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There’s No Place Like Dome!

the dome now as a resource center for alternative livingAfter living for a year in the mid-70s in Sioux City, IA, in a house that we bought too quickly and Rita didn’t like, we were ready for a change. Visionary Buckminster Fuller— “Bucky” —was very popular at the time and his geodesic dome homes were sprouting up in parts of the country.

Rita gets the credit for suggesting we build one. The benefits were significant—lower energy use, lower construction cost, and strength. Because of its 13-sided dome shape, it has less exterior space exposed to the elements per interior square foot. Its skeleton of 2x6’s has an outer and an inner skin. The space between them is filled with insulation. Since it is prefabricated and comes in a kit, it costs less. Because it’s built of triangles that don’t flex, it is stronger than a building of rectangles that can collapse.

I agreed to build the dome if I could put a pipe organ in it. Rita agreed. We found a young contractor who had just graduated from Iowa State and who was building his third dome. We found an “orphan” lot—a small triangular piece of land owned by the state of Iowa that was left-over from an Interstate bypass off-ramp. A standard home wouldn’t fit on it. The dome fit with six inches to spare!

The contractor planned to be finished by October so we could move in before winter. Unfortunately, the Sioux City building code folks had a hard time dealing with this new kind of contraption, so we had to get the plans certified in California!

We moved in the dead of winter, February, 1978. We had done some of the exterior sealing and interior painting ourselves. Since the whole dome is roof, the shingles come clear down to the gutters, about one foot from the ground. No exterior wall to paint!

The garage was built into a small hill under the dome. Though the dome was total electric, our total utilities averaged only $65 per month for the 15 years we lived there.

The dome attracted some attention. Gawkers would drive by and slowly turn around in our cul-de-sac. Some took pictures. Some even came to the door and wanted a tour, which we politely declined. Some thought it looked like a covered swimming pool. Our favorite was given by a youngster who called it the “Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater” house.

gerald's family by the dome in the snowSon Peter was sensitive to being different. He didn’t like his brilliant red hair until he learned that girls liked it. He didn’t want us to tell people we lived in the dome until his peers thought it was “cool.” As an adult he wanted to build one for his family.

The dome was entered into “Sioux City’s Architectural History” published by the Sioux City Art Center.

We had high hopes that it would catch on, for its environmental benefits if not its looks. Sadly, as of 2010 it is still the only dome in Woodbury County, Iowa.

I found a unique pipe organ at a Catholic Church in Bloomer, Wisconsin, which I dismantled, moved, stored and slowly rebuilt in the dome. Much of it was playing before we decided that it collected too much dust and took too much space. We sold it to an Episcopal Church across the state.

In August, 1995, I was appointed National Coordinator (Exec. Dir.) of Alternatives for Simple Living and moved the organization from Atlanta, GA, into the basement of the dome. A few years later we moved the organization to a store-front. [Click Simple Living in the menu at the top of this page for more information about Alternatives’ successor, Simple Living Wolks!]

In late summer, 2002, we were notified that our neighborhood was being bought to build a new shopping center. We found a bungelow in a working class neighborhood on the opposite side of town, near Rita’s school. We began the search to find a new site for the dome. Peter moved into the dome and it became party-central.

After a nine-month search, we found a lot in Sergeant Bluff, five miles south of Sioux City. The City Council was eager to sell lots in its new commercial district, so they welcomed us and made several allowances. I acted as my own contractor and had to learn more about zoning regulations than anyone in his late fifties should have to do.

Moving day was one week before demolition deadline! Peter captured the move in his video “2003—A Dome Odyssey.”

We moved Alternatives back into the dome until February 29, 2008, when the new leadership moved the organization to Dillon, CO. If we had not moved the dome, it would be on the loading dock of a Best Buy.

While in Sgt. Bluff, we created an Environmental Living Resource Center. In addition to the large simple living loaning library, we installed five demonstration projects. The raised beds for growing organic vegetables in compost were made of recycled plastic lumber. The 20 new evergreen trees were staggered along the northwest sides of the dome so that when mature, they would reduce energy needs by deflecting the Artic winter winds away from the dome. The solar panels were original equipment, added in 1980 with a solar energy tax rebate from the Carter administration, which was promptly removed by Reagan. Though “old technology,” the panels worked amazing well, pumping warm air into the dome in the winter. The most labor-intensive project was the prairie grass. Since we were determined not to use toxic fertilizers or pesticides, we spent hundreds of hours pulling weeds. A Girl Scout troop helped us one summer to get the prairie grasses established. The most complicated project was rainwater reclamation. We channeled rainwater under the dome into large plastic barrels. Then we used a small pump to water the newly planted evergreens. We also plumbed the building to use the rainwater to flush the toilets, something which we were not able to perfect.

After being empty for almost two years, the dome was sold in November 2009, and months later became Alicia’s Taco Dome, a Mexican restaurant. We were pleased that someone saw the potential for the unusual appearance of the building.

Installing the pipe organ and moving the dome were so complicated that they do not make it onto my list of things I’d do over again if I had the chance.

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