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Grand Meadow, Minnesota: A Grand Campus of 5 Monolithic Domes!

Image: ISD 495 in Grand Meadow, Minnesota — That school district received plan approval and a grant from its state legislature for twice the money it requested for the construction of five Monolithic Domes.

ISD 495 in Grand Meadow, Minnesota — That school district received plan approval and a grant from its state legislature for twice the money it requested for the construction of five Monolithic Domes. (Jim Casady)

Image: Home of the Superlarks — For its 400 students and 30 teachers, Grand Meadow’s approved plan included five Monolithic Domes: 81,000 square feet for classrooms, media center, gymnasium, cafeteria and multipurpose center with a stage.
Image: Feasibility Study — Architect Rick Crandall produced a feasibility study that illustrated the dome layout and enabled people to see how the school would function.
Image: School as Disaster Shelter — Superintendent Klaehn said, “This will be the safest building for your children to be in. We’ll be in a community where school is the building you want your children in, not where you want to get them out of.”
Image: Feeling of unity — Grade 5 teacher Judy Thumann told about the feeling of unity the domes inspire and how fortunate she and the other teachers feel in having this new dome facility.
Image: Teaching in the round — Ms. Thumann said that having a central activity area makes a welcome difference, since teachers can now schedule more activities that require lots of space.
Image: Students speak out — Student Council President Kelli Petzel said that she and the other students really liked the new gym, the parking lot and the “cool pop machines.”
Image: Gymnasium — It’s equipped for a full range of school athletics, activities and special events.
Image: Girls’ Volleyball — Grand Meadow’s gym features pull-out bleachers, locker rooms, a regulation size basketball court and two cross-court practice goals.
Image: Weight Room — It’s located behind the bleachers.
Image: An Informational DVD — In 2004, Superintendent Klaehn produced the informational DVD, “Monolithic Dome School Construction.” It’s a must-see for any school district thinking about building.
Image: Sunset at Grand Meadow — In 2007, Grand Meadow Superintendent Brown told the Minnesota Legislature about the low energy costs of their Monolithic Dome facility.

Double the money

It’s not often that a school district gets plan approval and a grant from its state legislature for twice the money the school district asks for. But Grand Meadow, Minnesota ISD #495 did! On September 15, 1998 Grand Meadow voters passed a bond for $8 million for a much needed Kindergarten through Grade 12 facility.

“But,” said Superintendent Bruce Klaehn, “the $8 million was contingent on a minimum $1.5 million grant that we had to get from our legislature. We got $3 million.”

For its 400 students and 30 teachers, Grand Meadow’s approved plan calls for five Monolithic Domes – 81,000 square feet for classrooms, media center, gymnasium, cafeteria and multipurpose center with a stage.

Selling the Monolithic Dome concept

Klaehn feels that the Monolithic Dome concept, their research and their efforts to inform the public helped secure approval and funding from the legislature. He said, “We started researching and planned on this (Monolithic Dome) approach before we passed the bond issue. In May 1998 we traveled to Arizona twice with Rick Crandall (Monolithic architect) and met with the superintendent at Payson and at Whiteriver (two Monolithic Dome schools).”

Three factors led to the initial choice for Monolithic Domes: lower construction costs, lower operating costs and increased safety. Klaehn said, “We passed that information on to our board and task force, and we held public meetings.”

A feasibility study

Those meetings included a visit by Architect Crandall, a press conference, and a feasibility study presented to the Building Committee.

Asked if he thought the feasibility study was helpful and worth the money, Klaehn replied, "Yes, it was. I don’t think there was any way we could have just verbally communicated to our public that yeah, this was a good idea.

“And I think we ourselves needed to see how the school would actually lay out. The feasibility study showed us how many domes there would be, how big they would be, and how they would relate to one another. Without that study, I don’t think we could have had a concept in our minds of what it would look like.”

Safest building for the kids

Telling people how well Monolithic Domes served as disaster shelters stimulated more interest. Klaehn said, “It’s interesting because just a couple of years ago in Minnesota we had several towns hit by a tornado and schools destroyed. So a strong selling point was: This will be the safest building for your children to be in. We’ll be in a community where school is the building you want your children in, not where you want to get them out of.

