At Home in My Dome Learning from a Unique Structure

Growing up in the heart of the southern West Virginia coalfields, the quality of local creek water wasn’t a topic of discussion. Talk around the dinner table usually revolved around what time Dad left for his second job or if all the green beans had sealed from the last canning. My story, however, took a different twist.

We built the dome with the help of a color code to sort the four basic strut lengths. © Pat Stapleton

I knew my future husband Mike, a passionate environmentalist, was different the first time I saw the giant, black plastic-covered pillbox he called home. It was a passive solar geodesic dome home in the early stages of construction.

The roof was flat, covered with layers of black shingles and patched in spots with tar. The unfinished, partially buried ground level had a kitchen, 40-foot living area and a bathroom with a port-a-pot. A screened trapdoor in the ceiling opened for cross ventilation, and a freestanding wood stove provided heat.

Taking the Dunce Out of Dome School

When Mike began talking about “dome school,” I secretly wondered if he had slipped a gear. Then we drove to North Branch, Minnesota to attend a two-day, hands-on workshop at Natural Spaces Domes, which designed our home.

Dome school provided vital information on the company’s exclusive Super-Lock hub connector system. Owner/ builder Dennis Johnson answered Mike’s questions on riser walls, flashing, insulation and shingles.

I got to see an actual finished dome. Visions of triangle-shaped windows danced in my head. While Mike and Dennis discussed “low-e” (low-emissivity) windows with solar-bronze tinting, I dreamed of light streaming into our cathedral ceiling living room.

Beat of a Different Drum

By literally cutting corners, a dome reduces heat loss through its walls and roof. This combined with heavy insulation means minimal electricity usage. At first, family and neighbors didn’t understand our dome concept. They just grinned and shook their heads.

Following weeks of assembling precisely cut 24-inch double-struts from structural grade Southern yellow pine, Mike, his two brothers and his father started on the dome shell. By the end of the third day, a curved plywood-covered dome filled the sky above the flat roof. Winter winds blasting up the hill that year caused our hearts to ache as we prayed the temporary covering of black felt would hold.

We’ve used halogen lights to put siding on after dark, and have been soaked by rain many times while covering up unfinished parts of the house. One year we shoveled 10 tons of sand, packing drains for the concrete driveway. That night a storm washed the sand down the hill, clogging a neighbor’s drain. When we looked out the next morning we saw three feet of water. I found myself shoveling the sand out of a ditch I had spent most of the week helping fill.

Neighbors who were initially perplexed by our housing choice helped carry and hoist the 73-by-86-inch triangle window. Mike and I poured foundations, laid block and installed windows, flooring, drywall, cabinets, tile, plumbing and wiring. Shingling the dome took one entire summer. The only outside labor has been guttering, and help from good neighbors with some concrete.

Last fall we installed an efficient, outdoor wood-fired furnace from Central Boiler, which provides hot water and radiant baseboard heat. This past summer a vapor barrier and double triangle wedges from commercial rolls of nine-inch insulation were added to the dome’s 22-inch ventilated wall cavity. Finished pine tongue-and-groove triangles have finally started to appear inside the upstairs dome.

From Incandescents to Compact Fluorescents

Like my acceptance of compact fluorescent light bulbs, it has taken time to realize our dome-in-progress is symbiotic with food lining its shelves. I’m an order coordinator for our food co-op, Common Ground Buying Club. United Natural Foods delivers organic food, supplements and phosphate-free cleaners from a New Oxford, Pennsylvania warehouse.

Flavors of my “processed bread” mentality still linger. There is meat in the house. But the beef is raised and slaughtered locally and the chicken is free-range. And the raised-bed garden out back, watered by underground cisterns, plays havoc on memories spent hoeing Dad’s long rows of vegetables.

I did not go quietly into that dark night—er, light. It’s been an enlightening 15-year journey from the day I married my environmentalist, energy-conserving husband. As J.R.R. Tolkien said, “Not all who wonder are lost.”

PAT STAPLETON is a freelance writer and photographer from West Virginia.