Julie Brown is a 42-year-old, university student working on her Master’s Degree in Library Science, with a minor in Adult Education. As part of this past semester’s philosophy class, Julie completed a research project that she describes as, “a proposal for the betterment of mankind that could be presented as a law.”
Her paper, “Living Round,” compares some popular methods of constructing homes and their pros and cons, including ability to resist natural disasters and environmental impact. She concludes that none surpasses the Monolithic Dome and suggests that, “Monolithic Domes … be required for all new residential construction.”
“Living Round” by Julie Brown
A home should protect its occupants, keep them healthy, and sustain the environment, all at an affordable price, yet in many cases it fails in some or all of these duties: a child develops asthma from the volatile organic compounds in the wall paint; another person develops cancer from formaldehyde off-gassing from the kitchen cabinets; an expensive home is demolished due to black mold contamination; a boy dies when a stray bullet rockets through his bedroom wall; an elderly grandmother freezes to death in her drafty old home; an acre of forest is clear-cut for the neighbor’s new house; energy hemorrhages through the envelope of a wood-framed home; a middle-income family shoulders immense debt for a residence; a 1950’s ranch is obliterated in a Kansas tornado; a family drowns when hurricane storm surge floods their beach house; a California mansion burns to cinders in a wildfire.
Since ancient times, humans have sought refuge from danger within caves, mud huts, and tree houses, and although design and technology have improved on this primitive shelter, most of today’s homes do not meet what Susannah Hagan calls “sustainable architecture” (3).
The environmental movement has a slew of buzz words like green, eco-friendly, and sustainable. “Sustainable,” according to Susannah Hagan, has a broad meaning and encompasses environmental and social responsibility, economy, health, and safety (3). Only one current construction method rates well in all categories: the Monolithic Dome. To prevent loss of life, damage to the environment, economic loss, and health risks; laws and building regulations should mandate that Monolithic Domes, adapted to the specific climate, be required for all new residential construction.
Each construction method today has its pros and cons, but the most important aspect for a home remains the same as it did millennia ago, the reason our ancestors did not live in the open—safety.
Who doesn’t want to go to bed at night knowing that their home will keep them safe from external forces? But what are these external forces? How much damage is really done?
Across the globe, according to Marq De Villiers, “The world can now expect three to five major disasters a year that will each kill more than 50,000 people” (4). Professor Sue Roaf adds that the economic loss from catastrophes in 2003 alone accounted for over $60 billion in total damages, with insurance losses at about $15 billion (71). The May 2003 tornadoes in the Midwestern United States cost insurers $3 billion (71). The five natural disasters topping the list in number of deaths and monetary cost are hurricanes, floods (many related to hurricanes), tornadoes, earthquakes, and fires.
Of the top ten most expensive disasters in FEMA payouts, eight of those are hurricanes (Top Ten). Most casualties in hurricanes and typhoons are caused not by the wind itself but by flooding, either by storm surges or heavy rainfall. The Galveston hurricane of 1900 killed approximately 8000 persons; Katrina’s death toll was estimated at around 1200 (Hurricane). Hurricane Camille, in 1969, “struck the Mississippi coast with sustained winds over 190 miles an hour and a storm surge 25 feet above the mean tide levels,” pushing inland over a mile while knocking over apartment buildings and submerging homes (De Villiers 215).
Hurricanes are large and deadly; their little sisters, tornadoes, are indeed smaller, but just as deadly. They offer no warning and no time for evacuation. The deadliest tornado on record for the United States was on March 18, 1925 when 695 persons were killed and over 2000 were injured (Harris 95). Each year there are about 1,200 tornadoes in the United States that cause approximately 65 fatalities, 1,500 injuries nationwide, and millions in property damage (Tornado).
Tornadoes are vortexes that spin with ferocious speed. Tornado wind speeds may exceed 465 miles an hour, containing energy “not much less than the 20-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima” (De Villiers 209). Nancy Harris explains, “Tornadoes do their destructive work through the combined action of their strong rotary winds and the impact of windborne debris…. The force of the tornado’s wind pushes the windward wall of a building inward. The roof is lifted up and the other walls fall outward…. Sticks, glass, roofing material, lawn furniture all become deadly missiles when driven by a tornado’s winds” (79).
For people living in or near tornado alley—Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Arkansas, and Missouri—any warm weather storm could bring on the devastation. Mike Cox recounts a story exemplifying the incredible feats of tornadoes: The 1927 Rockspring’s tornado picked up a family’s home that faced south, spun in around, and set it back down facing west; oddly, the house suffered little damage (102).
