Zach Horton

Author: Jessica Horton (page 1 of 2)

The Grade Fire and the Redwood Valley Fire


Glowing and exhausted from our summer successes, we cleaned up the site and prepared to depart in late July. Zach flew home to Pittsburgh and Jess stayed behind for an extra week, heading north with Ann for a quick road trip to visit family in Oregon. Around mid afternoon on a Sunday, a neighbor called Ann on the road with orders to evacuate the mountain immediately. A trailer had exploded on Highway 101 in the valley below. Fueled by hot dry winds and an unusual density of brittle undergrowth from an el niño winter, the fire swept up the mountain from the west and roared toward the domes and main house. Robert, who was home alone, ran out in his slippers and set to work preparing hoses and positioning a gas-powered pump at the pond below the main house. Ann called various friends to hurry up the hill and “help Robert evacuate.” Three of these friends from my parents’ church, Rolf, Jason, and Ted (an ex-firefighter), bravely stayed and helped him fight the fire. By the time it reached the house, Cal Fire was sending helicopters and engines to bomb the area with pink fire retardant chemicals and giant loads of water sourced from our pond. We are grateful to Ted as well as Peter Armstrong, an independent photographer who shoots for Cal Fire, for sharing their documentation.

Ann and Jess were shocked when googling the fire from the road to see a dramatic photo of our place featured in the Los Angeles Times. It reveals the fire sweeping across the swale toward the domes and main house . Photos  by Peter Armstrong.


Robert by the woodpile, working to hold the fire at the fence behind the main house; firefighters parked by the freestanding shed on the way to the domes.  Photos by Ted Enberg.

As the Cal Fire aerial view of the burned area above reveals, their collective efforts succeeded in stopping the fire at the dirt access road just behind the main house, preventing it from sweeping down the east side of the mountain and into the town of Redwood Valley below. The domes are not quite visible in this image; they are located just down the ridge from the solar array on the right side, in the fire zone. The fire burned 900 acres; approximately 150 of them were ours. We are extremely grateful to Robert, Rolf, Ted, and Jason, as well as the hundreds of firefighters who camped for several days on the mountain putting out flames. Cal Fire resounding credited Robert as a model of “fire preparedness” and ran a series of posts on social media, documenting the extent of the fire and the measures that limited the scope of the damage. We have copied over some of the text and images below, followed by Jess’s documentation of the domes upon her return from Oregon.


By Doug Pitman, Public Information Officer, Sheriff’s Lieutenant, Marin County- while assigned to the Grade Fire Public Information Team: 

Mr. Horton, a longtime Baker’s Creek resident, said, “I have been waiting for this fire for 24 years.” He has lived in his beautiful hilltop home, overlooking the picturesque Redwood Valley, for more than two decades. 

Mr. Horton said he was in his home unaware of the fast approaching wildfire until a neighbor alerted him. Soon he was surrounded by friends as well as CAL FIRE and local firefighters who fought and kept the blaze from destroying his home. Firefighters saved his home because of the defensible space he had provided and his pond that helped supply firefighting water.

Mr. Horton could not fully express his heartfelt appreciation for the hard work and efforts that helped he and his neighbors save their homes. As a proud Vietnam Veteran, he showed his thanks by flying the United States flag in honor of his country and the public safety personnel who valiantly fought the Grade Fire.

As firefighters continued their mop-up of the 900 acre Grade Fire, just North of Ukiah, CA, I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Robert Horton, who was assessing the damages to his and his neighboring homes. 

Mr. Horton’s home had been spared from destruction and that had a lot to due with his obvious efforts in establishing and maintaining a wide perimeter of defensible space.The only damages were; a melted pipe, a burnt corner on one of his gates, and his split rail fence will require some repair.

Mr. Horton keeps his annual grasses cut low, loose litter to a minimum, his rain gutters covered, and he has his trees trimmed up, away from the ground. 

