Tolchii Kooh’s Monolithic Dome Schools – 1998
Results Through Innovation
When the Native American community saw their need for not one, but two, new school facilities on its Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona, they got innovative.
In 1995, the Reservation’s school in Leupp, Arizona needed a library and parent center, while their elementary school in Birdsprings needed expansion. But instead of following the usual, traditional procedure and submitting requests for two separate grants, a new vehicle, named Tolchii Kooh Charter Schools, Inc. was formed. (Tolchii Kooh is the Navajo name for the muddy-red Little Colorado River running through the area.)
Dr. Mark Sorenson was then selected Tolchii Kooh’s first Superintendent and Ron White became the Assistant Superintendent. Both Sorenson and White agree that Leupp and Little Singer, located eighteen miles apart, were wise to submit their grant request as a unit, even though each could have individually requested a grant.
Sorenson explained, “We designed Tolchii Kooh to be like a district office, with Leupp and Little Singer as independent schools, subcontracted to Tolchii Kooh.” The plan made getting the grant and its funds from the State of Arizona far more probable, because, submitted as a unit, the need became more apparent and easier to fill.
Ron White, who is currently Superintendent of Tolchii Kooh, described Leupp School. “We have 421 students, in kindergarten through grades 12, and 34 teachers. Our student body is primarily Native American, but we’re open to anyone interested in attending and we do have non-Native American students.”
In August 1997, the entire student body and staff began using the Monolithic Dome. Its diameter of 80 feet and height of 24 feet provide 5026 square feet of floor space for a library and parent center.
“They really like the library,” White said. “It’s so roomy and quiet. The eight-foot skylight at the dome’s top gives a feeling of openness and light, but outside noise simply does not penetrate into the dome.”
The community in general uses the dome as well, since its library doubles as a center for socials, town meetings and advance training.
A back door interest
When the Leupp structure was in initial planning, White said that he knew nothing about domes. He got interested “through a back door,” when a general contractor asked if he would like to consider some “alternative ideas.” White agreed and got interested enough to visit two Monolithic Dome schools already in operation: Payson Elementary and Pioneer Elementary.
“Obviously the dome was a better choice,” White said, “so I presented my reasons to our Board.” Those reasons included:
- Construction and Strength – The Leupp area has chronic, high winds that often tear shingles off roofs and create a whistling sound people may find irritating. A Monolithic Dome can withstand those winds. Its R60 insulation and concrete walls would significantly cut utility costs and provide a noise barrier.
- Round Design – A circle is an important Navajo symbol of completeness—an entity without beginning or end. A hogan or traditional Navajo home was a domelike structure, built of cedar and covered with mud. The Monolithic Dome fits Navajo culture.
- No Waiting for Construction – It just so happened that Architect Rick Crandall could do the design, Monolithic Constructors could produce the Airform, and Dome Technology could begin construction without delay.
Within a week of reviewing White’s report, the Board visited Payson Elementary. “They easily saw the pure logic and good sense of building a dome,” White said. “The metal building which the Board had been considering would have cost the same as a Monolithic Dome, but the metal building would not give us all we could get with a dome. With a metal structure, maintenance and utilities would be higher, the building would not be as safe as a dome, and its atmosphere would not be as conducive to study.”
The community celebrated the completion of its structure with a dual dedication. White said, “In the morning, a traditional Navajo Medicine Man blessed and dedicated our dome. That afternoon, the pastor of one of our churches blessed and dedicated it in the Christian tradition.”
Little Singer School
Dr. Mark Sorenson, who is currently Director of Native American Grant School Association and Executive Director of Little Singer Community School, described Little Singer. “We have 130 Native American students and one Caucasian—my son—in Pre-Kindergarten through Grade 8, and a teaching staff of eleven. We also have Special Education and Adult Education Programs so the facility is open and active all year.”
The school’s history reaches back to the 1970s and a Navajo Medicine Man called Little Singer. Sorenson explained the name: “Navajo healers are singers and chanters and this particular one was of short stature, so people dubbed him Little Singer.”
