My mother (like yours, I’m sure) always told me never to judge a book by its cover. So it was fitting when she told me we’d be attending an open house to see the newly built dome house nearby that can best be described as … well … ugly.
Without even asking the street name, I knew the one she was talking about. A while back, I’d been driving along that block of Sterne Street in Point Loma, rubbernecked, slammed on my brakes, reversed and stared in awe at the monstrosity before me. It was as if someone had dropped a giant igloo on top of someone else’s house. I was sure the people crushed beneath it were furious.
I looked at the manicured houses neighboring it and was glad I didn’t live there. Can you imagine waking up every day and seeing that? I thought. I like to believe I’m open to anything, but I really didn’t understand it.
The dome reached higher into the sky than any other roof around it. It was painted a weird brown and—oddly—it was bumpy in texture. I mean, couldn’t the owner see that?
Of course, I wouldn’t have been the first set of gawking eyes he’d seen. Brody’s neighbors complained to the city’s planning department, but since the structure was being built to code in a neighborhood without restrictions the effort was futile. Those same neighbors also passed around a petition asking Brody to build a more conventional looking home.
If you ask Brody now, those ill feelings have since been laid to rest and he has what he calls a “really good” relationship with his neighbors.
“There are some people who like to see every house looking like every other house on the block,” he’ll say. “But when they started seeing how much green technology I was using, they were very supportive.”
Back to the open house. I remember thinking it takes a brave man to open up his home to the same people who have actively tried to stop him from building it.
Yet, even with that in mind I walked to the house talking smack about it the whole way. I was joined on the walk (and with the smack talking) by various members of my family. My thoughts kept racing as I walked up the driveway looking at that dreadfully bumpy roof.
My eyes shot up the inside of the dome which was perfectly smooth in every way. Made from drywall, the white walls (save for a ceiling painting of the sky) stretched up six feet before arching to a climax at what had to be 30 feet high or more.
The dome itself housed six rectangular skylights, but there were also several lights throughout the house covered by organic, Gaudí-esque, handmade shades. A mobile chandelier of the same material hung like a work of art, slowly turning in the breeze from the doorway.
The bedrooms and closets had no doors, just curtains for closure and tidiness. The bathroom, however, was afforded the privacy of a door and closed ceiling, whereas everything else is open to the dome. This, Brody says, was done in an effort to save on material.
The house is not a geodesic dome, as reported in The Peninsula Beacon. Brody, who is a mechanical engineer by trade, makes this very clear. A geodesic dome is the process whereby triangles are fitted together to create a dome. Rather, Brody calls the structure he built a Cylindrically Improved True Radius, or CIMTRA Dome. It’s a name he made up, something he says he’s fond of doing.
A list of the house’s qualities were made available to visitors and information documenting all of the material he used will be on his website, which will be online soon. The attributes are listed below:
- Hydronics, radiant-floor space heating using solar heated water
- 4.2 KW photovoltaic utility intertie system with the aim of generating 100 percent of the occupant’s needs
- Grey-water system used for landscape irrigation, saving water, energy and pollution
- Light-gage steel framing, no wood. This steel is 60 percent recycled and is recyclable
- Permaculture (food bearing) landscape system
- Domestic hot water advancement system saves water by pumping hot water to fixture before faucet is turned on
- Healthy-home concepts, dust, VOCs, ventilation, molds/allergens, no ducts
- Slab and footings use concrete mix with 40 percent fly ash substitute for Portland cement
- Windows have pultruded fiberglass frames, double pane, highest efficiency
- Six skylights for natural lighting assistance
- Alternative materials for cabinets, counters and tabletops (sunflower seed shell board, wheat board, biocomposit, bamboo, walnut shell phenolic)
- Old concrete driveway cut up to provide new patio decks and walkways.
The house is located at 3422 Sterne Street and took two years to build. It’s a product of years of research, an ecological conscience, creativity and some trial-and-error. In fact, he’s the first to admit he chose the wrong material on the outside of the dome when someone (me) tells him they were shocked and pleasantly surprised by the difference between the outside and inside of the house.
But he excelled in most other areas like the carpetless flooring, underneath which runs hot-water tubing upstairs and down and provides the radiant-floor heating listed above. This system not only discards the need for ducts, but works by heating up nearby objects instead of trying to fill an entire room with warm air, something that is economically and energy efficient in expansive rooms.
“[The heat] radiates to you just like the sun,” he said. “So it doesn’t heat up the air, it heats up solid things.”
And while he gets water from the city like everyone else, his grey- and black-water system ensures he uses much less each month than his neighbors. The black-water system transfers water from the kitchen and toilet directly to the sewer, while the grey-water system takes water from the showers and bathroom sinks and pumps it through a sand filter into the garden and landscaping. On regular intervals a backwashing occurs, where water is pumped from the city backward through the sand filter in order to clean it.
Throughout the open house, Brody patiently answered everyone’s questions. He was knowledgeable and confident. Perhaps more importantly, he was noticeably happy with what he’d built.
“I pretty much made everything happen that I wanted to,” he said.
Later Brody told a friend: “It’s different. It’s been three months. It’s really good living here.”
I departed the house filled with new information, an appreciation for Hal Brody and a desire to make my own house more energy efficient (simply using a reusable bag now seems so last year). As I left, I turned around at the driveway to look back on the dome. No, I still didn’t like it much from the outside, but I had a newfound respect for what it was and what it represented.
And I realized I must never judge a book by its cover.
All photos by Annie Lane