Monolithic Domes: The Ultimate “Green” Building?
Editor’s Note: In November 2003, when Perry Gray-Reneberg wrote this article he was teaching sustainable industrial technology to Northern California’s coastal community of Humboldt State University where he planned to research and build Monolithic Domes.
Advocating sustainable living
The attributes you value in Monolithic Domes may be their exquisite beauty and simple construction, or, perhaps, their efficient use of materials, or their structural integrity, or their energy efficiency. I, among the many advocating for sustainable living, value all these characteristics and consider Monolithic Domes as potentially the greenest of all building alternatives.
Sustainable living calls us to choose, today, for the consequences of our choices to be a blessing, not a curse, on our descendants. American’s building choices, thus far, have mostly been a burden on society and the environment. Conventional buildings account, every year, for 30 percent of the virgin materials extracted from Earth, 40 percent of the U.S. air, water and soil contamination, and 42 percent of the energy we devise to extract from coal, oil, falling water and natural gas.
Sustainable buildings, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, save energy, water and materials; preserve the local surroundings; assure the health of their occupants; and require little maintenance. Buildings achieving LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification are further recognized for being constructed of recycled or durable materials, for employing efficient lighting, and for their location near public transportation sources.
Advantages of Monolithic Domes
Owing much to their design, Monolithic Domes require the smallest surface area and employ the fewest materials to enclose space. Furthermore, three of the four structural dome construction materials – Airform, polyurethane and concrete (excluding steel rebar) – serve to isolate the dome’s internal environment from the outdoors. Other construction requires significantly more material, maintenance and expense to match the long life and energy-conserving ability of Monolithic Domes. By simply protecting the Airform from solar radiation, Monolithic Domes will gift their communities with centuries of sustainable living.
The dome’s 40-plus tons of thermal mass – the ancient choice for passive solar heating and adobe-style cooling – lengthens a dome’s thermal cycle beyond conventional buildings to a longer cycle, closer to that of the earth’s crust. If we add any available energy to the concrete shell, it will radiate back to us – rather than outdoors – when heat sources, like the sun, disappear. Polyurethane foam insulation, efficient windows and doors, along with the barrier Airform, assure that we (not the ambient environment) control the dome’s energy cycle.
Small and Simple
Smaller domes clustered or united by a common Airform minimize the demand large domes demand for partitioning. Reduce interior construction and you climb higher on the sustainability scale. Synthetic carpets, drywall, paint, and adhesives used in cabinetry and countertops introduce volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into our otherwise healthy buildings. Forced-air heating and cooling systems – especially decades into their use – harbor and spread dust, mites, and possibly mold throughout an occupancy. The dome’s hemispherical interior, unimpeded by walls and room enclosures, enables even distribution of thermal energy via radiant and unforced convective means. Minimize electric fans and domes get quieter and consume less fossil-fuel energy. Solar, wind or other renewable sources easily convey their energy into (or from) the thermal mass that conditions the internal environment.
Open-interior domes are natural designs for deep daylighting. Like light blanketing the retinal interior of our eyes, skylights or even automatically-controlled shutters at the vertex of our domes could defer our use of artificial light until the sun sets. Even so, with flexible amorphous photovoltaic panels adhering to the Airform, daily collected electricity (even on cloudy days) could power new, more energy-efficient forms of artificial lighting.
Compact fluorescent (CFL) replacements for Edison-style incandescent (incandesce means to glow from extreme heat) lamps provide comparable illumination with less electricity; their cost has steadily dropped to less than $2 per bulb. Another step or two greener than CFLs are White Light Emitting Diodes. LEDs produce light without noticeable heat, contain no toxic mercury as required for fluorescence, and have a significantly longer lifespan than other lighting alternatives, all the while consuming one tenth their electric demand. Their eventual use, along with more efficient appliances could further simplify energy systems to power our domes. See more info regarding Ledtronics.
Energy Star Performance
A building’s energy costs (over a very long lifespan with Monolithic Domes) are its single biggest demand on the environment. Tankless or solar water heaters and Sunfrost or other energy-efficient refrigerators (typically, the two greatest continuous electricity loads in a home), lead the expanding catalog of Earth-friendly home appliances designed for efficient operation and long life. Because natural gas is 90 percent methane, natural gas appliances work perfectly well on the methane resulting from the natural decomposition of organic wastes. A neighborhood-scale Monolithic Dome installed as a bio-digester would convert a ton of garden waste and animal and human manure to community natural gas.
The phantom loads of instant-on features of televisions, VCRs and other appliances are active even when our electronic gear is “off.” We can sniff out those electrical drains on our energy budget with a $40 device called a Kill-A-Watt monitor. Appointing our energy-conserving Monolithic Domes with Energy Star-rated appliances minimizes a dome’s ecological footprint for an entire generation. Such community-enhancing dwellings are an inspiration for further acts of sustainability.
The dome’s impervious Airform protects the vital layer of urethane foam from ultraviolet rays. It is a membrane suitable for directing rainwater to a circular trough for single-point collection of occasional or a season’s worth of precipitation. A subsurface storage tank or a dedicated Monolithic dome could receive the 200 gallons of water falling on a 40 foot dome with every quarter inch of rain. Whether you Xeriscape in the desert or nurture an entire garden on your dome’s surface, naturally soft rainwater better serves our plants, toilets, cars, appliances, and lungs than the chlorine-treated water in cities or the mineral-laden hydraulics of country wells. Harvesting precious precipitation of the Southwest and elsewhere preserves the less than 1 percent of freshwater otherwise available on Earth. On the inside, translucent tanks of algae, crustaceans, plants and fish need only sunlight to purify our wastewater. These Living Machines in water-collecting domes could further free communities of water concerns. Fresh water is rapidly supplanting energy as the most crucial pursuit of a sustainable planet.
Monolithic Domes will be even more sustainable when research proves that naturally-occurring and industrial pozzolans (volcanic pumice and fly ash) can replace much of the binder in a dome’s concrete shell. Portland cement is manufactured at 2100 degrees F and accounts for eight percent of the world’s carbon dioxide production. Locally recycled glass, ground to the finesse of sand and aggregate may replace sand dredged from many miles away. Soon, industrial crops such as hemp, corn and the soybean will become the base for organic rather than petroleum urethanes and solvents. SoyOyl has many of the characteristics of rigid polyurethane without the fluorocarbon byproduct of its production.
While it takes significant effort to minimize the excesses of linear construction and increasingly, deconstruction, as structures outlive their original purpose, Monolithic Domes are easily designed for multiple roles over their long lifetime. Built as a church in 2003, in 2083 it’s a school, and a multifamily dwelling in 2183. Designing for the long-term is, perhaps, the most sustainable act dome builders can display to a community. The four core materials of a dome may be precisely measured – especially if you mix your own concrete – leading to minimal residue from the project.
Imagine covering a linear rooftop with solar panels only to watch them melt when our conventional homes (built out of fuel) catch fire. Monolithic Domes inherently resist the wasting of more precious resources in that they sustain human life and protect our considerable investment of time. We work to build, commune with nature and one another, and thrive as a culture and society. If our structures are no sanctuary from stray bullets, indiscriminate winds, devouring insects, or raging fires, then they are not sustaining. Monolithic Domes demand our labor once to assure the security of ten generations to follow. Building for the future involves community-wide effort to educate public servants and economic leaders with what our grandchildren will have as common sense: Monolithic Domes sustain all communities of Earth.