Richmond's oddly shaped homes

Larry Tolton on the backyard deck of his geodesic dome home on Bird Road. - Martin van den Hemel photo
Larry Tolton on the backyard deck of his geodesic dome home on Bird Road.
— image credit: Martin van den Hemel photo

Two of the coolest homes in Richmond could be mistaken for twins to the untrained eye.

The higher-profile one is nicknamed “The Dome” and is comparatively world famous, while it seeming sibling is tabbed the “Bird House” and is tucked away on an inconspicuous dead-end street two kilometres away.

Both were built decades ago, but their curious, non-conforming shapes continue to raise eyebrows and interest.

If you’ve lived in Richmond long enough, and travelled down Westminster Highway, you’ve likely spotted the home belonging to Harry and Susan Snalam just east of Shell Road.

Their hex dome at 11300 Westminster Hwy. looks like a giant soccer ball, a patchwork of triangles and trapezoids and nary a right angle to be found anywhere.

“We’ve enjoyed it,” said Harry with his English accent and easy smile.

It was in the early 1980s when inspiration for building the home came from a pile of strangely shaped wood pieces in a lot next door. The pieces were for a small dome demonstration home, and the idea intrigued them.

“She said, that’s interesting,” Harry said of his wife’s reaction.

Wanting to get away from the traditional style rectangular homes being built in Richmond at the time, the Snalams threw caution to the wind and forged ahead with the hex dome.

And during those early days of construction in 1984, the Snalams saw a steady stream of curious passers-by stop and ask for an inside tour.

Eventually, they trained their two oldest sons to give tours to the dozen or more people.

City building inspectors were dubious of the home’s safety, and they weren’t alone, as the banks weren’t at first willing to lend the Snalams the money to build their dream.

But 110 inspections later and their dream became a reality.

The home is built from four pre-fabricated hexagonal sections, three of which hold up the fourth, which serves as the roof. As such, none of the walls inside the home support the roof, only bracing the floors directly above.

The home’s round design means it only requires a single source of heat, the central fireplace.

During a tour of the home in which he grew up, the Snalam’s youngest son Andrew said their home is famous with pilots, who can easily spy the oddly-shaped home from overhead, and use it as a visual turning marker when using the Vancouver International Airport’s south runway.

Asked if their home is one-of-a-kind, the Snalams pointed to a home on nearby Bird Road, at Shell, that’s actually a true geodesic dome, lacking any of the trapezoids found in the Snalam house.

When Palmer and Ardys Becker built their home at 11366 Bird Rd. back in 1979, they thought it was the way of the future.

The couple were moving to Canada from Newton, Kansas, and had just heard a presentation by Buckminster Fuller, the father of geodesic construction.

“At about the same time, Better Homes and Gardens magazine did a feature on dome living…We went to see a geodesic dome and were sold on the idea.”

Palmer was the minister at nearby Peace Mennonite Church, and said the dome provided energy efficiency and strength in a cost-efficient style.

It was built at a cost of $54,000 on a parcel of land that was just $43,000.

“When we built the home in 1979, we thought dome houses would become very prominent,” Palmer said via e-mail from his current home in Ontario.

The dome, now known affectionately as The Bird House, cost about 40 per cent less to heat and cool because it has 30 per cent less surface area exposed to the outside.

As well, it is strong, with its system of triangles making it twice as strong per pound of material as compared to rectangles, he wrote.

“A spherical shape is the cheapest way to enclose space. The triangles can be mass produced and novice workers can put them together. Roofing and dry-walling, however, are more difficult or expensive,” he said.

Current homeowner Larry Tolton said he fell in love with the home as soon as he walked through the front doors and into the cavernous living room.

Though it may look smallish from the outside, the home is 2,750 square feet, and features four bedrooms and two bathrooms.

The home’s shape gives it a sense of space, Tolton said.

“‘Oh my God!’ This is what I said when I showed up,” he said.

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