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A walk back to the picturesque acreage owned by Spring Valley native Jerry Cleveland and you might think you were on another planet -- or at least another continent. Nestled among the tree-lined hillside sit two huge igloo-shaped concrete mounds. The solid gray huts both sport regular looking doors, but once inside, the structures are anything but regular. It's one solid, round piece. The unusual looking buildings are called EcoShells, part of the Monolithic Dome family. "EcoShells are just like Monolithic Domes, but without the insulation," explained Cleveland, who helped build the two structures as part of a special course he taught at Kingsland High School this year.
By day he works for the U.S. Postal Service, but in his spare time, this self-proclaimed dome fanatic evangelizes the gospel of Monolithic Domes. "I first became interested during the energy crunch of the early "70s," Cleveland said. "Back then I studied up on Earth Homes, Solar Homes and Geodesic homes," he said. Years later Cleveland ran across a story in Popular Mechanics that sparked his intense interest for Monolithic Domes. While Cleveland spends a fair amount of time putzing in his back acreage with the two EcoShell domes slated for a storage shed and a workshop, he also spends a fair amount of time promoting the benefits of domes.
"They're really a superstructure," Cleveland said. "They're super insulated and take half as much energy to heat or cool than a traditional stick-built home," he said. Some average sized homes in the warmest of climates, for example, use only a small R/V air-conditioning unit to cool their entire house. While expensive materials are used to construct the dome, the efficient manner in which materials are used helps keep the cost down. According to the Monolithic Dome Institute, a leader in the dome construction industry, a good rule of thumb in estimating the final cost of an average, finished Monolithic Dome home is $60 per square foot of floor area -- similar to that of a traditionally built home. But when it comes to institutional buildings, the cost is much less for two reasons. First, institutional buildings must meet tougher building codes and are built using more expensive materials. Monolithic Domes meet and exceed these building codes. Domes also cover more space than other shaped buildings, which creates a margin of efficiency between the dome and traditional square buildings.
Monolithic Domes are probably best known for their structural strength. "They're one of the strongest structures that can be built," Cleveland said. Here's why. A concrete ring, reinforced with steel rebar makes up the dome's foundation. The ring is also embedded with vertical steel bars that later get attached to bars that will make up the walls of the dome. That's a lot of steel, but it's only the beginning. Next comes something called an airform, which is the customized form that makes up the dome's shape. Fabricated to your exact specifications, the airform is placed on the concrete base and inflated using blower fans. Three inches of polyurethane foam is then sprayed onto the interior surface of the airform. Then a specially engineered vertical and horizontal layout of steel rebar is attached to the foam before shotcrete, a spray concoction of concrete, is applied to the inside of the dome. Voila! The project is complete. Since domes are built from the inside, you don't have to stop working during periods of bad weather. "If the weather is bad, you just go inside take your coat off and get to work," said Cleveland. For added protection, the airform remains in place in the Monolithic Dome to form a super strong, waterproof roof covering.
In Roundup, the Journal of the Monolithic Dome Institute, the strength of the dome can be demonstrated by placing an egg horizontally in the palm of your hands and applying as much pressure as you can. The egg is very difficult to break.
Monolithic Dome homes have even survived major hurricanes and tornadoes, emerging virtually unscathed. That's a strong selling point for certain areas of the country to be sure and a reason for the growing popularity in both the residential and commercial markets. From churches, schools and sports stadiums -- to cold storage units and even crematoriums -- Monolithic Dome structures are popping up around the country.
So why haven't they caught on in this neck of the woods? "People aren't used to something that looks so different," Cleveland said. But they'll soon get their chance.
Construction is slated for April on what will no doubt become the state's most famous Monolithic Dome, the Grand Meadow school facility. When Cleveland first learned that officials were looking to build a new school, but didn't have the funds, he jumped on the idea of a dome and promoted the idea with all its attributes. "It would cost them $12 million to build a conventional school, $6 million to remodel their old school and $9 million to build a new dome school," Cleveland said. If Grand Meadow is like many other schools around the country considering a domed facility, they'll probably be glad they chose one. In Payson, Arizona, for example, the domed elementary school cost $64 per square foot versus the statewide average of $84.
Besides lower construction costs, domes offer lower energy and maintenance costs, are fire safe and offer a safe haven in the event of a natural disaster. Domes are also quite versatile in their design and can be added to or remodeled easily. The acoustics are superior, too because Monolithic Domes are shaped perfectly to reflect all sound through their focal point -- the center. But best yet, Monolithic Dome structures have such a long life span that building bonds and loans can be paid for long before the building needs to be replaced.
In addition to the school deal, Cleveland has talked to many other area organizations, including the Department of Natural Resources regarding a cave interpretative center and representatives from the Minnesota Vikings touting the benefits of dome construction. With no business ties with any of the dome builders around the country, you may wonder what's really in it for Cleveland. "I really believe in the process," he said. "But I'm not convinced people think it's possible." Someday Cleveland would like to develop a dome construction business, but in the mean time plans to complete his outdoor storage and workshop buildings. And, he's already selected just the perfect spot to build Spring Valley's first dome gazebo this summer. "We get a lot of deer out here," said Cleveland about his scenic acreage. "This will be a perfect spot."
For more particulars on the benefits of Monolithic Dome building or for a list of how-tos, contact the Monolithic Institute at 177 Dome Park Place, Italy, Texas 76651 -- or better yet, ask Fillmore County's resident expert, Jerry Cleveland.
By Carol Thouin