The Medicine Man noticed that children were missing from the community because they were at boarding schools. Little Singer decided that “this was not right” because the absence of children created an “unnatural silence,” so he took his concern to the community who agreed.
On its own, the community began building a school. It then received a small grant from a Hollywood actress who insisted on remaining anonymous and some Federal money. In 1978, the school became incorporated. Little Singer had died by then, but the school was named in his memory.
Completed in the Fall of 1997, its Monolithic Dome dramatically expanded Little Singer’s Elementary School. The dome or Multipurpose Building has a diameter of 120 feet. Its center is a high-school-size basketball court and gymnasium, with bleachers for 300 people. This main floor also accommodates classrooms, community rooms, bathrooms, and offices.
On the upper level, a jogging track circles behind the bleachers and above the offices and classrooms.
Brent Chase, a media specialist, submitted several designs for the outside of the Airform. The Board selected a traditional wedding basket pattern, symbolizing the full circle of life. Sorenson said, “The dome has four entrances or one for each direction. Each entrance has three designs. That totals 12 — an important number in Navajo cosmology.”
The Board welcomed the idea of a dome on their campus. “We had a limited budget to work with,” Sorenson said. “Then too, we wanted a circular building because we already had two geodesic domes and two hogans, and Navajos are more comfortable with a dome design.”
Because the dome has no separate meter, there is no way of knowing the exact cost of its utilities. “But here’s what I’ve observed,” Sorenson said.
“The air conditioning cycles on and off only during the very hottest days with temperatures in the 90s, and the heat comes on only when it gets about 10 degrees above zero. In the Monolithic Dome, cooling and heating systems go on far less frequently than they do in the geodesics, which are smaller.”
Navajo Nation Housing Project – 2004
by Kris Garrison
photos courtesy of Tolchii’ Kooh School District
A housing grant
Tolchii’ Kooh received a HUD/NAJASDA Grant to build a 36-unit, Monolithic Dome housing project for teachers, staff and as public rentals. The homes are located next to the charter school on the Navajo Nation reservation at Taloni Lake, Arizona — some 65 miles east northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona.
Joe Hancock, owner of BMJS Contracting Incorporated and General Contractor for the project, said, “The homes are almost complete. There are a few details still undone, like sewer hookups on a few of the domes. The construction of the dome shell was subcontracted to Dome Technology of Idaho Falls, but we finished out the rest of the project.”
The 24 domes are expected to open for occupancy mid summer 2004. The 32’ domes are built in clusters of four. Each cluster of four has 6 apartments: four one-bedroom apartments and two, 2-bedroom apartments, for a total of 36 rentals. Teachers and staff will be given first choice. The remaining vacancies will be available to Native American residents of the reservation.
Living areas feature ceramic tile with carpeting in the bedrooms. Each unit is complete with a full shower/tub combination, a refrigerator and stove and paid water usage. Tenants will be expected to pay for electricity.
Ron White, Tolani Lake Elementary School Academy Superintendent, said, “We haven’t advertised at all for the rentals, but we will have more people than we need to fill them up by the time they open in June.”
The idea for using Monolithic Domes for housing came about when Mr. White saw a magazine rendering of a similar rental project in Minnesota.
He said, “It wasn’t perfectly what we wanted, so we modified it a little. The project architect, Loren Sadler of Arizona was able to make the necessary modifications and make it work for us. Monolithic Domes give the project high energy efficiency, resulting in low utility and heating costs, low wind profiles and less wind damage, and roominess not available in conventional housing. The dome housing should be a very wonderful place to live.”
Tolani Lake Elementary School Academy has 73 students and approximately 16 teachers on staff at this time. Future plans for the Navajo Nation include an 80-foot dome for a housing office, and warehouse/maintenance support for the 36 housing units.
Note: This article is a combination of two others — one printed in 1998 and the second in 2004. Prices quoted are from those time periods.