River Haven and U-Domes
Written by Lee Schneider
Is it possible to construct a village of new homes in a day, providing much needed housing for the homeless in Ventura County, California? The answer is yes if you have a few hundred volunteers, two battalions of Navy Sea-Bees, an innovative design for geodesic domes and some vision.
The innovative dome design comes from an American original named R. Buckminster Fuller. The vision comes from Bruce LeBel of World Shelters and Clyde Reynolds of the Turning Point Foundation. Clyde, the foundation’s executive director, heads up a program serving more than 500 clients in Ventura County each year through its shelter rehabilitation programs. Clyde hired Bruce’s company, World Shelters, to do something amazing: create housing for the homeless in just one day. Bruce, once a student of Buckminster Fuller, was ready for the challenge. Why? Not only did Buckminster Fuller advance the concept of a dome as a multi-use building, but Fuller also believed in a passionate and committed form of architecture that would help citizens of Earth survive and prosper. He saw his life as an experiment into “what, if anything,” an individual could do “on behalf of all humanity.”
“For the first time in history it is now possible to take care of everybody at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. Only ten years ago the ‘more with less’ technology reached the point where this could be done. All humanity now has the option to become enduringly successful.”
– R. Buckminster Fuller, 1980
Bucky, as he was known, inspired Bruce LeBel to use the dome design to provide emergency housing all over the world. We’re making a film about pre-fab architecture for the very poor and the very rich called SHELTER. One of Bruce’s projects we’re following happened over the weekend, at an encampment for the homeless called River Haven, in Ventura. Winter is coming, and that means heavy rains and some heavy weather. The homeless people who lived here were camped in tents that were showing their age over the four years this settlement has been in existence. Domes would provide warmth, strength, and security.
The domes at River Haven, called U-Domes, are the result of years of research at World Shelters. Bruce was once an engineer at The North Face, the outdoor equipment company whose tents utilized Fuller’s principle of tensegrity. Tensegrity is a synergy of materials achieved by a balance of tension and compression in their components. U-Domes are designed to ship easily and go up fast.
Putting one of World Shelter’s U-Domes together looks complicated – it’s something like wrestling with really big origami – but it can be done by volunteers with little or no training. It’s one way you can get a village standing in a day. The domes that went up this weekend are strong, light and portable – built to withstand 80 mph winds and last for ten years. Those who contributed to the project included members of two battalions of Navy Sea-Bees, some of whom had just returned from deployment in Afghanistan. They put down sixteen wooden pads on gravel that provide steady grounding and support for the domes. Allegra Fuller Snyder, Buckminster Fuller’s daughter, stopped by to support the effort and fill us in on her father. She gave us an interview connecting the vision of her dad with the applications Bruce has been seeking for his domes. We hope Bucky Fuller will be the spiritual father of our film.
Cheryl Deay of the United Way was heading up some of of the volunteers on site. She told us that 70% of the homeless population are working and struggling to get out of homelessness. For the most part they keep a low profile. “For every homeless person you see there are eight more that you don’t see.” She explained that you may see the men on the street, but the women and children and families are hidden away.
SHELTER will follow this and some other projects Bruce has going and will also track pre-fab housing projects for the very rich. We’ve completed interviews with Jennifer Siegal of the Office of Mobile Design and have met with two more pre-fab architecture powerhouses, Shigeru Ban and Dean Maltz, to speak with them about being in the film.