Zach Horton

Raising the Bones: A Dome Building Update

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Building these domes- like building anything- involves constant coordination and creative problem solving. Every material (and human laborer) has unique properties that bend, fit, or revolt before our efforts. For example, how do we raise 18 200-lb curved steel beams that kick like stubborn mules to the 17-foot apex of the domes and bolt them in to form the basic support for our structure?  (The answer: Zach learned to drive an articulated boom, we invented a pulley system using an ancient rope from my dad’s shed, and four sets of muscles guided each into place.)  When physics,  respect, and careful oversight converge, our project slowly grows skyward. At this stage, we have built front walls out of insulated concrete forms (“ICF block”), filled them with a concrete core, created a massive rebar mesh surrounding the steel beams that has become the skeleton of our domes, and begun to lay electrical circuits.

Each friend-visitor to our site has shaped this process in distinct ways. Bryan, a traveling nurse and filmmaker, transformed ladders into stilts and danced at the top of our domes. Dan, an artist based in Washington, D.C. who is accustomed to working with diverse materials (he once made a giant Cheeto out of insulating expansion foam), is a rebar whisperer- everything he touches seems to move into place. Jenevive brought an art historian’s visualization skills to the construction site, Jeremy the sure hands of a surgeon, Alex a model of quiet persistence, etc.  The extraordinary progress you see below was not possible without the sweat and generosity of our friends and family.

Raising the beams:

R3 (1024x683)The beam team; Zach on boom

R38editLaying in the first pieces of horizontal rebar after locking in the beams

Rebar, endless rebar, every intersection tied twice:

R7 (853x1280)Zach placing the first layer of rebar

R6 (1024x683)Bryan testing the curvature

R9 (1280x853)Jenevive


R14editJenevive and Jess, filthy and satisfied

R10 (1280x853)The mesh grows with the help of Jeremy and Gabe.

R39editMegan’s hat, caught in a rebar shadow web

R12 (1280x853)Zach cutting rebar

R11 (1280x853)Jeremy holding rebar for Zach to cut

R21 (1280x853)Alex tying rebar at the apex of the monkey gym

R4edit (1024x694)Job boss!

Building the front walls out of insulated concrete forms (“ICF block”):

R20edit (1280x853)Jess and Zach, pausing to admire the view through the picture window frames in Dome 1

R25 (1280x853)The wall for the bedroom and office, Dome 2

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R33edit (1280x853)Each individual ICF block has plastic webbing inside 2″ foam sides, which holds rebar and eventually, a 6″ concrete core.

R37edit (1280x853)The blocks have rows of interlocking teeth- picture a front wall made of enormous foam Legos.

R24 (1280x853) (2)The wall grows

R34 (1280x853)We inserted vent tubes into big circular holes in the wall, along with electrical penetrations.

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R32edit (1280x853)The final challenge was cutting the curves into the top of the foam to create the contour of our dome front walls. Zach did this with a reciprocating saw while I held onto his belt loops! Then tons of bracing to make sure the walls don’t shift or bulge during the concrete pour, and disgusting yellow insulating foam to fill in all the cracks.

Pouring concrete into the front wall:

R29edit (1280x853)The pump reaching over the domes and shooting concrete into the front wall:

R27edit (853x1280)Damien of Ron’s Quality Construction guiding a huge tube of concrete into the top of the front wall.

R36 (1280x853)Dan, who arrived from Vienna via D.C. the night before pour day, got up at 5:30 am to help us out. And he was EXCITED about it!

R28edit (1280x853)Dan agitating the poured concrete to prevent air pockets by pounding a 2×4 on the side of the wall

R30edit (1280x853)The now-concrete walls.

IMG_9760Evening wanderings with Jenevive and Bryan

Introducing the Mercury: An Infinitely Extensible, Open Camera System


machining the Mercury prototype

Machining the original Mercury prototype

After over two years of development, I’m very excited to announce the debut of the Mercury, a fully modular, open, universal camera system. For years I’ve been tinkering with cameras, machining custom parts, modifying existing designs, and generally experimenting with the technical possibilities of still photography. Eventually, a “maker quest” took shape, for purely personal reasons: the fabrication of the perfect camera. For me, at the time, that meant a relatively small, compact, hand-holdable camera capable of shooting a full 6x9cm frame on 120 film. That’s standard medium format film, which has a fixed height of 60mm but no fixed width: it is up to the camera and lens system to determine how much width to use for each frame. Most common today is 645, which uses only 45mm of film width, utilizing it as the vertical dimension of the frame. Older but stouter cameras, such as the venerable Hasselblad, Pentacon 6 (about which I’ve written extensively here) utilize a square 6×6 (cm) frame. Some professional cameras from the end of the 20th century shoot even larger frames, 6×7, but are themselves so enormous and heavy that they are often referred to as “boat anchors” by photographers. I wanted to do 6×9, a format popularized by Kodak in the 1920s (for which they invented 120 roll film). 6×9 “folders” were popular through the 1940s as amateur cameras, before being replaced by the new flood of 35mm film cameras once film stock became “good enough” to shoot on such a small negative. Folders were very limited, with only one lens and an often awkward mechanism by which they would fold out and lock together into their final form when you wanted to shoot—a delicate state not conducive to protection or focus accuracy. I love these cameras, but they would not satisfy me: I wanted my camera to be able to take nearly any lens, and to be rugged.

