Bob Gillis carved out quite the niche for himself with his enterprising geodesic dome tents. Now, the tents are helping victims devastated by the Haiti earthquake.
Haiti. Burning Man. The North Face backpacking company. Each shares an unlikely connection: one Santa Cruz tent company and the inventor behind it. It’s hard to believe that cutting edge, durable tents now being distributed to many homeless Haitians were born out of a forest in Aptos.
When Bob Gillis sold his first patent for a small tent design to The North Face in 1975 for $500, he didn’t know it would forever revolutionize backpacking tents from being A-frames to the geodesic dome shapes seen around every campfire today. Nor could he have guessed that more than three decades later, after blooming because of a little festival known as Burning Man, his Santa Cruz company, Shelter Systems, would end up providing tent refuge for thousands of Haitians.
A U.N. phone call from New York early one morning in January yielded Shelter Systems’ largest order in its 34-year history; the entire inventory at its Westside warehouse and its other manufacturing operation in Georgia were instantly wiped out. Three thousand 14-foot dome tents were immediately shipped off in response to a 7.0 earthquake in Haiti. Suddenly, Santa Cruz landed on the international relief effort map.
This week marks three months since one of the deadliest natural disasters in modern times crippled an entire country on Jan. 12. Housing, along with rice and water, continues to be scant for many Haitians struggling with an unprepared government and infrastructure. Shelter Systems is still being inundated with calls to come up with a solution to the vast homelessness.
One local couple who traveled to Haiti can attest that Gillis’ dome tents have come a long way since his days living in one as a mad scientist squatter at Nisene Marks State Park, where he first started building and selling Shelter Systems tents in the ‘70s.
“I am writing to you on an iPhone in a hut with no electricity,” Chelsea George e-mails me from Haiti. The Santa Cruzan and her husband, Haitian Andre Cherer, have been amongst the rubble of Port-au-Prince to aid Cherer’s family after the massive earthquake left them—like one million others—homeless. With an approximate death toll at 230,000, and more than 300,000 injured, they are being called the “lucky” ones.
THEN AND NOW Bob Gillis plays with geodesic shapes in 1979 (left); Gillis’ dome creations now mark the Haitian landscape with help from the U.N. (right) Photos courtesy of dometents.com
When George and Cherer left California and flew to Haiti in February, they brought with them three 14-foot dome tents purchased from the family-run Shelter Systems. George got the tents at the relief cost of $350 each after seeing them on the company website (dometents.com). She was attracted to the domes because they’re light enough to take on a flight (40 pounds) but large enough to house up to 14 people.
Tent orders from a Haitian telecommunications company, church groups, an orphanage, and—adding a Hollywood tie—Sean Penn’s filmmaking relief group followed. A customer from New York made a donation, a portion of which Shelter Systems’ business director Eleanor Hamner (Bob Gillis’ daughter) allocated to George and Cherer. With domes ranging in size from 14- to 30-feet in diameter, smaller tents are used to house families while the larger tents serve as dining halls, churches, schools, medical stations, and business operations.
From devastated Haiti to my computer in downtown Santa Cruz, George has been lending some insights during her down times before heading to bed in her hut or waiting for a long journey on a bus. She says she encounters SS domes “mostly as we zoom by in a tap-tap bus or motorcycle … in the countryside, in neighborhoods, in a plaza camp in the rich suburb of Petionville, and at police stations.” She makes the long trip to a remote cyber café to send me photos of the bright white domes stoutly standing against various tattered Haitian backdrops, looking like futuristic Rocks of Gibraltar. Though she feels a sense of pride with each “Santa Cruz tent” she spots and photographs, she warns that those who aren’t fortunate enough to have outsiders helping them lack the financial support to ease a dire situation.
PRODUCT TESTERS Santa Cruz’s Chelsea George and Andre Cherer brought shelter to Haiti (left); Bob Gillis stepping out in 1989 (below left) Left photo courtesy of Chelsea George, below photo courtesy dometents.com
“The average annual income in Haiti is $400 … but a roll of toilet paper is almost a dollar,” she calculates, “so most do without unless they have family abroad … Little by little, relief workers are leaving and Haiti is left in the hands of a corrupt, ineffective government.” Families who are able to find themselves under the cover of a Shelter Systems dome, like Cherer’s 14 aunts, uncles and cousins who all share one, are envied.
While most of the makeshift shelters pitched throughout Haiti won’t be able to withstand heavy rains, with some already flooding, the SS domes are made to endure the elements. Marketed as the “World’s Strongest Dome Tents,” they’re easy to construct without tools within a half-hour, the waterproof woven ripstop plastic material can last under the Haitian sun for years, the dome shape allows the most efficient use of space, and the seamless, clipped-in panels using Gillis’ other prized invention, circular plastic Grip Clips that snap the sheeting into place, ensure no leakage with resistance to wind and tearing.
