New takes on a very old idea22nd Apr 2021
From Transkei to Alaska, round houses have been the norm for centuries – more probably millennia. In fact, it was only with the (in some case quite strong) encouragement of missionaries that Christian converts started to build ‘civilised’ square houses in southern Africa. But, while in some places and societies the stigma of ‘primitiveness’ is still associated with round houses, many forward-thinking architects and planners in all parts of the world are rediscovering the advantages of circular dwellings, and have been for decades.
The advantages of round houses
Our ancestors built (and sensible contemporaries build) round houses because they have so many advantages compared to rectangular houses. Enclosing a round space uses 15% to 20% less building materials than enclosing the same square meterage in a rectangular structure, so it is more economical, is easier to heat or cool, and has a smaller eco footprint.
Curved walls are structurally stronger than straight ones, and conical or domed roofs are stronger than flat or rectilinear pitched ones, so round houses are more resilient. One reason is that wind and rain are deflected around the dwelling rather then beating directly onto it, and round houses usually have more flexibility and give purely by virtue of the way they are constructed, so they tend to suffer less damage in earthquakes. (Of course, we do have to take building materials into consideration.)
Another huge advantage of round houses is that they are much easier to keep clean than square ones because there are no sharp corners in which dust (and worse) can collect, and it’s unlikely that long stretches of wall will be blocked by furniture. Round houses lend themselves to minimalism and multi-use furniture placed away from the walls. The acoustics are better, and, in many cases, they lend themselves to natural cooling, as hot air tends to rise in spirals.
Why did houses become square?
This is a tricky question, and the few answers to it are mostly guesswork. As humans, we find pattern comforting, so our settlements tend to be fractal – round houses in round settlements, and square houses in square settlements. Think of the typical African village – circular kraals within the village, and circular houses in concentric circles, with the house of the chief or king in the middle. And the fields and grazing lands extend out radially from the village so that most of the places people need to walk to are in a certain radius – even different radii for different people, with tilled fields surrounding the village and grazing land surrounding the fields.
And think of the classic city – square buildings in a grid of square streets. So, it has been hypothesised, square buildings appeared when people started dividing up property between individuals. It would just be crazy to have individuals owning little circles next to each other, so it was logical to partition land into squares or rectangles, with well-defined boundaries. And, once the farms or plots were rectangular, the houses tended to follow suit. And then we started making square bricks, so walls tended to be rectilinear. Rectangular houses are also easier to divide up into different rooms with different functions, and even different statuses. So rectangular plots and rectangular houses seem ‘normal’ to us. But round houses have so many advantages that it’s worth reconsidering our love affair with right angles, and even – yes – building round houses on square plots. There are a lot of people suggesting we do just that.
Some interesting contemporary and historical round houses
Certainly, round houses are still the norm in many traditional societies, but many so-called ‘first-world’ architects, planners, individuals and communities are embracing the concept of round houses – with or without the accompanying change in land ownership and use.
Renowned US-based architect Wallace Neff, who is best known for designing houses for Hollywood’s rich and famous, developed a unique construction process for what he considered his most important work – the bubble house. The process is simple. Throw a circular concrete slab of about 10-metre diameter, attach a huge hemispherical balloon to it, inflate it, coat it in gunite, leave it to set, and then remove the balloon to make another house. His plan was to roll out the idea to create affordable housing and, in 1941, he built a community of 12 houses and, in 1944, he built the biggest bubble house yet – 100 feet (30 metres) in diameter. It didn’t really take off, but the idea is sound – although it would be great to find an alternative to cement for the ‘gunite’.
Another renowned architect, Buckminster Fuller, is remembered as the champion of the geodesic dome, which he did not invent – that was done by German engineer Walther Bauersfeld – but he did perfect it. Unlike bubble houses, geodesic domes have gone pretty mainstream – think the Montreal Biosphere and many others. Geodesic domes with diameters greater than 100 metres are not uncommon. An interesting start-up in the USA, Geoship, has designed a geodesic dome made largely from ceramic to be hurricane-proof by virtue of its shape, and wildfire-resistant by virtue of its materials. The units are offered for sale, but the long-term aim of the company is to help alleviate homelessness. And there is even a geodesic sphere – Spaceship Earth – at Disney World’s Epcot.
On the subject of spaceships, the supremely retro Futuro House, designed by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen as a ‘portable’ ski chalet, was decidedly impractical as a home. About eight metres in diameter, the Futuro is a flattened sphere that really does look like the classic sci-fi ‘flying saucer’ UFO. It was also one of those structures that you either love or hate – most people hated them, but they did have a dedicated fan base. There are about 65 known Futuro Houses still in existence all over the world, including – according to the semi-official site – one in Bloemfontein. (If any readers know if this is true, please let us know. I think I would happily drive to Bloem just to see one.) In case you are interested, the original mould is still in operation, and you can order a brand-new Futuro. It will cost you US$ 200,000 ex Finland but, if you want more than one, the mould is for sale for a mere US$150,000, and it will probably cost a lot less to ship than the house.
Probably the most interesting round house on the market is the rotating Domespace, constructed from sustainably sourced timber. Designed by French architect Patrick Marsilli, the Domespace features an electric motor that can rotate the whole structure through 360°, using about the same amount of electricity that it would take to vacuum the house once. And, of course, if you’re generating your own solar electricity, that rotation pays for itself. The standard size is 7.2 metre radius, giving a total floor space of 210 square metres that translates to about 163 square metres of usable space. Anchored on a central elastomeric pivot, the house is surprisingly resilient – evidently withstanding earthquakes up to eight on the Richter Scale, and one Domespace house in Taiwan survived Cyclone Tim’s 280 km/h winds in 1994. A bonus is that you don’t have to keep moving your cat’s favourite bed to the sunniest room in the house, you can just program the house to keep Fluffy in the sun. Yes, you can control it with an app.
Could round houses work in today’s societies?
Round houses would probably not work in rigidly rectilinear inner cities, but they certainly can work in rural areas, in suburbia, and perhaps in estates. Residential estates lend themselves to round houses, because – when starting from scratch – a developer can decide how to break up space, and also what the division of space says about the relationships between people. Round houses tend to have nebulous boundaries, while square ones have more defined fence lines. Would it, for example, make sense to have round houses in a ‘village’ environment of communal space? Perhaps with the option of buying or renting exclusive space elsewhere on the estate?
And I could just imagine a small community of spaceship-like Futuros scattered around some lunar landscape in the Northern Cape.