Domes by Jeff & Nate
by John Rowe
I was driving up N. Chapparal last month and saw this beautiful white dome structure taking shape with what looked to be pallets of concrete block stacked on the lot. Excitedly, I pulled over to investigate as I had been interested in a relatively new method of home building, do-it-yourself “aircrete” domes. Aircrete has become the popular name for blocks made from portland cement, soap foam, and water. As I walked into the entrance of the large dome, I had the distinct impression that I was walking into a cathedral, this feeling being magnified by the presence of large cathedral-like window openings well placed in the walls. It was truly inspiring space to just stand and bask in. Inside I found owners Nate Deshenes and Jeff Baker working away. We struck up a conversation and agreed on a time for an interview.
Nate and Jeff met over 20 years ago as avid snowboarders in Mammoth Lakes, California and became fast friends. Both have strong entrepreneurial spirits as evidenced by their career paths. Jeff started a successful publication, Snowboard Magazine, and Nate went to work for him as a reporter and feature writer. Both have snowboarded all over the world and Nate, in particular, developed a severe case of wanderlust that lasted for many years, fueled by his ability to work as a journalist for a variety of publications.
Nate became interested in this aircrete dome building several years ago, seeing a video made by an outfit named Dome Gaia. He signed up for a ten-day workshop to learn how to build these domes and caught on quickly. He had previous building experience and immediately began to work on aircrete domes all over the world—in Spain, Costa Rica, Peru, and elsewhere. Nate came home to Mammoth Lakes, got together with his old friend Jeff, and, as these things turn out, Jeff had sold his magazine and was on the lookout for a new career path. He immediately was taken by these domes, “so beautiful, symmetrical, clean and simple in shape and design.” Nate, too, is taken by the simple beauty of domes, and like so many of us, thinks the space is akin “to being in a cathedral—peaceful and fulfilling. It just feels good to be in them.” They (and I) find domes to have a minimalist zen-like quality that is very pleasing. And Jeff, with his background in publishing, is convinced that more and more, “buyers will only buy houses that look good on Instagram.”
They are modern guys, folks. So they struck up a business partnership and named their company Compass Home Design. They liked the idea of moving to Colorado and building their first house together here. After all, land is cheap in Crestone, the building codes are fairly loose, and Crestone is a lot like Mammoth Lakes—small and in a spectacular mountain setting. And they are eager to demonstrate that their dome will be snug in our cold winters with a modest amount of heat generation. Building dome houses is, of course, not a new idea and has been around as long as igloos have. More recent offerings have utilized standard concrete blocks or factory-made stressed-skin panels. Both of these methods have significant drawbacks. Concrete blocks are heavy, poor insulators in cold and temperate climates, difficult to work with, and use lots of cement, a building material that uses much in the way of fossil fuels to produce. The stressed-skin panels are expensive to manufacture and install, and are available in limited styles, taking artful creativity out of the building equation.
Enter aircrete. Aircrete blocks have made dome building much more practical, economical, feasible in colder climates, and accessible to the amateur builder. Affordable machines are available to make blocks with instructions on constructing do-it-yourself molds and at least one manufacturer, a company in Florida, makes the blocks for sale. The only ingredients necessary to make aircrete blocks are water, Portland cement, and a quality dish soap to make good foam. These blocks use much less cement than ordinary concrete blocks and are therefore much more earth-friendly to use, are light, good insulators, can be easily sawn, hammered or screwed into and sanded down to a desired degree of smoothness. And of course houses made solely out of aircrete, vinyl windows, and stucco will never rot or suffer insect infestation.
Nate says that the 6” thick blocks they are using “have an R-value of 24 and that is plenty, given the geometry of domes. There are no corners to lose heat from and there is a natural circulation of air that keeps the domes comfortable in all sorts of weather. And no fan is necessary to spread heat around when using a wood stove to heat.”
Nate and Jeff bought the lion’s share of the blocks they are using and use their aircrete-making machine primarily for custom shapes, such as form-framing windows and doors. They say that “if we value our time at $25/hour, it works out about the same to buy blocks as to make them ourselves. Plus we are not worn out making all those blocks before we even start building.” The dome has gone up quickly, and they hope to be done with the basic shell before winter hits; even though they have had either two or three guys working, they have been at it for only three months or so. The windows are large and beautiful, there are two smaller auxiliary domes attached and there will be a stylish front entry doubling as a mudroom. A beautiful quality of aircrete is that it is easy to make into a variety of shapes and easy to saw as well. And as Jeff says, “the lightweight nature of the blocks is not to be undervalued when you spend all day, every day, laying up block.”
Nate has researched the strength of aircrete block as well, and even though they are not as strong as ordinary concrete block, they are plenty strong enough and the structural qualities of domes has every block supporting every other block. A mesh-reinforced stucco coating inside and out also helps tie everything together, making the domes stronger yet. Dome-shaped houses have withstood hurricane winds, earthquakes and even some lava flow from a Dome Gaia workshop structure in Hawaii, although building in the possible path of a volcano is not recommended.
Jeff and Nate are happy with their progress and the way the domes are taking shape and plan on building another one on a lot they have already purchased. They are open to building to suit or building a spec house or two; circumstances will dictate the direction they take. They both love these homes and both want one for themselves as well. They have had a lot of people stop by to look—it is hard not to want to park your car and look around. They plan on continuing and perhaps expanding their home-building business and welcome all inquiries along these lines. Jeff and Nate are also just good guys and will try to answer basic questions about aircrete dome building for those who are interested. Please contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.