The Homestead: Cloudome

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After a fire destroyed his log home, Chuck Peters created a resilient monolithic dome as a new residence in Cloudland, Ga.

story by MARCIA GRUVER DOYLE | photos by CHUCK PETERS and staging by MAGNOLIA

If Chuck Peters were the subject of a multiple-choice question, the only possible answer would be “all of the above.”

First there’s his multi-dimensional, stained-glass art installed in churches, community spaces and private homes throughout the region, from Memphis to north Florida. Utilizing his advertising- agency background, he also operates a video-production company called Cloudland Productions that works for clients such as Kroger and the Dade County (Georgia) Industrial Commission. Then there are his skills in carpentry and renovation, which contributed to the creation of the popular Kamama art gallery/restaurant/ antique store/music venue in Mentone. He also farms on the side, growing okra, corn, beans and squash and a variety of fruit primarily for himself and friends, but obtaining a permaculture certification along the way.

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]But none of that is what I’m here to talk about when I drive up to his 54-acre property just east of the Alabama-Georgia line in rural Cloudland, Ga. Or, rather, each of these skills was a contributor to what is eventually revealed at the end of a one-mile gravel road: Peters’ monolithic dome home, christened Cloudome, which he began building in 2004.

“It’s a unique building form, but to me it really made sense,” Peters says. One experience puts a particular emphasis on his words: the loss of his log home on the property to fire in 2004. The fire was so fierce it melted his cast-iron bathtub. More tragic to Peters was the loss of 100-plus hours of video featuring Native American story telling and crafts, an interest that brought him to the Lookout Mountain area in the late 1990s.

Leaving little, the fire also gave Peters the opportunity to do a complete reboot. Several years before, he had been intrigued by the Farside Estates monolithic dome community in northeast Georgia. With insurance money in hand, he wanted to create a resilient home, and, to him, a dome checked all the boxes.

Dome proponents tout the structure’s ability to shrug off hurricanes, tornadoes and structural fire damage. While their interiors are not fire proof, dome structures have survived California wildfires and intense industrial blazes. Another selling point is their sustainability. Peters estimates he spends approximately $40 dollars a month for all utilities, and he has hopes of eventually getting off the grid entirely. “I use my air conditioner about three weeks out of the year, primarily for humidity,” he says.

After attending a one-week class at the Monolithic Dome Institute in Italy, Texas, Peters took a deep breath and ordered a custom-made inflatable airform. Using a mix of skilled contractors, friends and his own unique skill set, he went to work to create his dome home, situated picturesquely by a pond. (See “How to build a dome home” sidebar.)

After the dome was erected, Peters milled white oak timbers from his land to create siding for the front of his home and gathered salvaged windows and doors. He enlisted friends to help him install the 2,200-square-foot, mixed-level interior he designed. One carpenter friend checked out the plans and told Peters, “Sorry, but I don’t build boats.” Peters persuaded him to reconsider. “Although you don’t see it right off, most of the interior is made up of 90-degree angles,” he says.

The immediate impression when you walk inside Cloudome is one of light. Sunlight, streaming in from both the front and from a high window in the back, keeps the interior well lit. “I don’t need light during the day, even if the sun isn’t shining,” Peters tells me. “And during the winter, the passive solar gives me about 20 percent of my heat.”

The dome has a reading area, living room, kitchen, dining room, two bedrooms, a bathroom (another is planned for the future) and a mud room, plus storage underneath the kitchen. Each bedroom has a balcony that faces the front, and the second bedroom also features a small, cantilevered deck out the back. In addition, there’s a front patio area off of the dome’s lower level.

The interior focal point is the top-to-bottom, stacked-stone fireplace created using three metal culverts. For this structure, Peters took his inspiration from the Anasazi Indian ruins in New Mexico. Because the top-level rooms are basically open to the center core, the heat from the wood-burning stove in the fireplace – plus a small, cast-iron Jøtul oven in a side area of the fireplace – will heat the home.

Underneath the stove is a vent with fans fitted on both sides. There is a 3-foot space between the concrete foundation and the first-level floor. The vent draws hot air under the floor to help heat rooms during winter. The air rises through the structure, aided by a 3-inch gap between all floors and walls.

In warm months, fans circulate the cool air given off by the foundation. “Once you get the concrete at a certain temperature, it doesn’t take much to keep it there,” Peters explains.

Like any home, domes need upkeep. With the dome now in its 7th year, Peters is gearing up to resurface it with an elastomeric rubberized coating and replace the flashing. He also power washes it once every two years.

Creating Cloudome has made Peters an avid monolithic dome proponent. “I love to educate people about dome homes,” he says. He’s actively advocated for their use in community structures around the area, particularly because of their resistance to tornadoes.

“I believe the biggest obstacle is opening one’s mind to the concept of this unique construction,” he says. Once opened, he maintains, the benefits are obvious.

Creative Central

The 30-foot yurt that serves as Chuck Peters’ stained-glass studio did double duty after fire destroyed his log house and during the three-year build of his dome home: it also was his primary residence.

