A town filled with anticipation – 1998
The atmosphere around Pattonsburg, Missouri virtually sings with the sounds of construction, excitement and anticipation. After five years of what School Superintendent Gene Walker described as, “more than our fair share of trials and tribulations,” this small, rural community watches the completion of its new school facility — four Monolithic Domes — and anticipates their opening with the start of the Fall semester. But this happy anticipation was preceded by tragedy that, at times, seemed insurmountable.
Until 1993, Pattonsburg’s four hundred residents felt protected from floods. The town stood 1 1/2 miles from the banks of the Grand River, a tributary of the mighty Missouri. In addition to this distancing, the town had a dike eight feet high between itself and the water. But in July 1993, neither distance nor dike proved adequate.
Within two weeks of each other, two floods swamped Pattonsburg’s homes and public buildings, leaving some structures floundering in nine feet of water.
A big move
After the floods, Pattonsburg decided to move much of its town three miles inland. But at that point, its elementary and high school facilities were not included in the move. Walker, who this semester will begin his twentieth year as Superintendent, said, “The insurance company decided that although the school’s renovation would cost a million dollars, more than fifty percent of the facility was not destroyed, so moving it was financially impractical.”
But in 1996, a new “trial and tribulation” reversed that decision. A fire destroyed the high school. “Since we had to rebuild, we also decided to move the safer distance away from the Grand,” Walker said.
The planning of a new facility, right from its start, focused on efficiency and security. Walker said that he and the school board had to be practical in each decision they made. They wanted the new school to provide security against natural disasters, to be built quickly, and to stay within their budget limits.
“We looked at Payson, Arizona and really liked what we saw,” Walker said. “The buildings were indestructible and were built fast — one dome in five weeks, the other in four. That impressed us.”
What they didn’t want
As for efficiency, Walker, who has twenty years of administrative experience, and his staff knew what they didn’t like and what was inefficient about their old facility. They didn’t want those problems and inefficiencies repeated in the design of their new school. For example, student traffic through the corridors of the old school was a problem since all grades used the same corridors. Children in elementary grades often felt overrun by the big guys, while high schoolers sometimes resented sharing space with babies.
The school board contracted with Kansas City Architect Joseph Cheesebrough for an interior design that would eliminate the old problems and still stay within budget. According to Cheesebrough, who had not worked on a Monolithic Dome project prior to Pattonsburg, its design “started out difficult, but only because of the elliptical shape of the buildings which was new for us.” But, Cheesebrough said that once they got to where they could visualize the placement of classrooms and corridors in three dimensions, it became much easier and enjoyable.
Getting the Airforms inflated
While everyone anxiously awaited the start of dome-shell construction, El Nino brought weather conditions that prevented the inflation of the Airforms. “All we needed was two weeks of dry weather to do the inflation,” Walker said, “and it took us months to get that.” Result: a domino effect that ultimately delayed material shipments and caused labor problems.
Once the Airforms were up, work progressed more smoothly. “It amazed us,” Walker said. “The outside temperatures were really cold, but those guys kept working, finishing the interior construction, comfortably, just in their shirt sleeves and with a small space heater. That showed us just how energy efficient these domes are.”
They built three domes with a diameter of 110 feet each and one dome with a diameter of 150 feet. The three smaller domes house an elementary school for kindergarten through grade 6, a high school for grades 7 through 12, and a cafeteria/library/office complex. The larger dome is the school’s gymnasium, that comfortably accommodates the various activities of Pattonsburg’s entire student body of 200.
An impressive layout
The efficiency of the facility’s design becomes immediately apparent to most first-time visitors. “As you drive up, you see this cluster of four domes, neatly spaced, with all the parking in one area, right in front, and nothing scattered or out-of-place,” said David South, Jr., MDI’s vice president who recently visited Pattonsburg.
“That layout was deliberate,” said Walker. “Our school site was an old farm field with eight or nine terraces. We split those into three large terraces.” The Monolithic Domes sit on the highest terrace; eight feet below it, the second terrace accommodates the parking lot; another twelve feet down, the lowest terrace encircles the playing fields.
Walker said, “We put the parking lot in front and basically in the middle for three reasons: safety, convenience for everyday comings and goings and for sporting events, cost savings in constructing and maintaining only one parking lot.”
Buses transport eighty percent of Pattonsburg’s students from three counties. High school students driving their own cars and using the school’s one parking lot make up some of the remaining twenty percent.
Yet, bus loading and unloading is all done from the front sidewalk. Safety and security are maintained with a time schedule: a five-minute lag between the elementary and high school dismissal bells insures that elementary grade children are loaded onto buses or picked up before high school students are dismissed. “We hold the high school kids until the buses actually pull out,” Walker said.
Like the parking lot’s placement, the placement of what students, faculty and parents affectionately dubbed the big dome or gymnasium also was deliberate. “We put the gym in the center purposely,” Walker said. "This creates a definite separation between the elementary and high school facilities. They each have their own space, so the issue of getting a grade mismatch in hallways is a moot point now.
