Monolithic Domes among the Ponderosa Pines
“It’s a perfect location,” said John Clark, Superintendent of Schools. “The buildings fitting so well into our setting helped us decide to go with domes.”
Cradleboard Elementary in Whiteriver, Arizona is on an Apache Reservation, at 7000 feet in Arizona’s high country. In 1998, the community completed three Monolithic Domes with an interconnecting central corridor. Nestled among the Ponderosa Pines, this 34,000-square-foot facility has a multipurpose dome with a cafeteria, gymnasium, and an arts/music area. It’s flanked by two domes with classrooms for 300 students and 13 teachers in kindergarten through grade five.
A real learning experience
Chances are that just about every one of Cradleboard’s students will not only remember the construction of its new Monolithic Dome school, but will also recall a dome-related assignment or two that had to be done.
Principal Barbara Nolan thinks so. “A dome automatically creates an interesting learning space for children,” Nolan said. “Right from the beginning our teachers incorporated much of what was going on in the construction and then the move as lessons for the kids.”
According to Nolan, students watched all phases of the construction, but found the inflation of the Airforms the most exciting, by far. “Many could not believe it was going to be a school,” she said. “This resulted in an assignment asking them to write what they thought the structures could or should be. Spaceship probably was the most common response. The most unusual answer was a giant corral for rodeo classes and events.”
Another student project had fifth graders snapping photos, recording the progress of construction both outside and inside the domes. These will eventually be assembled into a historical scrapbook for visitors as well as future students.
Adapting to the round
Just before moving from the old buildings to the new, several classes were asked to make lists of what they thought should be taken from the old to be used in the new. “Many said windows,” Nolan reported. “They could not imagine being in windowless rooms. But a week later, there was no more talk about windows. They love the skylights each of the domes has and had no problem adapting.”
Teachers took longer to adapt. “At first, they found the pie-shaped classrooms a puzzle,” Nolan said. “What do we do with it? And how do we use it? Then the puzzle became a challenge, and they began coming up with some ingenious ideas. One teacher made her curved wall into a planetarium for the study of the solar system.”
The primary factor influencing the School Board’s decision for domes, rather than modular or conventional structures, was financial.
“We did cost comparisons,” Superintendent Clark said, “and we visited Payson several times.” Asked what impressed him about Payson, Clark replied, “The calm and the quiet. The feeling of safety and security. We watched the kids and obviously they liked it.”
Cost of constructing the dome structures averaged $29.00 a square foot. Once completed, this average rose to $79.00 a square foot. “In today’s market, that’s a very good price,” Clark said.
“Our School District probably saved somewhere between $250,000 and $500,000 because our Business Manager, Frank Powell, acted as our Construction Manager and administered every phase of the project.”
At this point (1998), Cradleboard is too new for a realistic picture of utility costs. But Clark anticipates that they will be low. “We have a summer school program in session right now,” he said. “We’re using the air conditioning, but it’s mostly just to help the ceiling fans circulate the air.”
Principal Barbara Nolan agreed. She said that both adults and children find the domes’ interiors comfortable.
As for problems, Nolan felt there were two. The first has to do with acoustics in the multipurpose dome. Unlike the other two domes, its ceiling does not have acoustical tiles and the cafeteria and gym floors are not carpeted. Plans to spray the ceiling with a special foam, this summer, should solve that problem.
The second problem has to do with storage. Nolan said, “The storage of heavy equipment, such as snowplows — which have fuel so they can’t be brought into a school building because of fire codes — somehow got overlooked. But we’re getting storage sheds.”
When they were nomadic hunters, Apaches traditionally built wickiups — easily assembled wood and grass structures, shaped like a tepee, with a smoke hole at the top. Later, most lived in structures with corners, so at first many were dubious about domes. But making designs and plans available to the community, providing it with information, and welcoming spectators at the construction site soon eliminated doubts.
Nolan said, “The domes are beautiful. We get nothing but compliments on the architecture, design and colors."
Note: This article is a combination of two published in 1998 and 2000. Prices quoted were valid in that time period.