The birth of a dream
When I was a junior at Idaho Falls High School in 1956, I listened to a speech by Buckminster Fuller about how domes were the answer for big buildings across the world, and how they were going to be the solution to much of the globe’s problems. He described the geodesic dome in detail and its construction methods, and I caught his vision and became a dome enthusiast.
I began building geodesic domes out of erector sets and toothpicks, and I started learning the mathematics needed for the engineering. I quickly learned that I hadn’t had enough math instruction, so naturally, I went to my high school teachers and asked them if they could do the math—they couldn’t either.
While in college in 1959, I married my wife, Judy, and I began playing with the geodesics in earnest. I could see that Buckminster Fuller was right—they could be a real answer for structures. It seemed natural to ask my college professors if they could do the mathematics associated with dome engineering, but the math proved to be difficult enough that they were not much help either. I managed to get ahold of Fuller by telephone so I could ask him personally, but he didn’t have time to speak with me. I was disappointed, but still determined.
During this time, to support my small family and pay for college, I was very busy selling real estate and running a sawmill. Consequently, the domes were pushed farther and farther down my priority list, but over the years, I learned more about dome engineering and even built a thirty foot geodesic dome. However, I really dreamed of building big domes.
Chicago and the introduction to polyurethane foam
Before I realized my dream of building big domes, I did a lot of other things. I went to college earned a degree in engineering and business, after which I moved to Chicago, IL and went to work for the Chicago Northwestern Railway, ultimately managing their computer center. Halfway through the summer of 1970, I decided to move back to Idaho. My mother was a widow with six children, me being the oldest. I felt that I needed to be back home helping her. So, even though I had not decided what I would do to make a living in Idaho, I turned in my resignation.
The week before I was slated to leave Chicago, my assistant showed me a beautiful statue that looked like it was carved out of hardwood. She handed the statue to me, and to my surprise, it weighed almost nothing. I asked her about the “wood” and she explained to me that it was cast from polyurethane foam and that there was a seminar down the street where they were teaching about casting using the polyurethane foam. My mind jumped immediately to the possibility of casting the triangular sections needed to build a geodesic dome.
I went to the seminar and near the end, they showed a video of spraying the polyurethane foam for insulation. What a spectacular insulation it was! The polyurethane was water proof, "virtually fire proof,” and it was by far the best insulation that I had ever seen before. Before and during college, I spent time building conventional houses insulated using conventional insulation. With one view of this video, I knew the polyurethane was, by far, superior to any other form of insulation I had seen. Right then, I knew that my future was going to be tied up with polyurethane.
The move to Idaho
The next week, I moved to Idaho and of course, my first task was to find something that would make some money. I already had four kids and one on the way, and I knew it was going to take money to keep the household running smoothly. So, I began studying polyurethane foam in depth, and I found a company in Utah that had some of the equipment available. Then, I talked to the president of a concrete company and he offered to finance an insulation loan, if the polyurethane worked on concrete buildings, as it would allow them to expand. This helped us make the decision to start a urethane foam division that I would run.
We outlined a plan showing that we could probably sell twenty thousand dollars worth of this polyurethane foam in a year. I bought a used two-ton truck with a box bed and put all the equipment inside. I then bought some urethane in fifty-gallon drums and hit the ground running. I sold twenty-thousand dollars’ worth of projects in the first six weeks and had all the foam applied in eight weeks.
The business of insulating potato storages
The need for polyurethane foam in Idaho was enormous, with potato storage owners being one of the major customers. Idaho has over four thousand potato storages. One of the reasons for the high demand is the amount of moisture potato storages collect inside. This means that if conventional insulation is used in the storage, the insulation will become saturated and the insulation value drops out of sight. The polyurethane, being waterproof, proved to be a solution to the insulation problems the potato storage owners were having. Polyurethane foam is so waterproof, you could use it to line your boat if you did not want it to leak.