Defensible Space: 
-Cut annual grass down to a maximum height of 4 inches. 
-Loose surface litter consisting of leaves, pine needles, and twigs shall be permitted to a maximum depth of 3 inches
-Trim tree limbs up 6 to 15 feet so they are unable to act as a ladder for fire from the ground up into the trees 
-Remove all leaves, pine needles and debris from rain gutters

Mr. Horton goes above and beyond by:
-Having hoses that reach the 4 corners of his property
-Having a additional water pond with a pump  
-Maintaining bare mineral soil under his deck


As the above panorama reveals, the fire burned a perimeter around the domes, wherever tall dry grasses were not mowed. The domes themselves were unscathed. The space was defended by Cal Fire and became the main encampment for firefighters who held watch for days after the fire was contained. They were all curious and impressed by the architecture, deeming it intelligent building in a region that, due to the long-term effects climate change, is increasingly prone to wildfire.

The grove of oak trees that lies between the main house and domes, providing a wonderful privacy screen, was hit hard, but we are hopeful that most of the trees are hearty and healthy enough to survive.

Robert and Jess took a ride in maxi (a six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle that we use to access challenging areas) to turkey gulch, the beautiful wooded area below the domes, to assess the damage. It was the first time we could see the exposed terrain, given that many decades of thick undergrowth was suddenly cleared.

Although we mourned the hurt beings- plants, trees, and animals- with whom we share this beautiful place, we accepted the Grade Fire with a sense of inevitability and deep gratitude that ourselves and our homes emerged unscathed. From one perspective, human-caused fires take their place in a  continuum of “natural” wildfires that have always been a part of the land. Sometime in the 1960s, these same oak knolls burned, and many hundreds-of-years-old trees bore witness and thrived. Yet we knowingly designed the domes for an uncertain future, recognizing that California, like the rest of the world, is already reeling from the effects of climate change. The impact of wildfires is compounded by land development patterns that prevent controlled burning.


Nothing quite prepared us, however, for the enormity of the fires that ravaged our community in October 2017. This time, fires sprang up in eight different locations throughout N. California, driven by a sudden, massive drop in humidity combined with soaring temperatures and 50 + mph winds. It was the hottest summer on record, and the land was brittle from the long and rainless summer. The Redwood Valley Fire (also called the Mendocino Complex Fire) was started by sparking Pacific Gas & Electric poles swaying from the winds during the night. It swept with terrifying speed through the rural community of Redwood Valley and rushed up the mountain from the east, covering the areas left unburned by the Grade Fire.

Our parents were again on the front lines, receiving an evacuation order that roused them from sleep in the middle of the night. Shortly after, our neighbors, the Pardinis, arrived at the gate to the house. Their home was already on fire and they headed down the mountain. However, friends of theirs who came up to help them evacuate, an ex-fire-fighter named Ken and his son Carson, assessed the situation at our place and determined that there was a good chance of saving it yet again, in part because the Grade Fire created a “safe zone” around three sides of the main house. In an extraordinary act of solidarity, they stayed to help Ann and Robert. This time, the wall of flames was much higher and embers were shooting horizontally and lodging in every available nook. Cal Fire was nowhere to be seen; the speed and ferocity and confusion of the fire in the middle of the night prevented any organized fight. The four of them battled all night, putting out embers on the roof and at one point, flames on the deck. Ann paused only once to snap a few terrifying photos, above. Robert became lost in the smoke down by the pond and barely found his way back up to the shed, eyebrows and hair singed; it took weeks for his eyesight to return to normal. Somehow, they and the house were still standing come morning.

The sight in daylight was grim. Fences and trees were charred and broken. Whole forests of manzanita lining the road and protecting the domes from view were simply gone.  The shiny new solar array was singed from the intensity of the heat, wires melted and several panels blistered. Small fires continued to burn nearby. Jute erosion mats and seed were freshly laid over the dome mounds just the day before, an essential step to stabilize the soil in preparation for heavy winter rains. This flammable material sent the fire soaring over top of the building. Happily, the windows did not blow from the heat, and the structures survived largely undamaged–although a true assessment would take additional time. The heavy smell of smoke and a thick layer of ash permeated everything, inside and out. The aerial photo from Cal Fire below shows how much more intense the Redwood Valley Fire burned as it overlapped the areas devastated by the summer Grade Fire.

