Back when their children were just kids and Beverly and Kenneth Garcia took family vacations, they discovered beautiful New Hope, Alabama. “We were then living in Mississippi, but we fell in love with the New Hope area,” Bev said. “It’s gorgeous up here — the mountains and the lake and we like to fly fish.” Then and there Ken and Bev decided that when they retired, they would relocate to New Hope.
In the years that followed, the kids grew up, their parents became very interested in sustainable living, and Hurricane Katrina happened. Bev said, “Our Mississippi home had a basement that came in handy when we had a hurricane. But, we thought, why are we waiting? We can go ahead and move now. So we found a property and that set the wheels in motion.”
Sweet Dome Alabama
It’s on a large piece of acreage, outside the city limits and on the side of a mountain. “We had to build a road coming up that we had to pave twice,” Bev said. “We knew there was a possibility that the heavy equipment and trucks would destroy it, and they did. It’s a beautiful driveway with switchbacks and really fun to go up and down, but getting it was a challenge.”
In August 2008, the Airform for the Garcias tri-dome went up that driveway. Although constructed using only one Airform, Sweet Dome Alabama has three, distinct but interconnected sections.
The largest section, 48-feet in diameter by 18-feet tall, is the dome-home. It connects to the smallest section, 22-feet in diameter by 11-feet tall, which is a utility area with a closet, two geothermal HVAC systems, and a Rinnai tankless hot water system. That small, middle section connects to the 28-foot diameter by 14-foot tall carport. The total interior area is 2,700 square feet.
A gracious, open center, that includes kitchen, dining and living areas, dominates the dome-home. Bev said, “I designed with the curve of the dome. The center is open and really roomy. In times past, I always noted that when you entertained everybody always gathered in the kitchen. So I wanted it to be natural for people to gather there. Everything follows the curve - even our granite countertops. I chose granite because it could be cut to fit the curve. I didn’t want a lot of 90-degree angles.”
Because ready-made products are made to fit into rectangular structures, designing with the curve can be challenging. “I compensated by doing things like setting the microwave into an interior pantry wall,” Bev said.
Instead of leaving the kitchen overhead area open, the Garcias installed a drop ceiling, that makes it look like they have a loft. But they don’t. The space between the drop ceiling and the dome ceiling holds the central air duct equipment and gas lines.
A hallway wraps around the central living area that leads to two bedrooms, an office/guest room, and two full bathrooms.
Bev said that she and Ken didn’t want anything to compete with the dome’s natural look, so they did not cover the concrete floor. Instead, they had it acid stained in shades of brown. Walls were done in tones of light brown — some khaki and some green. Many of the decorative fixtures are icy black or bronze.
Regardless of the weather, the dome’s interior comfort is easily maintained with a renewable air system that pulls fresh air in to replace the stale air. It has a heat exchange that matches the temperature of the incoming air to that of the dome’s interior and prevents loss of heat or coolness.
Sweet Dome Alabama’s exterior Airform was covered with a Quikrete Stucco product in a charcoal gray that compliments the mountain the dome was built against. Bev said, “We hired a team and worked with them on the exterior stucco finish. That product has fibers in it, and it has to be carefully mixed and the color added.”
The Garcias took the time to look for reliable subcontractors and workers. “We found people we could work with, side-by-side,” Bev said. “Ken worked very closely with the people who did the framing.”
According to Bev, their subcontractors and workers all made lots of comments about how different it was to work on a dome. But many took pictures and brought their spouses and friends back to see Sweet Dome Alabama.
New Hope is located in Madison County, an area that has had houses slide off the mountain, so building codes are strictly enforced. Bev said, “When I went in with the plans that Monolithic did they would not accept them. Monolithic helped us find an engineer who could stamp the plans.
"Then an on-site engineering study that had to do with the kind of septic system that was best at our site had to be done. The dirt here did not perk, so we opted for what’s called a Hoot System. It’s an aerobic system with three chambers. It does not use chemicals. Waste is broken down by air bubbles. It’s about 14 feet long. We had to have a rock breaker chip down into the rock to make a place for this system. We couldn’t just dig it out with a hoe.”
A stormy follow-up
[Note: We added this follow-up to the story in the stormy aftermath of April 27, 2011.]
A vicious, rain-wrapped tornado hit towns very close to New Hope. “We didn’t have a direct hit here in our neighborhood, but there was extreme devastation just a few miles down the road,” Bev said. “That tornado threw debris into New Hope from miles away. We found mail addressed to folks living 60 to 80 miles away.
"A friend had a stuffed toy monkey, that was frozen solid, drop down in front of him. At our house, we found roof shingles that we knew were not ours and lots of pink and yellow insulation. It covered the dome and made it look like it was growing hair. All that came from miles away.
According to official records, New Hope is in a high-risk area for tornadoes. In 1974 an F5 killed 28 people and injured 272. In 2010 more than 20 tornadoes tore through the area.
That tornado history and the potential for more is just one more reason that Bev and Ken are glad to be in Sweet Dome Alabama.
Note: For more information on the water and septic systems, the HVAC, and the energy recovery ventilator, please see Ken’s article: Sweet Dome Alabama: Some Technical Comments.