My sister Jess and I grew up in the oak-forested mountains overlooking Redwood Valley in Mendocino County, California. Committed to both ecologically-minded living and creative thinking, we have long dreamed of designing a building that embodies our values and allows us to share a connection to this beautiful place with our many loved ones. Such a structure would combine insights from the vast history of curved architecture with advanced materials, organic aesthetics, and creative uses of space and energy to produce a flexible space for dreaming, conversing, and making. Best of all, it would be constructed by a community of our friends, and every member of the resulting collective would be able to use it in the future. Now we are making it happen!
Jess and I write occasional blog posts here to chronicle our adventures and setbacks as this multi-year project unfolds. Here they are (most recent first):
Values and Goals
In designing and building this retreat we have combined our sensibilities and values–Jess is an art historian, Zach is a filmmaker and environmental media scholar–to design a house that meets our unique criteria:
- Small and efficient to heat and cool.
- Net energy positive (it must generate more energy than it consumes).
- Durable and long lasting (our target is 250 years), forcing us to design for an uncertain future.
- As simple in design as possible.
- As resistant to fire and weather as possible.
- As flexible in use as possible.
- Not reliant upon fossil fuel use.
- Must provide inspiring uses of space for work, gathering, and play.
- Must use rounded rather than rectilinear forms wherever possible.
- Must be as close to self-regulating as possible (not dependent upon constant human maintenance).
- Must provide for clean electric vehicle charging.
Our final design combines two underground half domes, connected by a six foot arched passageway and sharing a single front retaining wall. This single wall contains many windows and faces south for maximum sun exposure. The house will be nestled among oak trees on a ridge, and thus the windows will afford a view of the beautiful Redwood and Ukiah valleys below. A large mound of soil will cover the entire structure but for this front wall, completely insulating and protecting the house. Because the structure is essentially underground, it will be naturally cooled in the summer and will retain heat in the winter. A hydronic, radiant heat floor will store and release heat during cold weather. Solar thermal panels mounted on top of the house mound will heat large quantities of water even during the winter, storing it for domestic hot water use and circulating it through the floors to heat the building. A backup system will heat the water when there is insufficient sun. We are avoiding forced air heating because it circulates an enormous amount of dust, operates sporadically, is noisy, and blows waste heat into ceiling areas.
We’ve designed the house so that each separate dome has its own purpose. The first dome is a gathering space, completely open with no interior walls: just a single curved surface that serves as the main structural wall and “ceiling.” Only the large bay windows overlooking the valley are rectilinear; everything else in this Great Room is curved, including an open kitchen and dining area. The second dome, separated by a six foot arched passageway, contains the master bedroom, bathroom, utility room, and office. This, then, is a space for privacy and work. Both sides of the house, however, are designed for comfort, tranquility, and inspiration. Beyond generating its own heat, the house passively stores heat in its slab floor directly from the sun during the day. It will also generate, via microinverted solar photovoltaic panels, its own electricity. An electric vehicle charge port will be installed outside, in a small shed adjacent to the parking pad. The front of the house will have a small patio.
We have worked with Formworks, Inc. to design the basic structure. Formworks is a family owned business that will fabricate all of the forms for the domes, which we will then assemble ourselves. The heating system and other components of the house (including the ICF blocks that we will use to construct the front retaining wall) are also being sent as kit components, allowing us the freedom to build it ourselves, with the help of our friends. This is also the only way that we can make this structure affordable (even with all of its innovations, it will be significantly cheaper to build than a traditional wood structure). This house is an experiment in ecological design and planning for an energy-scarce future, but it is also meant to be used by our family and friends who respect the concept and seek a tranquil, beautiful place for creative work. We are excited to share this unique environment with you.
After a year and a half of planning, working on the plans, getting those plans approved by the County government, and sourcing our main components, we finally broke ground in September 2015. We dug a massive trench for utilities (water, power, and Internet), which ran for almost 500 feet down the ridge from our existing shed to the new build site. This is a long way to run electric mains, and due to “voltage drop,” we had to significantly oversize our wires, making for quite a tough job! Our ethernet connection also requires repeaters to stretch such distances. Our solution was to use Power Over Ethernet (PoE) to inject a 48V DC source into the ethernet line, and then repeaters at strategic locations. These repeaters are powered directly by the 48V flowing through the ethernet cable: no external power is necessary. For this run, the cable surfaces about half way down the ridge, at the site of a current (and probably future) solar tracker, into a sealed box that contains the repeater. This way we’ll be able to access it in future years.
In December 2015 we trenched the other end of this ethernet line from the shed to the existing house. This will allow the existing house and Retreat House to be perpetually networked. This will be important later on, when the Retreat House’s systems will post their status to the Internet, so that we can monitor them remotely.
In the summer of 2016 we excavated the site, formed and poured the foundation, and then, over a period of over two months, constructed the steel mesh structure of the domes and the ICF front wall. The summer culminated in the shotcreting of the domes. By the time we returned to our academic jobs, the structure existed!
In the fall, our wonderful carpenter Curtis Jones worked on the site during his days off from his regular construction work. He constructed all of the internal wood walls in Dome 2 (Dome 1 has no internal walls), along with our attic area, which spans Dome 2’s bathroom, utility room, and hallway.
We returned for one week in December 2016 to plan out the entire ventilation and electrical systems. We installed all permanent (in-wall, as opposed to in-attic) ductwork and mounted all electrical boxes in the wood walls (concrete dome walls already had all of the electrical boxes and conduit installed before the shotcrete). We also designed some built-in furniture (cabinets and a bed) and went over those plans with Curtis. He is currently working through that list on his weekends. We will only work on site for 1.5 months this summer, but we expect to hit a major milestone: the finishing of the exterior! This will begin with a crystalline treatment of the concrete to help eliminate water seepage, then involve the installation of a complete water stop over the domes. Then we will stucco the front wall, and finally move 100 tons of earth over the domes themselves. Meanwhile, we’ll also finish the interior electrical and plumbing, and begin to do finishing work inside.
Call for Help
Building this house is a collective endeavor, and we invite all of our friends to come this summer to stay with us and pitch in as long as you would like. We can’t imagine a better time than working with our favorite people to create something very unique for us all. We can give you a place to stay, food to eat, and a future retreat house to use! We think this is a pretty good deal, but above all we want to share this experience with you!
Our main work month will be June 2017. Please let us know if you can join us for any amount of time during that month!
– Zach and Jess Horton