Dome homes may never replace a traditional build, but there's plenty to recommend these unconventional dwellings. Proponents applaud their energy-efficiency, lower construction costs and disaster resistance — not to mention their quirky coolness.
Southeast Tennessee has at least three properties boasting dome homes — in Chattanooga, Whitwell and Altamont. All used as short-term rentals, they're earning reputations among people who seek out stays in unusual places and far-flung attention from media organizations looking to showcase these oddities.
The Chattanooga build is an example of a monolithic dome, with a shell made of a single layer of concrete and other materials. Monolithic, you may recall from geology class, means "one stone," and this sturdy home is one piece.
The structures in Whitwell and Altamont are geodesic domes, or polyhedrons — remember that from geometry? It's a basic description of how they're formed from interconnected triangles.
Think of it this way: A monolithic dome home looks like it sprouted from the earth. A geodesic dome home looks like it fell to Earth.
DOME-ANOOGA IN CHATTANOOGA
When Realtor Glenn Bodnar launches into the history of the dome home he owns in Chattanooga, the story seems as incredible as the house.
"So this dancer in Vegas called me up and said she found me on the internet," he says. "And she thought I sounded like a hustler [in the enterprising sense of the word] and would I help her sell some properties?"
"And that's how the dream began," his wife, Donna Brownfield, dramatically interjects, drawing laughs.
They know how odd this origin story sounds. More important, they say, is how the story ends. Glenn and Donna can lay claim to having the first monolithic dome home in the city of Chattanooga. It's built on a narrow tract on Third Avenue that they purchased from that Las Vegas dancer, who purchased her long-distance investment properties in a tax delinquency sale.
After Glenn helped her sell her other Chattanooga holdings, she sold him and Donna the final, undeveloped property for what she paid for it, he says: $1,500. It wasn't long before they began building the dome home.
They call it "Dome-anooga" in their short-term rental listings and say the East Lake property is booked about 20 nights a month. They acknowledge there's a novelty factor, but Glenn, whose resume also includes stints as a stockbroker, mortgage lender and builder, says the home's true value lies in its impenetrability.
"It's fireproof, bulletproof, tornado-proof, bug-proof, rot-proof," he says.
Because of their strength and durability, monolithic domes are often used for commercial and industrial structures. Glenn says in his experience, banks are reluctant to finance residential domes. They self-financed theirs. The build took about a year and a half as they saved money for each new phase of construction and did much of the work themselves.
Now that they know the drill, and if money's no object, Glenn estimates that subsequent builds could go up in about six weeks. The structure is mostly concrete, fortified with rebar and foam insulation, and topped with a PVC-coated canvas painted with a roofing compound to protect it from damaging ultraviolet radiation.
At first glance, the gray, round form looks as if a puffball mushroom sprouted on the lawn and someone added windows and doors.
Guests often describe it as "the igloo house," Donna says. "We call it the bubble."
Their preferred term also describes the enveloping feeling the house imparts when guests step through the door, Donna says. It feels like "warmth and safety," she says. "There's an energy that makes you feel comfortable."
While its odd shape and red door attract attention from passersby, the house is just as eye-catching inside, with bold black and silver accents in the kitchen to the left and a comfortable living area curving to the right. A stacked washer and dryer are tucked into the full-size bathroom. A row of vertical cabinets across from a settee in the living area have a Murphy bed neatly tucked away.
"I made sure it had a dishwasher and a full-size tub and granite countertops," Donna says. "I put the bling on it."
A 10- by 20-foot patio out back offers additional table seating and a grill. A strategically placed birdhouse reminds visitors to "See Rock City."
At 425 square feet, the home's footprint is comparable in size to having a two-car garage stocked with all the comforts of home. Glenn and Donna believe the round shape makes it feel more spacious than the average efficiency apartment or similar tiny dwelling.
At least two guests have booked extended stays in the space, months at a time rather than the typical weekend rental. Even Glenn and Donna called it home for eight months — the time it took to repair their primary residence in East Brainerd after it was severely damaged in the Easter tornadoes in 2020. They added several amenities during that time.
"While we were the guests, we knew what the house needed," Glenn says. "We made a wish list."
* Find it: airbnb.com, vrbo.com
BOLT FARM TENNESSEE IN WHITWELL
The story of Bolt Farm Tennessee, a cluster of treehouses and geodesic domes in Whitwell, began as a single treehouse in South Carolina. But this was no ordinary treehouse.
Featured on Netflix's "The World's Most Amazing Vacation Rentals," the romantic retreat was designed and built as a honeymoon destination by Needtobreathe musician Seth Bolt and his dad, Larry Bolt, before Seth married the former Tori Haynes in May 2016. Located at Seth's childhood home in Walhalla, in the northwestern corner of South Carolina, that first luxury treehouse would eventually beget four more on Wadmalaw Island off the Charleston coast.
