The first dirt has been moved to make way for our dome home! What does it mean to break ground, and what’s next? Read on for the update from Freestone, if you can “bear” it.
Though there were no people in suits and hardhats with shiny shovels, our ground-breaking was totally momentous. There was something moving about watching the excavator dig out the first scoop of earth early in the morning, with the mountains peering over the trees from our partially cleared future view.
That first scoop was taken in the name of “potholing.” That’s what the excavator called digging a sample trench to determine the depth where we’ll hit rocks and what to expect from those rocks. Soft rock can be dug through. Hard rock takes special equipment to remove.
For context: before we made our offer on this land, we invested in a geotechnical drill test to confirm that our chosen home-site was buildable, i.e., not on a sinkhole, since there’s a significant sinkhole in the forest downhill from here. The drill test indicated the opposite: a solid sandstone shelf (or several boulders acting like a rock shelf) 5-7′ under the surface.
With our plans for a walk-out basement, we’re hearing there are a few ways to deal with a rock shelf, foundation-wise:
- If it’s soft enough, excavate the rock to a desired depth with regular equipment.
- If the rock is very hard, excavate it with special equipment (pricey).
- Balance the site: dig down just to the rock shelf and raise up the lower side of the foundation footprint with fill dirt.
Solution 3 would make the dome taller, which we actually like because it means a better view of the mountains. However, the cons of a taller house include lower disaster resistance and higher temperature loss/energy inefficiency.
As predicted, the potholing revealed serious rock at 5′, but the excavator was able to break some of it. It seems to be porous, which is good news: solid enough to support a house but possibly soft enough to dig into without blowing our budget on excavation.
The drill test did show that our soil compaction (which determines the amount of weight your soil can support) is ideal for a home. We chose a good spot.
We’ll decide in the next couple weeks whether to dig down, build tall, or do a little of both.
General Contractor (GC)
General contractors are the symphony conductors of a build, using their vast expertise and contacts to bring labor and materials together on an agreed timeline.
We considered saving money by conducting our own symphony. After all, we love research, talking to people, working deals, and aren’t afraid to write contracts. But with full-time jobs and no home-building experience, we worried about making the kinds of mistakes that would negate cost savings and cause delays. The sooner we have a livable space on Freestone, the sooner we can stop paying rent to live elsewhere.
We’re grateful that a GC we like and respect has agreed to work with us on portions of the project where we need him most, like the foundation, which has to be perfect. We want to be highly involved and even handle the less intimidating parts, so one reason we like him is that he’s collaborative. He isn’t wed to doing the job “turnkey” (viewing the entire project as one piece, all or nothing).
He’s powerfully detail-oriented and asks a ton of questions. He likes the idea of working on a non-rectilinear home and has created round structures in the past.
(Almost every contractor we’ve spoken or worked with so far has been completely fine with non-traditional buildings, debunking one of the concerns we had when we decided to build a dome.)
How did we find him? He was one of the references for our driveway- and now barn-building crew. Chris was interested in working with him from their first conversation, though at that time, we were preparing to do the project sans general contractor.
In the next few weeks, we saw that the driveway crew was professional and responsive, which reflected well on their references. At the same time, we’d begun to believe some aspects of home-building would be hopelessly complicated without the help of an expert. We gathered a few other GC contacts through word of mouth, but nobody else was as astute.
When our GC let us know that, despite his heavy schedule, he’d work with us this fall, it was like winning a pageant. He and other contractors are swamped right now with the post-wildfire building boom.
We kicked off the process with homework: replace the little neon flags we planted at our building site back in December with a more carefully measured set of stakes and string. This footprint shows exactly where we envision our home sitting on the hill.
Chris cleared the smaller trees that were smack-dab in our future view, and we spent a few evenings gazing at the Smokies through the trees until we figured it out.
We’re excited about the potholing but even more excited about excavating the domesite and laying the foundation, because our…
Dome Kit Is on the Way
In mid-August, we signed off on our dome blueprints and began preparations to receive the dome kit in mid-September.
This meant hiring a crew with equipment to safely transport huge concrete triangles up a bumpy, 1/2-mile gravel driveway within the 3-hour window included in the price of shipping. We have to [buy the materials for and] set up racks to store those segments until we’re ready for assembly of the dome shell, after the foundation, basement walls, and first floor are completed (not included in the kit).
Between storage-rack materials, equipment rental, and labor, we’re projecting it will cost 4 figures to move the dome components from the semi truck to the storage area.
Our heads are spinning from all the costs to get to the point of having the dome’s exterior built. Everywhere we turn, something else isn’t included in the kit, and our cost take-off shoots up. Of course, this seems like a standard home-building scenario, though it may be exacerbated by the fact that the market is on the builders’ side right now. Building materials are growing more expensive all the time.
The geo dome isn’t turning out to be the cost-saving option we thought but luckily isn’t looking more expensive than a traditional home either. It helps that we went into this with certainty that we wanted a dome. Perceived cost-savings were an added benefit.
We have a long way to go before we share a final review of the dome experience. In the meantime, if you want a picture of the real costs what it’s taken us to get to this point, please feel free to contact us.
Thanks to a delay by Hurricane Irma, our dome-kit delivery date is
9/22, now 9/29, which is fine, because we’ve also just broken ground on the place where we’ll store the pallet of dry-storage items shipped with the kit:
In the end, based on our time, storage needs and budget, we decided to hire the same team who did the driveway – a project that included leveling and graveling the barn pad – to erect a 30′ pole barn with a long overhang on one side for sheltered outdoor storage. As of this post, the poles are in and had a good 48 hours to set up before Irma’s wind and rain arrived.
To celebrate, please enjoy this GIF of a video from our fun cheapie drone. There’s grass seed all over that field, being rained in by Irma right now (and feeding some of the 14 turkeys we have this year). Soon, there will be a red barn and green grass in this scene.
Progress is constant, so I’ve been trying to go live on Facebook from time to time. Check us out at /earthtodome if you get a chance!