One of the earliest uses of fiberglass composite in the built environment was a type of compact shelter perhaps best described as a “pod.” There have been compact fiberglass dwellings dating back to the “Monsanto House of the Future” at Disneyland in the 1950’s, but pods tend to be even smaller than the Tomorrow Land attraction, and they are often characterized by being portable. We have reported on quite a few of them here, some recent creations, some dating back decades, including the Cube Cabin, the AMIE house and vehicle, the Eco-Capsule, the Igloo, the Banga, the Futuro House, the Micro House, the Haley VI Research Station, and the tiny Noah Survival Capsule.
Most of these shelters are lightweight and self-contained, including a solid floor that requires minimal if any foundation, and are designed to be easily transported to their destination. (The Noah capsule is actually designed for floating away from its location in the event of flood.)
It turns out that lightweight fiberglass pods not only work well on the ground and afloat, they hang well, too.
Free Spirit Spheres is a resort, and a pod-fabricating company, on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, Canada, the creation of Tom Chudleigh. Most of his spheres are made of fiberglass (the prototypes were made of wood), and designed to hang from trees. The three spheres on his property that are available for overnight stays, named Eve, Eryn, and Melody, are each hung in the center of a triangle of three large old-growth trees. (The website notes that this configuration of old trees was called a sacred grove in Druid tradition.) A sphere is accessed by a spiral staircase that runs up around one of the trees, and a bridge from the tree to the sphere’s door.
The spheres are hung by three almost-vertical ropes, each suspended from a different tree. The spheres are also stayed horizontally to the trees to minimize swinging. They can be hung as high as 100 feet up, but that’s rather intimidating for most people, and a long climb to get home at night. The three at Free Spirit are slung somewhat lower.
Eve, a wooden sphere and the first Chudleigh ever made, is 9 feet (2800 mm) in diameter, has two 4-foot diameter windows, and sleeps one person (or two moderate-sized people who are very friendly with each other).
Chudleigh decided that was too small, and enlarged the design to make Eryn, also a wooden sphere, 10.5 (3200 mm) feet in diameter. The size was chosen because it is the largest width you can truck in North America without special arrangements. Eryn has a double bed and a loft bed for a third person, five windows (including the skylight), electricity, heat, and running water.
Eryn was used to make a fiberglass negative mold. That mold has been used to cast all the subsequent sphere shells, using fiberglass composite.
The first result was Melody, a 10.5 foot fiberglass sphere with five windows including skylight, a double bed, a sink, running water, electricity, and heat. It even has a private, electric composting outhouse adjacent to the sphere.
“Spherical architecture has many unconventional features,” explains the Free Spirit website. “Conventional buildings separate walls, ceiling and floor with hard lines. In a sphere, the walls and ceiling merge into one. The function changes but the form remains the same. It is a unified structure with one continuous wall. I call this uniwall construction. There are only 2 sides to a sphere, inside and outside.”
The mold is split in 4 sections that bolt together (plus two other mold pieces for the door). Chudleigh assembles the mold and then gets inside it to lay up the glass-fiber composite. He can keep the work-area in a comfortable position by rotating the ball-like mold around as he lays up fabric on different parts of the interior. “It’s like a big hamster-ball,” he explains.
The shell is made of 7 layers of fiberglass: four layers of 1.5 oz chopped strand mat (CSM) and three layers of 24-oz woven roving.
Much of the engineering, as well the craft sensibility, is drawn from boat design. Chudleigh has built boats, and likens his engineering of the sphere to aspects of maritime strategies. The places at and surrounding the hanging attachment points bear the most stress, much like the anchor-points for the shrouds that stay the mast of a sailing ship. At the attachment points, Chudleigh doubles the fiberglass layers, tapering the thickness down layer by layer into the surrounding surface.
It is obvious from the photos that the spheres are lovingly crafted. Chudleigh says simply that “they are finished yacht style.” This is a rather modest statement, considering that he casts his own bronze hardware. The detailing of the interiors is quirky and homey, and elegant in a Lord of the Rings sort of way: you can imagine elves coming here to stay overnight.
Chudleigh has made six shells so far, five of which have been fully finished as habitable spheres. Up until now, no two have ever been made the same, although he’s now working on a matched pair.
The shift from wood construction to fiberglass was probably inspired by practicality more than anything else. Chudleigh, working by himself, can make a wood shell in 2000 to 2500 hours. Three people can make a fiberglass shell in about 120 hours.
“If you want to build anything that’s an unusual shape, you have to use a medium that allows it. Fiberglass does it easily. Wood, you have to coax it to make a sphere out of it. I’ll still build a wooden sphere [if requested], but when people hear how many man hours of work they’ll have to pay for, they choose fiberglass.”
His goal, Chudleigh says on his website, “is to produce 10 – 15 spheres and hang them all in a large area of old growth forest… a spiritual retreat for me and whoever else is interested.”
Images courtesy of Free Spirit Spheres