Guest Post by Collin Vickers
Kyle Yoder, self-taught builder extraordinaire, uses science and ingenuity to turn others’ trash into his own treasure.
Kyle’s visionary experiment, the Gnome Dome, is arguably the most unique abode at Dancing Rabbit Eco-village. Orphaned by its prior owner and condemned to destruction due to a gnarly mold infestation, the Dome was nearly demolished several years ago, but Kyle recognized great potential in the structure and convinced the village to let him solve its problems. Now it stands as a testament to how, with a little tender loving care, even the most humble of experimental tiny houses can evolve to become a beautiful marriage of mad science and aesthetic brilliance.
The Dome’s walls, resting on a gravel foundation, are comprised of polypropylene bags that are filled with a road base mixture of gravel and sand. These bags are laid in courses atop one another like bricks, the highest courses being laid in ever tightening concentric rings to form a vaulted dome. The Gnome Dome might be more accurately described as an igloo in shape, with an arched, tunnel-like foyer at the threshold that was erected with the aid of a temporary wooden frame. All told, the inside measures a scant 80 square feet, making it an excellent model of a cozy hermitage. In future years, Kyle will terrace the outside of the building and cover it with earth to be planted as a living roof. The structure is made almost entirely with recycled and reclaimed materials, giving it an out-of-pocket expense of only $3000, not counting the sweat equity Kyle has invested throughout the construction process to elevate mundane constituent parts into stunning works of art.
When Kyle inherited the building it was prone to mold growth due to moisture wicking up and into the building from the soil surrounding and underlying the foundation, so he set out to make a few necessary improvements. First he installed an interior moisture barrier, which he then overlaid with rigid foam insulation. Due to the curvaceous contours of the building, there were no straight lines or right angles to work with. When it came time to apply the finished façade of wainscoting, each piece had to be specially measured and cut. Above the wainscoting, where the walls blend seamlessly with the domed ceiling, he applied earthen plaster and a white lime wash to maximize the light-reflective properties of the surface.
The final key to solving the interior moister problem for the Gnome Dome was in the ventilation mechanism Kyle chose to use. His custom masonry mass-heater has a dual purpose chimney – in winter it works as you would expect of a chimney, but in the summer in can be fitted with an electric fan that will draw air in through the subfloor intake and send it out through the chimney flue, effectively cooling the house even on the hottest summer days. In winter, with the aid of a hand-operated flue-damper plate, hot air can be directed through a secondary chimney pathway that circuits underneath the bed. This warms the space evenly and maximally exploits heat energy from each wood fire that is burned to heat the structure, before gasses are exhausted outside.
A two-ply acrylic dome is the building’s crown jewel, which acts as a skylight at all times of year. The windows are made of corrugated plastic conduit used in road culverts, which were inlaid amongst the earth bags in the early days of construction. The front door is a one-of-a-kind feature as well, crafted by a local carpenter from recycled timber and outfitted with an iron latch and hinges hand-forged by a neighboring blacksmith.
“One of my favorite things about the building is the dome,” Kyle told me with a wry smile, “but it works at odds with the principles of passive solar design. Because the dome is inset in the center of the roof, it’s too high to let in sunlight during the winter, and in the summertime the dome acts as a direct segue for the noonday sun. It does the opposite of what I want it to do, but it’s beautiful, and a crucial source of light in an otherwise dim space.”
Now that he and his wife Sarah are married, Kyle makes his residence elsewhere while a larger homestead is under construction, but he rents out the Dome to eco-tourists who come to Dancing Rabbit Eco-village every year in order to learn how to live a more sustainable life as awareness grows of anthropogenic climate disruption. One strategy used by community members to reduce their ecological impact is to share resources like cooking and bathing facilities, for which reason the Gnome Dome has been designed without a kitchen and bathroom. Formerly supplied with a solar panel array of its own, the Gnome Dome is now connected to the local power grid. An outlet cleverly disguised in the built-in desk provides the occupant with a handy place to plug in a lamp and a laptop.
“I think the Gnome Dome is an excellent example of how construction can be a highly accessible discipline, even to people with no experience, and still be extremely difficult to master,” Kyle told me when I asked what advice he would give to those who want to experiment with construction in their own way, using recycled materials. “The original builder was a novice, and so he did not account for the moisture problems the structure would encounter, but nonetheless the framework he achieved was nigh bomb-proof. I learned a lot about construction by having to creatively address the problems inherent to the building when I bought it. So, accessibility comes at the price of mistakes that have to be dealt with.”
Sometimes those mistakes are what artists call happy accidents, like the tracery of paw prints strewn across the Gnome Dome’s earthen floor, left behind while the cob was still wet by Kyle’s feline friend, Providence Sunday. “I thought about plastering them over,” Kyle recalled with a chuckle, “but the first tenant insisted they are one of the coolest things about the space, so instead of covering them, I decided to feature them prominently.”
If you want to visit Dancing Rabbit Eco-Village and see the Gnome Dome for yourself, (along with all of the other amazing projects members are undertaking to develop a way of life that is more in harmony with the planet,) now would be a perfect time to scope out the schedule for the community’s annual Visitor Program. You might even be able to rent the Gnome Dome during your stay through AirBNB – Kyle would love to have you!