The Mercury, in medium format film mode.

The Mercury, in medium format film mode.

Professional cameras that could shoot 6×9 were made by Graflex in the USA, Linhof in Germany, and Horseman in Japan, but their heyday was in the 1960s, and they mostly faded away after that. And most of these cameras were fairly large and heavy, invariably made of metal, and contained a lot of options and controls that, for me, added too much bulk. Plus, most of these cameras were too thick to take ultra wide, non-retrofocal lenses. These special lenses, for the ultimate in wide angle photography, require an extremely thin camera; they are made for so-called “technical cameras” that generally cost multiple thousands of dollars. So I set out to make my own. I machined various parts from various cameras, but to make everything fit together, I ended up having to 3D print a number of components. When I was done, I ended up with an awesome prototype, and a revelation: I could create a version of this camera entirely from plastic components and it would be far more flexible, extensible, and lighter, as well as sharable by a community of users. So I set out to make a fully modular, open camera system based upon standard components that anyone could modify, replace, and upgrade for new functionality.

medium format rear right

The Mercury, in medium format film mode, sporting a classic Horseman 6×9 roll film back.

Slowly, a system began to come together that was, I hoped, truly revolutionary. On one hand it was a camera that could do anything, theoretically: any module could be modified or replaced to allow compatibility with some past or future part that already existed (19th century lenses, 21st century digital backs, new and old instant film formats, Hasselblad film backs, etc.). This was truly a rhizomatic camera: it could connect anything to anything else. But it was, I felt, more than that: it was also a form of hardware development that was fundamentally anti-corporate. It was meant to follow an open source software model of open community development coupled with new distributed manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing and low-volume injection molding with innovative materials, and the collective potential of crowdfunding (Kickstarter, Indiegogo, etc.) and social media. This would be hardware development for the 21st century: distributed but centrally organized, driven by the very dynamics that make a community vibrant, without profit motive or exclusionary intellectual property (the double helix of contemporary capitalism). In short, the Mercury was a unique photographic tool, a platform for hardware development and creative experimentation, and a socially driven, user-innovator system with hardware, software, and social components inextricably linked.

The Mercury, in medium format film mode, sporting a Mercury modified Instax Mini back.

The Mercury, in medium format film mode, sporting a Mercury modified Instax Mini back.

Along the way, I started working with Andrew Duerner, a robotics engineer in Goleta who is a true master of 3D design, printing, and assembly. He developed our breakthrough focusing helical unit, which takes nearly any lens and allows the user to focus it if, like view camera lenses originally made for bellows cameras, it lacks a built-in helical. For lenses that have a build in helical but lack an internal shutter (such as many medium format “system” lenses by Mamiya, Pentax, etc.), we have adapter kits that adapt the lens to a standard large format shutter (either the Ilex 4 or Copal 3), and then adapt that shutter to the camera, at the correct flange distance for that format.

The other members of the team include my dear friends Joe Babine (a veteran machist and master craftsman) and Alexandra Magearu, who has extensively tested, evaluated, and re-designed the camera’s ergonomics and aesthetics.

The Mercury, in Large Format (4x5 inch sheet film) mode.

The Mercury, in Large Format (4×5 inch sheet film) mode.

As I write this, we have one week left in our Kickstarter campaign. I do not yet know if the campaign will result in the project being funded or not. If it isn’t, we’ll reach out to users in other ways. If it is, we’ll be able to afford the tooling to create injection molds for the most common parts, which will bring the cost and manufacturing time down to the necessary level to make this system available to users on a significant scale, as well as optimizing the system itself so that each part is made in with the best method, imparting the optimal characteristics (surface finish, flatness, and strength for molded parts, flexibility and customizability for 3D printed parts).

