Robot Ranch.  — An elaborate door welcomes visitors to this Monolithic Dome home built into the side of a hill. Its gross floor area of 4,144 square feet includes two bedrooms and bathrooms, living area, kitchen, theater, office.

Robot Ranch. — An elaborate door welcomes visitors to this Monolithic Dome home built into the side of a hill. Its gross floor area of 4,144 square feet includes two bedrooms and bathrooms, living area, kitchen, theater, office.


Robot Ranch: An earth-sheltered dome and a work in progress

Going underground

At first glance, when you drive up to what you think is Al Schwarz’s Monolithic Dome home in Ferris, Texas, what you see is a door, sticking up inside a concrete arch, that’s covered with rocks and surrounded by more rocks. “Is that the entrance?” you wonder.

You keep looking and soon find yourself accepting — even welcoming — the true uniqueness of this Monolithic Dome. You note just how ornate that door is, how it’s hugged by that gracefully curved arch and snugly nestled into those rocks. And then you spot the slate steps, set at comfortable intervals and leading to the door. You realize those rocks are not just rocks, but a sturdy retaining wall that flows over the top of this dome-home, built into the side of a hill.

Once through that door, you go down a slate staircase that spirals over an aquarium and down into the main dome with living, dining and kitchen areas. You are underground — literally standing inside a hill — but if you hadn’t gone through that door and down those stairs, you wouldn’t know it. It’s comfortably cool and light inside this dome that’s inside of a hill — like being inside any quiet, nicely lighted, restful, Monolithic Dome home.

Finding Monolithic — an accidental discovery

Al Schwarz, now 48 years old, first began thinking about and researching the building of an earth-sheltered home more than a decade ago. Several factors piqued that interest: his construction background and his desire for an energy-efficient home.

Al credits his dad, a construction electrician, who, Al claims, “Can fix anything,” for his building skills. He said, “I learned how to do a lot of stuff from my dad. We built an A-frame, country cabin when I was just 13, and I helped with the plumbing and wiring. I learned not to be afraid of getting my hands dirty and working hard. Then I paid my way through college by doing landscaping — actually doing the installing, like moving rock.”

That discipline and those skills have served Al well. To date, he has moved more than 170 tons of rock at Robot Ranch, called that because of the five, self-propelled mowers that he has roaming over and cutting the grass on his 7.3 acres.

In researching earth-sheltered dwellings, Al found Monolithic Domes by accident. He and his parents were on their way to Austin to inspect another company’s earth-bermed homes when they spotted Monolithic’s Bruco. They stopped at our headquarters in Italy, Texas and took the tour.

When Al realized that Monolithic offered far more flexibility in size and shape than other designers and builders of underground structures, in 2004, he enrolled in a Monolithic Workshop. “I totally enjoyed the Workshop,” he said, “and that’s when I learned that the dome will be here forever.”

A starting point

Using MicroStation, Al made a model of 7 interconnected domes and took it to Monolithic. He said, “Monolithic uses AutoCad, so we had to convert to that computer format, but other alterations were only minor.”

Once his plans were documented, Al began applying for financing and permits to build in Ferris, an Ellis County, rural town, some 20 miles south of Dallas, that dates back to 1875 and has a growing population of 2400. He said, “Building permits for the dome were no problem. Getting a permit for the septic and aerobic systems was more complicated and costly. But my real problem was the financing.”

When Al applied to the bank that carried his previous mortgage, at first they agreed, then backed off. The bank claimed that because domes seldom changed owners, there was no established record showing how easily or for what amounts dome-homes sold. David South, Monolithic’s president, helped Al by having him contact a bank that had financed Monolithic Dome construction in the past.

So the ground-leveling began, followed by the construction of a ventilating system, that runs from the edge of a lake, under the slab and pumps fresh air through four vents into the dome. Al uses that self-ventilating system during comfortable, outdoor temperatures. But he can easily close off that system during hot summer or cold winter weather.

Two window units now provide air conditioning when temperatures climb into three digits, but Al plans to replace those soon with one, wind-powered air conditioner. As for heat, he has a wood-burning fireplace and solar panels that heat water and radiate it through the floor of the dome. “A normal house weighs about 46 tons,” Al said. “This one weighs between 600 and 700 tons, so it cannot change temperature rapidly — only about a degree in 24 hours. Therefore, it’s very easy to keep the inside comfortable.”

Using solar and wind power, Al expects to eventually begin selling electricity to his utility company, rather than buying it.

A work in progress

Overlooking a lake that covers about seven acres and is 16 feet deep, with catfish, bass and blue-gill, Al’s earth-sheltered, Monolithic Dome home is sturdy, serene and beautiful. It’s also a work in progress. Al has already covered much of the dome’s floor with slate and travertine tile, built storage shelfs of concrete blocks, and decorated the top of a bar he made with pictures taken during the construction of his Monolithic Dome home inside a hill. But he keeps coming up with other ideas and plans. “Maybe — just maybe — someday I’ll be finished,” he concluded.

Check out the Robot Ranch on HGTV’s Extreme Living Series!

View a gallery of images that Al has on the web

Image: Slate staircase.   — It spirals over an aquarium and down into the main living area of this underground dome.

Slate staircase. — It spirals over an aquarium and down into the main living area of this underground dome.

Image: Retaining wall.  — A multi-level rock retaining wall surrounds the domes and creates gardens planted with flowers, greenery and berries.

Retaining wall. — A multi-level rock retaining wall surrounds the domes and creates gardens planted with flowers, greenery and berries.

Image: Interconnected domes.  — The visible part of the seven interconnected domes is covered with rock. Rock stepping stones create the pathways too.

Interconnected domes. — The visible part of the seven interconnected domes is covered with rock. Rock stepping stones create the pathways too.

Image: A back entrance.   — To date, Al said that he has moved more than 170 tons of rock and he’s not done yet.

A back entrance. — To date, Al said that he has moved more than 170 tons of rock and he’s not done yet.

Image: Robot Ranch.   — Al calls his earth-bermed Monolithic Dome home Robot Ranch because of the five self-propelled mowers that he has roaming over and cutting the grass on his 7.3 acres.

Robot Ranch. — Al calls his earth-bermed Monolithic Dome home Robot Ranch because of the five self-propelled mowers that he has roaming over and cutting the grass on his 7.3 acres.

Image: Inside Al’s dome – It’s cool, quiet and light. You forget that you’re standing inside a hill.

Inside Al’s dome – It’s cool, quiet and light. You forget that you’re standing inside a hill.

Image: A natural look – The greenery inside the dome adds an appealing, natural ambience.

A natural look – The greenery inside the dome adds an appealing, natural ambience.

Image: Fitting right in – The Monolithic Domes at Robot Ranch just melt into the landscape.

Fitting right in – The Monolithic Domes at Robot Ranch just melt into the landscape.

Image: A relaxing lifestyle – Al’s living area reflects the easy lifestyle of a bachelor.

A relaxing lifestyle – Al’s living area reflects the easy lifestyle of a bachelor.