The well house further up the road burned down completely and the tanks that store water for the main house and domes were damaged beyond use.

For about a week, the fires continued to burn elsewhere and my parents were trapped on the mountain without electricity or water. They learned that in addition to the Pardinins, the Gibsons, Knapps, and several other neighbors lost their homes. Our nearby friends, Bill and Jay, survived both fires and were the only people on the mountain besides our parents during this period. Jess was able to communicate with Ann thanks to a generator that powered her cell phone in short bursts throughout the week. Since Jess was on a semester-long research leave from her university, she bought a plane ticket to help with the fire recovery the following week, anticipating that the region would by then stabilize. She was also able to arrange for a delivery of gas and groceries through a friend’s son who worked for AT&T, who was busy repairing fiber optics networks in the valley and bluffed his way through the barricades. The Friday following the fire, Pacific Gas & Electric arrived to repair several damaged poles on our road. Electricity was restored, but water would remain elusive for several more weeks. The roads reopened on Monday.


The full extent of the fire–although just one of many that devastated the region- was staggering for our close-knit rural community. It burned 36,523 acres, destroyed 545 structures, damaged 43 more, and killed 8 people. Many of our friends and neighbors lost homes. We are humbled by the extraordinary generosity of all who shared time and resources with us during this period.

When Jess arrived the following week, 10 days after the fire hit our homes, the air was cleared as the first storm of the season rolled in. As she began the 2.5 mile drive up the winding dirt road from the base of the mountain, the damage became worse at each turn. When she rounded the corner for the last stretch before the domes, the sight of the scorched manzanita forests was temporarily overwhelming. Soon, however, shock turned into peaceful awareness and commitment to the work at hand. Ann and Robert, swamped with damage to the property, had not yet been able to attend to the domes. The first step was to quickly replant the singed dirt mound before heavy rains caused irreversible erosion.  Jess, Ann and Robert, along with family friends Laura and Roy, joined in the collective labor. Another friend, Robert, helped finish the job the following day. Spirits were high.

Damage to the domes slowly revealed itself: Melted ventilation pipes. Dangerous trees that needed removing.  A warped window sash. Burn holes in screens. Bubbling areas of stucco that would need to be replaced. By far the worst damage, however, was the result of a freak accident. Brack left his scaffolding in place along the front wall after the stucco was finished as a favor to us because we were waiting for another contractor to install a copper cap to seal the top edge. The contractor backed out and hence, the scaffolding remained in place much longer than anticipated. One of the boards went up in flames and in turn, a cleanout drain attached to the buried french drain around the bottom perimeter of the domes also caught fire. The damage reached surprisingly far back, through the front wall and under 150 tons of dirt bearing down on the pipe. Barely had we moved a mountain, before we were confronted with the prospect of digging it back up. Zach made a very short trip out to install a temporary fix, which will hopefully see us through the rainy season. He also assessed and set in motion needed repairs to the new solar array. We are hopeful that an insurance claim to the main house may extend to the domes, which would ease the financial burden of redoing our hard won steps. On the whole, we feel incredibly proud that the domes stood tall through two fires. This gift compels our sense of responsibility to the project, the land, and the people associated with it. Paraphrasing our mother, why wouldn’t we love a place when it is hurting, just as we would love a person?

On one of her last days on site, Jess spotted a rainbow, a sign of the changes- driven by fire and water- that will continue to reshape the land. As we write in late November, the rains have brought the first wave of vivid green and grazing deer. 





Mountains and Mole Holes: Summer 2017

Our goal for the second summer was no less than to build a mountain, burying the domes under 150 tons of dirt. With the completion of this step, our aim was to realize a waterproof, temperature-regulated, fire-proof, and aesthetically unobtrusive structure. In addition, we set out to install a gleaming new solar array to energize the domes and my parents’ nearby home, finish the front walls with synthetic stucco, and carry on with the interior plumbing and electrical work necessary to prepare the domes for an eventual plaster finish.