“There are two other incidental parts – or what you might call two additional methods to our madness – for centralizing the gym,” he added. “That dome contains the gym, the band room and the art room. We wanted these areas conveniently located for all the students and teachers. Then too, we wanted the gymnasium easily accessed from the smaller dome with the administrative offices.”
A hallway runs along the inside perimeter of this centrally placed big dome. Location and hallway work together, creating convenient and safe passage between areas. High school students can go to their own classrooms, art room, music room, lunch room, library or gym and be at least a hundred feet from the elementary building. The same holds true for the elementary population.
“Because of the hallway, you can actually go through the big dome and all over that building and not disturb any activity going on in there,” Walker said. “You do not have to go dead across the middle of the gym floor to get to where you are going. In the old building almost everything had to go through the middle of the gym. We sure didn’t want that again.”
Walking between Pattonsburg’s four domes can be done inside or outside. “It’s not necessary to go outside to make connections,” Walker said, “but in nice weather, elementary teachers often walk their students to another building on the outside.”
A comfortable time schedule
Since each of the school’s areas serves both young and older students, as well as the staff, just about everything at Pattonsburg works on a carefully planned time schedule. At the library, a schedule with a staggered format permits the elementary and high school to each have its time without totally restricting a class for any extended period.
The cafeteria and areas for special activities, such as music, art or sports have their schedules as well. “We’re pleased with the operation of the school,” Walker said. “We’re all happy and relieved to be in the domes. We had our usual dose of winter weather this past season – days with four or more inches of snow. It’s nice to have a secure, warm dome to spend your day in.”
While Walker picked efficient to describe the facility, Jeff Bowland, Pattonsburg’s athletic director and coach, chose another adjective: wonderful.
“It’s everything we hoped for,” Bowland said. “We love the roominess and openness.” Their gym space is now three times what it was – plenty of room for their physical education classes and all the usual high school sport activities, including basketball, a popular favorite.
According to Bowland, temperatures in the Monolithic Dome remain so consistently comfortable that “no one even thinks about looking at the thermostat. I don’t notice any discomfort or that any adjustments are needed.”
“When we first moved in,” Bowland said, “we did have an echo in the dome that was annoying. The public address system just wasn’t as clear as it should be because of this echo. But, once we began hanging banners and getting some sound-absorbing stuff in there, the p.a. got better.”
While acoustics might be better, Walker said that echo absorption in the gym still is not as effective as they would like it. “In rounded buildings, you do get echoes,” he said. “We held our annual alumni banquet in the gym. That event especially honors the class of fifty years ago. Thinking they would not disturb anybody, those folks sat themselves far from the center. It didn’t work. Their talking and laughing just bounced into the middle and we had to ask those old folks to hold it down. So, we’re still working on the echoes.”
The drama class
Fortunately, acoustics are not a problem for English teacher Ellen Pedersen and her drama class that also uses the big dome. Pedersen said, “We are all so glad to get into a real building after two years in a trailer. And it’s a great building. I like it a lot.”
This past semester, Pedersen and her students worked on a stage production slated for presentation within the Monolithic Dome: Hillbilly Weddin’. As its name suggests, it’s a lighthearted, fun-to-do-and-see project.
Windows and budget limits
“When the domes were first opened,” Pedersen says, “some people and visitors worried about working and spending the day in a windowless environment. It’s just not a problem. It doesn’t bother us at all. No one even talks about it anymore.”
Walker agreed. “We were very cost conscious. Every window increases costs. So instead, we put eight-foot skylights in each of the small domes and laid out the classrooms like pie wedges. Each room has a window that faces into the light of that center area beneath the skylight.”
Budget limits also prompted the decision to forego carpeting except in areas requiring more quiet, such as the library and offices. “That was a wise decision,” Walker said. “We tracked in huge amounts of dirt. Had we carpeted while that construction was still going on and we had no grass, we’d be replacing it by now.”
Reactions from visitors and residents
Superintendent Walker said that, by his somewhat casual count, more than 2000 visitors have come through their Monolithic Domes-so far. “And they’re still coming,” he added. "Some represent school districts and departments of education in other parts of Missouri and in other states.
“Some just come out of curiosity. We still get some odd looks from folks because of the non-contemporary format of the domes, but, by and large, the reaction is pretty positive,” Walker concluded.
Most of Pattonsburg’s citizens don’t mind the non-contemporary look of the Monolithic Domes. After having their little town devastated by a flood and fire, Pattonsburg wants the security a Monolithic Dome provides and plans to officially designate their new school as the community’s disaster shelter.
But efficiency and safety continue to be the focus for Walker. “For supervision and security reasons, our facility works really well. Whatever activity we are having can be restricted to a certain area,” he said. “We can make access as open or as limited as we want.” While vandalism and theft are constant issues, Walker said that the Monolithic Domes, their internal design and their layout, provide significant security, as well as the operational efficiency that every school wants.
Note: This article combines two, the first of which we published in 1998 and the second in 1999. Dollar amounts quoted are from that time period.