“What’s Home Epot?” – The Bubble Dome Story (Shambhala 2012)

Have you ever wanted your very own geodesic dome home? A bunch of my friends did. So we made one and took it to Shambhala, the world’s premiere electronic music festival. Here’s how it all went down:

The mathematicians in the group calculated the dimensions and materials required to build 5/8 of a full sphere using information from that wonderful source of almost unlimited information: the interwerbz. A whole bunch of ten foot lengths of steel tubing were procured, and work began.


Using my dad’s circular saw and metal-cutting blades (we wore through 3 blades by the end), we produced over 150 poles, none more than 1/8″ off the desired length. In order to make precise cuts, we set up a simple guide system on our workbench (actually my dad’s wooden scaffolding, put to use as a workbench). After every tenth cut, we also did a measurement to ensure we were still getting the same length of pole. There were three different lengths required, so we colour-coded them with black, red, and gold spray paint before making the cuts.

Here, on the left, you can see how we butted the pole up against a board clamped to the workbench. On the right, blocks on either side of the pole holds it snugly in place and provide a surface for the circular saw to slide across:

Table guide setup for cutting steel tubing with a circular saw

Power tools are fun! Note safety goggles and gloves to protect against the tiny bits of hot flying metal (photo by Conrad Nickels).

Cutting steel tubing with a circular saw

How many UBC graduates does it take to cut a piece of steel tubing? Apparently seven: one to cut, one to hold, one to take photos, and four to eat pizza, drink beer, and supervise.

Cutting steel tubing with a circular saw

Sparks flying:

Cutting steel tubing with a circular saw
Cutting steel tubing with a circular saw
Cutting steel tubing with a circular saw


Using an arbor press with a four foot piece of metal electrical conduit slipped over the handle to increase leverage, the end of each piece of steel tubing was flattened. This step is clearly visible in the video below. The seam that runs lengthwise down the steel tubing (easy to see if you look inside) was always lined up at a 45 degree angle from the horizontal plane to avoid splitting or buckling the metal.


Using a drill press (borrowed from the Vancouver Tool Library) mounted on our workbench, we carefully drilled a hole slightly larger than the diameter of the bolts we planned to use for assembling the dome. Before each and every single hole, cutting oil was added to the drill bit. Don’t skip this step! Here, John drills through a flattened section of steel tubing with the drill press:

Drilling a hole in steel tubing for a geodesic dome


For our geodesic dome to work, the flattened tip of each piece of steel tubing had to be bent to the correct angle, otherwise we’d end up with a big, flat set of interconnected metal triangles. To get the angle right, we bolted one of my dad’s vices to a board, then attached a lightweight piece of perforated board to the base and marked lines on it at the correct angle. Jeremy drinks beer while steel tubing bends itself to the correct angle:

Bending steel tubing for a geodesic dome


Once each piece of steel tubing had both ends crushed, drilled, and bent, we had to smooth out the sharp edges from the cutting and drilling that could otherwise be safety hazards. You can use sandpaper if you’re looking to lose weight, but we did the job with my angle grinder, as seen in the video below.


As previously mentioned, we had three different lengths of steel tubing, marked with paint stripes during the cutting. Using three different colours of spray paint specifically designed to prevent rust, we coated the tips, where corrosion would be most likely to occur. Here, the colour-coded steel tubing surrounds my 1979 Honda CM400T to dry the paint in the hot summer sun:

Painted steel tubing for a geodesic dome drying

To give you a better idea of steps 2 to 6, here’s a video showing each of these steps in order:

Bubble Dome: Preparing the steel tubing from Chris Anderson on Vimeo.


A geodesic dome would be neat, but not particularly practical as a living space, without a cover to protect against the elements. Mark’s research led to the conclusion that Tyvek HomeWrap would be the best material with which to fashion a cover for the Bubble Dome. Two rolls of the stuff, bought at a secret mystery store, the identity of which shall never be revealed, could be cut into 9 panels to be sewn into a dome form.

These were BIG panels, so we needed a big and level working space to make them. Where else would a group of former UBC students go? The lobby of War Memorial Gym of course:

Preparing Tyvek sheeting for a geodesic dome cover

Shoes came off to protect the Tyvek, and we began marking out the cut lines as precisely as possible (the key to getting this right on the first try was having several math experts present). We left about 1″ of material outside of the marked lines, so that the panels could later be sewn together.

