Dome home in Sherrill, Iowa

Building the dome home

Think different

Raising the first course of triangles

Raising the first course of triangles

Engineering is the art of making what you want from things you can get. – Jerry Avins

Shortly after I graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Iowa State, I told my friend Jim Mackey "Cindy and I are going to build a geodesic dome home." "Figures," he said, "you living in a regular house would be like an architect living in a mobile home."

I was reading The Dome Builder's Handbook by John Prenis at the time and thought "Cool, let's build one." Thing is, I'd never built a regular house. Heck, I was a machinist, not a carpenter. Granddad was the carpenter. I kept thinking "Maybe it runs in the family."

So in September 1980 my wife and I started building our first home: a round house surrounded by cornfields outside Sherrill, Iowa. Our neighbors were mostly farmers, in fact one asked (in a thick German accent – German was taught in the Catholic school right up until WW2) "What're you building there ... a corn silo?"

Domestic engineering

Sheston's dome home in Dubuque, Iowa

Sheston's dome home in Dubuque, Iowa

Like any engineer, first I read as much as I could (boy do I wish we had the Internet of 2012 back in 1980). Then Cindy and I met with Bill Sheston, a dome dealer in nearby Dubuque.

In the late 70's Bill and his sons built a home from The Big Outdoors People and loved it so much they became a dealer. (Here's a few pages from TBOP's 1979 brochure.)

Cindy and I toured several other domes, but when we stepped inside Sheston's dome home, we were sold. Wow! The open space, the warmth, the spiral wrought iron staircase ... Jim Mackey was right, we HAD to build one.

At the time we were living in an old farmhouse, complete with mice in the walls. Sheston's dome looked like a castle. The Bach model was 44' diameter, 24' floor to ceiling high, and 1/2 of a full sphere. We couldn't afford a dome that big, so we settled on the Strauss: a 33' diameter, 21' high, 3 frequency, 5/8 icosahedron.

Up in 5 hours

Placing the last strut

Placing the last strut

With a $63,600 building loan in hand, on October 2, 1980 we ordered the TBOP dome kit.

Two weeks later a semi backed up to a friend's barn on the north side of Sherrill's Mound. After unloading the packed trailer, I watched it as it headed back down the gravel road – empty. There was no backing out now.

We contracted Bob Schulte to do the excavation work. He said that was the first (and last) round basement he'd ever dug. He became a good friend. One night I even drove him and his huge dump truck home after a few too many beers at Hinderman's tap.

Cindy kept a diary. Basement capped, on October 25th we raised the dome. Snow flurries and five hours after we started, we locked the last strut into place (everyone signed it). Then Cin and I posed for a quick picture on a teetering 2-story high set of scaffolding. Smiling, I thought "That wasn't so bad."

The John Deere Dubuque Works newsletter ran a story about our home.

251 days later

Insulating the dome home

Insulating the dome home

For the next eight months – every day after work, every weekend, every extra minute – we worked on the house. Five hours to put it up, 251 days before we moved in.

Friends would call asking us to go out on a Friday night. "Sorry, can't. We have to work on the house." After a while, they quit calling. Looking back on it that is one of my biggest regrets. It was before children; we should have been enjoying life more and working less.

Like I said earlier, I'd never done carpentry work. I learned quickly, so did Cin. After a while she could drive a 10d (ten-penny) nail into a 2x4 with 3-4 whacks of a hammer. We learned to frame, drywall, insulate, and run plumbing, heating, and electrical. We learned how to install windows, showers, toilets, sinks, kitchen cabinets and everything else that goes into a house.

There are SO many stories we could tell about those 251 days. Finally, on May 27, 1981 we moved in. No carpeting, no kitchen counters, and an unfinished basement, but it was a home. It was our home and WE built it!

Living in a dome

It was cozy inside during the winter ... but no garage!

It was cozy inside during the winter ... but no garage!

Over the next seven years we finished up the house. We wanted to build a garage, but that never got done. Iowa winters were cold, however with 8" thick walls and windows that faced south, our heating/dryer bill ran less than $500/year!

Our oldest daughter, Erin, was born there in December 1983. Amber came along in July 1986. To this day, they laugh about how since the bedrooms were lofted – they could lie in bed and watch the TV on the first floor (it reflected off the round ceiling window in their bedroom).

We built the house as if we were going to live there until we died. We never thought about moving, but in November of 1988 I was promoted to John Deere corporate in Moline, Illinois. We moved from our dome home in the country – with pigs, cows, owls, and raccoons – to a 3 bedroom, split level home in a new subdivision of Bettendorf, Iowa.

