Space Frame: Definition, Structures & Design

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt
The space frame is defined by its reliance on the inherent structural strength of the equilateral triangle. The space frame was designed in the 1900s by Alexander Graham Bell, but was not fully realized until Richard Buckminster Fuller later used it to construct his geodesic domes.

A Design Fit for Climbing

Climberdome
Climberdome

When you were younger, did you ever come across the fun structure pictured above at a playground? Built entirely out of triangles, a seeming infinite number of children can play at the top of this structure without it bending or breaking. Other children's jungle gyms have you supported by bars connected directly to the ground, yet this structure seems to magically stand with no internal support. This is the power of triangular design in architecture.

The strength of the climberdome (the name of the playground structure) was utilized to massive levels in architecture through the development of the space frame, which takes advantage of the geometric stability of the triangle to form structures that appear to defy size, space, and gravity.

Definition: Bell and Fuller

Alexander Graham Bell actually developed the earliest space frame to solve a problem of weight vs. stability in vehicles he was designing. The space frame takes the natural strength of an equilateral triangle when pressure is applied to the point at the top. The two sides connected to the point compress naturally, but are given stability by the bottom leg that prevents further collapse of the shape. The geometry and math involved in calculating the shape and design of the structure made it so the use of such frames were limited to small vehicles.

The development of the computer made it easier to better calculate and model stresses on structures and material. Along with the improved quality and ability to precisely and affordably craft metal frames, this made the space frame a possibility on larger scales in the 1950s and 60s.

Montreal Biosphere by Fuller
Buckminsters Biosphere

Richard Buckminster Fuller developed the space frame into modeled shapes like the tetrahedron, which had incredible stability and light weight. He was able to construct structures that not only were stable, but became stronger the larger they were. To show of the space frame's capacity, Fuller built the Biosphere for the 1967 World Exhibition. Beyond the engineering benefits of the space frame, the design focused on the minimal use of resources for the maximum size of space, so the space frame was more economical to build than alternatives.

Constructing the space frame into geodesic domes like the Biosphere changed the way that commercial structures were built. The space frame is now used in the construction of airports, warehouses, stadiums, and skyscrapers.

The Space Frame Used in Roofing
The Space Frame Used in Roofing

Structures: The Skydome and Biosphere 2

Two structures that have taken full advantage of the engineering and design benefits of the space frame are the Skydome in Toronto and Biosphere 2 in Arizona.

The Skydome (now Roger's Center) was designed by architects Rod Robbie and Michael Allen, who were virtually unknown when they bid for the project against major firms. Robbie was so passionate that he could build the arena that he mortgaged his home to pay the fee to enter into the competition. After winning the bid, Robbie and Allen designed the Skydome's roof using space frames to create a light and durable structure that was capable of opening and closing for different types of events. Other attempts to make large-scale retractable roofs had failed, notably with the 1976 Montreal Olympic Stadium, which used canvas panels and struggled to operate.

The Skydome on the Toronto Skyline
Skydome

Another structure that benefited from the space frame was the development of Biosphere 2 in Oracle, AZ, which was created to be an enclosed ecosystem for scientific study. The biosphere relied on the geodesic dome structure developed by Fuller to create a completely enclosed, large-scale ecosystem. Architect John D. Allen used the incredible stability of the space frame design to allow the enclosed laboratory to stand and to contain the controlled atmosphere of Biosphere 2.

Biosphere 2
Biosphere 2

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