After tornadoes in the disaster list comes earthquakes. The earthquake prone western region—California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska—is riddled with dozens of fault lines. The second most expensive disaster in U.S. history in regards to FEMA payouts is the 1994 Northridge Earthquake in California in which 72 persons died (Top Ten).
More recently, the Haitian Government reported that an estimated 230,000 had died, 300,000 had been injured and 1,000,000 made homeless by the earthquake on January 12th of this year. They also estimated that 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings had collapsed or were severely damaged (Haiti). The large death toll in Haiti is attributed to substandard construction.
Fire disasters worsened when humans began to build cities. Houses packed tightly together, walls held up by age-dried timbers, and roofs often made of thatch or wood shingles—these factors made perfect kindling for the great historical fires called “city burners.”
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 “cut a swath through Chicago approximately three and one-third square miles in size. Property valued at $192,000,000 was destroyed, 100,000 people were left homeless, and 300 people lost their lives” (Bales). More recently, the Southern California wildfires of 2003 killed 22 persons, destroyed 3000 homes, burned 700 acres of land, and cost over one billion dollars (Roaf 98).
Mitigating the effects of these disasters requires common sense and resilient buildings. The common sense factor plays a part in choosing a building’s location as much as it does in the design of a building. In fact, some areas are so prone to flooding that the same properties have flooded many times. Why would anyone choose to live there?
No matter where you live, climate-related disasters are increasing, causing some to predict the catastrophic collapse of the insurance industry (Roaf 345). Mandating the construction of resilient buildings is one way to prevent the insurance industry collapse while mitigating the damage done by disasters.
Resilient buildings are tough, durable, and built to handle the excessive stresses of climate change. They are examples of sustainable architecture that keep the occupants cool in the summer and warm in the winter, protect them from external forces, keep them healthy, maintain the environment, and cost equal to or less than standard homes.
To evaluate various construction methods, most are compared to the ubiquitous stick-frame house. Stick-frame homes score the lowest in resiliency and sustainability, yet 90% of U.S. homes are made with this method. Wood-framed homes have many inherent problems: they require a great deal of labor and materials; they are susceptibility to fire, mold, insects, pests, and rot; and they rate poorly on disaster resistance.
- Safety: Stick-frame homes are not built to withstand disasters. Hurricanes cause significant damage to wood-frame houses, forcing the same house to be rebuilt several times. Flooding causes mold and rot to begin immediately inside the enclosed walls, usually leading to condemnation and demolition. These homes will also float off their foundations.
Earthquake damage will vary depending on several factors such as the earthquake’s magnitude, aftershocks, and the quality and style of construction on each house, but in general, stick-frame homes rate below-average in earthquake safety.
When it comes to tornadoes, The Wizard of Oz was far from reality. Dorothy’s farmhouse would have been demolished. Watch as an ATM camera catches an F3 tornado as it destroys a stick-frame home in less than 30 seconds: ATM video. In the following clip, a one-story farm house is hit by a tornado, reducing the home to debris in about eight seconds while leaving the two-story home behind it untouched. The tornado crosses the road and hits the home at the 8-second mark on the video; by the 16-second mark, the house is gone. One-story ranch obliterated.
Fire, either external or internal, quickly consumes these houses. Using the vertical wall cavities as chimneys and the wood as fuel, fire spreads rapidly throughout the home. Fire destroys more homes annually than any other force.
- Health: Disregarding interior structures such as cabinets and flooring, which can be substituted in any home for health reasons, the pitfalls in a home built with wood framing are many. Mold can thrive on wood and drywall, contaminating the home with toxins. Insects such as carpenter ants and termites actually eat the wood while other insects and pests such as spiders, roaches, squirrels, mice, and rats nest in the walls and in the attic.
- Environment: Architect Eric Freed states that “the average-sized home (about 2000 square feet) uses an acre of forest (44 trees). These trees are typically clear-cut (which leaves nothing for the future) (142). These 44 trees are equivalent to sequestering 44 tons of carbon dioxide over their lifetimes. Additionally, wood-frame walls require insulation and waterproofing, yet they still leak the most energy of any construction method.
- Expense: Depending on region and discounting the land expense, the average stick-frame home is 2700 square feet with a cost of $125 a square foot (Emrath). The expense in wasted energy over the home’s lifetime is immense.
The next step up in construction method is steel framing.
- Safety: Steel frames are stronger than wood frames. They withstand disaster moderately better than wood frames, but not enough to be called resilient. Flooding can destroy the sheetrock and insulation in the home. A strong tornado could still reduce the home to debris. Steel framing may actually be worse in earthquakes due to the tensile strength of the steel and its inability to flex under pressure. Steel studs resist initial combustion in a fire, but once the fire has started, the studs will buckle and collapse.
