One of the things that Dr. and Mrs. Al Braswell like best about their Monolithic Dome home in Yucaipa, California is all the fun they had and continue having designing it.
Braswell, who owns and manages Vista Pacifica, a small psychiatric hospital in Southern California, says, “I don’t think we will ever be really finished with our dome. We’re in it, so in a sense it is finished, but we keep coming up with more ideas and things we want to add. We just have so much fun doing it.”
In 1994, Al, his brother John, and son Barry attended a Monolithic Dome Workshop. “Initially, our interest was geodesic domes. But then we learned about domes using Airforms, and we liked that much better,” Braswell says. “We saw it as ecologically more defensible and aesthetically more pleasing.”
When Al, John and Barry returned from the Workshop, they built a 50-foot diameter dome, now used for storage, on which they practiced all their construction skills.
The Braswells chose a site nestled in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. “We’re on a ridge that’s 1500 feet above the prevailing elevation of 3900 feet, with a commanding view of much of Riverside County,” Braswell says. They then decided on an aerodynamic design of three domes flowing into each other: a central dome with a diameter of 50 feet, flanked by two 40-foot diameter domes. The smaller domes are joined to the central dome with saddle connections. Designed into the Airform, the saddle connections provide a gentle slopping or a smooth, instead of an abrupt, intersection between the domes. Consequently, from both the inside and the outside, there is a feeling that all is one, open, fluent structure.
The Braswells named their creation Vista Dhome. “We had fun doing that too,” Braswell says. “We just played with words and finally chose Vista because it means view and we have wonderful ones here, and Vista is also in our hospital’s name.” As for dhome, they simply combined dome + home.
Vista Dhome’s 4500 square feet of living space include three bedrooms, four bathrooms, a living area, kitchen, and areas for reading, hobbies, games, exercise and just conversing and relaxing. The features a generous balcony, half indoors and half outdoors, that encircles the second level of the large dome. An ornate spiral staircase leads to that second level; it merges into the balcony’s banister, a giant music sheet with lyrics to Oh, Give Me A Home.
The Braswells designed the dome’s third level as a sky lounge with a plush observation deck. The sky lounge has a 15-foot diameter floor, suspended from the dome’s roof and countersunk. It’s covered with a 15-foot diameter, dual-glazed, geodesic dome. A serving bar and easy chairs run along the periphery of the sky lounge. “The observation deck gives us a 360-degree perspective and just a terrific view of what’s below and above us. And when we serve refreshments, on the house means literally on the house when you’re in our sky lounge,” Braswell says.
Except for a few painted partitions, the Braswells decided on a rough surface for the interior of Vista Dhome. “The shell is rough blown,” Braswell says. “We shot color-coated concrete and then stippled.”
The Braswells chose a natural looking sand color of stucco for the exterior of the dome. “And I planted vines, about four feet apart all along its outside,” Braswell says. “The vines are gradually covering the dome. Eventually, you will not see the dome unless you know it’s there and know what to look for. There will just be a green mound. That’s the idea. We want it to disappear.”
Two, motor-home-size air conditioning units, one on either end of Vista Dhome provide its cooling. Braswell says, “In July, in Southern California we had not used the air conditioning. It stays a comfortable 74 degrees in here! Even when it’s 100 outside! We used the air conditioning two or three times last year. But we have a lot of glass and we didn’t have our Mylar shades then.”
As for heating, it consists only of electric wall heaters installed in each of the bathrooms. Asked if they don’t get cold, Braswell laughs, “Last winter, it did get down to 61 inside when we had a short spell of twenty-degrees outside. But we just put on an extra sweater.”
Braswell says their domes are very quiet. “We don’t have echoes, but we do have a phenomenon: Our guest bedrooms are on the opposite end from the master bedroom, about 130 feet apart. But if you stand in a certain spot and face the wall, you can talk conversationally to someone at the other end.”
At Vista Dhome, the Braswells also constructed a 50-foot diameter EcoShell with a 30-foot wide door as a helicopter hangar and a 30-foot diameter EcoShell as a maintenance barn.
Construction continues at the house too. The Braswells recently commissioned an artist to create a faux rock waterfall, by spraying foam into rock shapes and painting them. Water will cascade over the waterfall and into the swimming pool, while seats under the waterfall provide another relaxing, therapeutic area.
“It’s all been fun,” Braswell insists. “We’ve been in the house for more than a year. All the furnishings are in, including the piano. The pool is finished and we use it. But the privacy wall around the pool is not done, neither is the landscaping. And there’s talk of putting in a fire pit and ….”
A Stoney Creation: Polyurethane Formed Rocks
Barry Braswell, with advice from artist Gene White, continues creating a rock wall, with a waterfall cascading over it and seating under it, to enhance as well as seclude the swimming pool at Vista Dhome. Asked if he has a master wall plan to follow, Braswell said, “No, I just decide (on the size and placement of a rock) as I go along. It’s really not that hard.” He described the process:
- Create the rock shape with steel loops;
- Cover the steel shape with fiberglass and a screen netting;
- Spray this steel skeleton with polyurethane foam;
- Paint, using the rocklike color of your choice.
