The Other Igloos in the Gulf of Mexico

Tatjana Crossley
9 min readApr 8, 2022
photo taken by author, January 2021, 4 domes standing

Remote places have become sites for spectatorship. The idea of witnessing ‘otherness’, while certainly not a new phenomenon as indicative by the notion of flânerie has been amplified by the desire to document experience.[1] And this has been a recurring theme throughout history- explorers go on their adventures to find undocumented places and along the way they collect, draw, annotate and analyze what they find. ‘Exotic’ places are now destinations for the contemporary voyeur. The Cape Romano Dome Home demonstrates this two-fold: it is hard to get there, only accessible by boat or jet-ski; and it provides a rare glimpse into a home constructed forty years ago using novel technologies and ways of thinking about human impact on the environment that have still not become integral to our building methodologies today. It is exotic in both its remote location and its employ of sustainable ways of living. It is also a victim of rising sea levels and increasingly destructive hurricanes on coastal regions, proving an even greater need to think about our impact on the environment. The fact that the Dome Home was trying to survive sustainably in such a location, and ultimately falling into ruin because of its site choice, makes for an even more intriguing case study. It succumbed to the very environment it was designed to survive in and consequently became a site for spectatorship.

The approach…

Traveling south through the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, you find yourself facing open waters and the Ten Thousand Islands of the Florida Gulf Coast. If you’re lucky, you’ll see several dolphins. It is not until you turn the corner at the tip of Cape Romano Island, officially entering the Gulf of Mexico, where you first see the dome-shaped tops of what was once a self-sustaining home on a remote beach. It is a modern ruin that has become a pilgrimage spot for many Floridians as what was once an isolated site built in the early 1980s next to a reserve has now become a bustling spot for visitors in fishing boats and on jet skis. They come to see what remains of the domes, a race to experience them and witness their otherness before the Gulf finishes its work of consuming them. Unfortunately, the true value of this site is under-studied. Instead of finding critical writings about the site, we find evidence in the marking of graffiti on it, of course serving its own important role in the ruin-ification of the domes. These domes are perhaps amongst America’s most visible examples of architecture’s vulnerability to the prowess of Mother Nature and the ultimate failure of contemporary society to take her seriously. However, they still stand, though perhaps not for much longer, as a tribute to resilient architecture and sustainable design.

The history…

The Cape Romano Dome Home was built from 1980–82 by Bob Lee, a retired oil producer with an inventive and environmentally focused drive and an interest in renewable energy and sustainable design. Lee purchased solar panels from California and connected these to batteries installed under one of the domes, generating all the electricity needed for the three-bedroom home. For water, the house used rainwater collection captured by large troughs and filtered into a 23,000-gallon tank.[2] The design of the house included six interconnected domed pods that sit on stilts raising the house above the Gulf allowing for the flow of water beneath during hurricanes. Despite its current state of disrepair, it has survived several category 4 and 5 storms demonstrating the design’s resilience. Lee felt that the rounded surface of the domes gave the perception of a larger more open space.[3] They also served a practical function of withstanding high wind speeds and allowing rainwater and morning dew to drain down into the water collection system. The house was built out of white-painted concrete made with sand from the island cast into metal plates that came together to form the dome shape. To regulate temperature, the walls were foam-filled.[4] All supplies and machinery needed to build the house were brought to the island on a barge. Once built, the house was fully equipped with working electricity and hot water, a high-efficiency refrigerator, hot tub, satellite dish and barbeque.[5] The house was an oxymoron, being completely off the grid but comfortable and modern, two attributes generally not associated with remote living. The home proved that you could live sustainably in style.

The family lived in the house until 1993 and while Hurricane Andrew in ’92 did not largely affect the structure, causing damage mainly to windows and flooded interiors, the destruction of the coastline[6] led to the family’s decision to abandon the site. Eventually, John Tosto bought it, but, shortly after, the house would not survive damage and coastline destruction from Hurricane Wilma. To protect what remained, Tosto applied for permission to move the domes inland and restore them. This effort was met with an order from the Department of Environmental Protection to completely remove the house. Tosto did not remove it, despite incurring huge fines, and so these dome structures still exist today but are slowly being reclaimed by the Gulf. What remains are the ruins of four of the domes on their stilts, the other two underwater following Hurricane Irma in 2017. The site serves as a new home to a variety of fish, sea life and birds[7] as well as a point of steady spectatorship along the Gulf Coast of Florida, first as a party spot for young ‘spring breakers’ when it was still standing on the shore and now as a landmark for curious observers, fishermen and graffiti makers.

photo taken by author, January 2021, 4 domes standing

An architectural musing…

The perched domes recall the pioneering work of Buckminster Fuller. From his renowned geodesic domes are parallels in the use of geometry but perhaps more relevant are his lesser-known achievements. An early environmental activist, Fuller designed structures that greatly considered the environment long before sustainable architecture was considered trendy or necessary. A project that strongly resonates with the ethos of the Dome Home is his Dymaxion House, also designed to be a house that could sustain itself and withstand extreme weather conditions. It was ultimately a concept- a futuristic dwelling never built as initially drawn or lived in as initially intended.[8]