First, we had to cover the domes with a thick layer of waterproofing: long strips of plastic with an underside of bentonite clay that expands upon contact with moisture. Every seam was super-sealed with heavy tape. As usual, the trick was to fit rectangular strips onto the sloped concrete surfaces by cutting, tucking, and fitting them, a bit like sewing a garment for a curvy body. Each layer was held in place with gun-driven concrete nails. Beforehand, we patched rough portions of the concrete with a disgusting oily mastic to make sure there were no large crevices for water to trickle in, destroying a few pairs of work clothes along the way.



Zach drove a boom in order to peg the waterproofing to the upper reaches. Troy and Todd, strong, apparently immortal teenagers with monkey climbing skills, helped us with the heavy lifting. Jess’s job was to lift, fit, pin, tape and repeat (including several days of work in the dreaded pit between the domes, where giant spiders were nesting).

All those wrinkles (above) had to be addressed, until the waterproof shell was smooth and reflective (below):

A layer of insulating blue foam was screwed into the concrete and waterproofing at the base of the domes, following by a giant snake of 4″ perforated French drain leading through the concrete retaining walls to exit in front of the house. Then a thick layer of drain rock was shoveled into place. Given that this water channeling device would be buried for the ages, getting the design right was essential.


When building domes, everything is repurposed; even our favorite childhood red wagon, in which Jess pulled her slave-driving older brother…


Remember all that foam that Dan and Jess painstakingly fitted into beautiful curves last summer? Now it all had to be removed, revealing a ragged and sinuous concrete wall dotted with small foam “cheese” squares that we had wired into place in order to space the foam off the rebar grid. Now we piled the removed foam layers in the middle of Dome 1, awaiting use as an exterior layer of insulation and protection beneath the dirt backfill.

Through the fall and spring, while we were mostly busy with our east coast teaching jobs, Curtis, our talented and steadfast carpenter, framed the interior walls to separate the attic, bathroom, bedroom, office, utility room, and hallway in Dome 2. The challenge was to frame up straight walls against curved ceilings, and to anchor them into a concrete floor without puncturing the fragile system of radiant heating pipes coursing just below the surface. Curtis has loyally returned to our job site to do this work, often alone on off-season weekends, after putting in an intense week laboring in his normal construction job and caring for his grandmother. These photographs reveal much of our own handiwork, too: the complicated ventilation system that we put in during the winter visit home, as well as the beginnings of the electrical and plumbing systems that will eventually be hidden behind plaster. Curtis and our neighbor, Danny, helped to guide us through the challenging electrical work. Tom, our part-time plumber who has so far eluded our camera, was also on site whenever a pipe-related job flummoxed us.

Here you can see the apex of Dome 2 buried in the attic, with a retractable ladder leading up to one of the few storage spaces in the house.

Here is a glimpse of our greatest interior challenge: Pulling hundreds of feet of wire through small conduits permanently buried in concrete. Unlike Dome 2, Dome 1 has no interior walls, so all the tubes had to be laid last summer, prior to the shotcrete, and directed into the main electrical boxes in the attic and utility room in Dome 2. This image shows the crammed juncture box in the kitchen, where ten different conduits converge.

We are grateful to Ahmed, a family friend who drove down from the Bay Area on two different weekends to lend a hand with wire pulling, hole digging, and a few hundred other tasks. Ahmed’s generosity, loud cheerful curses, and Micky Mouse shirt uplifted us during one of the toughest, hottest periods of the summer, when the relentless pace of work had began to wear on all of us.


Jess’s closest brush with her professional discipline, art history, was a glue brand called Gorilla O’Keeffe’s.

Then the dirt movers arrived: father and son team Jerry and Wyatt, family friends who have long graded the main dirt road up the mountain. They also excavated our site and laid the sewer system the previous year.  In preparation for 150 dump truck loads of dirt transported from a hillside from our property across the main road, we were careful to weed-whack the dry grasses on all sides. This was fast becoming  the hottest northern California summer on record, and fire preparedness around heavy machinery was constantly on our minds.

