The History of Thin-Shells and Monolithic Domes - An Engineer's Aspect


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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The History of Thin-Shells and Monolithic Domes


In the history of thin-shell structures, four of the major influences are: Anton Tedesko (1903-1994), who is attributed with much of the success of thin-shell structures in the U.S; Pier Luigi Nervi (1891-1979), who in Italy gave structural integrity to the complex curves and geometry of reinforced-concrete structures such as the Orbetello aircraft hangar (begun 1938) and Turin's exposition hall (1948-50); and the Spaniard Eduardo Torroja (1891-1961) and his pupil Felix Candela (1910-1997) who followed his lead. Essentially, each of the latter three attempted to create an umbrella roof the interior space of which could be subdivided as required, such as Torroja's grandstand for the Zarzuela racetrack in Madrid (1935) (, 9/7/05).

The Monolithic Dome can be attributed to David B. South (1939-), president of the Monolithic Dome Institute, and his brothers - Barry and Randy South. They developed an efficient method for building a strong dome using a continuous spray-in-place process. In 1976, after years of planning and development they built the first Monolithic Dome in Shelley, Idaho (

Anton Tedesko (1903-1994)

Tedesko’s contribution to the history of thin-shell dome structures in the United States began in Germany. During the early twentieth century, planetariums became very popular in Europe and the U.S. The Carl Zeiss Company of Germany was one of the leading manufacturers of the machinery that produced the sky shows. The problem in the early 1900’s was that the quality of the space used for viewing rarely matched the quality of the projector. Thus, The Carl Zeiss Company sought a high-quality dome design that could be produced efficiently. Zeiss hired engineers, Dyckerhoff and Widmann, who created the solution known as the “Zeiss Dywidag System.” This system was patented in the U.S. and licensed to the Roberts & Schaefer Company in Chicago, which employed the structural engineer, Anton Tedesko, who had worked with Zeiss in Europe (
module%20I/case_studies.htm, 6/9/05).

The introduction and success of thin-shell structures in the United States is attributed to Anton Tedesko, according to Hines and Billington in "Anton Tedesko and the Introduction of This Shells in the United States, June 9, 2003." They assert that Tedesko’s introduction of thin concrete shells in the U.S. is captured in the story of three structures: a hemispherical dome (Hayden Planetarium), a small set of long barrels (Brook Hill Farm Dairy Exhibit at the 1933 “Century of Progress” World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois using the Z-D system), and a large wide-spanning, short barrel roof (Hershey Sports Arena). All were built within three years of each other.

Hines and Billington say that Tedesko succeeded in arranging that the Hayden Planetarium be the first full-scale American thin concrete shell, see Figure 1-1. He insisted that the dome be built on more traditional falsework than on the Zeiss network from Germany. Tedesko served as the principal advisor to the Weiskopf and Pickworth engineers, to whom he gave copious amounts of calculations as guidelines.

Figure 1-1 - The front entrance to the original Hayden Planetarium on West 81st Street in New York City (

For the World’s Fair in 1933, Tedesko failed to obtain the contract for the German Pavilion but did get the stalls for Brook Hill Farm’s dairy exhibit. Since the Brook Hill stalls were temporary, Tedesko tested them under ultimate loads before taking them down after the Fair. Thus, Roberts and Schaefer published the first load tests carried out on barrel shells in the United States (Hines and Billington).

A memorial tribute in the National Academy of Engineering journal, Volume 8 (1996), says that the Depression slowed the progress of thin shell construction. There were many designs and few built structures. One of the first major breakthroughs was when the Hershey Chocolate Company wanted to build a shell structure for a sports arena. According to the Hershey Community Archives, Mr. Hershey had asked D. Paul Witmer, manager of the Hershey Lumber Company to solicit plans for a new building. Through a contact with the Portland Cement Company, Witmer was put in touch with Anton Tedesko. On January 21, 1936, Tedesko presented his idea for a huge arena to Mr. Witmer, who then presented it to Milton Hershey. After some initial skepticism, Mr. Hershey became excited by the innovation and gave his approval. Ground was broken on March 11, 1936.

The Archives state that the Sports Arena is composed of a barrel vault roof—the Zeiss-Dywidag type. The concrete shell is 3.5 in. thick at the uppermost part, and is stiffened at 39 foot intervals by massive two-hinged arch ribs. The roof crown is 100 feet above the floor. The shell was constructed as five separate units, with expansion joints between units. The journal from the National Academy of Engineering states that Tedesko established his own rules for the design and construction which were later adopted by the industry. According to the Hershey archives, when it opened on December 19, 1936, the Hershey Arena was the first large scale barrel shell roof structure in the U.S. (See Figure 1-2). Its construction established Anton Tedesko as the preeminent engineer for such structures.

Figure 1-2 – Hershey Arena Under Construction (

Publicity from the Hershey Arena opened the door for other shell structures and during World War II, Tedesko was the manager of the Roberts and Schaefer office in Washington, where, according to the National Academy of Engineering, the Army, Navy, and Air Force had many shells designed for their installations.

Pier Luigi Nervi (1891 – 1979)

Pier Luigi Nervi also influenced the development of thin-shell structures in the United States. According to Sara Askari (, 9/7/05), Nervi was born in the town of Sondrio in the Italian Alps. He attended the University of Bologna and joined the army engineering corps and a group called “The Society for Concrete Construction” following World War I. It was not until after he left the group in 1923 that his unique approach to building garnered critical attention. In 1926-27 he designed the Cinema Augusteo in Naples, and two years later he began work on the Municipal Stadium in Florence. Between 1935 and 1943 Nervi dedicated himself to studies of the covering construction of very big dimensions. Figure 1-3 shows an example of this work in the cover of the hall in Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Turino—1948.