The original design of the Dymaxion House featured a singular stainless steel structural column that allowed for the house to be suspended and which contained all the utilities. It used the dome shape to create a passive air conditioning system and incorporated a rainwater collection system. One of the most famous aspects of this house, praised by Sigfried Giedion in his book ‘Mechanization Takes Command,’[9] was the bathroom’s shower, which used a ‘fogger’ system that compressed air and water to reduce the amount of water necessary to clean oneself to only one cup of hot water. As a house intended for remote and extreme conditions, it aimed to reduce water usage and use low energy ventilation systems on top of several other innovations. It was 98% less weight than a traditional home at only 4 tons and had aspirations to become a model for mass housing with its use of aluminum sheets for their durability and easy transportability. However, in this ambition, it failed, not for lack of innovation but rather lack of funding, ultimately as a result of its perceived value in a society not yet seriously concerned with the environment. Similarly, short sightedness led to it being abandoned. Even with its obvious flaws, the Dymaxion House serves as an important model for self-sustaining housing that was well before its time and this is made even more evident by the subsequent projects that have been inspired by Fuller’s work.

While Lee may have not been an architect or known about Fuller’s work, perhaps we can recognize parallels and use their work as a model of sustainable architectural design moving forward. We know Lee’s house worked: it was lived in from 1982–1992 and only succumbed to its current state because of poor foresight, not putting up a sea wall sooner, and natural disaster. So why, after 40 years, do we ignore these simple techniques- methods of water collection and use of solar energy? The answer is not simply an issue of architecture and design but also an issue of politics and policy-making with Florida politicians doing little to preserve the natural wonders that the state has. Nevertheless, the techniques these houses use are proven architectural strategies to tackle environmental issues, which have only worsened since these projects were proposed. Their ability to be self-sustaining and off the grid seems even more pertinent today.

This takes on new relevancy when considering examples of recent crisis like the situation in Texas where a severe winter storm in February 2021 left millions of Texans without electricity and water for days. The existing power grid massively failed because power plants were not prepared for the subfreezing temperatures. This has been a more common trend, with storms ripping through areas at greater strength and frequency than ever before. In 2020, record-breaking numbers of tropical storms and hurricanes originated in the Atlantic. In Miami, sea levels have risen aboout 4 inches since 1994 which means that the city experiences regular flooding not just during hurricanes but also flash flooding unrelated to perceived storm conditions. It is a problem that begs a response to produce better ways to build for these extreme conditions. Perhaps Fuller’s and Lee’s ideas of self-sustaining structures built to withstand high wind speeds and flooding leave us something to learn from in order to react to the extreme environmental conditions that we have only exacerbated.

The departure…

Revving up the boat engine again and turning around to leave, the domes quickly become small and then are gradually hidden by the island itself as you turn back to cruise along the coastline and into the various passes and channels to different keys. They disappear as quickly as they appeared, the impact of their experience still lingering. They have been mostly consumed by the water: little remains of the innovative house, it stands as a strange misunderstood icon- described as ‘igloos’, ‘alien structures’ and ‘isolated bubbles’, further emphasizing its ‘otherness’ in our world- both then and now.

photo taken by author, January 2015, when there were 6 domes still standing

Bibliography:

Brennan, AnnMarie. “Dymaxion House, R. Buckminster Fuller.” In The Companions to the History of Architecture, Volume IV, Twentieth-Century Architecture, edited by David Leatherbarrow and Alexander Eisenschmidt, 12. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2017.

Gill, Kristine. “These Otherworldly Domes Used to Be a Beach Home.” USA Today, June 12, 2016. https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/nation-now/2016/06/12/marco-island-dome-home/85746330/.

Maples, Kristian. “A Little Bit about the Dome Home; A Little Bit MORE about the Dome Home; Water in the Dome Home.” Better Energy, Better Life (blog). Accessed February 22, 2021. http://beblife.blogspot.com/2011/09/little-bit-about-dome-home.html.

Mott, Cynthia. “Under the Domes.” Florida Weekly, October 24, 2013. https://naples.floridaweekly.com/articles/under-the-domes/.

Strom, Natalie. “Cape Romano Uncovered.” Coastal Breeze News, 2012.https://web.archive.org/web/20150927201437/http://www.coastalbreezenews.com/2012/09/07/cape-romano-uncovered/.

[1] This desire has always been in existence, arguably since the first cave painting marks were made, as humans have documented their perceived or ideal experiences in the form of drawing and representation.

[2] Mott, Cynthia. “Under the Domes.” Florida Weekly, October 24, 2013. https://naples.floridaweekly.com/articles/under-the-domes/.

[3] IBID

[4] IBID

[5] Strom, Natalie. “Cape Romano Uncovered.” Coastal Breeze News, 2012. https://web.archive.org/web/20150927201437/http://www.coastalbreezenews.com/2012/09/07/cape-romano-uncovered/.

[6] Before Andrew there were two other homes on the island, one that also sat on stilts and another that was a pyramid house- both of these were destroyed during the hurricane.

[7] This was used as an argument to leave the domes as is since they have attracted and become the home of a diverse sea life.

There were even discussions at one point to move the domes further out into the Gulf and completely submerge them underwater in order to produce an artificial reef. Thankfully, this did not receive the support or funding it required as the design of this artificial reef leaves much to be desired.

[8] Two prototypes and a subsequent hybrid version were built. The latter was used as an extension to William Graham’s family home.

[9] Giedion, Sigfried. Mechanization Takes Command, a Contribution to Anonymous History. Norton Library: Oxford University Press, 1969. 707.

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Tatjana Crossley

Architectural Designer and Theorist; Assistant Professor at CUHK