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.