Hal Brody’s Point Loma Home, the CIMTRA Dome – Green Living in the City

by on September 30, 2011 · 25 comments

in Culture, Economy, Energy, Environment, Ocean Beach, Popular, San Diego

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?

But I didn’t stare too long either because that owner, who I’d later come to know as Hal Brody, was working in the front yard.

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.

But all the chatter in my head stopped when I stepped inside. The house was beautiful.

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.

“It’s a great insulator and waterproofing, but I wouldn’t use it again,” said Brody of the two-part spray urethane foam. He suggested a plastic tile automatically Class-A roofing instead.

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

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Frank Gormlie September 30, 2011 at 9:05 am

Wonderful article, Annie! Will there more public tours? Your mom taught ya well!

Reply

avatar Annie September 30, 2011 at 10:08 am

Not that I know of. His goal is to build more CIMTRA Domes in San Diego and he was offering his business cards at the open house to those interested. He also welcomed questions and can be reached at HalBrody@DomicilesForANewAmerica.com

Reply

avatar OB Joe September 30, 2011 at 9:42 am

These are great photos that accompany this piece.

Reply

avatar Annie September 30, 2011 at 10:08 am

Thanks, OB Joe!

Reply

avatar Terrie Leigh Relf September 30, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Great piece, Annie! I wish I had been able to go to the open house. I am a great fan of this type of architecture. . .Have always wanted to have something like this. . .

I’ll share with this with the students at Woodbury, too.

Ter

Reply

avatar Annie September 30, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Thanks, Terrie! He’s looking to build more if you’re interested …

Reply

avatar allthink May 22, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Hi Terrie –

Woodbury School of Architecture? In SD or LA? I’m interested in having a workshop with a Professor from there.

Please email me at swcshift@gmail.com

Thanks,
Steve

Reply

avatar Citizen Cane September 30, 2011 at 3:20 pm

A couple of important notes on the grey water system. It has a “holding” tank, not a “septic” tank. The filter has a longevity of perhaps ten years. This is something that could and should be added to existing homes. You can reduce the cost of your irrigation water, and reduce the burden on the city sewage treatment plant.

I doubt the ceiling is over thirty feet. It’s twenty-something. Perhaps Boyd can chime in about that.

While it’s true that it’s steel framed, it’s not wood free. There’s plywood sheeting under the foam. The plywood and the drywall were a bit of a disappointment to me, but I should also mention that I went there expecting a concrete structure, like the ones made by Monolithic Domes. Cutting the plywood and drywall into long trapezoids, and then all the necessary fasteners had to be labor intensive. I didn’t think to ask Boyd about waste material. It seems to me that there would have to be waste pieces (triangles) of drywall and plywood. Perhaps they were used in the partition walls, or as extra insulation behind the kitchen cabinets.

He went out if his way to texture the outside of the dome. I think it will snag a lot of falling jet exhaust, and won’t wash of during the rain as easily as a smooth finish would.

Also worth mentioning that the old house was recycled…moved to another location. But I also think he could have simply remodeled the old structure, and made some the same green improvements. For example a foam coated A-frame structure with window, heating, and plumbing upgrades.

Reply

avatar Annie September 30, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Thanks, Citizen Cane, for your comment. The technical pieces of info you added are nice.

As you probably noticed, this article is mostly my observations and, as far as the height of the ceiling goes, it could definitely be less. The Peninsula Beacon already wrote a detailed piece about the materials and facts of the building, and did so quite nicely. I was trying to get across how the house “felt,” and the ceiling is much, much higher than that of a conventional house.

As for the outside texture of the dome, I didn’t get the impression it was intentional at all. I say that because I asked him point blank why it was so noticeably bumpy and he said it was the material he used and that he wouldn’t use it again. He said the foam dried that way and was hard to control, also that it flew all over the place – including his neighbors’ yards. That’s why he recommended another material – a plastic tile of sorts.

Yes, he move the previous house to another location – an idea (or image, rather) that’s always seemed comical to me. Good idea about just recycling the pieces. He did that with his original concrete driveway.

Reply

avatar Citizen Cane September 30, 2011 at 4:18 pm

The foam is bumpy, but the fine stucco-like texture was shot into the final coat of paint, not mixed into it. So the fine texture was intentional. Between the foam and the paint is some sort of fiberglass/paint mix to help (if that’s the right word) fireproof the foam. Some people won’t like the looks of dome, but he does achieve R-30 insulation. That probably tops everything in the neighborhood.