What did we learn?

Unloading struts from our 1950 Dodge truck

Unloading struts from our 1950 Dodge truck

I miss that house. So does Cindy. We put 8 years of our life into it. We started our family there, we learned, we laughed, we loved.

We also cried.

It was an amazing accomplishment, built with quality and TLC, but when the buy-out offer for moving came back from Deere – we had to pay to get out of the mortgage. Ouch. Negative sweat equity.

So what did we learn?

  • Everything takes more money and time than planned
  • You can figure anything out, just be resourceful
  • A house is never finished, there's always something to do
  • It's hard to put square furniture in a round house
  • Do not confuse creativity with profitability; they're different

More photos on Flickr

Building the Dome Home - on Flickr

Building the Dome Home - on Flickr

If you'd like to see more photos, I have them in a collection on Flickr.

23 Comments

  1. Jack Spain on November 1, 2012 at 6:10 am

    Doug,

    Amazing story! Of course, I am not sure I would totally buy it unless I knew you. You found and amazing partner in Cindy. I am positive there are a lot more stories from this eight year adventure.

    • Doug Foster on November 1, 2012 at 1:24 pm

      Thanks Jack. It was 30 years ago (gulp), but it seems like 10. Lots of fun scanning old pictures and reliving memories. I even started getting itchy when I thought back to putting up all that insulation. 🙂 You’re right. Cindy is an amazing girl. And double right – I could fill a book of stories for those 8 years!

  2. Nancy Pekar on November 1, 2012 at 9:23 am

    That was a great story. Loved seeing all the photos!

    • Doug Foster on November 1, 2012 at 1:31 pm

      Thanks Nancy! One sub-story I didn’t tell was in the middle of construction Cindy decided we should take a stained glass class. Thinking about all the work that needed to be done, I looked at her and replied (rather emphatically) “Are you crazy?” She just looked back at me and calmly said “I’m not the one who’s crazy.” She was right. We needed to take a break and spend time as a couple. So we did. How is it a woman can see what a man can’t?

  3. L.E. Foster on November 1, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    Doug:
    Great story about a great undertaking! Your Mom and I thought it was quite an experience to visit you and Cin – a home where love never quit – it just went round and round! We especially remembered the Christmas gathering we all had, as well as the novelty of being in our bedroom and being able to look down on the living room! And I’ll never forget when we got ready to leave on that Monday morning – I had forgotten something in the house (you and Cin had gone to work). I tried to go back in after it but Hanna (your first Rottweiler) would have none of that, and she convinced me to leave without the forgotten article. Terrific memories in that one-of-a- kind dome home! You tell a great story!

    • Doug Foster on November 1, 2012 at 3:08 pm

      Going back through the old pictures, I realized you had taken more of the house than we did. Thanks Dad! It was fun, but a once-in-a-lifetime experience :-).

  4. Larry McManus on November 1, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Great story!! What happened to the old truck?

    • Doug Foster on November 1, 2012 at 3:03 pm

      Now that is another story for another day (ask Cindy). But here’s a hint: we passed it on the road in East Dubuque one afternoon. I suspect it’s still on the road … somewhere.

  5. Maureen Burke on November 1, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    Wow, that is so cool! I’d forgotten you had done that. Sorry I never got to see that house. Is it still there and occupied now? Maury

    • Doug Foster on November 1, 2012 at 7:13 pm

      Hey Maury! Yes, it’s still there. In fact, click on the large photo at the top of the page on the right (the picture of us unloading the struts) and see where it takes you. Cool, huh? Who would ever have thought …

  6. Butch on November 2, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    I had in the back of my mind that you and Cindy had built your first home, but I had no idea you two were such pioneers. Wonderful story and great pictures, especially Cindy on a Bobcat.

    • Doug Foster on November 3, 2012 at 4:19 pm

      Thanks Butch. She was pretty darn good at running that Bobcat, better than I was.

  7. Dan Carillet on November 3, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    Enjoyed the story on your dome home. My uncle built a dome home about 10 years after you did, and is still enjoying it. He and his wife also chose this as their first home together. To this day I still like visiting his dome!

    • Doug Foster on November 4, 2012 at 11:27 am

      Thanks Dan. Wow, I wonder if he had some of the learning experiences we did? If you get a chance, send him the link to the story. It would be great to have him share a few thoughts in the comments too!

