Hexagonal Geodesic Domes - Catenary Domes

Catenary dome
More images in the catenary dome gallery.

Resisting gravity

Hexagonal structures are not stable - and need stabilising.

However, the volume of stabilising material needed can be minimised.

At first, I thought that this would prove to be a challenging optimisation problem. However the problem of how to build a maximally stable hexagonal surface in a gravitational field turned out to have a beautiful solution.


Catenary is the name given to the curve formed by a cable supported at its ends in a gravitational field. Catenary curves resemble - but are different from - parabolas.

Catenary curves are though to form highly stable arches.

The reason can be seen by an examination of the following force diagrams:

In tension
Under compression
These force diagrams resolve forces at a single node. There are forces applied by either strut - and a force applied to the node due to gravity.

When hanging under gravity, a catenary curve is formed. At this point, all the nodes are stationary - and consequently all the forces balance.

Next the entire structure is inverted.

Assuming the struts are more-or-less incompressible, then all the forces will be precisely reversed as well - and all the forces will still exactly balance - resulting in no resultant force being applied to any of the nodes.

The resulting configuration may not be stable - but it should be exactly balanced - a similar situation to a pencil balanced on its point.


Exactly the same principle that applies to arches also applies to domes.

Catenary dome gallery

I've constructed a catenary dome gallery - to illustrate some of the associated shapes and construction principles.

Other considerations

Catenary domes are optimal as far as resisting gravity goes. However domes have to do other things besides resist gravity. In particular, they need to resist wind forces and external impacts. More uniform curvature than is present in a typical caterary dome might help with such applications.

There are a number of possible ways of compromising between uniform curvature and a true catenary dome.

These include performing a simulation with a relatively inflexible material, and modelling inflating the dome.

Tim Tyler | Contact | http://hexdome.com/