Support from other professionals

Klaehn said, “When our architects first heard that we wanted Monolithic Domes, Bill Meschke was immediately interested and supportive.”

Meschke is a company director and head of the architectural department at TSP One, Inc. of Rochester, Minnesota. As part of TSP Group, Inc., TSP One, established in 1969, is a full service architectural, engineering and planning firm.

Meschke said, “We’ve been talking with Rick Crandall about Grand Meadow for a couple of years now and we’re very excited. We worked on the Sports Center at Park University so we’re familiar with Monolithic Domes.”

“We know the pros and cons,” Meschke continued. He said that in the Grand Meadow project, some people want windows in the domes so that’s a weak kind of con. To solve it, Meschke is meeting with the district to see if their budget will allow windows. “Possibly, we’ll be able to put them in the elementary school dome. But actually many schools these days are constructing windowless classrooms,” Meschke said.

As for pros, TSP One’s engineering and structural departments researched Monolithic Domes. “Based on their findings, we’re recommending that Grand Meadow go with geothermal heating and cooling,” Meschke said. “The superior insulation of these structures makes that possible.”

For their construction management, Grand Meadow selected E&V Consultants and Construction Management, Minneapolis. Although Grand Meadow will be his first Monolithic Dome project, Randall Lutz, senior project manager at E&V, said he is familiar with the concept and has visited several dome facilities already in operation. “It should be a very interesting and intriguing project,” Lutz said. “Domes have been around for centuries. But there’s an apparent economy with today’s designs that make them (domes) competitive with conventional construction. Heretofore, domes have been a fairly expensive proposition and therefore not a system of choice, primarily because of economics. Now they can compete against conventional construction in certain applications.”

Excitement and reserved excitement

Grand Meadow has scheduled ground breaking for October. “That’s really got everyone excited,” Klaehn said. “The students are very excited. They feel like they’re in on a ground floor, a cutting-edge event. The staff is accepting with some reservations. We’ve taken some staff members down to the Monolithic Dome school in Pattonsburg, Missouri, so they could see what the domes were like. We weren’t necessarily pleased with the room layout, so we took notes and made the changes we wanted.”

As for the community as a whole, Klaehn said that most people echo the excitement of the students, but “there are some who are in the field of construction who hesitate because it’s new. You hear a lot of questions like: what if it falls down, what if it doesn’t work, what if”. So some of the hesitancy is because of domes, but some is because they just didn’t want a new school anyway.

“I think our greatest challenge has been making folks understand that this is clearly a better way to build,” Klaehn said. "I think it’s just a matter of letting them see how well they’re built. This will be the first Monolithic Dome school in Minnesota, and anyone who knows anything at all about our weather will realize that they’re the answer to our cold winters.”

Grand Opening of the Grand Campus at Grand Meadow – 2002

Three thousand come to see the domes

On November 10, Grand Meadow, Minnesota, a rural community of about 1000, tripled its population. That was the day Grand Meadow hosted a grand opening of its new Monolithic Dome school — five domes that encompass classrooms, cafeteria, auditorium, gymnasium, computer lab and administrative offices. These new structures currently serve 350 students and 30 teachers in Kindergarten through Grade 12 and include room for an additional 100 students.

Superintendent Bruce Klaehn said, “The grand opening went very well. We had an exceptional turnout. We estimated that we had over 3000 people attend the school that day and over 1000 came just for the program itself. We heard overwhelming positive comments about the layout of the buildings. It was a very positive, uplifting day for the community.”

Featured speakers

The grand opening included much speech making. According to Jerry Cleveland, a local dome enthusiast, State Senator Kenric Scheevel and State Representative Greg Davids, who were instrumental in helping Grand Meadow get their $3 million grant from the state, spoke. Superintendent Bruce Klaehn said, “They are both very pleased with the results.”

Others in attendance included school officials from around the state, the Grand Meadow’s Mayor, the CEO of the State Business Partnership, and TSP Architects.