The formed, faux rocks provide a break between the driveway and the pool at Vista Dhome.
August 11, 2002: The Bryant Fire
What should have been a quiet, ordinary, Sunday-in-August afternoon for Ruth and Al Braswell, wasn’t. In fact, it was anything but that — all because of one, troubled, 16-year-old boy who allegedly started a brush fire in an olive grove at the end of Bryant Street in Calamesa, California.
That olive grove sits only about a mile from the Vista Dhome. Heat rose up to and above the 100-degree mark that hot, dry afternoon, so the fire spread rapidly. Within a short time, the Bryant Fire reached the surrounding wall and outlying buildings at the Braswell estate.
Ruth and I were not home when the fire started. We were up in the mountains that weekend, raking dry leaves away from our cabin — ironically — to keep it safe from fire.
On our drive back, about a mile from home, we spotted the smoke. Then we saw all the fire equipment, including a fire engine in our driveway. I went over and said, “You guys are a welcome sight with that blaze down there.” A fire captain walked over to me and asked, “Are you the owner?”
I answered affirmatively and he said, “You have two minutes to get what you want out of this house and get out of our way.” He was brusque — all business — but we understood, of course.
We ran in, got a little file of current paperwork and some pictures and got out.
A fire captain from a neighboring county came over and asked, “What’s this thing (the dome) made of?” We told him, and he said, “Well, you do know that if this structure had been made of normal construction that you would have a pile of ashes now.”
He then told us that at one point the firefighters thought they would have to abandon fighting and give up on saving our house. Then they saw that it could withstand the fire, so they decided that if any of their crew got in trouble, they were going to break the doors down and put the guys in the dome so they would be safe.
I said, “You would not have to break the doors down. I unlocked them all for you.” And they stuck it out. They had to move their trucks three times, but they did it.
At the Braswells, the Bryant Fire first attacked a free-form, faux rock wall, about 30 feet long, built to conceal their swimming pool and protect pool equipment. The wall extended from the edge of their ridge to the garage.
Al said, "We had not yet stuccoed this wall. It was rebar in raw foam that was painted to preserve the foam, but not really covered. The wall burned completely — left a tangled looking mass of rebar — and it was what conducted the fire to the garage and then our home.
“We had added about an eight-foot foam extension onto the garage, so the garage door would be outside, rather than inside, the garage dome,” Al continued. "That extension was also raw foam, so it burned right up to the stucco of the dome.
“The fire went right over the top of our house, down the hill, and caught on the other side,” Al said. "We had vines covering most of the dome. The fire came from the west, so the vines burned completely on the dome’s west side and were badly damaged on the east side.
“I had an old, oak snag (dead tree) with branches sticking up through the patio roof to give it a rustic look. The fire came over the dome and devoured that tree.”
“That was a wild, wild fire,” Al concluded. “But it didn’t get our home.”
The Bryant Fire did, however, destroy the electrical box on the outside of the dome and cause smoke damage on the inside. Consequently, the Braswells could not live in Vista Dhome for more than six weeks after the fire, while the electrical system was repaired, painting completed and carpeting replaced.
Additional losses for the Braswells included three antique vehicles, a foam machine, a compressor, a utility trailer and miscellaneous equipment, for an estimated total of about $300,000.
The Total Picture
According to the Riverside County Fire Department, the Bryant Fire destroyed 550 acres of hillside, threatened about 250 dwellings and 15 outbuildings, and prompted 150 residents to voluntarily abandon their homes.
It took 675 firefighters, 21 supervisors, 87 engines, 26 hand crews, 2 bulldozers, 6 water helicopters, 11 airplanes dropping fire retardant, more than 24 hours of intense fire fighting and an additional 2 days cooling hot spots to finally extinguish the Bryant Fire. In the process, several firefighters required treatment for heat sickness, knee and ankle injuries. Estimated cost of damages: $2.5 million.
How Fire-Susceptible Is Polyurethane Foam? Thoughts On The Bryant Fire
David South said, "I first heard about the Bryant Fire from Barry, Ruth and Al Braswells’ son, a few weeks after it happened. Barry described the fire’s magnitude and stressed how delighted they were with the dome’s ability to withstand those flames. I was not surprised to learn that the dome won the battle.
“As for the polyurethane foam, it burned because it had no covering. If the foam had had a fire-proof barrier, such as 3/4” of stucco, it’s very unlikely that there would have been enough fire to cause any damage. Urethane foam either burns really well, or it does not burn.
“The Bryant fire must have reached 750 to 1000 degrees F in order to have ignited the foam. The foam won’t support combustion by itself. Its kindling point is about 750 F degrees.”
Note: This article about Vista Dhome is reprinted from the Monolithic Dome Roundup Summer 2000. The following article about the fire was originally posted on our website in September 2002.