They're trendy. They're chic. They're dome houses.
Is this some 1960s retro kind of thing -- the bell-bottoms of the housing world -- or are the creators of "Northern Exposure" onto something?
This season, the socially savvy series introduced a new character named Mike Monroe, who is allergic to everything unnatural. Unlike most of the fictional inhabitants of Cicely, Alaska, who live in woody, funky houses, Monroe lives in a state-of-the-art geodesic dome home.
Since the program catapulted the lodge look into a sought-after home style, expect this latest design statement to lead others to go geodesic.
The producers say Monroe's futuristic dome provides a metaphor for the '90s, an era that promises to synthesize the divergent trends of the folksy '60s and slick '80s.
"Monroe was a corporate mainstream personality whose illness forced him to this exotic hippie-reminiscent, bohemian thing," says Jeff Melvoin, a supervising producer on "Northern Exposure."
"It's an interesting statement on how various trends in society are coalescing toward the middle, and it's a nice kind of middle."
The dome house used on "Northern Exposure" was bought from Timberline Geodesics of Berkeley, Calif., which has sold fully contained kits for 20 years.
Robert Singer, Timberline's president, says, "Geodesic domes have come a long way since the 1960s, so we're very excited to be re-emerging into popular culture."
Prized for their energy efficiency, structural integrity and ability to withstand disasters from earthquakes to typhoons, domes are gaining new popularity as second homes in the United States and primary homes in places as divergent as Japan and the former Soviet Union, where expensive building materials make importing dome kits from the United States a relatively good deal.
California remains the biggest market, according to Mr. Singer, especially around Fresno, Plumas County and the Sierra foothills.
"The typical customer has one or two acres and spends around $18,000 for a 1,500-square-foot dome kit with one floor. A second floor can make it 2,500 square feet," says Mr. Singer. Including land and finishing costs, the price quickly rises to $100,000 or more, depending on the area.
"Usually the dome customer is a retired couple moving to land somewhere or a young family," says Mr. Singer, a former banker.
Last week, he flew to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to discuss a 100-dome resort project with a Yemenite businessman.
Many families who have tried them swear by them.
Those living on the round include the Rubardt family in Oakland, Calif., who live in the dome they built in 1972 and remodeled in 1990, adding a teen-ager's dream dome for their son.
Newer to dome-dom are the Favaros of Los Gatos, who live just a few miles from the Loma Prieta Summit. They crawled out of the rubble of their conventional home in 1989 after it was destroyed by the earthquake. They stayed on the property and built the area's newest dome, completed last year.
In 1972, when Doug and Toni Rubardt decided to build a dome on a small, heavily wooded lot in Oakland's Montclair district, they faced the wrath of neighbors. "People who are now our closest friends said, 'Those damn hippies are moving in from Berkeley,' " recalls Doug Rubardt.
He and his wife say they never expected to stay put for 20 years in the house they built themselves. Today, it's hard to associate the hard-working couple in their early 40s, with a BMW in the driveway, with fears of neighborhood ruin.