Home Sweet Dome
Is it an igloo? A space ship? Monolithic Domes are not a
common site in the Northeast — yet. But when singer Peggy Atwood set out to build an indestructible, energy-efficient home on three acres in Kerhonkson, she found this dome home offered everything she needed
By Anitra Brown Photographs by Thomas Moore
Peggy Atwood had already lost one home to a tornado. So, three years later, when flames crept perilously close to her historic Catskills lodge, she had had enough. “I love old houses and I’ve saved a few,” says Atwood, a singer-songwriter who has been around long enough to consider herself a child of the ’60s. “But they weren’t built that well in the first place, and the amount of money and material that went into saving them was obscene.”
So what’s a former flower child to do? Why, build a Monolithic Dome, of course.
Atwood now lives in what looks like a futuristic igloo, a sinuously curving combination of two silver domes perched at the top of a hill overlooking a stream in Kerhonkson. Made of concrete, steel bars and polyurethane foam, this super-rugged, energy-efficient structure can withstand hurricane-force winds, tornadoes, and blistering forest fires that would quickly transform a stick-built home into a pile of ash. “This house isn’t going anywhere for a very, very long time,” muses Atwood.
The Monolithic Dome is the trademarked invention of Idahoan David B. South. When South was still a high school student in the 1950s, he heard famed architect Buckminster Fuller speak about the virtues of the geodesic dome — a strong, lightweight structure capable of enclosing the greatest volume of space for the least surface area. South became obsessed. For years he experimented before he decided that geodesic domes wasted material and couldn’t be constructed large enough for his purposes. By 1975 he had created the first dome using his own design and building technologies — an enormous potato storage facility that was 105 feet in diameter and 35 feet high. Since then, South’s Monolithic Domes have been popping up all over the
Atwood’s path to dome ownership began when she was living in Nashville in the ’90s making the music she likes to describe as “neo-esoteric crossover folk country pop rock.” A military diplomat’s daughter who grew up all over the world, Atwood had spent three years restoring a quaint 1930s bungalow, but in 1998 decided it was time to go. “I kept getting these urges where I’d sit up in bed and something would be screaming, â€˜Get out! Run!’ ” She moved back to New York, where she had lived in the 1980s, this time choosing the Hudson Valley over New York City.
A month after she moved from Nashville, a tornado ripped through her old neighborhood, blowing the roof off her house and twisting it off its foundation. Atwood flew back to survey the damage, and sold the place right then and there to a friend who was willing to take on the repair. Back in New York, she put down new roots by purchasing a historic lodge deep in the woods on the edge of the Catskill Forest Preserve. She was nearly two years into the restoration effort when a forest fire crept over the ridge. “The crew had been there for 20 months, but they packed everything in 15 minutes and left me there,” she said. Ultimately, the winds worked in her favor. “But it was way too close for comfort,” she says.
Atwood went searching for the perfect indestructible home. She looked at everything alternative — yurts, strawbale homes, geodesic domes, even earthships (which are solar-powered homes bermed into the earth and constructed with recycled tires and aluminum cans). “They don’t give you much room unless you do a huge structure, and they were too hodgepodge for me,” she says. While surfing the Internet she came across the Monolithic Dome. “It could withstand almost anything short of impact by another planet,” says Atwood. “I knew this was it.”
In 2002, Atwood sold her lodge, bought three acres down the road and moved into a “catfood can of a trailer.” Pulling ideas from books of floor plans, Atwood designed the dome herself and set about finding a builder. She thought it would be difficult to locate one in the region, but as it happened, a Monolithic shell contractor was working just 50 miles away on the Germantown Monolithic Dome, and agreed to take on the job.
Building the dome sounded like a 1-2-3 process. Whereas the geodesic dome is made up of a series of geometric shapes like a triangle or polygon, the Monolithic Dome is one solid piece and is constructed with a highly unconventional technique. An Airform made of the same rugged material as river rafts is prefabricated to the structure’s final shape, attached to a foundation, then inflated with a blower that stays on until construction is finished. Working inside the Airform, a crew sprays three inches of insulating polyurethane foam, lays a grid pattern of steel rebar, then sprays three inches of liquid concrete called shotcrete. The blower fans are turned off, and the shell of the dome is done.
But — as is common in custom home construction — there were difficulties every step of the way. The contractor didn’t break ground until September, a late start that created major problems as they headed into the winter months. It was too cold to spray the shotcrete, so Atwood had to keep snow off the top of the 23-foot-high dome for two months so it wouldn’t collapse. An 80,000-pound cement truck got stuck in mud over its axles somewhere in the Catskill Forest Preserve. Atwood had to search high and low for financing for her highly unusual building project, which eventually came in the form of a construction loan with an onerously high interest rate. The expensive Pella windows and doors were not properly inserted into the curved walls of the dome, so they leaked badly. They were fixed by a crack team from the Monolithic company, but Atwood was so anxious for everything to go smoothly that she quit her job as a legal secretary to oversee the work. “I made a total pest of myself,” she admits.
But in the end she had a 3,200-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath home she absolutely adores — “a freestanding curved structure that was stronger than anything else in the world, and felt light as air.” As otherworldly as it looks from the outside — like you’re approaching a moon base — once you step through the front door, it’s a more conventional scene of right angles. There’s an entryway with a home office to the left, a guest bedroom to the right. Straight ahead is the great room, which is warmed by a wood-burning stove and radiant heat from the smooth concrete floor — a combination that keeps the place toasty warm in winter for a pittance. “I use the wood stove much of the time,” she says. “But the propane for the radiant heating cost a few hundred dollars for the whole winter.” The dome’s interior is not completely finished. Blown-in foam around the reset windows and doors is still exposed, and the hallway closet doesn’t have doors. “I finish things as I get the financing,” Atwood says.
“I love living here,” adds Atwood. “It is so comforting and all-encompassing; cozy, but yet light and airy.” And while some people might be stumped by decorating a round home, Peggy loves the curved walls. “They are gorgeous. They’re cement, but they have a wonderful texture,” she says. “I painted them white, which gives it a nice, light Mediterranean feel, but because they are concrete, they have an urban aesthetic as well.”
But doesn’t that dome get hot in the summer? “No,” says Atwood. “The comfort level has always been amazing. Concrete is such a thermal battery, the coolness radiates all day long. I don’t need air conditioning. In the summer, my neighbors come over and just want to see what it feels like.”
Unfortunately, due to personal circumstances, Atwood might have to sell her dome and relocate to another region of the country. But if she does, she insists she will build another Monolithic Dome — and this time, she won’t make any beginner’s mistakes. “Once you have experienced living in the perfect structure,” she says, “there is no going back.”
For more information, visit www.hvmag.com.