Marking lines to cut Tyvek sheeting for a geodesic dome cover

The bigger your scissors, the easier it is to cut Tyvek quickly and accurately along the lines. For some reason there’s a 10″ pair of scissors in my family’s house, and this is the first time I’ve found them useful instead of bizarrely oversized.

Cutting Tyvek sheeting for a geodesic dome cover

The internerds has a dome cover calculator, which you can find at domerama.com. Incredible.

Dome cover calculator

One of the nine giant Tyvek panels we cut for our geodesic dome cover:

One of nine panels for our geodesic dome cover


The two steps of this process in which I didn’t manage to participate were the painting and sewing of the dome cover. Matthew researched and tested various types of paint on the Tyvek to determine what we could use without negatively affecting the tear-resistant and waterproof properties of the material, then he and John painted all sorts of crazy colourful patterns onto the panels.


Once the paint had dried, a group returned with the panels to the War Memorial Gym lobby at UBC with a sewing machine and many helping hands to guide the panels while our expert seamstresses sewed the panels together with heavy duty thread (photo by Conrad Nickels).

Tyvek dome cover painted and sewn together

With all nine panels sewn together, they ‘inflated’ the dome cover to test it, and it worked! (Photo by Conrad Nickels)

Testing the Tyvek geodesic dome cover

Step 10: TEST

We did a quick, partial test build in Matthew’s front yard, pleasantly surprising a number of neighbours and passers-by, learned a number of things about dome assembly in doing so, checked that the Tyvek dome cover fit properly, and then dismantled the whole thing immediately.

Here’s a video showing the group pulling the cover onto the dome while I was lying on my back on the ground filming. You’ll notice at one point, someone jumps down without looking and lands on my recently-operated knee. Luckily I moved just in time, and his foot glanced off the side of my knee instead of crushing it.

Covering a geodesic dome with Tyvek from Chris Anderson on Vimeo.


On August 8th, Conrad picked me up and we drove across town to pick up the Bubble Dome. We loaded the entire geodesic dome – steel tubing, Tyvek cover, bolts, nuts, and washers, turbine air vent, and tools – into Conrad’s car.

Loading the entire dome into Conrad's car

The drive from Vancouver to Shambhala (just outside the town of Salmo, BC) took us about nine hours. By the time we arrived, we had both become experts at spotting deer from a great distance and slowing down to avoid hitting them, despite their best efforts. We arrived a little after 2am and spent the next seven hours waiting, trying to sleep, and occasionally driving from one part of the vehicle staging grounds to the next. By 9am we were through the gates and after a fair bit of searching, we found our friends who had reserved a spot among the thousands of tents, large enough to fit the Bubble Dome.

Waiting to get in:

Thousands of vehicles wait through the night to enter Shambhala


Once the dome materials were unloaded, we started assembling our geodesic dome, being careful to place each colour-coded piece of steel tubing in the right place (photo by Conrad Nickels).

Geodesic dome assembly instructions

Starting our geodesic dome assembly at Shambhala:

Starting the geodesic dome assembly at Shambhala

3/8 sphere complete – only one layer left to reach our 5/8 sphere completed Bubble Dome:

3/8 of the Bubble Dome complete

Alllllmost done! In total, it took us about three hours to assemble the Bubble Dome.

Almost completed Bubble Dome

Bubble Dome structure completed! It proved to be extremely strong and able to safely support any number of us climbing and jumping all over it:

Testing the Bubble Dome: it works!

And then, for the Tyvek dome cover:

Bubble Dome with Tyvek cover in place

The final product, a Bubble Dome that was colourful on the inside, and white on the outside to reflect the intense sunlight, standing 16 feet high and 24 feet wide:

Our geodesic dome, with Tyvek cover rolled partway up, and Tigger totem

Daytime temperatures at Shambhala were in the high 30s every single day, roasting anyone who stayed out in the open sun or tried to hide in their tents, which acted like greenhouses. The weather inside our wonderful Bubble Dome, however, was perfectly comfortable! Many daytime naps were had.

