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Cheap housing in SLO? This Cal Poly student tried to build giant plastic bubble homes

Cal Poly students built an experimental plastic bubble house with two levels in 1973 and displayed it at Poly Royal. Three students planned to live in it the following school year.
Cal Poly students built an experimental plastic bubble house with two levels in 1973 and displayed it at Poly Royal. Three students planned to live in it the following school year. Telegram-Tribune

Living inside a bubble is an insult these days, someone who won’t venture outside their familiar comfort zone.

In 1973, the idea of living in a bubble was part of an imaginative future.

Long before Airbnb, bubble housing was suggested as a way to help provide flexible student housing. Would you live in a dome-a-tory?

Kathryn Finley wrote this Telegram-Tribune story, published on May 28, 1973:

Bubble houses dream of young Poly graduate

They say people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones but what do you do about people who live in plastic houses?

A knife won't cut it, a stone won’t shatter it and a match won’t set it afire. You can paint it, cover it or buy it pre-stained, and it only costs about $2.50 per square foot to build.

It makes a great playhouse, an even better vacation cabin and a cheap addition to an already existing structure. You can add room onto room, spreading outward, or you can pile room on top of room, extending upward.

1973 05-16 air dome
Cal Poly student James Montero designed an experimental air house in 1973 and displayed it at Poly Royal. Three students planned to live in it the following school year. Larry Jamison Telegram-Tribune

Air structures, as they are called, occupy the time and talents of Cal Poly graduate student James Paul Montero. Montero, working with the help of architecture instructor Wes Ward, enlisted the aid of Poly students in his project.

Three students will soon be living in Montero’s project for a year, testing the structure for sound transmission, light transmission, heat conductivity and other data.

Chuck Angyal, Kenton Russell and John Scourkes will take up residence in the plastic bubble sometime this summer. The three have been working with Montero and other class members in building the pilot project.

Initial concepts for the project were developed by Montero nearly a year ago. Using a variety of soap bubble constructions, he finally developed a model he felt would stand up to the rigors of three men living in it.

The clear-domed structure was displayed in April on the library lawn during Poly Royal. Curious people ambled by the odd-looking bubbles with many taking the time to clamber through an air lock an stroll around the roomy structure.

A second story, although supported by a metal frame during Poly Royal, remains aloft through air pressure. The central column of the structure requires a slightly higher air pressure to support the second floor, but it is capable of holding 1,200 pounds once in the air.

Montero, whose eyes light with pleasure when asked to describe the workings of his project, sports a curly mass of black hair. Although clean shaven, he has dark shadows where a beard would grow.

Montero graduated from Poly in January 1972, from the school of architecture and environmental design. Since then, he’s been occupied with earning a master’s degree and acting as a teaching assistant.

1973 04-30 air house2
Cal Poly students built a 4 bubble experimental air house with two levels in 1973 and displayed it at Poly Royal. The second floor was supported by air pressure. Larry Jamison Telegram-Tribune

He paid for most of the work on the structure with money he received from a $1,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Poly students with Montero’s leadership, supplied the man hours used in the construction of the experimental structure.

From start of construction to finish the project took three weeks, and this, said Montero, is one of the numerous advantages to air structures.

“It takes one-tenth the time to erect this structure and one-tenth the cost of a comparable conventional building material structure,” he said.

“There are no hammer and nails needed, no lumber, no bricks. It is ecologically sound except for the energy needed to keep the bubble inflated.

The structure can be inflated on any site from the middle of a big city to far out in nature’s wilds. The only requirement needed for its continued life is a generator — either operated by gas, electricity or steam power, or by a portable generator.

To expand the basic structure, a cut is made in the main membrane and another section of plastic membrane is sealed on, either with the use of heat or some similar method.

Suitable uses for human habitation suggested by Montero include instant housing for disaster refugees, replacement for ghetto slum dwellings, multi-story office buildings, houses, vacation homes, high rise apartments and schools.

Other uses include warehouses, green houses, athletic fields, tennis courts, fish hatcheries and other businesses where year-round working would be possible under an air structure oblivious to weather.

Montero says it is absolutely safe in earthquakes because there are no stress structures to give way. Air pressure could be maintained with a spare generator comparable to those used in hospitals in emergency blackouts.

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The building costs of $2.50 a square foot compare favorably with the $25 to $30 per square foot of custom house construction.

There are not many examples of air structures in the United States. Most work with the innovative construction idea has been confined to Europe and that is where Montero is heading after he obtains a master’s in June.

He hopes he will be able to find work with some of the people involved in air structures because he believes they are the answer to future building problems when wood, metal and stone materials will be scarce.

The bubble is ideal for a vacation home for a family. The structure on display at Poly Royal fits comfortably, not inflated, in the bed of a pickup truck.

That bubble mass consists of four 16-foot diameter domes, around a 10-foot diameter central column. The central column stood 16-feet high with the surrounding domes about 8-feet high.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp
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