Figure 1-3—Palazzo delle Esposizioni (

According to Askari, after World War II, Nervi made a breakthrough in the field of reinforced concrete: the invention of ferro-cemento. Ferro-cemento used steel mesh as a core and layers of cement were brushed on top. The mesh was thin, flexible, and elastic. Ferro-cemento enabled Nervi to design any form he wanted. Ferro-cemento could easily be prefabricated in plaster molds. Over the next thirty years Nervi took on about twenty-five concrete projects. Just after WWII, he designed the Turin Exhibition Hall which has been hailed as “one of the most impressive interior spaces of the century.” He built the George Washington Bridge bus terminal in New York City which one critic compared to “an alighted butterfly.”

Other Nervi buildings in the United States include a field house for Dartmouth College and the Cathedral of San Francisco. For his work he was awarded an honorary degree by Harvard University and given the gold medal of the American Institute of Architects (, 9/7/05).

Eduardo Torroja (1891 – 1961)

Eduardo Torroja was a Spanish architect and engineer notable as a pioneer in the design of concrete-shell structures. Torroja graduated as an engineer in 1923 and began working with a contractor. He became a consulting engineer in 1927 (, 9/7/05).

With José Maria Aguirre he founded, in 1934, an experimental institute to develop new uses and theories for reinforced concrete. An example of his building technique is the Algeciras market in Spain built in 1933, see Figure 1-4. This concrete structure has a 48 m. diameter shell placed over eight pillars joined by a prestressed tie beam (

Figure 1-4—Algeciras Market (

Torroja built a water reservoir for Madrid in 1936 and in 1939 he became a Professor at the Escuela de Caminos in Madrid as well as Director of the Instituto Tecnico de la Construccion y del Cemento (

Felix Candela (1910 – 1997)

A student of Eduardo Torroja, Felix Candela was born in Madrid in 1910. He entered Madrid's Escuela Superior de Arquitectura in 1927 and graduated in 1935. Sidetracked by his political struggle against Franco, he did not practice architecture until he immigrated to Mexico in 1939 (

Felix Candela did not invent the concrete shell nor was he the first to use hyperbolic parabaloids, but the Huddersfield Gem website asserts he was the all time greatest practitioner of shell design, citing his light, audaciously thin structures revealing engineering of great sophistication. His name has become synonymous with the hyperbolic parabaloid (hypar) (

His development of the hypar umbrella with four tympans was groundbreaking for architects and engineers and highly influential. This influence is clear in the Queensgate market (see Queensgate Market, Huddersfield, opened in 1970, replacing the previous 1878 market building. The striking feature of the interior is its roof structure, based on 21 asymmetric hyperbolic paraboloids (hypar) which appear like giant mushrooms (See Figure 1-5) (

Figure 1-5—Exterior View of Queensgate Market (

According to, Candela believed that strength should come from form, not mass. This belief led to an extensive exploration of tensile shell structures. His nickname became "The Shell Builder" because of this structural favoritism. The encyclopedia Brittanica calls Felix Candela a “designer of reinforced-concrete (ferroconcrete) structures distinguished by thin, curved shells that are extremely strong and unusually economical.”

Frequently forced to act as architect, structural engineer and contractor in order to further his work, Candella saw architects as engineers who possess the ability to design both great cathedrals and low cost housing (see

From 1949 he built, designed or engineered hundreds of ferro concrete structures. Among his best-known works are the Cosmic Ray Pavilion (1950–51) for Mexico's University City; the Church of La Virgen Milagrosa (1953), Mexico City; and Los Manantiales restaurant (1958), Xochimilco (

In 1961, Felix Candela was awarded the gold medal of the institution of Structural Engineers.

David B. South, Barry South, and Randy South

The Monolithic story begins with David B. South and his interest in dome building. That interest started when David was still in high school and never waned. In fact, it intensified. By 1975, David and his two brothers, Barry and Randy, had successfully built their first Monolithic Dome-- a potato storage facility in Shelley, Idaho, 105' in diameter and 35' high (

In 1979, the first patent was awarded for the Monolithic Dome construction process. And since 1976, Monolithic Domes have been constructed in 45 states and many foreign countries.

The following videos and descriptions of Monolithic Domes can be found on Youtube:

This is an introduction video to Monolithic Domes. The Monolithic Dome, is a safe, energy efficient, beautiful structure with many advantages over standard construction. As you will see in this video, it really is tomorrows building, today. See more at

A Monolithic Dome is the ideal structure for any sport facility: school gymnasium, indoor football or hockey stadium, mega-arena, rodeo arena, skating rink, etc. Several factors make it ideal.

Monolithic Dome churches can and do come in many sizes and in single-dome as well as multi-dome configurations. Largest to date: Faith Chapel Christian Center, a mega-church complex of six Monolithic Domes. Its sanctuary has a diameter of 280 feet, a height of 72 feet, and an interior of 61,575 square feet with seating for 3000, classrooms and offices. Smallest: a single, 16.5-foot diameter dome for St. Paul Church of God in Christ in Italy, Texas.

"If you build them, they will rent." Monolithic's President David B. South has been saying that since mid-2000 when the company first began planning the building of an experimental complex of dome rentals. Monolithic's goal was to provide clean, secure, and -- most importantly -- affordable housing for low-income individuals. The idea or goal came about because of media reports and information on the Web about growing, nationwide shortage of affordable housing. People particularly affected, in both rural and urban areas, included single men and women with minimum wage jobs, single mothers, senior citizens with inadequate or no pensions, and victims of work layoffs or company downsizing.