Students were heard from

In her speech, Kelli Petzel, a high school senior and student council president, listed some of the features the kids were most excited about. The new gymnasium, parking lot and “cool pop machines” topped that list. In a later interview, Kelli said, “I definitely feel that having all of the high school students in the same dome is a great way to be more united. Having our nice commons area gives us the opportunity to hang around and talk with fellow students before and after classes. Before, all of the students were stretched down two separate, narrow hallways, and we never saw much of each other or had the chance to socialize.”

And so were the teachers

Fifth Grade teacher Judy Thumann also spoke about the feeling of unity the domes inspire and how fortunate she and the other teachers feel in having this new dome facility.

During a follow-up telephone interview, Thumann said, “The domes are very nice — especially the elementary dome. We used to be in two different buildings on three different floors and now we’re all together – just like a big family. You can go out there and touch base and share things. Yesterday, I needed a book on animal tracks, and I just went into the Second Grade and came back with it. I’ve taught for over 30 years, and I never would have thought I’d teach in a new school. How many people get to do that? Not very many.”

Thumann then recalled, "I remember when this idea (Monolithic Domes) was presented to us. I was at a committee meeting and I thought, ‘Oh, yeah. Something like that in our town!’ A small group of us thought, ‘No, that (the domes) won’t be accepted by our town. What would they look like here?’ And here we are, and we’re happy to be here.

“We all comment on how, for some reason, it’s more inviting and easier to come back to school on a weekend or in the evening to work,” Thumann continued. “It’s just nice to spend time here, I think.”

Domes provide new teaching environment

Asked if teaching in the round makes a difference in how she teaches, Thumann said, “Having that central activity area certainly does. We’re able to schedule more activities where you need to spread out. I think, for all of us, it’s opened up what we can do.” Their old classrooms, she said, were just too cramped, especially for large classes such as hers, with 25 students.

Both elementary and high school domes are designed with classrooms surrounding large, open, carpeted activity areas that can accommodate several groups doing different things, simultaneously. Thumann described the classrooms as “pie-shaped but without a point.”

The classrooms have no windows facing the outside, but Thumann said that was not a problem. “I don’t think we miss windows to the outside,” she said. “When we walk to our other classes or go from dome-to-dome, we walk through the connecting parts that have great, big windows, and we look out then. I thought I would miss windows because I was used to lots of windows in my old, third-floor building. But, now there are those big ones in the front wall and little windows in the doors, so it’s not totally filled in, and we usually keep our doors open.”

Thumann also likes having a telephone, two storage cupboards, a sink, a countertop and drawers in each classroom.

Hopes for the future

“We realize how very fortunate we are to have this,” Thumann said. “We’re just waiting for people to follow our lead. We’re hoping that will take place here in Minnesota.”

Superintendent Klaehn echoed that hope. He said that since dome construction first began, Grand Meadow has had interested visitors. Now that it’s complete, they come almost daily and Klaehn feels that Grand Meadow is "ready to let the rest of the state see it and see how it works and functions.

“There are a lot of schools who wanted to wait and see it done,” he concluded, “and I know there are some bond issues for conventional structures that went down. So there may be some regrouping and new interest.”

Superintendent Klaehn Produces Informational DVD: A Must-See for Any School Considering Construction – 2004

“Been there, done that and here’s what we learned.”

That’s the message of a new DVD produced by Grand Meadow ISD #495. Hosted by Superintendent Bruce Klaehn, this easy-to-understand, comprehensive DVD visually documents the process that community officials and the 1000 or so residents of Grand Meadow, Minnesota went through in researching, getting the money for and building a new school complex of five Monolithic Domes.

Early in his presentation, Klaehn explains that the purpose of this DVD is not to convince other schools to build Monolithic Domes. Instead, it’s an aid meant to help them decide whether such a facility would meet their needs.

In essence, he urges others not to bother reinventing the wheel – or, in this case, go through the long, costly investigative process that Grand Meadow went through. Others can make some preliminary decisions just by learning about Grand Meadow’s experiences.

