‘Earth-sheltered’ dwelling rising

When finished, home will blend into hillside

The steel dome on this home under construction on West Third Avenue will be covered by earth, plantings, and natural vegetation when completed – part of the “green roof” concept. “(Getting a building permit) wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, but I suppose that’s the case for everyone,” said owner Amanda D’Aleo. “And now the city can collect property taxes on it.” Enlarge photo

DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald

The steel dome on this home under construction on West Third Avenue will be covered by earth, plantings, and natural vegetation when completed – part of the “green roof” concept. “(Getting a building permit) wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, but I suppose that’s the case for everyone,” said owner Amanda D’Aleo. “And now the city can collect property taxes on it.”

Is there a new planetarium coming to Durango? Or an IMAX theater?

In the 2000 block of West Third Avenue, near the intersection with Montview Parkway, a dome-like structure is rising from the dust.

The semispherical framework, made of heavy steel beams, soon will be the dwelling of Jon and Amanda D’Aleo. The company behind the project, Formworks Building Inc., specializes in “sustainable, earth-sheltered” housing that is energy-efficient and nearly impervious to the elements.

Formworks has constructed about 2,000 buildings across the United States and Canada, and by Christmas, the D’Aleos hope to be living in one of their own.

At present, the skeletal edifice appears more exotic than renderings of the final design suggest. If anything, the blueprints look quite ordinary.

In coming weeks, the dome will disappear. A patchwork of rebar will fortify the space between the larger, curved beams – Amanda D’Aleo says it temporarily will look like a “jungle gym” – and gaps will be plugged with a 4-inch thick “shotcrete” (concrete shot through a high-velocity hose).

The excavated earth then will be backfilled to cover the dome, and a conventional wooden facade, complete with windows, will be attached to the front. From the street, the finished structure will fit right in alongside its more traditional neighbors.

Unorthodox, eco-friendly architecture runs in the family. Amanda D’Aleo’s parents live nearby in a home of similar design. Her father, Dale Pearcey, founded Formworks in 1979 after a decade of international turmoil – notably the 1973 oil embargo and 1979 Iranian Revolution – had caused fuel prices to skyrocket. In response, Pearcey began designing dwellings with an emphasis on self-sufficiency.

Amanda D’Aleo said Formworks buildings can slash heating and cooling costs by 90 percent through a process called the thermal flywheel effect. The thick layers of concrete and earth surrounding the dome act as an insulator, neutralizing dramatic temperature fluctuations.

She recalled the story of a Pagosa Springs man who left town on an overseas trip one winter. During his absence, a severe snowstorm left residents scrambling to stay warm. Fearing frozen and burst pipes, the man returned to find his dwelling in pristine shape. The only difference was the indoor temperature: It had fallen from 70 to 67 degrees.

On the opposite end of the weather spectrum, D’Aleo also spoke of a dome home near Los Angeles that emerged unscathed after a wildfire gutted all 10 of its neighbors.

“You want your house to be a safe place,” she said. “This is safe.”

The D’Aleos purchased the property from La Plata County four years ago. Unable to decide on a use for the awkward parcel, the county subdivided it into five lots and sold them at a silent auction. The D’Aleos and Pearcey were the sole bidders, offering $10 more than the asking price of $100,000.

Amanda D’Aleo said underground homes are often misunderstood by the general public. Far from being a damp, gloomy cave, the designs include large windows and a ventilation system to keep air fresh.

“People think you open a hatch and go down into a storm cellar. They’ll say, ‘How do you get sunlight to shine through the dirt?’ I respond, ‘How do you get sunlight to shine through your shingles?’ It doesn’t. We have windows,” she said.

Nevertheless, Formworks construction sites have evoked more than a few quizzical looks and wisecracks from passers-by over the years, including some Lord of the Rings comparisons.

“We hear lots of (Hobbit hole) comments,” she said. “Some of our clients have even wanted the round doors out front. But we can’t do that here (in the city limits). We have to conform.”

lgroskopf@durangoherald.com

Kenny Meredith bolts together the steel frame. Enlarge photo

DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald

Kenny Meredith bolts together the steel frame.

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