Quick recap: We currently live in a big, yellow, rented geodesic dome in the Smoky Mountains. The structure inspired us to build our own dome, and we’re in the middle (or really, the beginning of the middle) of that journey now.
By last fall, we had land, power, barn, tractor, a dome kit on site, and a General Contractor named Doug (or “GC Doug” on this blog). Despite the mountain-moving it took to reach that point, there’s plenty more to do before we walk through the doors of our new home.
For instance, we have to decide what those doors will look like. The exterior of our home is a kit, but the kit covers very little. The look of the dome we build is ultimately is up to us. While the dome shape has more structural limitations on where windows and doors can go, the interior is wide open, literally and figuratively.
GC Doug has been patiently teaching us that every part of a home is connected in a way most people don’t understand. Before he’ll help build the bones of our house, he wants to know what the inside will look like. So do we.
This is the story of that.
Hitting the Winter Wall
Excavation for the house pad began in earnest last October, with foundation pouring and well drilling on the horizon.
Freezing, wet weather hit east Tennessee hard in early November. We hoped it was a cold snap, but it wasn’t.
Ah, winter weather. The great delayer of builds. Heavy machinery won’t work in mud, and concrete won’t set in freezing weather. As night after cold, rainy night squashed our hope of finishing the foundation in 2017, we searched for other ways to push forward.
One important step was to invite GC Doug and another crew member to the yellow rental dome. They know what pieces of a geodesic dome look like but hadn’t been inside an assembled one.
Early on a November evening, Doug’s diesel rumbled up the driveway. He hopped out and put on his hardhat. You never see him without it. In retrospect, a hardhat is probably a good idea in the yellow rental dome, but that’s for another post about what not to do when building a dome, or any home.
They spent an hour poring over features that are meaningful to people who build houses, like floor bracing and where walls meet, HVAC venting and the PEX homerun setup our landlord created. Then we gathered around the kitchen, like people do, and talked about our building timeline and takeoff.
A takeoff is a construction budget. We jotted notes as Doug ticked off each feature of the build, with supply quantities and pricing. Miraculously, he ended up near the final number we’d estimated with our own homegrown takeoff. This was luck. Where we completely missed some items (like rebar), we’d over-estimated on others.
Seeing the project on a semi-official list by a professional made it feel like our dome was out there somewhere, like it will actually happen. It was nice.
The timeline was another story. Over the winter, our excavators were able to sneak out a few times between snowstorms. They finished the housepad and moved literally tons of dirt to grade the last 40′ of driveway. They used a tamper machine to bang the dirt to the right load-level; that will keep our home from sliding down the hill.
After that, construction was full-stop until spring, but that November evening at the yellow dome, we learned that even if the weather were cooperating, we weren’t ready for the foundation. Because you have to plan the inside of a house before you build the outside.
Prior Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance
Building a home from scratch affords the unique opportunity to customize from the start. If you want to hang heavy art, shelving, cabinetry, siding, or a TV, you can save money and make life easier by building bracing into the walls. Certain walls can be constructed to buffer for sound or for easier installation of wainscoting.
Doug asked for a full list of the places we plan to hang shelving, cabinetry, and paneling. He wanted to know what fixtures, millwork, and appliances we favor and what parts of which rooms need soundproofing. Color schemes, flooring types. Oh, and the “switching.” As in, he wanted a list of every socket and switch and what each should control.
Let that sink in, as we did, watching the hardhat over that brilliant brain bob into the sunset that evening. Right now, our house looks like this:
How do you decorate a space you’ve never stepped into? In some ways, it’s the coolest assignment ever. On the other hand, the PRESSURE. There’s no way not to make mistakes, and we could be living for years with these mistakes.
I guess I thought there’d be time after the exterior was up to feel the space and figure things out. How do we know what lighting fixture will look good in the powder room, or the best cabinetry layout for the kitchen?
Perhaps you’re thinking, that’s an easy one! If you have that kind of talent, we could use your services, because we’re prone to making mistakes on rooms that already exist. Like this:
In some scenarios, a homebuilder or architect might facilitate this level of detailed planning based on what has worked for other homes. While our kit vendor did provide a lot of help with…
- designing a structurally sound room layout that should meet International Building Code,
- placement and shape of our staircases, and
- guidance on tricky hallway shapes, headroom issues, window/entryway sizing, venting details for plumbing and the woodstove, etc.,
…they didn’t help with any of the nitty gritty of interior planning. Planning the inside of our home down to the fixture and millwork was a crucial step that we overlooked. Luckily, we had all winter to complete it.
Intimidation, Inspiration, Imagination
In this domestead adventure, if it makes noise, smells like gasoline, and has a high risk of heat exhaustion or being stung by bees (clearing trees, making our fields nice, drilling rocks, etc.), Chris usually spearheads it. If it involves sitting on the couch in a hoodie with a laptop and a bottomless cup of coffee, it’s mine (budgets, insurance, contracts, this blog, etc.).*
In other words, GC Doug’s monumental domework assignment – to make a full list of interior features – was all mine.
* For the record, I’d rather be chainsawing and riding the tractor with Chris, even if it means getting stung by bees, but there will be plenty of time for that soon enough.
It started the same way these posts start: blank page on a computer screen, eek. To neutralize the mind-numbing power of blank space, I made a template, created a page for reach room, and begin filling fields:
- Name of room or area
- Screenshot of that area from the CAD
- General notes
- Fixtures, appliances, millwork
Then it was time for our own traveling road show to home & garden shows in Knoxville, IKEA in Charlotte, and lighting and flooring and vintage shops all over the mountains. Hours were spent grabbing screenshots of dream layouts on Zillow listings and comparison shopping at box stores for appliances and fixtures.
One of the hardest things to picture is how big a space will be, especially when it’s not rectangular. Being in a dome while planning a dome has been priceless. Even when we were planning the initial layout, regular revelations sent us running around with tape measures before calling the dome vendor to adjust the CAD.
When it came to this nitty-gritty document, there were plenty of aha moments. The big, yellow dome has taught us so many things, like the effects of various angles and where wiring can and can’t go along the concrete exterior walls.
Planning a new dome but don’t live in one? Google “domes for rent.” There’s probably a vacation dome you can rent somewhere in your region. Pack your blueprints and spend the weekend making notes.
I looked all over for 3D design software or apps that could be learned in a week or less, but the options were extremely expensive or astronomically buggy. Even though I hadn’t told Chris about my search, he separately but psychically noticed a commercial for an app called Home Design 3D and sent a link. It’s kind of buggy, too, but it only took a night to learn the basics, and it cost $15. Winner!!
It was a breeze to upload a PDF or our floorplan, draw walls and features to scale, add furniture and appliances, and walk through it in 3D, all on the iPad. It helped us finalize the kitchen and gain 2 closets!
Two months after the meeting at the yellow rental dome, we delivered a 30-page, 60MB document to Doug. What silly mistakes did we make? What did we nail? We can’t wait to find out.