Grand Meadow’s process

After all, it’s now more than a year since the 350 students and 30 teachers in Kindergarten through Grade 12 of ISD #495 moved into their Monolithic Domes and some seven years since the community first began talking about a new school. That process first started in 1997 when Grand Meadow realized that their school, built in 1916 and renovated during the 1950s, 1970s and 1990s, was badly in need of more repairs. Klaehn said that changing academic needs, changing structural codes and time had all taken their toll.

So in 1997, Grand Meadow formed a Task Force to research the possibility of building a new school. It didn’t take that Task Force long to conclude that new structures were economically impossible for their small, rural community. They began looking into renovating the old school. But while in that process, a resident brought the school board information about Monolithic Domes — a concept that maybe, just maybe, they could afford.

The DVD documents Grand Meadow’s process of delving into that possibility, as well as the questions they had and the answers they got. That process included extensive questioning of Monolithic Dome personnel, a feasibility study done by Architect Rick Crandall and visits to several Monolithic Dome schools already in operation.

Task Force finds that Monolithic Domes have four very attractive advantages:

  1. Reduced Construction Cost – On their $12.3 million complex, Grand Meadow stood to save more than $1 million by going with Monolithic Domes.
  2. Reduced Operating Cost – With Monolithic Domes,Grand Meadow would save at least 25% on maintenance and energy, year after year.
  3. Improved Use of Internal Space – Dome designs would eliminate the need for long corridors and halls. Students and staff would be conveniently placed in or near the areas and materials they used.
  4. Safer Buildings – Monolithic Domes are impervious to any weather-related disaster.

Based on this, the School Board decided that it was worth asking the community to pass a bond issue that would get them the funding for a Monolithic Dome complex. A well-planned program meant to educate the community about Monolithic Domes followed. It worked and the bond issue passed.

DVD concludes by showing the Monolithic Dome construction process

Viewers see an inflated Airform whose inside gets sprayed with four inches of polyurethane foam, reinforced with steel bars, and sprayed with four to ten inches of concrete. Klaehn points out that the concrete is on the inside, protected by the foam and the Airform. Consequently, it will be untroubled by Minnesota’s weather and temperatures, well-known for their concrete-destroying abilities. Additional information includes data on the ingredients used in constructing the domes, their geothermal heating and cooling system, their acoustics and their warranty.

Klaehn then thanks his viewers, invites them to call him with their questions and wishes any school contemplating new construction the best of luck. He says that he hopes that what Grand Meadow learned and presented in this DVD will help them with their decisions.

The DVD is included with in this article. See the video at the top of the story.

Superintendent Brown Tells Minnesota Legislature of Energy-Cost Savings with Monolithic Domes – 2007

On January 31, the Meadow Area News, circulated to 3100 homes in and near Grand Meadow, Minnesota, published two articles about the money-saving operation of Grand Meadow ISD’s five Monolithic Domes.

In “Ka-ching! Geothermal system saves money for GM,” writer Marceil Skifter relates what Superintendent Joseph Brown Sr. had to say to the Minnesota Legislature. Here is an excerpt from that article.

Supt. Brown said the heating bill from February, 2001 – the last winter in the old building – was $28,000. Fast forward five years and the heating bills have doubled; therefore, a current utility bill would be around $56,000!

These days, the bill is about $11,000 a month. The Superintendent said when energy costs went up awhile back there was a “spike” in the bill, to approximately $12,000 – $12,500; but it came back down to around $11,000, where it remains year-around.

It helps that “we’re insulated so well…and there are not a lot of windows,” said Brown, adding, “also, the water comes in at a certain temperature all the time.”

So, as Supt. Brown explained to those he talked to in the Legislature, having a heating bill of less than half what it was a few years ago, or about one-fourth what it would be without the geothermal system, allows Grand Meadow to use the funds elsewhere in the budget and to “hire an additional teacher here for the five winter months.”

In “Heating, cooling a ‘breeze’ with geothermal energy system,” Skifter has Karl Hoefs, who monitors and programs Grand Meadow’s computerized geothermal energy system, explain how this heating/cooling system works and why it saves money.