An Important Revisit: Monolithic’s First Fertilizer Storage Plant

Finished metal exterior.

What a difference! This Monolithic fertilizer storage dome now sparkles and shines and will continue doing so for many, many years.

Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Knowing that a Monolithic Dome would make an ideal fertilizer storage, in 1978 I sent information to a fertilizer magazine. They wrote an article, featuring the Monolithic Dome as a new product, and I received a call from Bill Matthews in Chandler, Oklahoma.

A Monolithic Dome on U.S. Route 66

Bill wanted a fertilizer storage dome on a site just off America’s famous highway—U.S. Route 66. We designed it with a diameter of 75 feet, a height of 28 feet, and six storage bins surrounding a central work area.

Bill ran a fertilizer blend plant. Each of the bins contained a different chemical product, such as nitrogen, potash, phosphate, etc. In his central work area, Bill blended these to suit a farm’s specific fertilizer needs. Of course, Bill got ribbed about working surrounded by fertilizer, but the ribbing was undeserved. The odors generated by his products were chemical, not organic.

Because each inside bin wall had to have the strength to withstand the compression of fertilizer on its sides, we built those walls twenty feet high and sprayed them with concrete, using a technique called single-side forming.

Fertilizer blend plant in 1978.

In 1978, the first Monolithic Dome fertilizer blend plant was constructed in Chandler, Oklahoma. It has a diameter of 75 feet and a height of 38 feet and is still in use today.

Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

And as was our practice in those early days, once the shell was completed, we removed the airform and applied a coating over the urethane foam to protect it. That airform removal eventually became the reason for our revisit.

Thirty-some years later

One day last year, Nelda Matthews, Bill’s wife, called me with sad news: Bill had died. And she had another reason for that call. Their fertilizer storage dome, while still operational, was looking very bad. The coating put over the shell after the airform was removed did not protect the foam. Instead, the coating decayed and fell apart. Over the years, Bill had purchased a re-coating and even had some concrete applied. Those measures really didn’t help.

Old and rough exterior.

During the 33 years that followed the dome’s construction, its coating deteriorated. In those early days, Airforms were removed instead of remaining on the shell, and a coating was applied over the foam to protect it. Monolithic soon learned that coatings do not protect the foam as well as an Airform can and does.

Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

First layer of metal shingles.

In 2011, Monolithic was asked to clean and repair the dome’s surface. Monolithic did a modest cleaning, repaired the bad spots and began applying metal cladding. Beginning with the bottom layer, workers fastened sheets of stainless steel over the dome.

Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The metal exterior in progress.

Applying flat sheets of stainless onto a round building does create some crinkling, but all things considered the process went well.

Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Metal covering of blend plant.

Had it been left uncovered for much longer, the urethane foam would have suffered far more serious problems.

Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Now Nelda asked if we could do something to improve the looks of this dome. I suggested applying metal shingles over the building. Because fertilizer really likes to eat metal, we decided on a light gauge of tough stainless steel. After a modest cleaning and the removal of some of the concrete patches, we completely covered this dome. It now stands like a proud new jewel on historic Route 66!

Nelda and her daughters continue operating their business. They also plan to have us build a large Monolithic Dome retail store near their fertilizer storage.

Fertilizer blend plant off of Route 66.

Tourists driving on historic US Highway Route 66 can readily see that sparkling dome. Future plans include the construction of a large Monolithic Dome store where folks can buy all kinds of supplies.

Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The rest of the story

In 1978, that dome was a new technology that surprised more than one driver down Route 66. As we worked, we often heard cars slamming on their brakes. The owner of the concrete plant we dealt with visited our construction site almost daily. He watched, helped and got involved. Once we finished, he said, “You know, you guys about broke me this year. I spent so much time over here, watching what you were doing that I forgot I had a business of my own to run.”

Two other incidents: a Bad and a Good

The Bad

As we worked on Bill Matthews’ fertilizer storage, two other significant incidents occurred. The first was bad, so its primary character shall remain Nameless. One day, a man I had met as a builder of small, experimental domes bopped through the airlock of Bill’s dome. With a wild look in his eyes, he stomped around the dome, examining its walls. He said, “I didn’t think you could spray concrete that smooth.”

Then Nameless told me he had just built a sixty-foot diameter dome as his home that he would like me to see. Once I got there, I immediately saw what the problem was: He had not learned how to handle concrete. An array of major and minor imperfections, including holes and hollows, peppered his walls. He finally covered most of them by spraying the inside surfaces with K-13.

But neither poor technique, nor a lack of business principles, stopped Nameless from selling his technology and his domes to others. He completed a couple, collected big up-front fees for a couple of others, started those buildings, and then disappeared. I began getting calls asking me if I knew where Nameless was.

One man said, “I haven’t seen Nameless in more than a year.”

“How much is done?” I asked.

“The foam and rebar are in place,” he replied. “Now I’m just baby-sitting the fans, making sure the dome doesn’t collapse.”

The stories I heard were really sad, and I always tried to come up with some solution, so those folks could get their domes done. Still later, I learned Nameless had built a dome car wash. Its owner asked me to come and inspect it. The workmanship was a mess. It was not a dome but a conglomeration of weird spherical sections, some of which were held up by wood posts. The owner, wisely, did not finish the inside. A few months later it caved in during a rainstorm.

The last I heard, Nameless had moved to another state and had started selling other items. Maybe he had found his niche. He liked playing the Big Shot but didn’t like getting his hands dirty. At any rate, I wish him the best.

The Good

While we were finishing Bill’s storage in Chandler, Oklahoma, he received a load of fertilizer trucked over from Catoosa. The Port of Catoosa, near Tulsa, is a large inland port on the upper reach of the Arkansas River. It calls itself, “Oklahoma’s Waterway to the World.”

Apparently, news of the domes in Chandler got carried to Catoosa—particularly to the OK Grain Company, which had a facility there that used barges to ship grain out and bring fertilizer in. OK Grain bought a Monolithic Dome, but before we could leave for Catoosa to build it, they bought a second one—then a third. OK Grain actually had us build seven domes, each for the storage of a different product.

That was a big project that increased our knowledge of and skills in this new technology. We learned, for example, that you can spray concrete too fast or put too much on at one time and cause a structural collapse. That costly experience taught us that we not only had to know how much concrete to spray per day, but we had to know how much to apply during any one application.

Nevertheless, Catoosa significantly benefited us. The tugboat and barge pilots who visited Catoosa talked about its domes at other ports. Before long, we had Monolithic Domes on most major rivers—the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Columbia, Tom Bigbee and others.

This story republished from The President’s Sphere blog.

Port of Catoosa domes.

Five of seven Monolithic Domes built on the Port of Catoosa, Oklahoma.

Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0