- Health: Although the steel studs themselves will not rot, the attached drywall will. Steel produces condensation with changes in temperature, increasing the incidents of rot and mold growth, making steel more appropriate for interior walls. Although carpenter ants and termites cannot eat steel, pests will nest in the wall cavities and attics.
- Environment: “A steel stud conducts ten times more heat and cold than a standard wood stud. Because of this, steel framing is not recommended for cold climates” (Freed 164). Due to steel’s conductivity, more insulation is required with this construction method. Steel studs are 100% recyclable; however, the production of steel creates extensive environmental destruction through iron ore mining, energy used to produce the steel, and burning coal for the intense heat needed in production, which releases thousands of tons of greenhouse gas (Freed 89).
- Expense: Steel will expand and contract from temperature changes, producing cracking in the wall covering, requiring repairs. Steel prices fluctuate with the stock market, but in general, steel will add approximately 10% to the building budget.
Straw bale, rammed earth, and adobe homes are quite similar in their strengths and weaknesses.
- Safety: These structures have exterior walls of 12 inches to 18 inches thick, adding strength against wind loads, earthquakes, and penetration from projectiles. The roof continues to be a weakness, and they are susceptible to water damage. Dispelling a common myth, straw bales, like adobe and rammed earth, are incredibly resistant to fire. The super insulation of these homes will help to protect the occupants from extreme heat and cold.
- Health: With their thick walls covered in natural clay, these homes are said to breathe. They are quiet homes, effectively insulating the occupants from noise of the outside world. Pests will not nest in the walls of adobe or rammed earth, and have been shown to avoid the tightly packed bales in straw bale construction as long as the straw stays tight and dry.
- Environment: The thick, super-insulated walls have two to three times the insulation value of stick-frame construction, drastically reducing energy usage for heating and cooling. Using natural, local mud and lime plasters helps the environment, yet wood studs remain needed for the roof and interior walls.
- Expense: Straw is nearly free or can be found at very low cost; however, construction is time-consuming, so paid labor can increase costs significantly.
I would like to mention here the unusual construction methods of cob, cordwood, and Earthships. “Hippie houses” are handmade and tend to be built by, as some would call them, environmental radicals. Cob homes are made of sand, clay, and long strands of straw. This mud mixture is formed into 1-2 feet thick walls that can curve into fantastical, fairytale patterns. Cordwood walls are made by stacking short logs of wood held together by a cob mixture.
Earthships are made by stacking used tires in an excavated trench. The home is surrounded on three sides by tires filled with dirt and backed by several feet of earth for insulation. The front of the home is faced toward the sun with an appropriately sized overhang for passive solar energy. The roof is framed flat, although angled for drainage, out of wood or steel, most having a living roof of grass or edible plants. These construction methods, however interesting, are not feasible for mass production.
Close to meeting the definition of sustainable housing are SIPs (structurally insulated panels) and ICFs (insulated concrete forms). SIPs are made by sandwiching polystyrene expandable foam between two pieces of oriented strand board (scraps of wood glued together) that serve as the wood framing, sheathing, and wall insulation all in one panel. ICFs consist of a hollow block of recycled Styrofoam held together with plastic or metal webbing. The blocks are stacked onsite then filled with concrete.
- Safety: SIPs fit together like puzzle pieces, increasing the buildings strength. ICFs are even stronger because the forms are fitted into place then filled with concrete. The framed roofs of either method, however, remain a weakness in high winds. Flooding will do greater damage to SIPs with their wood-like panels than it will to ICFs. ICFs have a large thermal mass, increasing the comfort to inhabitants in extreme heat or cold. In earthquakes, ICFs perform better than the previously discussed construction methods. As far as fire is concerned, the extruded polystyrene in SIPs is highly flammable once the OSB has burned through.
- Health: SIPs can suffer from water damage and are susceptible to mold and rot, but less so than stick-frame construction. The OSB in SIPs can be soaked in toxic formaldehyde. Because the foam is exposed in ICFs, pests can infest the walls and will burrow into the foam to nest.
- Environment: The pieces fit together tightly, making the homes quiet and much more energy efficient, up to 50% more according to Eric Freed (202). The flipside of being nearly airtight is the need for a ventilation system. Properly used, the system will increase indoor air quality. These wall systems are resource efficient since SIP foam is made of 98% air while ICFs use recycled Styrofoam.
- Expense: These homes go up faster than traditional homes, therefore saving labor costs, and they can be designed and precut to avoid the waste of materials at the job site. These factors save money, but adding in the expensive materials and a specialized contractor, SIPs average 5% to 10% more than stick framing; ICFs, 10% or more, depending on the cost of concrete.