  8. Pat Regan on November 8, 2012 at 5:43 am

    I am impressed as I have always been of your ability. I learned so much from you. Remember the Mac classes in ’84 or ’85? Great times. And now your home is lived in by my brother-in-law (Mick and his wife Linda) it’s a small world. The best to you and your family. Pat

    • Doug Foster on November 12, 2012 at 1:31 pm

      Thanks Pat. I think I was the one who learned the most. You taught me … “Don’t forget to communicate!” among a hundred other life lessons. It is a small world. If Mick & Linda could send me some new photos I’ll add those onto the end of the story! Same to you and the rest of the Regan clan.

  9. David Lewis on November 8, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    Another great story, Doug. This is a testament to the virtues of patience, teamwork, resourcefulness, perseverance, creativity, community, and several more I won’t type. I’m glad you documented this project so well with photos and journaling – and am sure you’ve reflected on it all numerous times since. It’s also a wonderful legacy to leave for your family. Thank you for sharing it with all of us.

    • Doug Foster on November 12, 2012 at 1:24 pm

      🙂 You’re too kind Dave! You’re right, writing it sure brought back memories. Why is it that so many years can go by in what seem like the blink of an eye?

  10. Mark Gillanders on March 7, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    Hi

    I was wondering if anybody that has built and gone to the natural spaces dome school could chat with me sometime.

    Cheers
    Mark Gillanders
    867 587 5076

    • Doug Foster on March 12, 2013 at 1:34 pm

      Hi Mark,

      I haven’t been, but maybe someone else will catch your question and respond.

      I looked up the Dome School. If it is a good class, I think it would be WELL worth $395.

      We learned so much building our dome as we did it. It would have been great to have had a class like that before we started.

      Are you serious about building a dome? For us it was an amazing learning experience, lots of great memories. Unfortunately – even though we were meticulous with our work and put the best materials & finishing into that we could – we lost money when we moved. Granted, that was many years ago, but my advice would be to talk to realtors and mortgage brokers where you intend on building. Decide if the financials make sense. Then at least you’ll have an idea of value, resale, etc.

  11. Andrea on February 20, 2017 at 11:47 pm

    Hi there I have a question.. If you have a Geodome home. But it has no ventilation within the ceiling …it will cause moisture problems a.k.a leaking ( the one I am interested in buying has no skylight windows) It does have a Copula with 5 windows.

    In order to properly ventilate it, would it make sense to install special designed roof vents to promote air flow ? Or would I have to take off all the wood paneling inside and install maybe a vapor shield insulation?

    It may be an eye sore If I put a few roof vents.. and will be a challenge since I live in Canada… however if it will fix the ventilation /moisture issue I am willing to do it!? Any thoughts? I am not sure who to turn to.. This home was built in the early 90’s from what I believe was from this company. I am not the original owner, Finding information about this house is very hard. If you could help me fix this issue in any way please let me know, it is greatly appreciated! Thanks in advance and take care

  12. Andrea on February 20, 2017 at 11:48 pm

    By the way , beautiful story. It honestly touched me. I am moved by it (:

    Gives me hope

    • Doug Foster on February 21, 2017 at 11:08 am

      Thanks Andrea, glad you liked the story. When we’re back in Iowa visiting family, we still drive by it. Lots of memories. Living in one is an amazing experience. 🙂

      If the one you’re looking at was built like we built ours, it was _super_ air-tight. Shut the front door & you could feel the compression through the whole house. Knowing what I know now, I would have done some things different.

      Our round ceiling windows were wonderful to look through, but eventually the seals broke down from water puddled on the rubber bead next to the glass. They fogged over. The same happened for the big triangular windows in the front. Three of the five windows tipped outwards giving them a kind of built-in overhang. Those seals stayed intact. The other two tipped inwards. They had seal problems. Lesson learned? Overhangs for _all_ windows, real skylights for skylights.

      As for ventilation, I wouldn’t build a dome again without a cupola. See the crank-out windows we put under the triangular windows? I’d build a 5-sided cupola using something like those (you’d need a remote crank mechanism). The natural draft you’d get in the summer would be awesome. Oh, make sure they have an overhang too :-). Since the dome structure is self-stabilizing, it would be quite doable to retrofit a cupola onto the dome you’re looking at.

      Regarding condensation in the winter, other than cracking a window (and loosing heat), any house built that tight probably needs an air exchanger. I thought about it before we had to leave the house. We had a vapor barrier under the wood paneling. Your’s should too. The insulation (pre-cut, it was part of the basic kit) was not faced, so we stapled up plastic – and sealed the seams – before we put up the panels.

      Hope that helps, Andrea. I’ll ping your email back directly so you have my address. I’d be glad to answer any questions that I can.

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