By the next year, 1971, I decided to start my own urethane foam company. It soon proved to be a solid investment and the business thrived. This meant, I could now take care of my family and help other people as well. There continued to be a great demand for better potato storage insulation and I continued selling polyurethane, trying to meet the demand. The cost of insulating an average potato storage in 1971 was twenty-thousand dollars. Before long, I had more equipment and more crews. We expanded the scope of our business, insulating freezers and some houses. Business was good.
Before I moved back to Idaho, just after learning about urethane foam, I read an article in a magazine about a dome home in Wisconsin built entirely of foam. The man who built it was a polyurethane foam spray contractor and did a lot of insulating. However, he had one big problem, the foam could burn.
Even though I was intrigued by the idea of a foam dome, I did not like the idea of having a combustible house. Additionally, I could not see how you could build large domes, because the urethane as strong as it was, was not strong enough to build the really big domes.
As I started my urethane foam business in Idaho, I struggled with the information. I worked out how it could be done, but by that time, there was another contractor in California building foam domes. Even so, the domes were still limited in size because of the foam. Thus, I discarded the idea of a foam dome and realized I had to use concrete.
The advent of the Monolithic Dome
In 1972, about three years before I actually started building Monolithic Domes, I built a geodesic dome to be used as a storage in my backyard in Taylor, Idaho. I was still enamored with the geodesic domes and wanted to make sure I had all the math and construction methods worked out. Even as enamored as I was, I was beginning to be very discouraged with the geodesics.
The geodesic dome is made by cutting out lumber and forming it in the shape of a dome. The amount of waste is just terrible. At the time I built my geodesic storage, there were a number of geodesic domes that had been built, and I talked to various people that had them. I don’t think I talked to anybody with a geodesic dome that didn’t say as their first comment, “Mine leaks,” or “Mine doesn’t leak.”
The millions of little pins and joints make the geodesic domes, generally, leakers. The builder has to be very, very careful that he doesn’t leave any leak points when during construction. It was a good idea to build that geodesic storage in my backyard and I learned a lot, but by the time I got that 24-foot dome built, I did not want to build any more geodesics, so I continued to spray foam full-time.
By 1975, I was thinking about domes again. One of the reasons I started thinking in another direction was I found out that “fireproof foam” was NOT fireproof. Polyurethane foam doesn’t burn very well, if burned slowly, but if the foam is exposed on the inside of a building—like in a potato storage—it is such a super insulation, the temperatures will sky rocket and the foam will almost explode because none of the fire can get out.
After learning this, I started spraying a layer of stucco or plaster — about a half an inch thick — over the polyurethane on some of the potato storages. The amount of strength that plaster gave was just phenomenal, and of course, one thought feeds to the next and suddenly you say, “Oh, why don’t I just spray it with the concrete?” This made the foam fire safe, but I also realized that if I sprayed the concrete thicker, I would have a building.
Of course, I had heard about the man who had built his house by inflating a balloon made out of some kind of plastic and then spraying the inside of it with three- to six-inches of polyurethane foam. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. However, I wanted to make the building out of concrete, so it would not burn. Additionally, with the concrete, I could make it big enough to be structurally strong. It was then, I started working on a completely different design for a potato storage.
Working with my brothers, Barry and Randy South, I hired a local engineer to engineer a 105 ft-diameter and 35 ft-high dome for a potato storage. With my design and his modifications, we decided to spray three-inches of polyurethane foam on the inside of a fabric air-formed membrane. Next, we planned to spray three-inches of concrete, reinforced with rebar.
At the time I started spraying the Monolithic Domes, there was also a company in Colorado that was using a similar process, but they never really got organized. By the time I read about what they were doing, I was way a head of them and had already applied for the patents. They built some domes, the Monolithic-style domes but they never did get their act together and we quickly moved far ahead of them.
During this period, I found a couple of geodesic dome books: “Dome Book 1” and “Dome Book 2” written by Lloyd Kahn. Kahn’s books contained all the math needed to build a geodesic dome, but by the time I read them, I had already made my mind up to build Monolithic Domes instead. It is interesting to note that Kahn wrote an article called, Smart But Not Wise—Further Thoughts on Domebook 2, Plastics, and Whiteman Technology, a year after publishing “Dome Book 2.” In this article he admitted the shortcomings of the geodesic dome.
