For sale: glass dome complex in desert, abandoned by feuding scientists

Not-so-sealed Biosphere proves hospitable to bugs

July 05, 2005|By Howard Witt | Howard Witt,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ORACLE, Ariz. - As for-sale listings go, this one is a real fixer-upper: a 10-bedroom, five-bath glass house situated in Arizona's Sonoran Desert.

The landscaping is lush, but it's a bit overgrown. There's a million-gallon pool, but the water is brackish. The utility bills are a bear - about $1 million a year. And the place is infested with five species of cockroaches and overrun with voracious ants.

But if you're looking for a one-of-a-kind property set amid nearly 1,300 acres of cactus and tumbleweeds with spectacular mountain views, then the 137,000-square-foot Biosphere 2 just might be for you.

This outsized glass terrarium was the place where eight scientists locked themselves inside in 1991 and lived for two years in hermetically sealed isolation, seeking to discover whether humans could replicate the ecology of Biosphere 1 - the Earth - inside a bubble, grow all their food and survive without help from the outside world.

Built to last for 100 years, Biosphere 2 was billed at the time as a bold scientific experiment and a test-bed for the kind of self-sufficient human space colony that would be needed on a mission to Mars. But when the oxygen ran low and food grew scarce, it turned out the seal wasn't so hermetic after all: extra air was secretly pumped in from outside and the scientists started eating seeds they had stored for an emergency.

Feuding groups

Then the "Biospherians" fell to feuding, splitting into two rival tribes that, to this day, do not speak to one another.

What started out as high science ended up more like an episode of Survivor, but without the million-dollar prize. The project was derided as a stunt and the science called junk.

The last researchers to use the facility, from New York's Columbia University, pulled out two years ago, leaving the complex empty except for millions of insects, a few hundred fish and the handful of tourists who make the 40-minute drive up from Tucson each day.

Now Edward Bass, the Texas oil billionaire who built Biosphere 2 at a cost of $150 million, is putting the place up for sale. No asking price has been revealed, but the realtors who are marketing the facility tout its potential as a "spa and wellness center," a "corporate campus" or a "high-security compound."

There's a high-tech kitchen; a vast greenhouse; 10 private mini-apartments; and elaborate systems for recycling water and air. Viewed from a distance, the structure's interconnected white geodesic domes look like a spaceship Buckminster Fuller might have built.

And that's just the Biosphere 2 structure itself. Surrounding it are more than 70 buildings, including several dozen dormitory rooms, a hotel and conference center and numerous service and storage buildings.

"It's an exceptional opportunity," says Jerry Hawkins, one of the commercial Realtors at CB Richard Ellis in Tucson who snagged what he concedes is an unusual listing. "It's taken me 50 visits just to understand it. The first time through, I was totally confused, like, `What is this?' Now I see the possibilities."

Land coveted

The biggest possibility might well be the land on which the unusual buildings sit: metropolitan Tucson is rapidly spreading northeast, lapping at Biosphere 2's glass doors. A sprawling new retirement community neighbors the facility to the south, and developers would love to snag the Biosphere 2 property for residential use.

But Hawkins said Bass - whose representatives declined requests for interviews - does not want to see Biosphere 2 turned into the world's biggest raze-and-rebuild project. Some kind of research use, even if it's combined with a spa or golf club, is the desired outcome, Hawkins said.

That could be a hard sell, however, given Biosphere 2's checkered scientific past. From the red designer jumpsuits worn by the Biospherians to their communal ways and vegetarian diets, the project had a touchy-feely New Age dimension that provoked skepticism from many hard-science traditionalists.

The project's legitimacy took a sharper hit later on, when the Biosphere 2 managers tried to cover up the bad news mounting under the glass. The Biospherians' crops began to fail from a lack of natural light, and plants and animal species started dying off after oxygen levels plummeted. Ants and cockroaches, however, thrived.

At their lowest point, the scientists were gasping for breath between every sentence, squabbling over dwindling food supplies and frantically chasing the cockroaches so they could feed them to their emaciated chickens. By the end, the Biospherians had lost an average of 13.5 percent of their body weight.

"We were all starving and suffocating, so it was hard not to be crabby," said Linda Leigh, 53, one of the original Biospherians who is now an administrator at an area college. "It was awful. We went in as friends, thinking we knew each other really well. We ended up in horrible fights over how much time and resources we had and how to use them."

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