A valuable lesson in surviving Mother Nature at her worst

I’ve often been . . . not surprised;  astonished would be a better description . . . by the number of people who build homes out in the country and then complain bitterly when the realities of country living intrude on their ‘citified’ expectations.  A good example is a family that builds a McMansion near a farm (particularly something like a pig farm), then complains that the smells make their lives miserable.  What did they expect – eau de Cologne?  Another is people who build a traditional frame-and-siding or log-cabin style home in an area prone to wildfires, then bitch and moan after a fire comes along and destroys their property.  It’s a known risk in many areas, but they seem to feel as if Mother Nature has personally targeted them with malice aforethought.  I’ve even heard of cases where families threatened to sue local fire departments or state firefighting authorities for failing to protect their property.

However, occasionally one reads of someone who has the right approach, and builds to suit his environment.  One such report comes to us this week courtesy of ABC News.

John Belles said he was prepared for the inevitability of a wildfire when he built his thin-shelled, concrete dome in 1999 surrounded by dry fields in Okanogan County.

Earlier this week, Belles just happened to be working 30 miles out of town when he received a voicemail from a friend warning him about a fire approaching his home, he told ABC News today.

After shuttling three vehicles off his property, Belles said he realized he had to hurry as the fire was only a couple hundred yards away.

. . .

β€œI grabbed the hose, soaked my clothing down and doused the north side of the building as much as I could. [The fire] got close enough that it was super heated and getting uncomfortable out there in the smoke. I went inside, shut the door behind me and watched it move by.”

Belles said he waited out the flames for about a minute as the fire passed by his home.

β€œThe fire just roared across my property. I could see the flames dancing up over the windows,” Belles said.

The only damage sustained was a service pole, which resulted in a loss of power.

There’s more at the link, including a photograph of the smoke-stained (but otherwise undamaged) home.

Well done, Mr. Belles!  That’s the way to do it.  I wish there were more homeowners like you – and I bet your local fire department will now use you and your home as poster children in how to build in fire-prone country.

Here’s a video report from Oklahoma about another dome home that survived a fire there four years ago.

Monolithic domes are not only largely fireproof;  they’re also very resistant to earthquakes, and to severe weather such as tornadoes and hurricanes.  I saw several that survived direct hits from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Louisiana, virtually undamaged.  According to Wikipedia, ‘the US Federal Emergency Management Agency rates them as “near-absolute protection” from F5 tornadoes and Category 5 Hurricanes’.  I believe it.  Those I saw often had garages in the form of a second, smaller dome next to the primary residence, connected by a concrete-covered walkway, making the entire complex completely fireproof.  (The biggest had three domes:  a big residence in the center, a smaller garage on the left, and a similar-sized dome for a workshop, “man cave” and guest quarters on the right.  It was a pretty sweet setup.)

If I ever build a home in an area exposed to such hazards, I’ll look very hard indeed at a monolithic dome design.  It makes an awful lot of sense, particularly if one puts a cupola on top of the dome to let in more light.  To cap it all (you should pardon the expression), it’s no more expensive to build than a conventional house, and sometimes even cheaper.  As for the ‘disadvantage’ of living in a round building, that’s no disadvantage at all, IMHO.  I’ve spent plenty of nights in traditional African mud huts, all of them round.  One simply adjusts one’s expectations to fit the building.



  1. This happens every fricking year in California: wildfires start up, homes burn down. It hits the news every year, too: "oh, those poor people lost their homes". As if it is somehow a surprise that California has wildfires.

    Insurance ought to be the key: I don't understand why any company is willing to provide insurance on a building that is not either fireproof or else a minimum distance from the nearest woods or brush.

    Here's an example: you can see that the house was actually built in amongst the trees. What do these people expect?

  2. Oh, the "move in to an area an then start complaining about defining characteristics" pattern isn't limited to the country. Not by a damn sight. I live near New Hope PA, and have worked there on and off. The town is a party town, and has been since before WWI. Yet, every year I hear about some new homeowner who bought a house near on of the town's (moderately notorious) bars, and is now complaining about noise.

    Such people should be rounded up for their own good, and moved in to the nearest State Home for the Bewildered. They are too stupid to live.

  3. Don't the round houses have some weird acoustic effects? The geodesic domes do and any room with a curved wall will.

    I worked in a room with a curved wall opposite another curved wall and the acoustics were very unpleasant.


  4. Acoustics do get a bit interesting… πŸ™‚ Other than that, those are smart folks. Building to suit the area IS a common sense measure, sadly seldom seen these days.

  5. Built and lived in a 2-story 20-sided polygon (yurt). (The Geodesic dome idea didn't pan out.) Loved it! We didn't have problems with acoustics but that may be because it was a stick-frame and Hubby was a musician, so wall and speaker size-n-placement were considered.

    Waking up in the middle of the night the first really ugly wind-storm was interesting. There was a booming percussion sound on the side of the house opposite the wind. Got up to check it out, the big old walnut tree was bent almost double. Whenever the top would touch the ground the booming sound would happen. Hubby decided it was the wind slapping back together as it rushed around the house.