Kahn said, “Metaphorically, our work on domes now appears to us to have been smart: mathematics, computers, new materials, plastics. Yet reevaluation of our actual building experiments, publications, and feedback from others leads us to emphasize that there continue to be many unsolved problems with dome homes. Difficulties in making the curved shapes livable, short lives of modern materials, and as-yet-unsolved detail and weatherproofing problems.” I felt the Monolithic Dome methods would solve many of these problems.
In order to implement the design, I had to find someone who could manufacture the fabric “balloon.” After some searching, I found a company in California who manufactured inflatable bounce houses—the kind you see at children’s parties all over the world. This company, subsequently, built several of the inflatable membranes for me.
I thought it would be a good idea to reuse the membranes to build more domes, so the first several membranes I received, I peeled off the domes after they were constructed. In theory, this was a good idea, but I learned that after the membrane was peeled off, the urethane had to be coated for protection. These coatings were far less effective (and more expensive) than leaving the membrane in place.
Later, I got in touch with Jack Boyt at Precision Air Structures in DeMoines, Iowa. We forged a friendship and really started building the domes’ airformed membranes.
Construction of the first Monolithic Dome
Our first Monolithic Dome was a 105 ft-diameter potato storage. As a potato storage, the insulated dome proved to be spectacular. No potato storages were even close to being as well insulated.
This first dome was built with an eight-foot diameter pipe that rose from the ground in the center of the dome, then up and out of the top of the dome. The pipe was the air handling column for the air going in to ventilate the potatoes. Twenty feet up that column, I put a very large fan designed to handle all the air it would take to ventilate the 50,000 cwt of potatoes.
These potatoes drew the air in from way up at the top, literally from the outside, and then expelled it at the very bottom in a series of 16-inch pipes that formed a fan shape in the base of the dome. This made it so when the air came down, it went through the fan shape and then was dispersed under the potatoes.
Now, this unit was fairly complex because it had air intakes that reached to the outside to pull the air in, but just under the roof of the dome, there was another set of air intakes. These two sets of air intakes were beveled so they could bring in total outside air or total inside air. In general, you brought in mixed air so it would assure the air going into the potato pile would be roughly the temperature you would want the potatoes to be kept. This was all electronically monitored and the mechanisms that shifted the air back and forth were very sophisticated.
I had been building these air systems for ventilating conventional potato storages for several years. In constructing my first two Monolithic potato storages, I decided if I could use that system to move air for ventilation, I could also use it to inflate the airformed membrane.
By the time I was designing the third Monolithic Dome, I realized I could not rely on that electric fan to inflate the form, because once in a while the power would go off. I found the solution by coming up with an exterior set of inflators that I could run with gasoline or diesel as well as electricity. By running two fans, my chances of having a sudden power loss fail to knock out the dome inflation, were ten times better.
The rebar attachment on this first dome was very similar to what I did on later domes. The big difference was, I used a bent wire and fed it through the urethane foam as a rebar hanger. It was much slower than what we are presently doing, but it did work.
By the time I finished my first dome, I figured out how to use an insulation anchor. The insulation anchor we used in those days was one that was built for commercial insulation anchorage to metal plenums. We had to glue this anchor to the urethane with caulking. It was after that, I developed a way of bending pieces out of the bottoms where we could attach a rebar hanger simply by pushing it into the dome.
That summer, I got a call from Bud DuRussel in Michigan. He had seen an article written about our first potato storage in the Idaho Potato Grower magazine. He said, “I want one. I am growing potatoes here in Michigan and I need a place to store them and this looks like the best option.”
I told him that my first business was spraying polyurethane and I really did not have the time. In addition, I had reservations about traveling to Michigan to build the dome. Bud told me he understood and we ended the call.