Then Seth and Tori turned their attention to Tennessee.
"We knew that we wanted to be on a mountaintop," says Tori. "And Tennessee is such a wonderful state. There's so much natural beauty. All the arrows were pointing there."
They found the Whitwell property for sale online in May 2020 and "started staying out there that summer," Tori says. "The previous property owner let us camp out even while we were doing the due diligence."
They deal was finalized in December. Since then, they've built two treehouses and eight domes on the 18 acres.
"They all have amazing views," Tori says.
Though treehouses had "kind of been our signature thing," Tori says they knew they wanted to add domes this time — "even before we found the property. Sure enough, the property laid out beautifully."
The domes are spread across a quarter-mile of brow frontage with unobstructed views of the Sequatchie Valley. The two extra-large domes, which sleep six, are fairly close so that groups can be together and share communal spaces. Two of the six smaller domes were built for maximum privacy and are more secluded. The smaller domes can accommodate two guests at a time.
"They're great for couples or solo travelers," Tori says.
All of the domes have privacy walls on either side, plus curtains on the giant front window. Amenities include kitchenettes, fireplaces, hot tubs, outdoor showers and fire pits, along with such extras as a hand-hammered copper bathtub, pizza oven and an old-fashioned movie screen for nighttime entertainment.
This low-tech alternative to a high-definition TV is in keeping with the rustic nature the Bolts envisioned for the domes. As Space Age-y as the structures look from the outside — sort of like the top half of an astronaut's helmet — the domes have an Old World appeal inside. Their geometric shape is formed from wood beams connected by custom-made brackets in oil-rubbed bronze.
"We wanted every part to be interesting and beautiful," Tori says.
Staying true to the property's remote setting and natural beauty, they envision each space "like a time capsule, where time stands still," Tori says.
But in a nod to Chattanooga's "crazy fast internet," the Bolts do provide Wi-Fi, even if they expect visitors can't help but unplug once they arrive and immerse themselves in the experience.
"Our mission and purpose is to help people reconnect with nature and the people they love," Tori says.
* Find it: boltfarmtennessee.com
TENNESSEE GLAMPING IN ALTAMONT
For Tony and Christina Happeny, the idea to build a geodesic dome germinated during a trip to Machu Picchu in Peru. Their five-day trek included an overnight stay in a geodome — one decidedly more spartan than the structure they would ultimately build.
"This was much smaller," says Tony. "Basically it was just a bed inside a dome."
Then living in Atlanta, the Happenys had purchased 16 undeveloped acres in Altamont for weekend getaways. Originally, their plans for the site were much more traditional.
"We bought this property to build ourselves a cabin," Tony says. "Then we came up with this idea [for the glamping domes]. Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine what it would become."
Tennessee Glamping puts its focus on the high-end amenities that appeal to seekers of "glamorous camping," aka "glamping," when rugged nature outside meets modern luxury inside. Tony says their goal is to put "glamorous at the forefront" of guests' experience.
The domes, made of metal frames and a thermoplastic cover, are centered on wooden decks surrounded by grills, hot tubs, fire pits and Adirondack chairs for lounging. Inside ultramodern touches enhance the kitchens, bathrooms and living areas. Tubes running from a nearby cave keep the structures cool in summer. Solar panels power the electricity.
"It evolved from a small tentlike situation to a luxury glamping situation with hot tubs and [virtual reality] headsets and air conditioning," Tony says. "It's as much of an over-the-top experience as you can get in the mountains."
Tony credits Christina for the focus on luxury. His wife, he says, had zero interest in roughing it inside a glorified tent.
"She said, 'I'm not staying if it doesn't have a bathroom and a kitchenette and power and everything,'" he recalls. "I originally didn't have bathrooms [in the blueprint]. I was going to have an outhouse. But happy wife, happy life. I decided to come up with a design that would allow for a bathroom."
His second design nudge followed a decision to contact the Discovery-owned DIY Network about the possibility of being featured in the long-running series "Building Off the Grid," one of his favorite shows. Producers were interested, and a camera crew was on-site for the full seven weeks of construction on the first dome. The episode notes that they were a week behind schedule and $20,000 over their initial $20,000 budget when they finished, but Tony says he'd do it the same way again.
The television coverage pushed him "to put in the extra effort," he says.
He believes their attention to detail has attracted "a different demographic than the typical glamping customer."
Their clientele includes "a lot of people who had never hiked before, never glamped or even camped," he says. "The fact that we have bathrooms and hot tubs, people are willing to come out and take advantage of the local trails. And they find a new passion. They can't wait to come back."
* Find it: tennessee-glamping.com