Already, the Kickstarter campaign has been incredibly rewarding. I’ve received messages from photographers all over the world, with all sorts of wild use scenarios: adapting nineteenth century lenses for medium or large format, using their favorite lenses to shoot Instax, coupling non-Hasselblad lenses with Hasselblad backs, shooting high-end digital, etc. It has been incredibly rewarding to hear about all of the things folks want to (and will) do with the Mercury: this is what has made it truly open and universal.

The Kickstarter campaign can be viewed here. Your support is greatly appreciated!

A photograph taken with the Mercury on large format sheet film: Kodak Portra 400, with a vintage Kodak Ektar 127mm f/4.7 lens.


A concrete slab, gleaming like the surface of a lake (and begging for a dance party), now permanently masks the material layers and labor that consumed our first three weeks on site. Let’s peel back the concrete for a glimpse of the ingredients:


1. A maze of metal rebar. I thought we would never find our way out!


2.  A rain of gravel.


3.  A layer of  extruded polystyrene foam plus a vapor barrier of visqueen to insulate our slab from heat loss and protect it from moisture, in preparation for the radiant floor heating system.

fitting around the plumbing


4. Radiant floor heating tubes snake across our metal rebar grid, resting on a bed of sand. They hook into a console that peeks above the finished slab, which connects to a solar water heater and allows us some measure of future control. But like every layer encased in concrete, we had to get this one absolutely right:





A snake and dragon, among other wildlife.


5. And finally, on a gorgeous misty and very early morning, the concrete trucks arrived (after a requisite hour spent lost in the mountains). Our footings were massive due to the mud churned up by several unexpected storms. It took seven trucks to completely fill the foundation for the domes.









It’s been an exciting week up at Oakridge, where Jess and I, along with both professionals and other amateurs, have been forming the foundation of our eco-retreat house.  As the last post revealed, much of the floorplan involves curves (domes and arches).  This makes for an odd foundation and a lot of curved forming boards!  Let me tell you, those aren’t easy to bend!  Each is accurate within an eighth of an inch in vertical and radial dimensions (to achieve the latter we measure from the vertex or center of the dome to every point along its curve). Working with curved materials has forced us all to work and conceive of the construction process in new ways.  Rectilinear forms have a certain logic that can be satisfying: right angles, straight lines, corners… these reassure us that there is solidity to a nailed form, a joint, an edge.  Curved shapes are more difficult to measure, seem more fragile, more indeterminate.  Difficult to nail down. Of course this is just a psychological prejudice: curved forms are significantly stronger (varying with the direction of the force) than rectilinear structures.round foundation forming

On our second day of forming, a sudden hailstorm erupted out of nowhere, sending us scurrying for shelter!  This was followed by torrential rain the likes of which we normally only see on a few of the craziest days of winter.  The result: footings filled with water.  Our clay-thick earth percolates very slowly, so we had to pump the water out with a rented pump.  Another day and a half of intense work followed, only to be interrupted with the sequel: an even-greater downpour of hail and rain.  More pumping.

Working on this site is exhilarating. To spend extended time outside (in a place so beautiful we never want to leave), doing work that is directly measurable, to see our imagined structure sinking into and rising out of the earth–this makes the two years of planning worth it.

On Monday, in between the two storms, we were rewarded with a rainbow rising out of the valley that our site overlooks.  Another curve.




Building, Thinking, Dwelling

As I simultaneously plan my move from Santa Barbara to Pittsburgh and get ready to build a retreat house with my sister in northern California, the notion of dwelling has been on my mind. What does it mean to dwell, to call a place “home”?

In a late essay, “Building, Dwelling,Thinking,” Martin Heidegger links dwelling to thought and building. To build, or to think, one must first dwell, which is to say inhabit a particular relationship with space:

“The nature of building is letting dwell. Building accomplishes its nature in the raising of locations by the joining of their spaces. Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build.” (Poetry, Language, Thought 157) Similarly, thought belongs to dwelling as an ordering of space.

I think this is right. To dwell is to inhabit a place, in body and mind: to be sheltered by it, to be sure, but also to mend it, modify it, shape it, explore it, contemplate it, meld with it. As Virginia Woolf famously proclaimed, every woman needs “a room of one’s own” to properly develop as a thinker and creator. Such a dwelling place affords privacy, or relative protection from the tumult of the world and the thoughts and demands of others. Shelter, in this sense, fosters independence and creativity by providing a break in the affective, material, and ideational flows of our culture, introducing stoppages that allow for mutations. Creativity.

This is not to say that thought develops in a vacuum; to dwell is to engage one’s surroundings and thus also to give up some forms of agency. Dwelling is a being-with. What all should be included in this circle of cohabitation? Physical structures, ideas, affects, animals of many sizes and types (including other humans), plants, pollen, textures, surfaces…


Near the build site.

