How’s this for small? The town of Jay, in northwest Florida, has less than 600 residents in its 1.6 square miles. But this farming community, known for its peanuts, cotton, soybeans and hay, has a history of more than 100 years and an annual Peanut Festival.
It’s got something else too: a technologically sophisticated Monolithic Dome home!
In May 2008, South Industries Inc. of Menan, Idaho began constructing a retirement home for Margaret and Charlie Simmons, who took a very active part in the design of their three Monolithic Domes.
The largest has a diameter of 50 feet, a height of 30 feet and a living area of about 3400 square feet. Built into a hillside, each of this dome’s two levels has easy, walk-out access to the outdoors. Inside, an elevator that Charlie designed and built – not stairs – provides transportation between floors.
Two additional structures, each 32 feet by 12 feet, function as a patio dome and a utility dome.
The Planning and Construction
In 2006, Charlie – a business owner, engineer, retired Navy captain and aviator – together with Margaret began planning their Monolithic Dome home with some preliminary research. They then ordered a Feasibility Study that showed just how doable and practical their plans and ideas were, and as expected some revisions followed.
But getting a Building Permit, in February 2008, proved frustrating. Charlie humorously recalled, “At that office, I got a lady who just didn’t know what to do with a round structure. She could see the plans. They showed the dome. They showed the floor plan. But she insisted on getting a length and a width so she could calculate square footage. Well, we finally got it straightened out, but it wasn’t easy. I think I really could have convinced her that with a circular structure, you had to calculate round feet, not square feet.”
Because the dome has two levels but no stairs, getting final approval brought more frustration. “I had to argue,” Charlie said. “The guy who came here and inspected looked around and went back and told his superior that he couldn’t do the Final Inspection. Then they both came back and did more looking. Finally, the boss said, ‘We hope you know what you are doing because we don’t have any idea, but here, it’s all approved.’ I had finally convinced them of the dome’s fire-resistance and the fact that we have easy access to the outside from any area in the dome.”
The Home Dome
Its interior has no thresholds or steps and is handicap accessible to the maximum.
Except for two guest bedrooms and bathrooms, the dome’s lower level is one, huge, uninterrupted area for cooking, dining and entertaining – something the Simmons do a lot of since Jay, Florida is Margaret’s and her extensive family’s hometown. “We get together often,” Charlie said. “Well, it’s fun and we really enjoy each other.”
Charlie described the upstairs as "where life gets weird – well, maybe not weird, but different. If we’re not entertaining, that’s where we live. We have a pantry, a closet and a bathroom. The bathroom has a shower so big that it does not need curtains nor doors. We have a walk-in tub that holds 85 gallons of water and has a chair-height seat.
“The rest of the upper level is one, big room for sleeping, cooking, eating – whatever. We don’t bother going down unless we’re going to get in the cars or we have company.”
A well with water at a consistent 68 F degrees provides water for a 1 1/2 ton ground water source heat pump that cools and heats the home dome. Charlie quickly points out that a traditional home the size of his would require a 5 to 6 ton air conditioning unit.
“I don’t have a problem with heating or cooling,” he said. "The dome stays very comfortable. This past winter was – according to a Florida newspaper – our coldest winter in many decades. Our heat pump just took care of everything. It’s difficult to get people to understand that it’s not just the amount of insulation, but the shape of the dome itself that enables the heat pump to do that. Nobody wants to believe that the shape of the dome has anything to do with heat transfer, but it does.
“Our utility bills are less than a third of what our neighbors – many in homes smaller than ours – pay.”
Because this Monolithic Dome is so well insulated, fresh outdoor air must be brought in through an air-to-air heat exchanger that minimizes energy loss and a HEPA (99.9% efficiency) air filter that takes out contaminates. The system prevents dust from entering even when doors are opened and is one of Margaret’s favorite features.
Other Unique Features
Teakwood Floors – Charlie describes himself as a “wood-worker at heart” who knows woods, has built much of his own furniture and was very fortunate to find the vintage teak that is now his home’s flooring. He said, "About 15 years ago, I found it in an old sawmill, and the guy didn’t know what it was. He about dropped his teeth when I asked him if it was for sale and if I could buy it all. He charged me $2.25 per board foot. Currently, the lowest price is about $13.75 per board foot.
“That teak had been cut in a forest in the Far East decades ago, and I like to think it had been just laying around waiting for us to put it to use. It’s 3/4 inch thick and was already tongued and grooved. I just had to make sure it was dry.”
Cypress Woodwork – Cabinets and pocket doors on the dome’s lower level are made of cypress salvaged from an old mansion, built in 1816 on a Louisiana plantation and dismantled after the top floor burned.
Charlie said, “I got some big beams that had square nail holes, and I finally found a cabinet maker willing to touch it. It cost me. I had to buy him a special saw to do the cutting with. But he did a beautiful job. He left those square nail holes and the discoloration and put the cabinets together by hand.”
Ash Woodwork – The upper level’s cabinets and pocket doors are made of spalted ash that Charlie found and nobody wanted. It’s patterned with beautiful, dark streaks.
Outside the Dome
Gardens and Landscaping – Much of it is edible and includes fruits, vegetables and nuts. Terrace gardens that go uphill from the walkway yield various berries, while fruit and shade trees surround the dome, and a garden conveniently located near the kitchen supplies herbs. Charlie said, “Right now we’re working on two sets of eight hanging baskets with a combination of cherries, plums, currants, tomatoes and flowers.”
Pond – Built before the domes were started, the pond was filled with well water and stocked with bluegills and red-eared sun perch that, according to Charlie, have now reached eating size. He added, “Wood ducks, large turtles and at least two cotton mouths have moved in but, so far, no alligators.” Other wildlife that has been spotted includes a great blue heron, white egrets, a bobcat, herds of deer, rattlesnakes and a Florida black panther.
Although Jay is a very small town, the Monolithic Domes there have attracted much media attention, from newspapers, television and online news sources. Asked how he likes all the interviewing, Charlie said, “Honestly, it’s tough. Sometimes it’s hard to get people to understand the technology. So I direct them to your website.”