Worth noting the alternative of the Monolithic Dome method that sprays foam and concrete on the INSIDE of an inflated structure. That avoids the problem of getting foam ovarspray on the neighbors house and cars.

Reply

avatar Damion October 12, 2011 at 12:50 pm

The bumpy texture of the foam is a kiln dried agregate that has no fire rating. It had to be cast by hand into its third layer of a high solids UV resistant paint while it was being applied. The A class fire rating of the roof is achieved through a material called densdeck, a drywall like material that has a fiberglass sheeting on it.

As for its insulation rating R-30 is a modest number. Based on the thickness and the fact that the framing cavities are filled with a much less dense version of the foam, it is closer to 35-42

Reply

avatar Citizen Cane September 30, 2011 at 5:13 pm

Ooops, I called him Boyd instead of Mr. Brody. I encourage readers to also check out another one of Mr. Brody’s projects. He was involved with the urban straw bale project for The Friends Center:

http://www.prcsd.org/friendsCenter/PowerPoint.htm

Reply

avatar Citizen Cane September 30, 2011 at 5:36 pm

I mentioned Monolithic Domes in my previous comments. I get more excited about that method, because of its potential as a peoples dome…one for the masses. They also can avoid steel by using basalt roving. That avoids the problem of steel rusting inside the concrete…especially at the beach. Here’s a smaller version geared toward the 3rd world:

Reply

avatar Anna Daniels September 30, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Interesting article, Annie. The outside of the house is reminiscent of the architectural “style” of the San Onofre nuclear reactors, while the inside was much more inviting. (The work of James Hubbell, in contrast, immediately came to mind, which not only emphasizes green technology but an organic sense of place.
I am all for green technology, and have been since the Whole Earth Catalog and Foxfire series raised our consciousness and ignited our imagination. But it is prohibitively expensive for most of us to do green on the scale and with the materials used by Mr. Brody. (I am all for massive governmental subsidies of solar power and water reclamation systems so that those technologies become integrated into all of our neighborhoods.)

Reply

avatar Annie October 1, 2011 at 11:01 pm

Anna, the expense you mention is such a major drawback. It’s sad, because it doesn’t have to be that way, and shouldn’t. It’s what frustrates me most about our food sources, too. Of course people will choose McDonald’s over Whole Foods (Whole Paycheck) – it’s ridiculously more affordable. We’ll never make true progress regarding the treatment of animals and sustainable farming until that changes. But I digress.

Hal Brody really went above and beyond in every way. I especially admire his water system and solar panels setup. One day, when funds allow, I hope to implement that into my home.

Reply

avatar Dianne Lane October 1, 2011 at 5:41 pm

Annie, you put so much into the experience and shared it so well. Also, the photos were excellent. Thanks for all.

Reply

avatar Annie October 1, 2011 at 10:50 pm

Thanks, Mom. I know you’re not bias at all.

Reply

avatar Annie October 2, 2011 at 12:12 pm

I meant biased. I can write, I promise!

Reply

avatar Frank Gormlie October 2, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Annie – You may not have known, but Hal Brody is a peace-nic and gives civil disobedient and non-violence trainings.

Reply

avatar Annie October 2, 2011 at 11:25 pm

How cool! It would be great to get his take on Occupy Wall Street and what looks to be an upcoming Occupy San Diego.

Reply

avatar judi Curry May 22, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Great piece, Annie. Accompanying photographs really added to the story.

Reply

avatar Debbie January 15, 2013 at 3:33 pm

REALLY enjoyed this article. Thanks OBRAG.

Reply

avatar gailpowell January 15, 2013 at 5:06 pm

What a fabulous home that is! I loved the ornate stair railing and leaf motif. Absolutely beautiful and green too. How wonderful it must be to call the dome “home.”

Reply

avatar Frank Gormlie January 16, 2013 at 8:27 am

We decided to run this article again after a renewed interest in it was showing up at our statcounter. Thank you Annie.

Reply

avatar Jon January 16, 2013 at 10:01 am

Glad you did frank! I missed it the first time around. I wish he would do another open house soon! I would love to check it out and ask some questions. I know I would be stoked to have him as a neighbor.

Reply

Leave a Comment


2 + = 9

Older Article:

Newer Article: