Joseph Brown Sr. applied for the superintendent's position at Grand Meadow (Minn.) School District #495 because the one-campus school building boasts a monolithic dome structure.
As a high school principal 30 miles to the west, he had heard his predecessor talk extensively about this new construction. When Brown read about the opening in the newspaper, he called the sitting superintendent on the spot to apply, and landed the position five days later. "Honestly, I never would have considered coming here had it not been for the dome school," Brown says today. "I am a social studies guy and I was intrigued with the idea of circles. A lot of anthropology studies are about the importance of the fire pit and people working together in a community."
Yet the architects who built Grand Meadow's dome expected that same reaction-and the subsequent business dollars-but it never materialized, even after the firm began racking up regional and national awards. "After we started constructing this thing, we saw a lot of interest around the state of Minnesota, and as far up as North Dakota and then it fizzled out," says Jon Neubauer, project manager architect at TSP Architects & Engineers in Rochester, Minn. "I don't think it's going to happen up in this part of the country."
David South, who, as president of the Monolithic Dome Institute in Italy, Texas, is considered the founding father of this movement and its biggest cheerleader, eventually admits to the same experience. He and his brothers built the first monolithic domed school in Emmett, Idaho, and then waited 10 years for the next order. Since the mid-'90s, he has doubled his number of domed buildings every year, but given he's a small, 50-person company, that boils down to 24 school facilities in his portfolio.
So by all measurements, the movement is in a grassroots phase. The institute offers a five-day course to other small builders, and to date 1,400 have graduated from its program. Yet only 280 of them have built a domed structure, and most of those are residential. South estimates only three other companies in the United States besides his own are large enough to take on a project the size of a school.
"I tell people it's like kissing frogs," South says. "I started this sleigh ride 30 years ago and I've pushed and pushed and pushed, but there are just a lot of people who haven't seen them yet."
Monolithic domes aren't new to construction by a long shot. In ancient days, they were the premier construction option and "dome and cheap were never in the same sentence," South notes. The technology took a huge leap forward in the 1970s when engineers puzzled out how to inflate a fabric balloon within a circular foundation, then spray a layer of urethane foam to the interior and place reinforcing steel rods via a special hangar system. Finally, the outside is coated in a thin-shell concrete. That process has stood for three decades.
"It's pretty hard to improve on an egg," says South. "So we're learning to make them look nicer." Today's monolithic domes usually sport planters around the base, with concrete shelves that jut out to make an inviting entry into the facility. In the education market, where bottom-line budgets rule, most school districts save the esthetic investments for the interiors.
The idea so captured the imagination of the 1,000 people living in Grand Meadow, they passed a bond issue to build the entire K-12 campus as a series of five connected domes to house its 360 students and 34 full-time teachers.
The Grand Meadow school's appearance, of course, swayed most parents. The previous building had stood since 1914-a three-story structure that offered no handicap access and no sprinkler system. Twice parents lobbied for $1.5 million start-up money from the state legislature to replace the inefficient structure, and twice then-Gov. Jesse Ventura line-item vetoed it. On the third time they successfully landed $3 million in seed money-and Brown credits the persistence in part to the fact this new school offered such a unique appearance.
Likewise, Pontiac-William Holliday District #105 in Fairview Heights, Ill., tried five times to pass a school bond for an elementary gymnasium, succeeding only after it distributed drawings of a monolithic dome as the design plan. "OK, so some people are still saying, 'It's kinda an odd-shaped looking school,' " Brown laughs. But South reports similar economic boosts from his initial school structures in Emmett. When South first pulled into town, "every other house was for sale. When I came back two years later after the school was built, you couldn't buy or rent a house in the town," he says. Turns out, people moved over the hill from Boise to put their kids in the super-modern school.
"Once you get inside the building, there are a couple of real advantages you wouldn't think about initially," Brown assures. Take, for instance, that monolithic domes eliminate a lot of the typical corridor circulation patterns that eat up square footage in traditional buildings. And from a safety standpoint, domes can stand up to Mother Nature's bad days. Some districts in Tornado Alley have designated their domes as the emergency shelter because they meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency's
criteria for near-absolute protection.
South claims all his clients will verify that a monolithic dome's return on investment hovers at 20 years based on energy savings alone. Grand Meadow once paid $24,000 a month for utilities during the winter; today that bill is about $6,200 each month, thanks to the school's geothermal qualities that keep the building at 70 degrees year-round. And because the urethane on the outside is the world's best insulation, it stores enormous amounts of heat for a passive solar system that levels out the inside temperatures.
