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Bubble Buildings

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By Debra Atlas

Since the mortgage bubble burst in 2008, the American dream of owning a home has, for many, become a pipe dream. Lots of folks face a future that doesn’t include their own backyard and picket fence. What’s more, environmental disasters ranging from Katrina and Rita to earthquakes and tornadoes have made investing in a home seem like risky business.

And that’s just the United States. According to Dr. Noel Brown, President and CEO of Friends of the United Nations, there is a shortage of 50 million housing units around the world.

However, there is a low-cost, energy-efficient, elegant-looking solution: concrete dome buildings. Even the most skeptical would be hard-pressed to dismiss these domes. They are resistant to fire, earthquakes, and hurricanes and impervious to mold, mildew, and termites. They save energy and cost less to build.

Originally conceived by architect Wallace Neff in the 1940s, his “bubble houses” were made of reinforced concrete cast in place over an inflatable balloon. Neff’s Airform construction allowed these dome homes to be built within 48 hours, and the process was unlike any traditional construction.

Wooden scaffolding was installed around the balloon, which was then coated with a powder to keep the cement from sticking to it, and next it was covered with mesh.  Gunite, a mixture of Portland cement and sand which is twice the strength of standard concrete, was shot directly into the balloon, hence the term ”shotcrete.” After 24 hours, the balloon was deflated, removed from the structure, and immediately made ready for reuse in another.

During Neff’s lifetime, approximately 400,000 bubble houses were considered for construction around the world. Sadly, fewer than 2,500 houses and buildings were actually built. Several were built in Havana, Cuba, while others were scattered across Africa, Mexico, South America, Pakistan, India, and Europe.

Time has been unkind to Neff’s unique domes, and now few are still standing. By 2010, there was only one Neff bubble house left in the US: the first one he built, located in Pasadena, California.

But this architectural marvel didn’t die out. It’s been brought into the 21st century by David South and his Texas-based company Monolithic®.

The same year Neff retired from architecture (in 1975), South began officially building domes.  South even tracked down Neff and meet him towards the end of Neff’s life. Like Neff, South pioneered spraying the balloon from the inside. South did it this way so he could work from the inside out, regardless of how cold it was outside. After building domes for 20 years, however, he has begun putting some concrete on from the outside.

So far, South has built around 4,000 dome structures  in 52 countries and in 49 states across the U.S. He’s built all kinds of dome buildings, including:

  • Churches;
  • Schools;
  • Water tanks;
  • Storage plants; and
  • Grow domes.

Over the past six months, South built domes for high school gymnasiums. These domes also double as tornado shelters.

“It’s the combination of foam and concrete that makes them tornado-proof,” he explains.

In fact, South has had the chance to prove this. He built Birmingham’s Faith Chapel, seven integrated domed buildings. The devastating tornado that swept through Birmingham in 2011 did break 1,200 of the 240,000 tiles on the main dome structure. However, the interior of the building sustained no damage at all! Meanwhile, the surrounding area was practically flattened.

“The dome is Nature’s perfect shape,” says South.

He might be on to something. When compared to traditional structures, monolithic dome schools can save 50% of energy usage at no extra cost in construction. They require less maintenance and repair and need less HVAC equipment. Monolithic domes can also save a school anywhere from $200,000 – $250,000 in construction costs.

South also points out that, since domes provide protection from tornadoes, their construction can be funded partially by FEMA money.

In short, dome buildings need only 1/4 the amount of energy to heat and cool, take 1/4 the amount of natural resources to build, last forever, and stand up to natural disasters.

Domes For The World Foundation’s mission is “to improve the lives of people worldwide through the introduction and construction of EcoShells and Monolithic Domes for personal and public use.”

As someone passionate about building high-quality, affordable shelter for people who need it, South wants to build millions of homes in the developing world. He has projects started in Mozambique, Nigeria, Ethopia, and Indonesia, and South is now looking for someone to help him build larger numbers of domes. In Indonesia, he’s already built 100 houses where an earthquake had leveled an entire village.

“Their children and grandchildren will have a place to live,” he says.

Domestically, South is busy building affordable dome housing complexes: monolithic studios and extended-stay motels. In 2011, 46.2 million Americans lived below the poverty line. For many people, finding a place to live and sleep is still an issue.

You can build a dome home out-of-pocket for around $2,000 or $4,000 with overhead and expenses, according to South.

Dome Park Lane in Italy, Texas, was his first 17-unit, furnished Monolithic Dome complex. Featuring a variety of sizes and floor plans, rent here is about $100 a week – including utilities. Next he built Secret Garden Italy, a gated garden community also in Italy, Texas, followed by Morgan Meadows with 56 micro-efficiency studio domes. All three remain filled to capacity and boast long waiting lists.

We at Sierra Club Green Home salute Neff and South, men of vision who created these remarkable, environmentally friendly housing solutions for those who need them most.

Read more articles by Debra Atlas


© 2012 SCGH, LLC.


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