Although the last two methods come close to meeting all the requirements of sustainability and resiliency, they do not quite satisfy the full needs of safety, health, and affordability. One construction method, however, does meet all these requirements and more: the Monolithic Dome.
The Monolithic Dome, a thin-shell, concrete structure, is more than a construction method; it is a paradigm shift in the way people view shelter. Buckminster Fuller once said, “Homes should be thought of as service equipment, not as monuments” (Baldwin 16). These domes are indeed meant for service, but in a way, they are also monuments to human ingenuity and creativity.
David South, creator of the Monolithic Dome process, was inspired by a 1956 presentation on geodesic domes given by Buckminster Fuller. Since that day, he has striven to perfect a construction method that remains at the forefront of sustainable architecture. The construction process below is quoted from the Monolithic website.
The Monolithic Dome starts as a concrete ring foundation, reinforced with steel rebar. Vertical steel bars embedded in the ring later attach to the steel reinforcing of the dome itself. An Airform – fabricated to the proper shape and size – is placed on the ring base. Using blower fans, it is inflated, and the Airform creates the shape of the structure to be completed. The fans run throughout construction of the dome. Polyurethane foam is applied to the interior surface of the Airform. Entrance into the air-structure is made through a double door airlock which keeps the air-pressure inside at a constant level. Approximately three inches of foam is applied. The foam is also the base for attaching the steel reinforcing rebar. Steel reinforcing rebar is attached to the foam using a specially engineered layout of hoop (horizontal) and vertical steel rebar. Shotcrete—a special spray mix of concrete—is applied to the interior surface of the dome. The steel rebar is embedded in the concrete and when about three inches of shotcrete is applied, the Monolithic Dome is finished. The blower fans are shut off after the concrete is set. Concrete or stucco, applied to the exterior of the dome, increases its durability (Monolithic).
How does the monolithic dome, with its radical construction method and alien-looking shape, compare to stick-frame construction?
- Safety: The concrete-reinforced, double-curve surface of a dome is extremely strong and aerodynamic. Consequently, Monolithic Domes meet FEMA standards for providing near-absolute protection from disasters, having a proven ability to survive hurricanes, floods, fire, tornadoes, earthquakes, and even gunfire (South). Due to their superior insulation, airtight envelope, and large thermal mass; monolithic domes provide comfort indoors when extreme temperatures rage outdoors.
- Health: The concrete shell that becomes the outer wall of a Monolithic Dome is not hollow, so pests cannot nest within the walls. Accordingly, if the home weathers a flood, when the flood waters recede, the closed surface can be cleaned and becomes as good as new without fear of rot or mold harbored within hollow wall cavities. The monolithic home is extremely airtight, requiring a ventilation system, and as with ICF construction, the system will increase indoor air quality if installed and used properly.
- Environment: Monolithic Domes save 50%-75% more energy than stick-frame homes and easily meet the energy saving criteria as detailed by LEED. The continuous wall of the dome insulates the interior from exterior noise. “The urethane foam used in Monolithic Domes is environmentally about the same as the Styrofoam just twice as insulating” (South).
- Expense: When considering a construction method, energy savings and minimal maintenance are important factors. Monolithic Domes have an R-value above 60. (See graph on R-value comparisons.) “As far as maintenance, the windows and doors may need replacement and the interior will need paint and cleaning,” David South states, “We design the domes to last for 500 years” (South).
Domes save construction costs in two ways: by reducing material waste at the site and by being built indoors since the inflated Airform prevents weather delays. The construction cost of a dome is comparable to that of a stick frame yet with benefits outperforming all other construction methods. Monolithic Dome owners have saved a great deal on their insurance rates due to the building’s durability.
The most frequently voiced complaint against Monolithic Domes is that they are ugly, yet Architect Frederick Crandall, who designs domes and lives in one, professes that homeowners need not sacrifice design or elegance when building the “pragmatic and intelligent” Monolithic Dome (2). David South believes that domes have a beauty people will grow to appreciate because Monolithic Domes “are the greenest buildings on the planet. There will be a time when the square building is the oddity” (South).
In conclusion, Monolithic domes excel in every facet of sustainable architecture: they protect the owners, they are healthy, they are environmentally friendly, and they are affordable. They are the epitome of durability. Each year, thousands of lives and billions of dollars would be saved if all new homes built, particularly those rebuilt after a disaster, were mandated to be Monolithic Domes; to do otherwise is foolhardy. Choosing to build an antiquated stick-frame home today is like forgoing a BMW to take a wagon to work.
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