When the new Johnson Creek middle and high school opened in September 2016, its unique design generated a lot of attention. The school is comprised of five interconnected Monolithic Domes, the first of its kind in Wisconsin. Much planning and design went into this structure, as would be imagined for a project of its size and prominence.
For Johnson Creek School District, located in Wisconsin, building a new school has been in the works for several years. Signs of growth in the district were first seen when portable classrooms were purchased in 1978. According to superintendent Michael Garvey, those classrooms were still in use up until last school year. At one point there were eight classrooms outside the building. “We were approaching the point where we would have more classrooms outside then inside,” Garvey said.
In addition to growth, other signs showed a need for a new building. Garvey stated there was no flexibility with the former building, as well as not meeting accessibility requirements. Land for a new school was eventually purchased in 1998 and a referendum was held in 2014.
For a new school building, why a Monolithic Dome design? “We were trying to respond to the community’s request to think outside the box,” Garvey said. During this time, an architect approached them and pitched the idea of a Monolithic Dome structure. However, this proposal was not taken seriously because, according to Garvey, “it sounded a little too far outside the box.”
After a different formal presentation about Monolithic Domes, officials wanted to see a building of similar design. They visited the five dome school in Grand Meadow, Minnesota. They were intrigued by the lower cost of construction afforded by Monolithic Domes. After a study was commissioned, it was discovered that a Monolithic Dome design would cost $8 million less than a conventional structure. That fact is what convinced the officials to choose the dome design.
Next came the design process for the school. TSP, Inc. was the architect of record. They were chosen because of their work on the school in Grand Meadow, according to project manager Von Petersen of TSP’s Rochester, Minnesota office. “The experience was fascinating in terms of the fact of the detailing,” he said. Due to the fact that TSP did not have an office in the state of Wisconsin, Marty Sell from RKETEK in Wisconsin was brought on as a contract employee. “We felt it would be a stronger proposal together than individually,” stated Sell.
After the referendum was passed, Sell and the architect team were able to start the designing and planning process. “When we were able to start crunching numbers, we found the school could be built for 20% less than a conventional building,” he stated. Work began on the site at the end of 2014, and by May of 2015 the dome construction could begin.
The domes were constructed by South Industries from Menan, Idaho. South was chosen because of their extensive experience in dome building. Members of the company were involved with the Grand Meadow school, giving them experience with this type of building, according the Jon South, the superintendent on the project from South Industries. They had built several similar projects, including a five-dome school in Oklahoma and a six-dome church facility in Alabama. “We knew we could handle it,” South stated, while adding it was going to take some planning.
South Industries was tasked with building the structural foundations, vertical stem walls and the dome structures, all within a small window of time. This meant the domes would have to be built simultaneously. The particular style was unconventional, with Jon stating it was "something we hadn’t done much before.” After all was said and done, 2,000 man hours were spent on each stem wall and little more than 2,000 man hours on each dome. “It was a great project and a great learning experience,” Jon stated.
The dome construction was completed in December 2015 and the interior finishing work began, with Maas Brothers as the general contractor. With such a unique building going up, the construction site was an area of great interest within the community. “We had a very open construction site throughout the process,” stated Garvey. “We just about had people touring almost every day.” He stated the biggest reaction people had was how large the structure was on the inside. “From the road, the buildings look small. The classrooms are at least the size of the old classrooms or bigger.”
The end of summer 2016 brought the end of construction, and school officially started in the building on September 6, 2016. The structure is very effective for the school because of the flexibility it affords the school. Garvey stated the walls inside the domes can be moved around and the rooms rearranged. Attention to the structure still is high, with Garvey stating he still gives tours a few times a month to community members or school administrators. “Do I think every community is ready for this? No,” he stated. “But once people come inside and see what it’s like, they are intrigued and at least put it on the table.”
Those involved in the planning and construction process spoke very highly of the Monolithic Dome design and its benefits. Garvey stated he recommends the Monolithic Dome “at least once a week to somebody.” Petersen of TSP stated he would “absolutely” recommend the design, with many people calling and asking about it. “I think there are a lot of advantages to a Monolithic Dome,” added Marty Sell. “Working on this project has been the highlight of my life,” he stated.
The old building is now serving as a community recreation center, but is currently for sale. Garvey stated there are plans to build more domes for an elementary school at the site. They are prepared for 4 more domes. “All of the site work is ready. We know where the center of those domes are,” he stated.
The following video shows part of the building and features interviews of many people mentioned in this article.