  6. Good luck getting financing or trying to sell it… the one down side is that they cannot run "comps" (comparables) on a geo-dome and the buyer won't get financing… at least that's problem as I understand it. It's a shame, those things are awesome, wish I lived in one…

  7. I remember reading a book by a visionary Iranian architect named Nader Khalil, who had noticed that the village bake oven was often the only structure surviving an earthquake. He worked out a method of buildind ceramic domes using adobe bricks laid with a fusible mortar. There were flues at the top and vents at the base.

    A burner was then placed in a ground level opening and the entire structure was fired; first slowly drying it then hotter to hard fire the bricks and fuse the mortar. The fired bricks were at that point impervious to water, and were bonded together by the fused mortar which had become a monolithic membrane. Arches and other openings ere formed by building the form in unmortared and then knocking it out once the firing was done. Glazes could be used ornamentally or to provide smooth interior surfaces.

    He suggested using them for granaries as well as homes, with the idea that if vermin got in, you could remove the contents and set up the burner again to cleanly exterminate the critters.


  8. I seriously looked into Monolithic Domes – which are not at all the same in structure as a geodesic dome, by the way – a few years back. They are quite expensive to finish. The structural cost may be comparable to a brick and board home, but the interior must be all custom built because of the curved walls. I also looked at Oehler houses, which are promising. Partly underground, but engineered to avoid drainage problems. I know I'll likely never build my dream house, but sometimes it's fun to sit and draw plans!

  9. We've a friend here in Montana with a concrete home. It looks like a (fairly) typical house but the walls are a foot thick. They built it because of fires. When a fire swept through the area their house was deemed the most defensible spot and the fire crews set up camp in their front field. Still a nice house, just not as new as all those others rebuilt after the fire.

    A guy outside of Julian, CA didn't build with concrete but built a 10k gallon water tank on the hill above his house with lines feeding sprinklers on his roof and under the eaves. When the 2003 Cedar Fire came through he opened the valve and skedaddled. 2280 other houses burned.

  10. The year before Katrina hit, I was running a research ship in the Gulf. I had a crewmember from Guam join us. After his first trip, by auto, along the Gulf coast he remarked, "Why are all the houses made of wood. In Guam, only poor people live in houses made of wood."

    In Guam, they have Cat 5 Typhoons sit on them for days. In Mississippi in 2004, I noticed they had built new houses, south of Hwy 90, with slab foundations. Oh and if you looked down the road, you could see the Gulf and the houses built on pilings. None survived Katrina's flooding.

  11. Yup, financing can be a challenge. Our solution was built as we had cash. Living in a construction project can get tiresome, however.

    The biggest hurdle was the property appraisers office. How you can get 5000 sq ft out of a 40' diameter building is some amazing math skills. We had to explain pi-R-squared more than once. And you can not tax me for the non-existing second floor above the living room and dining rooms (cathedral ceilings) or the open sitting area upstairs. Bathrooms and balconies aren't taxable either but we gave them those once they figured out pi-R-squared.

  12. After growing up in Northern Illinois tornado alley I took a serious look at earth berm and complete underground homes. Nestled into the ground, the heating and cooling load is vastly less than a conventional free standing home, and the place is effectively impervious to tornado force winds. Biggest issues revolve around moisture, air flow, and access to natural light.

  13. Judy, I grew up in a construction project. *grin* Additions, renovations, new construction, the works. Dad's house is now one of, if not *the* most valuable home in the "village" I toddled around in.

    I now have a renovation project of my own in town. Apple/tree… *chuckle*

  14. Nadir Khalili also designed the domes made from stacked sandbags with barbed wire between the courses of bags. Then 'stuccoed' surface to protect from the elements. This was for a U.N. type of project to help refugees build shelter where they were having only minimal experience and supplies. Just supply your own labor after the bags and wire were delivered. Hesperia California I think was where these ideas originated from, Khalili was originally from Iran I think.

    Furnishings are challenging – most install their seating sleeping on the inside to provide more head room. Low tables / dressers along the outside perimeter. Installing fabric wall covering helps alleviate the acoustics.

  15. I would say that in a few years, these types of buildings will be able to be built (both inside and out) by 3D cement printers.

  16. It took a bit of convincing, but hubby finally agreed. If we ever have the funds to build our own house we'll be building a dome of some kind. Likely covering the exterior with a stone (or fake stone) shell, for the sake of looks. Acoustics can be dealt with and fixed as long as you're willing to spend the time on doing so!

  17. Also goes the ever popular, "buys near the airport for the good price and convenience… then complains about the noise and the heavy traffic." Class freaking action suits have been WON over this crap. Yep, too stupid to live. And when the solution is… more patience, and headphones when you sleep at night. As a former night walker, (the noise of the waking world when you are trying to sleep is a joy to behold, but there are definite ways to cope) I have little sympathy.

    I wonder if train people have suffered from this? Fortunately for them, it is hard to know who to sue. …Isn't it? I may as well have sued my employer for hiring me on night shift! Um… Tell me that hasn't happened!

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