The next day, Bud called back saying he wanted the Monolithic Dome and that he wanted me to come build it. He assured me it would work out and that he would take care of all the paperwork. I talked him out of it once again.
When the phone rang the next day, I was surprised to find Bud had called back. “What do I have to do to get you to come build that building?” he demanded.
I suggested he wire 5,000 dollars to me and I would use some of the money to fly out and look at his property and situation. I told him, “We’ll talk to each other and we will make a decision together. If the decision is to build the dome, I will build it. If the decision is not to build it, then I will say ‘goodbye’ and I will give you all of your money back except for the price of the plane ticket.”
A half hour later, my banker called and said, “We just got a wire transfer from Michigan for five thousand dollars.”
I called Michigan, set up the appointment and away I went. Needless to say, we made the deal and I had the dome to build. I also had all my insulation jobs back in Idaho to take care of. So, we laid out our plans on how we were going to do it. We sent two of my employees in the crane truck pulling the foam trailer out to Michigan I then got in my Beach Bonanza and flew to Michigan with three others of our crew.
When we got there I bought a pick-up so I could send the foam machine back. Within a few days, we had the foaming all done and had sent the “new” used pickup truck back pulling the foam trailer, with two of the crew.
The rest of us finished up building the Michigan dome. It was a spectacular building and we were only gone seventeen days from the time we left Idaho to when we got back. That time-frame for constructing a complete building was like magic.
The DuRussel dome is still standing and Bud is now 92 years old. This is his last year of running his big farm in Michigan. He is selling it, but the potato storage will be used for a long, long time.
I built a second dome for Bud DuRussell, and by the end of construction, I knew that dome-building was what I wanted to do full-time. I felt I had received inspiration that this was the building for the future.
The next dome I built was a home for my mother, Marjorie South, on the South Menan Butte. From then on, I started marketing the domes and cutting back on the selling polyurethane. By the end of the next year, I had pretty well gotten out of the foam business and was simply selling and building the Monolithic Domes.
The Crenosphere — thinking bigger
I always wanted to build big domes and the 105-foot diameter potato storages were large domes for their day, storing a lot of potatoes, but my dream was to build bigger. Buckminster Fuller had said he could build domes that were as big as five miles across. It was quite a few years later that I realized domes of that size were probably not going to happen. As the diameter increases, the domes get flatter and the pressures go up—it becomes a real mess.
It wasn’t until many years after the inflation of that first dome, that we invented the Crenosphere, a monolithic dome that would allow us to build a thousand-foot diameter dome. And now, today, I think I could build that Crenosphere up to fifteen hundred or two thousand feet in diameter.
Although I have the ability now to build domes on a gigantic scale, I would rather build more domes. When we start talking buildings that big, it is almost impossible to understand. Although, I will say, in 1999 I found out they were building a one thousand-foot diameter dome in England for an amusement park. It turned out that it was really more of a super tent with big towers inside of it to hold it up and cables to restrain it—it was simply a fabric tent. According to the newspapers, they spent twelve hundred and fifty million dollars building that facility, which they named “The Millennial Dome.”
I tried to get in touch with the people in England to see if I could build it, but I was too late. I figured that I could have easily built a Monolithic Dome for them for about one hundred million dollars, which would have saved them a huge amount of money. They would have had a permanent dome that could have been used for centuries, and more importantly, the dome would have been super insulated.
Their tent was not very effective, and after they used the facility for about a year, I saw in the paper where they sold it to a private company for eighty-million dollars.
So far we’ve built in 49 states and 53 countries, and each dome built is different. We build gymnasiums, schools, stadiums, houses, rental units, bulk storages, and many more. The world now has close to 4,000 Monolithic Domes.
These Monolithic Domes are super insulated, energy efficient and have the ability to survive virtually any natural or manmade disaster. They offer solutions to social problems and concerns, such as our nation’s dire need for safe, clean, affordable housing. Still, we have ongoing research and test new products, striving to perfect the world’s greatest building—the Monolithic Dome.