh air so there heat-exchanger losses, and even with the best tinting tech the solar load would be truely monumental.

  • Ok, it looks as if most of you believe that this is just something they put on discovery for a fresh show. It is possible. The air space, the cooling system, flooding, venting, and anything else you could possibly think of. You people don’t think they have already thought of every possible scenario? These are very smart people, smarter than me and everyone else on this opionated blog. Like one of the guys on here said about us not ever imagining and indoor sports arena possible, and now we have many. And let’s just say it did happen. Did any of you ever stop to think about the extreme economic growth it would create for our city? A major city turned into probably the worlds number one tourist attraction. Resturants, shops, malls, and probably every business would boom. Not including the thousands that would pop up becasue of it. Creating thousands of jobs. I think alot of you doubt it just to be narcissus rather than try to debate a way it may be possible and benifit Houston and its miles of surrounding areas. If it does happen and it works, well….. I guess I wouldnt have to say anything else.

  • These kinds of programs are fun “what-if-we-could. . .” edutainment, but in reality the kind of money needed for this (even if it is possible) could never be spent by the government on a project benefiting so few. Of course, if it were privatized, and those funding the project could have control over everything under the dome, then it might have a chance.

  • The way I see it, if you work in the city I’d save up lots of holidays and watch the weather forcast for windy days, then get your ass out of there.

  • Stupidest thing I ever saw. Why would you even post this?

  • What a weird idea. Unfortunately, one day in the distant future what seems like nonsense today may become a reality later.