There are many different possible relationships that one can form to one’s dwelling, and social relationships that can form within and around it. Nomadic peoples trace patterns on a landscape by moving through it; not the individual place or structure, but rather this larger map of habitation, constitutes the home. Nomadic living is also nomadic thinking. Likewise, farmers dwell in part by rethinking the land around them, narrowly circumscribing their resources and range to produce something new.

In the US, at least since the 1930s, the average home has grown steadily in size even as it has housed fewer people. In the 1940s it became a stagnant site of middle class consumption (occupied by a nuclear family, the basic Keynesian consumptive unit in Postwar America) which is being partially restructured today as a neoliberal site of self-improvement and flexible workspace (the home office).

How houses are conceived, built, and dwelled in is determined in large part by the relative availability of energy. The postwar nuclear family dwelling was made possible not only by a particular ideology and economic system, but by the availability of inexpensive (for the consumer) energy. See John Perlin’s Let it Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy for a history of innovative solar programs, technologies, and building materials for the home that were more or less scrapped in the postwar period when vast housing tracks made with cheap, mass-produced, energy efficient materials became the norm. For developers, it made more sense to build large and cheap, and then make up the difference in energy requirements by slapping on complex HVAC equipment to heat and cool the homes in perpetuity. Dwelling in this mode meant being plugged in to a vast system of petroleum extraction, refinement, and burning, ensuring the necessary supply of gas and electricity in exchange for the perpetual flow of money back into utilities. This more or less remains the equation in the US today, despite dawning awareness of our global ecological crisis, economic hardship, and the increasingly high cost of burning post-peak oil, dirty coal, and dangerously difficult to capture natural gas.

Given these conditions, it may seem shocking that the majority of new houses are built for yesterday, not tomorrow. There is something conservative about dwelling, as if our large, empty houses and always-on temperature control will somehow stave off the destruction of the planet, ongoing outside. This is building and thinking cut off from dwelling.


One view from the build site.

With this in mind, my sister and I set out, a little over two years ago, to conceive of a house for the future. One that wouldn’t take energy for granted. One that would serve as a dwelling place in the fullest sense: a place to live in, live with, and think among. Our basic guidelines were that it must serve the future needs of others, at least 250 years into the future, must not rely upon petroleum-based energy, and must be a dwelling place that inspires creativity, not utilitarian grimness or hermetically sealed escapism. With these constraints in mind, we were forced to design far beyond our own needs, and our own lifetimes. Such a dwelling place must be tough to last so long, but it must also be supple, flexible in use, to remain capable of meeting the unknown.

In the end, after a long collaboration, we chose to build two half domes, constructed out of a shell of concrete (dome structures are the strongest possible from an engineering standpoint, and thus require far fewer materials than equivalent rectilinear structures) and mostly buried in the earth. Not wooden boards and siding and shingles to keep the elements out and the heat in, but soil and wild grasses. Building out of wood ensures horrifically poor energy efficiency. What you save (in environmental as well as monetary cost) in the production of materials you lose many times over during the lifetime of the building to petroleum energy production in order to keep it warm and cool. Our structure will require far less energy to maintain, as it will heat and cool itself. One large retaining wall, facing south, will gather through many windows the heat of the sun in the winter. In the summer, the house’s under-soil condition will keep it cool without air conditioning. When additional heat is needed, it will be generated from solar thermal collectors that will turn sunlight (even pale winter sunlight) into hot water, stored in a tank inside and distributed throughout a radiant floor to keep the structure warm. When there is no sun, a powerful electric water heater will make up the difference. A solar photovoltaic system will generate the electricity for such needs. Will all of these advanced techniques cost a fortune. No; this house will cost significantly less to build than a traditional structure.

Most importantly, this will be a space unlike any other. One half dome will have no “walls” at all; it will be a large Great Room for meeting, working, cooking, relaxing, and viewing the beautiful valley below our building site in the mountains of Mendocino County. A short passageway will connect to the second dome, which will provide the “room with a view”: private rooms to sleep, work, contemplate. Fewer flat walls, and almost no conventional ceilings, will provide a new sort of space to think in and with. What sort of thoughts will such a space generate? We cannot yet know.

We are building this as a retreat house, because it only seemed right to share this with a collective of individuals who want to partake in its construction and maintenance. No one person, at least for the foreseeable future, will monopolize this space. It will see a constant infusion of new dwellers, new purposes, and new ideas.

I will always maintain a dedicated page on this site to the house, which can be accessed here. I will also continue to blog about it as we build it (we start on the foundation next week, but the extended process will continue for at least another year) and learn to dwell within it. If you wish, you can join us.

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