Shelter Systems domes have weathered windstorms, in the snow of Mt. Everest and in the alkaline dust of Burning Man festival’s Black Rock Desert, and it’s an innovative design that Gillis used for decades as his own home.
“Before the earthquake, no Haitian had ever seen a tent, put up a tent, or slept in a tent,” George says. “They don’t understand the American concept of camping for recreation. Now they’ve been camping out for more than two months, living in tents that are meant for a few nights now and then … but Shelter Systems domes are designed for long term habitation.”
Shelter from the Norm
When Bob Gillis wanted to let more light into his current home office in Menlo Park two years ago, he took off the roof. In its place he installed the resilient sheer plastic material used in Shelter Systems’ greenhouse domes. When rainy season ended, taking with it the natural drumming of water drops splattering against the tent-like covering, he took off the thin makeshift ceiling and left the network of grapevines that had grown overhead as his open-air roof. The office became a place where guests would pull down juicy grapes as the stars glimmered through the hanging vines. For Gillis, the sky seems to be the limit.
Throughout my talks with those close to him, the words “genius” and “curmudgeon” are affectionately used to describe the 62-year-old inventor known to always be folding his napkin into some new design idea or sketching out some thought. Said to be a man set in his ways who shies away from the press, Gillis can sometimes be found pitching a tent and working on his designs on the Stanford University lawn.
GO WITH THE FLOW As kids, Eleanor Hamner and her sisters enjoyed Bob Gillis’ tent kayak (right).
Today, Hamner is Shelter Systems’ business director. (Left) Left photo by Charles Mixson, Right photo dometents.com
As a kid in Pennsylvania who grew up in a 36-foot trailer that, much like a tent, had only the essentials, Gillis was raised by what he describes as a “tidy mom and a crafty dad.” He built his first tent at the age of 10 using tarp and a basic book on woodcraft design, and even back then he remembers being into flexibility and renewable design. “Taking apart one thing to make another,” he tells me, “is very handy when you’re short on materials.”
Combining that Lego sense of wonderment with grassroots self-sufficiency and technical wizardry is what kept Gillis living in a tent until recent years. Still, assimilating into a more commonplace abode hasn’t altered his way of thinking. “Even now,” he begins, “I see these wooden houses and they kind of just seem like wooden tents to me.
Known by many in town as “Matin,” a nickname taken from the Arabic phrase “Al Matin,” which means “The Firm” and which is also the name of the main pole in a Bedouin tent, Gillis ditched college in Illinois for Santa Cruz in the early ’70s. Having taken cues from geodesic dome architect guru and futurist Buckminster Fuller, combined with lessons on tensegrity, he was able to devise a geodesic dome tent that was strong, simple and drum tight. Already armed with a patent, he quit design school at Southern Illinois University with one credit left to go—a public speaking class he’d avoided at all costs—and thumbed his way to California with ideas he was eager to present to The North Face in Berkeley.
A lanky and long-haired Jesus-looking hippie who’d already been living in tents for 15 years (“to save money and because they’re fun and interesting”), he opted out of the crowded Berkeley scene. Someone told him about a little place called Santa Cruz so he went to a library and looked at some maps. Discovering a nice park with a creek running through it, he headed to Aptos with his first daughter Shanti. They would settle in Nisene Marks, where a neighbor eventually discovered Gillis squatting and invited him to live on his private land because “he admired that I’d tidied things up and decided that instead of booting me out he’d let me become the caretaker.” There he and his second wife would raise three more daughters—and run a business—during the next decades.
Having limited his agreement with The North Face to a small-sized tent design in 1975 that led to the groundbreaking Oval Intention, he continued to develop his larger-scale dome creations.
“Backpacking companies weren’t interested in making bigger tents but I was really interested in that because I viewed them all along as potential shelter,” says Gillis, his fear of that dreaded public speaking class still apparent in his soft-spoken demeanor. “As the tents were for me, I thought they could be for others and provide an alternative way to make it without paying so much rent.”
With Gillis’ life and his business virtually the same, his daughters were raised in tents out in the Aptos woods and were “dome-schooled” until their teenage years. At first the entire family lived in one tent, but eventually a “Lord of the Rings” hobbit network of tents became their home: there was an office tent, a crafts tent, a library tent, a kitchen tent, solar electricity, a wood-burning stove, and even an Amish washing machine.
Touring Eleanor Hamner’s present home in Santa Cruz, fingerprints of her father’s free-spirited innovation are everywhere. There’s the ice cream scooper he fashioned out of Hawaiian Koa wood that served as last year’s Christmas gift; the basket he wove out of willow tree branches he collected from a river—sitting on a bookcase next to his 10-month-old grandson’s copy of “Goodnight, Moon;” and the two miniature wooden puzzle chairs he built for his daughters, which were once fixtures in their childhood tents.
