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Prize-winning Idea

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    Kelsey Abel, Nathan Balke and Chandler Johnson explain their dome project to Joey King and Paul Gaffney at the 2013 King Creativity Symposium. The three were awarded the $2,500 Walt Potter Prize for the most innovative project done with funds from the King Creativity Fund in 2012-2013. (Photo by Lucas Adams)
    Lucas Adams
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    Close-up of the hub the students designed for their dome. (Photo by Ellen Davis)

Concept for a low-cost dome structure earns students a $2,500 prize

A design to build a low-cost dome structure has earned three Southwestern students a $2,500 prize.

Kelsey Abel, Nathan Balke and Chandler Johnson were awarded the Walt Potter Prize for the project they did with the support of the King Creativity Fund in 2012-2013. The prize is awarded to the best King Creativity Fund student or project in a given year.

Balke, a sophomore who is majoring in physics and German, said he came up with the idea for the project after talking to physics professor Steve Alexander last summer.

“I wanted to do something to broaden my experience outside the classroom,” he said. “Professor Alexander mentioned a dome project and it seemed like a good fit.”

While people have been building dome structures for many years, Alexander said he presented Balke with the challenge of making something that would be more efficient and less expensive than what is currently on the market.

Balke enlisted Abel, a sophomore physics major, and Johnson, a sophomore architecture major, to help him with the project. He said the team’s biggest challenge was finding the best design for the hubs that would hold the various pieces together. The team came up with three different hub designs before settling on one to use.

Alexander said one of the things that is unique about the hub design the students came up with is that it can be used with a variety of different materials, including metal pipe, wooden beams, bamboo and pvc. Also, this same hub design can be used to build different types of geodesic domes.

Throughout the project, the students said people were always suggesting possible uses for their dome structure to them – from greenhouses to emergency shelters for storm victims.

Johnson said he plans to apply for another King Creativity Fund grant next year so he can work on developing a marketing plan for the dome. The team is considering using the Kickstarter program to get funding to make and sell kits to build the dome structure they developed.

The King Creativity Fund was established in 2000 with an endowment provided by Southwestern alumnus W. Joseph “Joey” King. It is designed to support “innovative and visionary projects” proposed by Southwestern students. The Walt Potter Prize is named after computer science professor Walt Potter, who was King’s mentor when he was a student at Southwestern.

Paul Gaffney, dean of the Sarofim School of Fine Arts and coordinator of the King Creativity Fund program, said the Potter Prize selection committee chose the low-cost eco dome project because it was a good example of taking a creative new approach to an existing idea. 

“While geodesic domes have been around for a while, this team took a new approach to figuring out how these domes can be constructed quickly, cheaply and using locally available materials,” Gaffney said. “The result is a system of dome construction that serves not just as a building, but can also serve as emergency shelter, low-cost housing, or a means of bridging gaps to facilitate overland transportation. The committee was also impressed by the thoroughness and clarity of their presentation, in which they made it very easy for the non-initiated to fully understand how their dome works, and to see the implications of this process.” 

Balke said he plans to use his prize money to purchase a more powerful laptop computer to use for a summer research project, his capstone project and future King Creativity projects. Johnson said he plans to use his prize money to purchase some software he needs for architecture school. Abel said she plans to put her prize money towards studying abroad in Costa Rica next summer.

“I was very surprised to hear that we had won, but it was very affirming of what we chose to do,” Abel said. “On a base level, we just made a dome, but perhaps what brought this project to the next level was the focus on what could be done with this design, specifically in the humanitarian aspects of housing the needy.”

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