When Kevin Shea set out to build a home of his own, he knew it had to be a dome.
The idea of dome living always fascinated Shea, who in his early 20s envisioned an active, creative space he could use for everything from gymnastics to creating movies. “It was a much more eccentric design back then,” he quipped during a recent interview from his unique Baiting Hollow home. “I just wanted to be the next Steven Spielberg.”
The design he ultimately brought to life may have differed from those early iterations, but is the culmination of a lifelong dream.
Set back from busy Sound Avenue on a flag lot, the curious geodesic structure is equal parts countercultural throwback and futuristic ideation of a more sustainable world.
There was a time in the mid 20th century when dome-shaped homes were thought to be an architectural game changer.
The benefits were appealing: A sphere maximizes space and volume using a minimal amount of materials and surface area, which also results in highly efficient air circulation. Though he didn’t create the world’s first dome home, the phrase “geodesic dome” was coined by architect and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller in the late 1940s.
He saw the design as a prototype for doing more with less and as an egalitarian response to the post-WWII housing scramble.
Geodesic domes may not have caught on in the mainstream, but they have influenced everything from the iconic Spaceship Earth attraction at Epcot to children’s playground equipment and tent designs for adventurous alpinists, built to withstand extreme conditions.
The dome design was intriguing to Shea, who desired a home that was eco-friendly, affordable, energy efficient and out of the box — though still aesthetically pleasing. He began seriously considering the project after seeing an ad for a geodesic dome kit that offered 93,000 cubic feet of space for $11,000.
The resulting dome is an impressive feat and geometric odyssey built with intention. The tri-level sphere is 70 feet in diameter and consists of 624 wooden triangles in six different sizes made from sustainably sourced Southern pine.
It stands 44 feet tall and is partially underground, which helps to regulate the temperature inside.
“It’s not like a house where hot air gets trapped at the highest part of the room,” Shea said. “It actually flows and mixes to keep the temperature steady for a longer period of time.”
The shape of the dome, he added, makes it well-suited to handle extreme weather and winds. “It’s aerodynamic. Wind comes around it and goes right across like wind over a turtle shell.”
With an open plan and 3,760 square feet of living space on the first floor, Shea’s rustic, minimalist layout is characterized by natural wood and organized into zones. At the center is a hexagonal structure he refers to as the home’s “nucleus,” which houses much of its infrastructure.
The main atrium is where you’ll find a kitchen and dining area, living area with a wood pellet stove for heat in the winter and several quirky features like a Paleolithic-themed bathroom and series of swings hanging from the ceiling that are a hit when friends and family (kids and adults alike) come to visit. They also make a perfect reading nook for Shea’s longtime partner, Versha Gupta. “I like the feeling of openness,” Gupta said. “I feel it’s like a sanctuary.”
Nearby, a climbing rope dangles from the cavernous ceiling; a nod to Shea’s earliest ideas for the space. At 55, the retired New York City firefighter can still climb to the top with ease.
A grand staircase at the main door is flanked by 16 southern-facing windows that allow sunlight to cascade down into the home, which utilizes both solar and wind power as well as a geothermal heating system. The floors, made from polished concrete, were intentionally left dark brown to retain warmth, especially in the winter months, Shea explains. In addition to being well-insulated, the floors feature radiant heating via tubes beneath the concrete that fill with naturally heated water.
A spiral staircase Shea built from a kit leads upstairs to the primary bedroom, modeled after a captain’s quarters on a ship, and a second bathroom currently under construction. The third level offers storage space as well as home office space the couple share plus accommodations for visitors.
“It’s inviting; that’s what we like about it. And the house is all open,” Shea said. “You don’t feel confined. You don’t get cabin fever or anything like that.”
The lack of walls is one notable adjustment from living in a traditionally designed home. While standing on the second floor overlooking the expansive dome, Shea points to a corner on the opposite side of the dome on the main level and explains that if someone whispers a number over there, you can hear it clear as day up here.
“There’s a lot of reverberation in the house,” he explains, adding that rugs on the floors, as well as walls lined with a non-flammable cork and material made from recycled blue jeans — and typically found in car engines — can help mitigate sound traveling. Despite starting to daydream about dome living while he was still in high school, Shea didn’t formalize those plans until he found the flag lot property in Baiting Hollow in 1999 — the same year he followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and joined the FDNY, assigned to Ladder 35 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Starting the build was a long and emotional journey, undoubtedly influenced by Shea’s experience on 9/11, which left him seriously injured and mourning 11 lost comrades from his firehouse. “They were a great bunch of guys that unfortunately did not live,” he recalled solemnly.
In the wake of that tragedy, as he began to move forward, it was the FDNY community that helped turn his dream into a reality.
“I would bring my plans all the time into work and at one point, I showed it to a lieutenant,” Shea said, recalling his return to work on light duty. “He said, ‘I’m a master carpenter and that’s my project. Don’t give it to anyone else.’ ”
From there, a group of firefighters rallied and Shea’s vision began to take shape starting in 2004 and wrapping up the following year.
Shea recalls an assembly line setup of moving, staining and assembling wood for the hundreds of triangles that became the frame — over 1,200 pieces and hundreds of cuts for wood, sheetrock, insulation and sheathing. “It was a lot of work, but a lot of fun. We did it all as a team,” Shea said. “We’re a big brotherhood.”
About two-thirds of the materials used to build the home were recycled or reclaimed, Shea explains, from the granite used in the kitchen, which was diverted from a dumpster at a construction site, to U.S. Forestry-approved pine, eco-friendly engineered lumber and energy-efficient fixtures and appliances.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the area immediately surrounding the home. A walkway composed of recycled rubber pellets leads down to the entrance; on the opposite side, large steps made from rubber LIRR crossings lead to a patio encompassed by a four-tiered, recycled tire garden.
Eight hundred tires were used to assemble the garden, which doubles as a retaining wall. Shea, who along with Gupta is a master gardener through Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, maintains a garden of common, hardy native perennials and a magical array of succulents, daylilies, dahlias and more.
Together, the couple finds joy in experimenting with different outdoor elements, from an outdoor entertaining garden complete with a zoysia grass couch to a mini fruit orchard with five-in-one fruit trees, kiwi, pawpaw and even hazelnut trees.
A solar port doubles as a workshop for their gardening and other varied interests. More recently, Shea and Gupta have taken an interest in local community theater; opening their home for set building, bonding and get-togethers.
Approaching 20 years of life in his dome, Shea still characterizes his property as a work in progress — and he’s always got another project up his sleeve, like installing netting around the dome to allow creeping vines to bloom around it.
When asked if he’d ever build another dome, he says the answer “depends.” Today, more eco-friendly and certified-sustainable materials are widely available and he’d like to incorporate more smart technology.
Shea takes pride in the life he’s built in the dome, despite its challenges. “I could write a book about how not to build a dome,” he joked. The most challenging part, he said, has been addressing roof repairs, explaining that the many nodes where triangles meet present hundreds of points for potential water infiltration. Yet finding a roofer to take on the project also proved difficult, so Shea harnessed up and took on a major recoating project in 2016.
“All the joy of working through it was worth it,” he said. “I love the home and want to keep on doing it.”