Sleeping arrangements in the Bubble Dome

I won’t say much about the festival itself. It’s a bit too hard to describe, so you’ll just have to go yourself if you want to understand it. But I will say that there were some amazing musicians and some very cool people at Shambhala, and I had a lot of fun. The stages, lighting, and sound quality were very impressive. This is the Living Room stage by the river:

Living Room stage at Shambhala 2012

The festival runs all night and most of the day, with six main stages. The Chill Dome was a small stage where about twenty of us enjoyed DJ Zero D playing a set of trance music, and then an impromptu set when he realised that the next act hadn’t shown up for their slot.

Midday trance music with DJ Zero D in the Chill Dome at Shambhala 2012

The best lighting of any stage, in my opinion, was at Pagoda. Projectors beamed creative animations onto the various surfaces of the stage to produce optical illusions, while some of the best lasers in the world sliced through the air, painting patterns on the mountainside in the distance.

Porter Robinson playing at the Pagoda stage at Shambhala 2012
Porter Robinson playing at the Pagoda stage at Shambhala 2012

In one of the photos above (right before the hammock naptime photo), you can see the Tigger totem. Many groups make totems which they take with them when they go dancing at Shambhala, partly to express team spirit and partly to make it easier for the members to find each other. Mike built the Tigger totem a couple years ago and has added more lights (and disco ball squares) over time. It stands about 12 feet high and has its own (very heavy) power source. While cumbersome, the Tigger totem could be seen from very, very far away. When you’re trying to find your friends at one of six stages with 10,000 people in attendance, Tigger becomes your best friend. One night I found a guy dressed as Tigger, so we got a photo of Tigger with Tigger:

Tigger with Tigger totem at Shambhala 2012

The act I enjoyed the most, of the ones I saw, was Porter Robinson. The guy’s only 20 years old, and is a musical genius. Below is a random clip of a few seconds of his set at Pagoda, though this sample doesn’t do any justice to his skills; the video is intended to give you a glimpse of what it’s like to watch a set at Pagoda. To hear something more representative of his work, head over to: http://porterrobinsonofficial.com/

Porter Robinson and the Tigger Totem at Pagoda (Shambhala 2012) from Chris Anderson on Vimeo.

On the morning of August 13th, we disassembled the Bubble Dome, which only took about half an hour, packed up the cars, and headed for the exits. Lined up with thousands of other vehicles, it took us an hour and a half to get off the ranch. We then had a nice long drive back to Vancouver, and two days later I flew to Nova Scotia

Humanitarian Logistics in a Nutshell – Part 5b: More Construction and Rehabilitation

While I was in Lubutu as interim logistician from May 19 to June 11, I had the lucky chance to oversee a number of improvement projects being carried out on the office base. While the main focus of any humanitarian is on the community in which he/she is working, it’s important to remember that the national and international staff managing the program need to have a functional and safe working space.

One project involved hiring a subcontractor to rebuild the paillote (thatched-roof hut) that protects the 13kVA generator. Without a good, rainproof shelter, a very expensive generator could be badly damaged or destroyed by one of Lubutu’s unbelievably heavy mid-afternoon downpours, leaving the base with no source of electricity.


The finished product, tested several times in the weeks that followed:


We got another subcontractor to build a new hut for the guards, because it’s not very fun to work a 12 hour shift after being soaked to the bone:


Another project during my stay was increasing the security of the base by building a new brick wall at the front to replace the bamboo fence and increasing the height of the brick walls on the sides of the base. These are four photos of the same section of wall; the first two were taken from inside, the last two from outside:


A leaking building can be problematic if you’re using computers for most of your work, keeping binders of archived documents for donors on your shelves, and vital medicines in your storage rooms. Since there were many leaks in the office roof, the landlord agreed to replace it and Merlin (Medical Emergency Relief International) agreed to supervise the work. It was ridiculously loud but it was important work.


Back to the walls – after the bricklaying was done, the walls were plastered with cement as you could see in two of the photos above. Following this, a tyrolienne was used to give the walls texture (I don’t know if this has any practical application, but it sure looks nice!). That metal machine – the tyrolienne – shoots out thousands of tiny drops of cement onto the wall as the worker winds a handle on the side of the box.


