The Monolithic Dome: Not a Square Idea

Unusual structures

Rising from the Texas horizon in a futuristic fashion are unusual looking white domes. Many a motorist has stopped on I-35E near Italy, Texas, for a closer look.

What are these one-piece buildings that look much like a puffed marshmallow or an Arctic igloo? They are Monolithic Domes.

Monolithic Constructors tout the Monolithic Dome as the strongest, most energy-efficient, fire-safe structure built. A monolith is defined as 1) a single great stone, 2) something held to be a single massive whole exhibiting solid uniformity. Hence, the term is used for the dome as well as the company.

David B. South, president and founder of Monolithic Constructors, Inc. along with brothers Barry and Randy, developed the Monolithic Dome. The Souths have left their mark on the world in the form of a revolutionary new construction method which makes the one-piece reinforced concrete building possible.

Monolithic Domes have been built as agricultural, commercial, industrial and residential buildings. Examples include: the 40,000-ton phosphate storage site for J.R. Simplot Co. in Pocatello, Idaho; the 4,500-seat church near Houston, Texas; the two-dome automated controlled atmosphere storage at the Port of Stockton in California; the 28 grain storages in the Middle East and the command center for an Indonesian air force base.

Other Monolithic Domes are now in 48 states and more than 40 foreign countries as churches, offices, storages, schools, theaters, water tanks, and supermarkets. Randy South said that the possibilities are limited only by imagination.

Although they have built domes worldwide, Monolithic Constructors is a small company with its office complex in the picturesque town of Italy, Texas.

The start

When David South was 18, he listened to a lecture in which Buckminister Fuller talked about building the geodesic dome. It is a dome made of short, straight framing pieces which form a grid of polygons covered with plywood, aluminum or other skin.

David was so intrigued with the concept that he began building models from toothpicks and drinking straws, subsequently building actual geodesic domes.

After working in the conventional building industry and then as manager of computer operations for the Chicago Northwestern Railroad, David decided to move back to Idaho. He had learned about polyurethane foam insulation, an insulation formed when two liquid compounds are sprayed together and react to expand to 30 times their size. In Idaho, David used this insulation to open a business which soon included his brothers, Barry and Randy.

They insulated potato cellars with polyurethane foam. They became the biggest foam spraying company in Idaho. It was during this time that the South brothers discovered that uncovered insulation would burn when exposed to flames. As a solution, they sprayed concrete over the insulation to protect it. This technique successfully made the storages fire safe.

The Souths continued to experiment with dome construction. Mathematically, domes cover the greatest amount of space with the least amount of materials. David was almost consumed with developing a technique that would combine economy, permanency and efficiency. “In addition, we wanted to build the big ones. Anyone can build a small dome, but we wanted to build big ones,” he said.

Finally, using the same urethane and cement technique as they devised for potato storage, David discovered the answer to building large, free-span, concrete dome structures. This discovery resulted in the technique the South brothers call building from the inside-out. Virtually all of the construction on Monolithic Domes is completed inside the dome skin itself.

The technique

Workers attach a fabric Airform or skin to a circular concrete foundation and inflate it to create the shape of the final building. Then they spray urethane foam on its interior surface, attach steel rebar to the foam and spray concrete on the rebar and foam. The resulting Monolithic Dome has become the hallmark of the company.

Monolithic Constructors, Inc. built its first Monolithic Dome in 1975, nearly 20 years after David was introduced to the geodesic dome. The business took off after an article appeared in Potato Growers Magazine. The article was reprinted worldwide in French, Italian and even Swahili. Monolithic’s first domes were for potato storages. Soon they were building homes, fertilizer storages and domes for many other uses.

Some of the company’s larger domes, to date, include the two automated cold storages in Stockton, California. Each dome measures 230 feet in diameter, 115 feet in height and covers approximately one acre of ground.

The company’s marketing team feels that one of the most important characteristics of the Monolithic Dome is the savings in the cost of utilities and construction. The 2,600-square-foot office is an excellent example, heated with a small 4,000-watt heater and cooled with three motor-home units. This energy-savings feature is especially ideal for apartment complexes with central heating. In those buildings, as in all Monolithic Domes, the estimated heating and cooling costs are at least fifty percent less than standard construction.

David, Barry and Randy all agree: It is rewarding and exciting to know we’re pioneering a relatively new building concept. The Monolithic Dome provides a permanent structure that is energy-efficient, disaster-resistant, fire-safe, cost-effective and attractive.

Updated: June 18, 2009