OLD SNOWMASS, Colo. — Just look at what it does. It gives you more growing space than the land it occupies. It creates a tropical environment at 7,100 feet in the Rockies with no energy used--year-round. And it can be very cheaply built with hand tools."
--Energy consultant Amory Lovins, director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, describing the "biodome" at Windstar Foundation, a half mile from his home.
There's already snow on the ground here, and right next to it you can find cantaloupes ripening on the vine, catfish who think they're swimming in Montego Bay, geraniums in full bloom and dozens of other species in various stages of their growth cycles.
Though the traditional Rocky Mountain growing season extends only from about July through August, these crops are defying their environment and thriving at the icy altitude of 7,100 feet inside a "biodome," an innovative approach to horticulture and aquaculture inspired by the late Buckminster Fuller.
Doing More With Less
Fuller, whose geodesic dome is the best-known artifact of his do-more-with-less philosophy, visited John Denver's Windstar Foundation here in 1980, 1981 and 1982. And out of those visits came plans to create a solar greenhouse/fish farm using his dome technology, which is said to provide the greatest amount of interior volume using the least amount of exterior surface area.
Exterior surface area being roughly equivalent to heat-loss area, that's a big deal in locations where people have heating bills like those popular in the Rockies. Here in the land known for its posh ski resorts and back-to-nature enthusiasts, heating even a small, non-solar greenhouse is considered financially unfeasible.
But the biodome project, designed by solar energy expert and former high school science teacher John Katzenberger, seeks to reverse all that. It has married the best theories of horticulture with the latest in aquaculture in an ecosystem designed to let nature protect the couple's offspring from one of the harshest climates in the world.
High-Tech Victory Garden
Last fall, about a year after Fuller's death, the 25-foot prototype biodome started producing zucchini, scallions, bluegill, watercress, beets, New Zealand spinach, spearmint, snap dragons, pomegranates and much, much more. About the only thing missing from this highly personal, high-tech victory garden is a couple of palm trees.
Constructed of wood recycled from a dome built at Windstar during one of Fuller's visits, the biodome is powered almost exclusively by active and passive solar energy; its "skin" consists of inflatable pillows made of heat-mirroring polyester film, which permits the maximum amount of sunlight, releases the least amount of heat and holds up under massive snowfalls.
According to Katzenberger, a 5,000-gallon fish tank on the ground floor of the biodome stores heat from the sun and gradually disperses it to create a distinctly tropical climate by day and a somewhat cooler, but still adequate temperature at night.
Until it gets down to 20 below zero, that is. Or worse. Last year, during the biodome's inaugural winter, the thermal mass created by the sun and the fish tank was quite cozy until the mercury hit 20 below. Then for 10 days, says Katzenberger, it was necessary to burn a few logs inside the dome to keep the crops from freezing while temperatures plummeted as far as 36 below. (Everything survived except for one basil plant.)
The first year results, in terms of food harvested, amounted to 470 pounds of produce, about 2 3/4 pounds per square foot of growing space. No fish have been harvested yet but they've been growing and reproducing, as have the biodome's resident pair of Zebra finches. The birds were installed as an experiment in pest control (in addition to conventional means such as ladybugs) because no pesticides or herbicides are used in the structure.
When a larger, 50-foot biodome (now under construction at Windstar with four floors planned for the inside) is completed, Katzenberger estimates that its annual produce will weigh in at about 4,000 pounds.
He further calculates the cost of materials for the 25-foot biodome to be about $5,000, and $30,000 for the 50-foot version.
But such estimates may be misleading. These people, recyclers par excellence, are masters at doing more with less. Windstar, a nonprofit organization "devoted to education about, and demonstration of the potential of alternative and renewable technologies ranging from energy to food production," was founded by John Denver and Thomas Crum in 1976. Its 945 acres are dotted with such energy-efficient features as a wind machine, a solar shower, a solar composting toilet, and tepee frames (where summer guests frequently stay).
Asked how much has been spent so far on the 25-foot biodome, Katzenberger replies that salaries (for several individuals) and materials since 1983 have amounted to about $100,000. Then he smiles and says, "We're very frugal."