Jess joined the dirt moving team to fit and lay sheets of protective foam against the waterproofing, as the dusty mound slowly grew upwards. This often entailed waving and shouting wildly at the operators as heavy machinery swung inches from her camouflaged face.

The domes are now fully buried in a 17-foot-high mound. We raked the new mountain smooth and sprinkled straw to keep the Mendocino County officials happy. Planting native seed and laying erosion mats to spur new growth had to wait until just before the first fall rains.

We could not have accomplished so much in less than two months without behind-the-scenes support from Ann and Robert, our parents. Among other tasks, they made dozens of supply runs to Ukiah, about a 25-minute drive from the build site. On one such trip, Jess stepped out of the passenger seat, arms piled high with bags and boxes, and nearly stepped on a beautiful gopher snake. Hissing furiously, he was chased off by Bo, a sweet new pup with a great sense of humor who arrived in the winter to help our hearts heal from the loss of Kaiyo.


Another job loomed: building a solar rack to house 20 gleaming new panels to feed energy to the domes and the main house where my parents live. We chose a site in an open field just north of the domes, next to an old array that sustained the household back when we were kids living off the grid, but was now outdated and decrepit. We rented an auger to dig 4-foot holes for the concrete footings.

As the smallest member of the build team, Jess had to  clean out the footings. She was becoming more mole than human.

Curtis arrived to help us frame up the posts and hopefully keep the rack from toppling over.

The last great task of the summer was to stucco the front walls of the domes. For once, we decided to give our dusty, exhausted, and mistake-prone selves a break and hire the brilliant stucco wizard, Brack Zollo, and his team. They did the job in two layers, first placing netting over the wall to hold a thick base coat of synthetic stucco.

Brack was the boss, but half the time he and his son suited up and joined the team. The thing we loved most about him, beyond his solid work ethic, great treatment of his workers, and beautiful results: No matter what crazy request we threw at him, he grinned and replied, “no problem.” After grappling with the careless work, no shows, and negative replies of many other contractors who approached our highly unusual project with a mix of fear and skepticism, this easy attitude toward challenges was a relief and a delight.

The final textured coat blended the warm tones of dry grasses and earth that- despite resembling a sand dune- was chosen to blend subtly into the surroundings through the changing seasons. A lot of sculptural framing work took place around the door and windows using stucco-sealed foam forms. Together with the earth sheltered backside, the domes now began to ease back into the land, waiting for rain-awakened grasses and spring wildflowers to reclaim the scarred construction site. Our summer work was coming to a close.

Snow and Goldfields

As we write, it is November 2017 and we are breathless from all that has happened on site in the past year. We will be adding several posts, beginning with December 2016, to tell the story in the correct order, from rain and snow to wildflowers and wildfires.

Our holiday 2016 work trip was short- just a few days indoors to finish the complex ventilation system so that our carpenter could continue framing the interior walls of Dome 2. Still, it gave us a chance to experience the domes in a winter storm.  At this stage, prior to waterproofing and earth berming the exterior, water was leaking in everywhere. We were damp, chilled, and awed by the beauty of the mist and rain.

Ian and Susan visited us for an indispensable couple of hours when the sun returned to help with the ventilation and warm us up with their good cheer!


Kiyo, our sweet dog who lived a joyful life roaming the mountain, passed away after Christmas. His final excursions were to the domes.