Paint comes next, white and green to suit Merlin’s organisational image:


An ultra-smooth area was created on which to paint an organisation logo and spraypainted before the logo was added:


A shiny new roof and a bright new wall:


Final touches – adding a hand-painted Merlin logo for visibility:


It was really neat watching as the different improvements on the base were carried out and it was a good learning experience as I was able to ask lots of questions to our rehabilitation logistician and the different workers pictured in this post.

Well, that’s the last of my “Humanitarian Logistics in a Nutshell” posts. If you want to read some stuff written by someone who knows a lot more about what he’s talking about, check out Michael Keizer’s well-written blog on humanitarian logistics and other aid-related stuff: A Humourless Lot. He offers good insight in a writing style that’s very accessible.

Humanitarian Logistics in a Nutshell – Part 5a: Construction and Rehabilitation

Depending on the organisations by which they’re employed, and the projects to which they’re assigned, humanitarian logisticians may become involved in construction or rehabilitation projects. People with civil engineering backgrounds and some management experience often make very good humanitarian logisticians for this reason. I studied international relations, politics, and French for my bachelor’s degree, and humanitarian work for my master’s degree, but I used to party with civil engineers (and all the other kinds of engineers) at UBC so I can pretend that I know a bit about all this stuff.

This is a typical centre de santé (health centre) supported by Merlin (Medical Emergency Relief International) in Obosango which is in the Lubutu health zone of Maniema Province in the DR Congo:


This is a maternity which is in the final stages of being rehabilitated by Merlin in Osso, which is also in Lubutu health zone. The funding for the rehabilitation came from JOAC (Jersey Overseas Aid Commission), while funding for the medical support (drugs and medical equipment, trainings, staff incentives, etc) for almost all of Merlin’s activities in Maniema comes from DFID (the UK Department for International Development).


The facilities in Osso, as you can see from the previous two photos, are a notch above those in Obasango. If there was money to rehabilitate the more than two dozen structures in the Lubutu and Obokote health zones, it would probably be done, but with the funding available two structures were chosen for rehabilitation and two for construction from scratch. These buildings are built using fairly simple construction methods.

Sand and gravel are donated by local communities and transported by Merlin to the construction sites, where cement powder provided by Merlin is mixed with the sand, gravel, and water to make cement for the foundations. Sand:


For the walls of the buildings, clay soil is donated by local communities and turned into bricks using brick presses, then baked in brick ovens like this one:


Once the bricks are ready, the walls start going up along the contours of the foundation as in this maternity being built from scratch in Omoyaki, in Obokote health zone of Maniema:


The brickwork for the Kabakaba maternity starting to go up:


This is the maternity in Mukwanyama, which is nearly finished being rehabilitated:


Once the building is finished, the brick walls are covered with cement-based plaster, then painted. The second photo in this post shows what the plastered and painted walls look like at the end.


At each structure supported by Merlin, a signboard is erected to let people know what the building is for, and who is helping support it:


Of course, there are many, many problems that come up with building or rehabilitating buildings in places like the DR Congo. For example, the community usually needs to help with a certain amount of free labour. Sand, gravel, and clay are needed and if these were not donated by local villages the work would be far more difficult. Communities don’t always understand the usefulness of a health centre, and may even oppose the disruption that construction or rehabilitation can cause to their villages. Various levels of local government may try to impose harsh restrictions that prevent NGOs from working efficiently. If construction workers, masons, and roofers are brought in to do some of the work, the local community may become upset that local villagers are not being given the opportunity for paid employment to work on the project. When community members are responsible for part of the project, such a making and baking the bricks, they may simply not do it because they feel they need to spend their days tending their crops.

For all of these reasons, and many more, construction and rehabilitation projects can easily stumble or even fail completely. The two foundation photos of Omoyaki and Kabakaba (above), for instance, show halted works – the villagers had stopped working several weeks before for a number of reasons. In the photo below, the foundation of the Lubao centre de santé in Kailo health zone is barely visible. All that greenery you see is growing where the floor should be. This foundation has lain untouched for two years.


In order to avoid problems like this, and to keep construction and rehabilitation projects moving along, a lot of community sensitisation is necessary. Staff members are needed to explain the importance of health for the local populace. These community sensitisers spend time in villages, often staying several nights at a time, motivating the community. With good sensitisers, the work tends to go relatively smoothly, and the sensitisation continues even after the buildings are completed so that the population actually uses them too.