Now, though, it’s creative central, where Peters both maps out and carefully forms stained-glass designs for his company, Cloudland Stained Glass Studio. When I visit, he is deep into a commission for a private residence that used to be owned by acclaimed folk artist Howard Finster, creator of Paradise Gardens in Summerville, Ga.

Back when he was an illustrator for the National Science Foundation, Peters took a stained-glass art class and fell in love with the medium. He kept his hand in it over the years, making gifts for friends and family, eventually getting into the 3D aspect while he was still working for an advertising agency in Atlanta. When he first moved to the Lookout Mountain area, he worked part time at a stained-glass studio in Fort Payne, Ala. “We did about 25 to 30 churches in the area and even a big cathedral in Memphis,” he says.

Churches remain a key client base today. “A stain-glass window really changes the whole church, and brightens it up,” Peters says. “It’s always a real honor to work on one.”

A particularly keen interest of Peters is three-dimensional, stained-glass sculpture, a premier example of which is his 11-foot-high “Enduring Trust” sculpture commissioned by the Walker County Council for the Arts and now installed on Highway 27 just north of the square in LaFayette, Ga.

“Their logo was an eagle, and I love eagles,” Peters says. In fact, long before the Walker County commission, Peters had been creating three-dimensional, stained-glass eagles for several clients. Working from his vision of two enfolding eagle wings for the LaFayette piece, he enlisted a master welder to help him form the framework out of a metal culvert, creating the skeleton of the piece. Peters then built a form to rotate the metal frame, and placed dalle de verre glass blocks in the framework. Dalle de verre is a glass art technique in which pieces of colored glass are set in a matrix of concrete or other supporting material.

Another creative endeavor is Peters’ video company, Cloudland Productions, also based at his residence. “I have full digital capability just like the big boys do,” he says. And he’s working on an additional commercial venture that will make use of his artistic skills, a project he plans to unveil after he’s obtained the necessary copyright and trademark.
“It’s all a mixture of what comes my way,” Peters says of his income-producing ventures, adding with his quick laugh, “I’m not bored.”

For more information: Cloudland Stained Glass Studio, facebook.com/CloudlandStainedGlass; and Cloudland Productions, cloudland@mindspring.com

 

How to Build a Dome

Chuck Peters details the involved building process in an article on the Monolithic Dome Institute website (monolithic.org) titled “Thinking outside of the circle.” Here are the basics:

1. Establish your plans for the building and construct a foundation. “It can be any round or oval shape, and could incorporate more than one dome,” Peters says. The foundation is built out of concrete reinforced with steel rebar. Vertical steel bars around the edge are later attached to the dome’s steel reinforcing.

2. Obtain an airform. Peters sent his building plans – including where he wanted windows and doors – to the Monolithic Dome Institute, which created what’s known as an airform out of ripstop (fabric woven using a special technique that makes it resistant to tearing). This custom airform is placed on the foundation and inflated using an adapted grain elevator fan. Once fully inflated, it becomes the outside shell of the structure. “When entering the dome,” Peters writes in his article, “one has a feeling of awe,” noting that the outside of the dome only shows glimpses of what’s inside. “From the inside,” he says, “one experiences the whole structure.” The blower fan is used throughout construction and helps maintain a constant air pressure. The only opening in the form at this time is a double-chambered airlock door (for access) and an opening for the blower fan.

3. Build the dome shell. Once Peters’ air form was inflated, a specialized building crew – one that usually works on water tower jobs – sprayed several coats of polyurethane foam on the inside. “Every day you come in and keep building up the foam on the base,” Peters says. “The hardest part is spraying overhead.” After installing a reinforcing cage of No. 3 rebar, builders applied the final finish, a coat of shotcrete. The dome then cured for 30 days, after which the blower fan was turned off. Constructing Peters’ dome shell took about three months.

4. Create the front façade and finish the interior. Using his construction skills, Peters then cut out the front of the dome and installed the wood-planked front section and interior levels. The original airform stayed as the outside surface of the dome. The entire project took three years and cost $160,000 (including Peters’ time).

The best moment during the build, Peters recalls, was opening it up to let the sun in. “I knew it was going to work, and when the sun came in, it was really a magical time,” he says.

If you’re interested in a dome structure for yourself, Peters advises checking out the Monolithic Dome Institute in Italy, Texas. “They started all of this,” he says. The organization’s website has multiple examples of floor plans and built structures.

According to the Monolithic Dome Institute, most natural and manmade disasters are incapable of destroying monolithic domes and the structures meet or exceed FEMA’s standards for providing near-absolute protection. In addition to surviving fires, the domes have survived tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes.

High school gymnasiums, churches and community centers are being built as domes where whole communities can take shelter during severe weather, Peters says. FEMA offers grants for the construction of monolithic domes as public- or community-access buildings. Another plus – Peters says the structures can pay for themselves through savings in heating and air conditioning costs.

If you’d like to explore commercial uses of monolithic domes, you don’t have to travel far from the Lookout Mountain area. The world’s largest-diameter monolithic dome church, Faith Chapel Christian Center, is located in Birmingham, Ala. The church built its first dome, a 280-foot-diameter facility with seating for 3,000, in 2000. The congregation added six more domes, ranging from 144 to 164 feet in diameter, in 2008.[/s2If]