January 2017: A snow storm hit while we were on the east coast. Our mother, Ann, sent these lovely photos of the domes under a blanket of snow:

And then glorious spring and goldfields arrived, also without us:

Closure: Shotcreting the Domes

In the past three weeks our domes underwent a transformation from wire cage to metallic spaceship made of foam to one thick, continuous concrete wall. 115merge-1280x427_1 115merge-1280x427 The process was complex, the heat soared into the 100s, some work days lasted from daybreak until we stumbled back to the main house in the dark, and mistakes were made with serious consequences. Yet, for me, this was the most fun and rewarding stage of the project- especially the crazy three days when an extraordinary team taught us how to shotcrete (a special concrete blend that is shot from a giant nozzle; also a verb!).  Our last and longest visitor of the summer, Dan Steinhilber, brought the energy, hilarity, and high spirits we needed to push through the last steps of this first season of dome-building- we couldn’t have done it without him. Like all initiates, Dan cut his teeth on the neverending rebar- this time for the difficult passageway between the domes. 70 (1280x853) The next challenge was to convince rectangular sheets of foam to become dome-like. The foam creates a surface for the shotcrete, and will eventually be peeled off to leave only a concrete shell (then it will be repurposed as an insulating layer before we backfill around the entire structure with dirt). We developed techniques to measure, cut, and fit two overlapping layers of foam to every square (round?) inch of the structure.  The edges had to fit into the I-beams. It was hard to believe, at this initial stage, that our jagged cuts would ever form the slopes we desired. 60 (1280x853) The outer foam layer was covered in mylar to keep the shotcrete from sticking. This created a temporary spectacle that must have freaked out our nature-loving neighbors. Danny Pardini, our electrician who lives a mile up the road, was certain we would get a call from NAASA. We at least impressed our regular site visitors: a woodpecker, a chipmunk,  a wild turkey hen, and a sweet pair of geriatric pups. 72 (1280x853) 61edit (1280x853) 62 (1280x853) Our initial efforts at foaming left plenty of gaps. By the time we reached the second dome, these were negligible or had disappeared entirely. 76edit (1280x853) 67 (1280x853) The foam gave us a first imperfect glimpse of how our finished walls might someday look. 75edit (1280x853) 96edit After the foam panels were placed we used wood lath and wire to form the curves and tie it into the rebar grid. The hallway between the domes was especially difficult because the curves were tighter and there were many different planes meeting. IMG_0091 (1280x853) 115edit 80 (1280x853) 86edit (853x1280) We placed small squares of 1″ foam between the sheets and the rebar to create space for the shotcrete to fill. As we worked long past happy hour stabbing toothpicks to hold each one in place, we longingly nicknamed the indigestible- or more likely, toxic- chunks “cheese.” “Pass the cheese,” “its wire and cheese hour,” “you’re a cheese whiz,” and countless other stupid phrases ensued. 79edit Metal tape partially sealed the seams (but nothing wanted to stick to mylar in the hot sun and dust). My perfectionism was constantly jeopardized; I would learn in time that Dan was right to say “we are going for the gesture.” Still, at dawn on shotcrete day, the domes looked amazing. 98 (1280x853) 110edit While Dan and I were busy foaming, Zach was solving hundreds of other problems, from putting in a large portion of our electrical system, to sawing off front wall brace boards with buried screw heads, to plumbing waterlines and setting in drain pipes. While our electrician (Danny Pardini) and plumber (Tom Davis) have provided valuable advice and labor on our project, we are determined to learn and complete as much of the building process as possible- missteps included. Zach’s electrical wire sculpture: 93edit (853x1280) Still life with mistakes: still_life_with_mistakes Our tiny crew of three struggled to keep up with the flow of work especially these past weeks. We hugely appreciate that our parents have jumped in to spot ladders, wield an occasional crowbar, and generously provide delicious meals and a well-stocked tool shed- not to mention the stunning land on which we build and a share of the capital to make this project move. Here is our dad, Robert, helping out: 92edit (828x1280)   91 (1280x853) And my amazing mom, Ann: 89edit (1280x853) 97 (1280x853) 94edit (1280x853) Finally, SHOTCRETE arrived, in the expert hands of Oscar Duckworth the nozzleman. We had a very difficult time finding the right person to take on our project; the construction industry is completely saturated in California this summer and many places