Schools in high altitudes, South says, don't need a heating and cooling system period. Hot spots like his Texas hometown that see a nighttime low of 85 degrees can't adjust that well, but they save money because the dome's cooling system needs less horsepower. For instance, Italy High School's Gladiator Coliseum in the Monolithic Dome Institute's backyard purchased a 20-ton HVAC system for its main hall rather than the traditional 80-ton required for the space.
"And the air quality is incredible," Brown adds. "We've noticed that the illness rate of our students and staff has really dropped off."
Physics, of course, dictates that a monolithic dome covers more space with less material than a round structure, so as far back as Thales of Miletus' time in the sixth century B.C. scholars could have calculated a cost savings there. According to Gail Haterius, the superintendent at Italy Independent School District, it completed the high school's domed multipurpose center in January 2002 at a cost of $85 per square foot, for a total of $2 million. At that price point, they got 30 percent more floor and seating space than a squared design could offer.
But therein lies the first rub, points out Michael Hall, an architect and the chief marketing officer for architectural firm Fanning/Howey Associates based in Celina, Ohio. Sure the price is right, but much of the public K-12 work in this country must follow public bid rules. "Generally speaking, that means we have to allow at least three manufacturers of a product or we write a proprietary spec, which generally is a problem," he says. "I am not sure with a dome system there are three equal products out there to allow that."
Not Quite a Trend
By that same token, Hall can't declare monolithic domes a trend in the education world. "It's an option for solving a certain set of problems in a certain environment, but to me a trend is something that everyone gets involved in because it is applicable everywhere," he notes.
He does give them a thumbs up as a cafeteria, auditorium or sporting venue, an endorsement Haterius seconds. "I know my former 3A district would give their eye teeth to have this facility." But that doesn't mean she has plans to explore monolithic domes for classrooms a la Grand Meadow-a move Hall supports.
That's because a true dome doesn't allow for classroom windows, a situation you'll never see with Hall's name on it. The constructions he's seen that do boast windows involve what he calls a truncated dome to puncture the exterior, and that technology offsets the initial cost savings a district is looking for from this construction choice.
Neubauer found several ways to blow a budget, too. For instance, some of the smaller classrooms required drop ceilings because you can't have a space that is three times taller than it is wide, he points out. And the smaller the dome, the greater amount of unusable space-Grand Meadow's 145-foot diameter domes came in on the small side of the efficiency threshold. He says the ideal window should be between 150 and 175 feet in diameter.
A dome shape falls on the worst end of a bell curve when it comes to acoustics. TSP Architects applied acoustical surface on the inside of the dome shell in larger spaces like the library and high school common space to absorb sound reflection, and they tried design tricks like suspended banners hanging from the ceiling. In a similar vein, the larger spaces need light fixtures suspended to user level in order to achieve proper lighting, but then the team also had to purchase lighting to avoid creating a dark cavern above. "The bigger concern was in some of the classrooms," Neubauer notes. "They were getting a little darker in some of those spaces, too."
The dome's exterior plastic membrane offered just two color choices-another concern on his checklist-and the district chose the lighter hue. Plastic, of course, picks up static charge, so the farm field dust clung to the construction so tightly, officials had to contract with a cleaning surface to scrub down the domes. It remains an ongoing expense.
Finally, the space where they punched through the surface to install doors allows snow and rain to pour over that enclosure at a substantial rate. TSP Architects brainstormed a canopy to control that, but Neubauer says the upfront cost nixed that addition. Today, he says, the district is reconsidering that decision.
The district officially says its $12.3 million project cost 10 percent less than similar conventional facilities. Not everyone agrees on the number crunching. "Grand Meadow went this route because of a tight budget and the fact the state was willing to give some financial assistance to a different type of construction," Neubauer says. "But we felt in the end it came out to be pretty close to the cost of a traditional building."
Still, there's that social engineering piece neither design nor educational experts can value engineer. "During passing periods, teachers step out of their rooms and have faculty meetings right there. Folks see each other," says Brown. "Most schools are built to look like egg cartons-very box-oriented and isolated. A dome school forces you to work in teams because we're in a circle."
Julie Sturgeon is a contributing editor.