HOME IN A DOME
Energy savings and unique appearance are a few of the angles to consider
By SUSAN MARTIN
News Home & Style Editor
Photos by Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News
The windows have a unique shape and remain uncovered, allowing ample light to flood the dome home of George Gertz and Sharon Kelly.
As George Gertz tells it, when he and Sharon Kelly were first married, she said to him: "I want you to build me a home."
Today he tells her: "I thought you said, "I want you to build me a dome.' "
Which is exactly what the couple did on five acres of land in Marilla almost 10 years ago.
Geodesic homes have been around for decades, and there are others in the area, but the spherical shape and triangular construction still make passers-by wonder if the beings living inside could possibly have antennas growing out of their heads.
The concept is alien, even if the homeowners are not.
In this case, Kelly is a partner in Hodgson Russ, a Buffalo law firm. Gertz, who acted as main contractor during construction, worked in the printing industry for 30 years and now is a kitchen designer for Kitchen and Bath Unlimited, Cheektowaga.
Dome homes had been on Gertz's mind since high school, when he learned about them in a mechanical drawing class.
"I always dreamed not to just own one but to build one," he said.
They even had the spot to build. Gertz already owned the land on which the dome now sits (actually, the two domes; the attached three-car garage also is a dome.)
And Gertz, who took two years off from work to complete the project, had the time - as did his good friend, Ron Zimpfer, a now-retired industrial arts teacher who had the summer off.
Those who are attracted to dome homes like their unique look (including walls that are triangular or curved); open floor plan; high multiangled ceilings; triangular skylights, and energy efficiency.
Mechanical engineer/syndicated newspaper columnist James Dulley has written about the advantages of geodesic domes.
"The spherical shape of a dome home provides the greatest indoor living space with the least exterior wall/roof area. Since the amount of heat loss during the winter (heat gain during the summer) is directly related to the amount of exterior wall area, dome homes are inherently energy efficient," he wrote in one of his columns.
For example, Kelly and Gertz have gas heating, but they actually heat mostly using the wood stove in their living room. Gertz said they went through five cords of wood last winter (he cuts the wood himself) and spent less than $600 in heating bills.
Domes also are structurally sound and have been known to withstand tornadoes.
"The geodesic design is unique in that once it is completely assembled, the exterior of the structure is self-supporting. With the smooth circular exterior, winds pass smoothly over the exterior without creating strong pressure differences from side to side. This is why they survive storms," wrote Dulley, noting that dome homes also do not have to be contemporary or futuristic-looking.
Non-dome room extensions with large vertical windows, sun rooms, etc. can produce any exterior homeowners desire.
Kelly and Gertz designed the dome's interior themselves and sent their drawings off to a California architect who specializes in dome design. The plan then had to be approved by a New York architect before Gertz and Kelly could get a building permit.
The main structure was built from a kit the couple ordered from a California company, Timberline Geodesics. The kit - which included 2-by-6 struts and metal hubs for the framework, precut plywood sheathing for the shell and windows - arrived on a flat-bed truck, with all the pieces color-coded for ease of assembly. The kit, including 22 plexiglass windows, cost $35,000.
"The pieces fit together much like giant tinker toys," said Kelly, describing how the wooden struts that form the basic triangular sections of the dome are easily bolted to the steel connectors to form the structural framework.
Kelly compares the process to a good, old-fashioned barn-raising, because they had so many people helping out - many of them volunteers from the Marilla Fire Department.
Gertz is a volunteer firefighter, former fire chief and owner of a 1954 hook-and-ladder truck, 1932 pumper and a 1974 Cadillac ambulance - stored in a non-domed 2,150 square-foot barn that serves as his workshop. He also is a Harley enthusiast, town councilman and a collector of firefighting memorabilia, such as the red hydrant that sits in the living room.
Although the couple contracted out the plumbing, electrical, asphalt, foundation and plasterboard work, the bulk of the manual work was done by friends, neighbors and family.
"We never knew who would show up on the weekends, and they all knew how to do this stuff," said Kelly, saying she has learned that this barn-raising mentality is a big part of country life.
There have been adjustments. Acoustics can be a problem in dome homes. It's loud when rain hits the plexiglass windows, for example.
And the couple also had to get used to the fact that when the TV is on in the living room, it is louder in the kitchen and upstairs bedroom than in the actual room, for example.
"We live in surround sound," said Kelly.
Furthermore, they have not decided how to cover any of the windows - or if they even want to.
And because a dome is still considered an unusual structure, getting a bank loan can be difficult, they said.
Cost-wise, Gertz said he figures they spent about the same as they would have building a conventional 2,100 square foot home. The main reason: Because of the shape of the place, he bought more materials - more ceramic tile, for example - than he would have in a traditional home.
Standard formulas of measuring don't apply, so you have a lot of waste, he said.
And, while they did not have too much trouble, it can be a challenge to place furniture and install cabinets because the walls are not flat.
In the kitchen, for example, one bank of cabinets hangs on a multiangled section of wall.
"I shimmied it out and added a piece of filler," Gertz explained.
And special interiors call for special things: You have to choose furniture and accessories that work with the shape of the interior, but you also want to choose things that are as unusual as the space.
"You definitely put an onus on yourself," Kelly said.
That's life. In a dome.
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