were only willing to take on our rural, highly unusual project for a large profit- if they could fit us into their schedule at all. (A big thanks to Phil at Delta Gunite for matching us with Oscar!) Chemist, educator, concrete sharp shooter, and blueberry farmer, Oscar is the kind of dynamic person we love to encounter on this project: someone who labors because he loves the process, wants to take on crazy challenges, and cares about the relationships he forms. He also understood our desire to be intensely involved and put us to work- hard. The finishing guys he brought on board, Dominic and Elliot Petrella with Ken Zari, were also passionate about shaping mud. This commitment to the craft especially mattered when the shit hit the fan- or more precisely, when the fan fixture crashed to the floor along with a good portion of the ceiling. We’ll get to that. 114 (1280x853) Shotcrete has to be built up slowly in layers due to the weight of the material. Our final walls are four inches thick at the top, eight at the base. 99 (1280x853) In addition to the domes, we shot three fourteen-inch thick retaining walls to be flush with the front walls, all of which will later receive a stucco finish. The retaining wall forms were built and placed by the crew at Ron’s Quality Construction, with Damien Jones at the helm. 102edit (1280x853) 124edit (1280x853) 127 (1280x853) 120edit   126 (1280x853) The force of the concrete shooting from the hose is incredible. We watched Oscar bend his whole body into the task of controlling it- and then suddenly he thrust it into my hands and shouted over the roar of machinery, “its just like frosting a cake!” Zach and Dan each took a turn, too. 130edit (1280x853) 131edit (1280x853) 133edit As the layers rose, Oscar climbed aboard the 85-foot boom we rented, with Zach driving and running an air hose to blow loose rocks from the concrete mix. Dominic followed to smooth the surface with a trowel. 134edit (1280x853) IMG_0197 (1280x853) 152 (1280x853) Things were going really well on the second and supposedly final day. Dome 2 was encased in solid concrete. Oscar prevented cracking from the 106 degree heat by ordering chemical and fiber additives to slow the curing of the mixture. The last truck of the day, filled with 8 yards, had just pulled in. Oscar and Zach were up placing a layer of shotcrete on the very last uncovered section of Dome 1, when something went terribly wrong. I happened to capture the moment on camera, though I didn’t realize it until Oscar turned toward those of us watching from the ground and made a sharp cut in the air with his hand. 137edit (1280x853) As I ran to the front of the domes, I saw our boxes of tools and hardware covered in a thick layer of shotcrete rubble. The tube of my dad’s faithful shopvac was just peeking out from the pile (this photo was taken after the cleanup began). Then I saw the gaping hole in the roof. It was actually sort of beautiful, and we each spent a second wondering if we should have put in a stained glass window (nope, it would be buried in earth). Most likely a single wire tie broke, and because we did not reinforce the area adequately, the whole section failed. 139 (1280x853) 138edit We had to turn the concrete truck back to the plant and begin reckoning. Oscar and his crew stuck by us, cancelling personal and professional plans to stay on the extra day and help us get it right. Dominic busted ragged chunks of material off the rebar grid. It took us until dark to cut, fit, and massively reinforce new foam. Somehow, Dan had the energy to grill sweet corn and brats for the concrete-covered crew when we finally limped to the main house. It was an expensive and exhausting mishap, but far less so due to the uplifting attitude and ethics of our friends. 140edit 141edit (1280x853) We were ready for the concrete truck by 6 am on Day 3. It was a beautiful morning. The crew was unfazed. The only hole remaining was Dan, who was missed by all as he caught his flight home to DC. By the time he boarded at 11 am, the domes were covered and smooth. All that remained was cleanup and regular watering down of the slow-curing concrete.  Although some steps remain before Zach and I can return to teaching on the east coast – putting in the windows, adding some weatherproofing layers, and massive site cleanup- the shotcrete gave us a sense of closure for this first season of dome-building. 144 (1280x853) 149 (1280x853) 147 (1280x853) 154edit (1280x853) 150 (1280x853)              

Raising the Bones: A Dome Building Update

R31edit (1280x853)

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

R40editIMG_9778Jenevive 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

R23 (1280x853)

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.

R2 (1024x683)

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

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