(Posted December 31, 2009)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- At a time when colleges and universities are competing for students by building plush dorms with single rooms, Jacuzzis and flatscreen TVs, Juniata College junior Jake Weller is going back to back to basics by living for the entire school year in a geodesic dome he built himself.

"I have always been interested in geodesic domes and off-the-grid architecture," explains Weller, who is from Lusby, Md. "This was something I wanted to do for a really long time."

"This is a very experimental mindset, you're not going to convince someone to live in a dome unless they already have an inclination. I have to figure things out as I go along and remember not to take the fun out of it."

Jake Weller, junior, Lusby, Md.

Weller has built his "geodesic dorm" in a grassy field behind Juniata's Brumbaugh Academic Center, close to the college's astronomy observatory. The domed structure, covered with white plastic sheeting, looks vaguely like some sort of science experiment.

That is, until visitors step inside. The interior of his futuristic room looks like pure college student chic. Clothes hang from the rods connecting the dome. Books are lined up in milk crates. Futon mattress bed with sleeping bag. Mountain bike in one corner. Indeed, the only details out of place are a kerosene heater near the entrance and an Igloo cooler holding two golf cart batteries.

The highly experimental lifestyle associated with "dome sweet dome" is purely a personal journey for the philosophy major. He's not getting any academic credit for his sojourn in the dome, nor is he writing a paper on his experience. He's doing it because he's always wanted to.

"This is a very experimental mindset, you're not going to convince someone to live in a dome unless they already have an inclination" he says of the project. "I have to figure things out as I go along and remember not to take the fun out of it."

Weller started the project last year when he made an appointment to discuss his idea with Kris Clarkson, dean of students. Weller says he expected Clarkson to "laugh me out of his office." instead Clarkson asked the young student to write up a proposal. The dean took the proposal to Rob Yelnosky, vice president of finance and operations, and other administrators, and soon Weller was domeward bound.

"I'm one of Jake's advisors so I knew before he came in that this was not a frivolous thing." says Clarkson. "He's committed to sustainability and his proposal was thoughtful and conscientious."

Weller's commitment to the experience dates to well before his approach to the Juniata administration. He has a dog-eared notebook filled with measurements, drawings, calculations, musings and outlines that are a testament to how long he has dreamed of "going dome."

And he did build it. These days, many students would look for a used geodesic dome on e-Bay or find one in an L.L. Bean catalog, or a similar outdoor outfitter. Not Jake Weller. He found ¾-inch electrical conduit, cut lengths to fit and flattened and drilled out each end. Those tubes formed the dome structure. He found medium-density fiberboard to use as flooring. From his father, a yacht carpenter, he found a solar panel used on boats that generates about 50 watts of power (the panel charges the golf cart batteries Weller uses to provide light and to charge his laptop).

"I looked at how to cover it 100 different ways," says Weller, who ended up using marine shrink film (the heavy-duty plastic covering used to protect boats and yachts). "If you want to cover up a dome, whatever you use has to come on a pretty large roll, unless you want to sew it, and marine shrink film does."

The budget for Weller's dome is up to about $1,300, with about half that expense going toward buying the golf-cart batteries. The dome-owner isn't done building yet. He wants to install a composting toilet and rig a shower utilizing captured rainwater. So far, however, he's showering in the gym after swimming workouts. He's even built a "skibike" to glide down to classes from his hilly perch behind the college.

Although he no longer lives in the dorms, most of the campus knows about Weller's domicile. In fact he gets visitors all the time, although it's unclear if that will continue as temperatures drop and snow falls. "I've had a ton of people drop by and a lot have expressed interest in staying overnight," he says. "I like that I'm down in the thick of things during the day and (the dome) gives me a place to retire to."

Weller, who will spend his senior year abroad in New Zealand, has been living in the dome since Aug. 23 and plans on remaining there, rain or shine, through finals week in May. "This is not Walden Pond 2. I enjoy living simply, but I'm not trying to start a movement," he says, smiling. "I would like to thank everyone who helped me with, and contributed to, the project. Their impact has been enormous.
As for his parent, how do they feel about him giving up dorm life? "They were great," he adds. "They've been pretty supportive of all the crazy stuff I do and they came up (to Juniata) to help me set everything up."

Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.