She may be the head of Shelter Systems as its business director who answered the call from the U.N. in her home office dressed in pajamas three months ago, but as a young girl Hamner never envisioned that her father’s zany creations would make such an impact.
“I was born in a tent and all my life I was like, ‘Oh, Dad, your tent thing,’” she recalls with a nostalgic smile. “But now I think it’s the greatest.” Suddenly her eyes well up with tears as she explains that the tents in Haiti are the exact same tents that pepper her childhood memories.
“I cry when I see pictures of these [tents] being used in Haiti because it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, that was my home!’ We were always like, ‘You’re a hippie, why are you raising us in these tents?’ and Dad would say, ‘Oh, it’s such great shelter. It’s portable, affordable shelter for all.’ And now [Haiti] happened. We went through it with my dad when we were kids and we saw it all come together. He just has this brilliant mind that doesn’t think like the rest of us.”
Today, Hamner and her three sisters can laugh about their unusual lifestyle growing up, which included times floating down the Aptos Creek in a foldable tent kayak Gillis constructed out of similar materials used in his tents. “I can remember my dad trying to do business in the tent while it was raining, and you couldn’t hear because the rain on the top of the tent was so loud,” she reminisces. “I don’t know how he ran a business like that but he did it.”
POLE DANCING Bob Gillis is at the center of Shelter Systems’ groundbreaking tents. Photo courtesy of dometents.com
Though there were plenty of meager times in the beginning when Gillis would only sell one or two tents in a year, all of that changed in the early ’90s when he took advantage of a relatively new thing called the Internet. While he’d mainly been selling greenhouse domes, suddenly a new green-keen clientele entered the scene: Burners.
“Even before I knew about Burning Man I heard people were looking to buy some tents from me for it,” Gillis recalls. “It’s a good testing ground for tents, that’s for sure; it’s got great winds. It’s a wild and exhausting adventure.” Now, Burners make up 90 percent of Shelter Systems’ purchases and you can’t walk around the festival in Black Rock Desert and not run into a Shelter Systems tent.
Jeff “Redwood” Devitt has been building Shelter Systems domes for the past 20 years; alongside Gillis in a tent in Nisene Marks early on, then in a broken down funky barn in Bonny Doon, and now in a warehouse on Mission Street Extension in Santa Cruz. He says the “PlayaDome” orders for Burning Man come rolling in each year, with June and July proving busiest just before the notorious festival in August and September. The 18-foot dome ($780) is the best seller.
“When the Burning Man crowd tapped into us we really got some steam,” Devitt says. “Bob gave me a ticket to go to Burning Man as an ambassador for the company one year. Of course, I also partied the whole time—but you can’t walk down the avenue and not see our domes. I had to almost wear blinders because whenever I’d see one of our tents set up wrong I’d just want to go over and fix it.”
Being functional and artistic has made Shelter Systems domes a hit at Burning Man—and a plethora of other random exploits. They’ve been used as futuristic props in a Star Trek episode, for an underwater trick by magician David Blaine, as a painted asteroid by Six Flags Magic Mountain, and as a bubble dome prototype for a Disney movie. Meanwhile, Gillis’ expertise has also been called upon by the military for more serious projects.
Hamner says that “domestic sales and Burning Man are why we’re able to be here when there is a big disaster somewhere that requires thousands of tents.”
And the need for relief tents is exactly what caused the company to expand into a partnership with a materials supplier in Georgia. After receiving various inquiries for a demand of relief tents that the small operation in town couldn’t meet, Shelter Systems began also manufacturing large quantities in Georgia in the early 2000s. There, the tents are made in a cheaper environment and can sell at a cheaper cost.
Subsequently, in the last decade the company has supplied relief tents to Venezuela, Pakistan, Guam, Samoa, China and, now more than ever, to Haiti. Since the 8.8 Chile earthquake in February, Hamner has been fielding various calls. At time of press, few tents have been sent. “I’m hoping the government is just really well prepared [in Chile] and doing OK,” she says.
While Gillis maintains that people are better served by their indigenous forms of housing than by a tent that comes from the outside, the humble tent pioneer is grateful to see his life’s work serving people in emergency situations, like Andre Cherer’s family in Haiti:
“I didn’t use the tents under a disaster type situation, it was just a choice I made to live in them. But it’s wonderful to see them now being used for such an urgent need.”
He then pauses before adding a final thought. “It’s nice to help somebody out for a party, but these tents are saving people’s lives. It makes a home.”
Cover photo by Chelsea George.