Building a Dome Out of Paper (and Steel...and Cement...)

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Introduction: Building a Dome Out of Paper (and Steel...and Cement...)

When my girlfriend (Wendy Tremayne) and I arrived in southern New Mexico one of the first things we did was look around for a local building material. Clay would need to be excavated and hauled in, straw bale was already expensive and not local, manufactured building materials like rastra were a little too off the shelf for us. We ended up settling on what we had locally available and that was/is paper. It is common for small remote towns to not have much in the way of recycling. Our town was collecting paper, but more often than not would just dump it in the landfill after collection. They were happy to help us load our truck up with their newspaper which was mostly a nuisance to them. We later found a source of rebar being made from old cars within a 100 miles of our place.

Since we would have a lot of batteries and solar PV equipment that needed a good home we decided to do our first structure as a battery room for our solar equipment. Domes are inherently strong and energy efficient structures. This is how we started building a battery dome from paper.

Step 1: The Plans

We used sketchup to create 3D models of the underlying structure. Rebar, 6x6x10 remesh, and expanded metal lath were the bones holding this thing together. We hired a structural engineer to review our plans. Once we received his stamp this made it easier to approach our local building inspector. This is a small dome only 10' in diameter. However, it is really really strong and insulated to somewhere between R30 - R40 range. Ideal for keeping batteries near room temperature with no additional heating/cooling required.

Step 2: Rebar Work

We had a existing concrete slab so we just used metal plates anchor bolted to the slab and welded our rebar arches onto them. It was a little shaky getting the first few arches in the air, but the small dome is so manageable that it really was not a big deal. After the arches went up we started doing hoops around them. Everything is welded (a no no for rebar), but with a friendly engineer that can be dealt with. The welded rebar allows us to climb on the structure early in the building process. This makes it easier to tie remesh and lath to the dome.

Step 3: Lath

It is traditional in ferrocement work to tie lath by hand. This gets old, real old! We used a pneumatic tool to tie our lath to remesh. Can you guess the difference in time savings by having this one tool? It was about 3x. We normally would lath 4 sheets a day by hand per person. Once we had the pneumatic gun we were doing 14 sheets a day. Still slow work, but easy and fun compared to lifting 40lb compressed earth blocks.

Step 4: Fill 'er Up

We knew that it was possible to move our papercrete mix with a pump. This dome used a simple recipe of 2 parts paper to 1 part portland. Our current larger domes are using a lime/clay/paper mix. Anyway it took a while for our pump to arrive so we prefilled the dome with some old papercrete blocks and I bucketed for a few weeks. The bucketing sucked! Eventually our 9HP 3" trash pump arrived and it worked great. It uses a lot of water, but it can move paper through a 50' hose and up a 10' vertical climb.

Step 5: Plastering

Our papercrete based plaster still leaves a lot to be desired. We ended up using a mix of prickly pear cactus juice, old house paint, 1 part paper, 1 part cement. Later there was plenty of cracking on the areas that received a great deal of sun. We have had better success in other types of paper plasters. We used a tirolessa sprayer which made easy work of plastering the inside and outside of the dome. This is another amazing time saving device and it works well with pretty much any type of finish from earthen lime plasters to heavy cement/sand mortars.

Step 6: Equipment Setup

After letting the dome dry for weeks after pumping in the paper and more time after plastering we brought in our solar gear. We just welded angle iron to concrete anchor bolted plates and against the rebar of the dome. We also had to hack up some pallets for the batteries.

We tried all sorts of home made paints. In the end we used a white roofing sealer and tinted into brown using brown umber oxide. The home made prickly pear paints and lime washes were simply not robust enough to handle moisture. Again this is due to our limited knowledge in plasters and finishes.

At the time of this submission the dome has been finished and running all of our PV solar equipment for nearly a year. We are quite happy with the thermal performance of the dome as well as the asthetic look. It cost about $10 a square foot for raw materials to put it together. We have since started a 20' diameter dome (~320 sq. ft). It has been quite simple to assemble although extremely time intensive. We plan to make three more domes. Feel free to make some suggestions as to how we can improve, speed up, reduce costs, etc.

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    45 Comments

    I keep waiting for Luke to come out calling for Aunt Beru.

    Heh, "Uncle Owen....Uncle Owen..."...

    Alright back to programming binary moisture evaporators.

    pardon my ignorance why is welding rebar a no no? - been to the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia -- they use -weld various rebars to make water towers, radio station antenna masts/towers, lightning rod towers using re-bar (truss-like structures, triangles etc)???

    has anyone tried GRANCRETE? sprayed on, waterproof, supposedly lighter and stronger than concrete... they even have a formulation that makes it flexible! keep these informative exchanges going...thanks!

    Thank you for sharing your progress. I have been investigating dome construction, as well, but had been on a different tack. We've been thinking about using a geodesic structure with plastic film as a removable "form" to cast onto a ferrocement shell. Hope is that the geo-form could then be deconstructed from inside and reused for the next. Since we have to tie up rebar, could I possibly find out where you found a pneumatic tie tool and about how much it costs?

    The pneumatic tool I use for tying lath is a Stanley Spenax SC7E. It is a $800 tool new, but can be picked up on ebay for as little as $200. This is good for lath, but the rings are much too small for rebar attachment. You can buy larger hog rings or use a electric rebar tie wire gun.

     To make a dome that is almost free, earth quake proof go to the Cal Earth website.  They have done some amazing stuff.

    I live in the community (City of the Sun) that was a leader in the papercrete revival. We built 20+ buildings and homes. They are all now in various degrees of falling apart and the place generally looks like a ruin. My house is about 1/2 papercrete and has mildew & mold problems. It is stuccoed and coated with elastomeric. This is in an area that gets 2-6" of rain a year. That's not to say it can't be built in a way that works but I would suggest anyone considering it plan on having wide overhangs where water has little chance of ever penetrating the surface.