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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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.


balloondoggle (author)2012-04-05

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

sklarm (author)balloondoggle2012-04-05

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

Alright back to programming binary moisture evaporators.

tinker234 (author)2011-06-01

wow cool

iamargo (author)2011-02-03

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)???

iamargo (author)2011-02-03

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!

magicdust (author)2009-02-07

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?

barneytomb (author)magicdust2010-05-03

That sounds a lot like what they do at Monolithic Domes in Italy, TX.

sklarm (author)magicdust2009-02-08

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.

crazycloud (author)2010-02-12

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

Dockbob (author)2009-09-11

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.

sklarm (author)Dockbob2009-09-12

Thanks Dockbob. I've not been to City of the Sun, but I have read about the work down there. Mike McCain stopped by my place in TorC at one point. I've followed a different type of building style. Mostly from the ferrocement world. Treating papercrete as only insulation, not structural. Our current dome features a glass bottle floor to prevent wicking moisture up into the insulation. It will be relatively high maintenance to make sure there is no cracks in the dome structure where moisture can come through the top.

Dockbob (author)sklarm2009-09-12

The problem I have seen here, especially in domes is the wet/dry cycles which causes separation and cracking as the papercrete and stucco seem to have different expansion qualities. I used papercrete mainly as insulation which seems to be its best trait, although insulation is about the cheapest part of the building. Lately I have seen a few bricks and blocks that are dense, smooth, and consistent which is a great improvement. In the early days they were touted as being "fire proof" but a couple of months ago, Mike's brother evidently dropped a cigarette next to a papercrete wall and the next night his mother woke to a house full of smoke. A neighbor heard her yelling and ran over and put out the fire. Building codes are not always the "bad guy".

middlenamefrank (author)2009-02-16

It wouldn't be nearly as earth-friendly as your technique, but one thing I've thought about for years now is 1) buying a small, inexpensive yurt, 2) erecting it on a platform with enough room underneath for plumbing/electrical (if needed), 3) pre-mounting doors and windows, and 4) spraying the whole thing on the OUTSIDE with expanding spray foam insulation. It could be skinned over on the outside when it cures or just left free-form. Plumbing and wiring could also be mounted in the walls before blowing the insulation, but maintenance of the buried parts might become rather nightmarish. Not as cheap, environmentally sound nor as recyclable as your technique, but I'd think very much faster and easier. The one thing I'd worry about would be the structural strength, but a mechanical engineer would be able to figure that out very quickly. The foam might have to go on in layers, strengthening as it hardens.

edziak (author)middlenamefrank2009-02-23

Perhaps you could use paper tubes to create ducts for your plumbing and wiring. Or maybe a box shaped trough that could be uncovered completely for maintenance.

middlenamefrank (author)edziak2009-02-23

Ya, I've thought about a lot of ideas like that, but one fo the coolest things about that expanding foam is how well it fills every crack and void. Putting holes in it just seems to defeat the purpose. Anyhow, I guess I'm thinking now that maintenance wouldn't be that difficult. That stuff is pretty easy to dig out, then after you make your repairs, just spray in some more foam and let it fill everything in again. It might actually be easier than repairing plumbing/electrical behind drywall.

Markoid (author)2009-02-10

Hi Guys nice project. I have been looking at vairious structures for use as a Fire Shelter. Heres an alternative from Cal-Earth

shamanwhitewolf (author)Markoid2009-02-19

You beat me to it. I've always wanted to try my hand at building something like Cal Earth does and was about to mention them.

rhubarb (author)2009-02-09

In your instructable you briefly mentioned a structure made with a lime/clay/paper mix. I would love to hear a little more about that "recipe" and how it worked out for you.

RRabbits (author)2009-02-01

I am working on a very old thick adobe house in the Socorro area. Want to be completely off grid in two years. Adding a solar greenhouse this year. Would like to trade info or practical items for a visit/tour of your projects. Not sure how to make contact with out broadcasting my name etc????

rachel (author)RRabbits2009-02-05

RRabbits, you can send a private message through Instructables. Click on a member's name in orange to get to their member page, and you'll see a "Private Message Me" link on the left side of the page. This message is visible only to the member you send it to and they will be notified by email that you've sent it. Neither of your contact information is shared unless you choose to put it in the message.

fryek (author)2009-01-30

sounds nice... but a little confused... what happened to local building material? Paper is the aggregate for the cement... but what about the cement? I love cement (liquid rock) in its ability to do all sorts of cool things... but it is absolutely TERRIBLE for the environment! creating the stuff... terrible, packaging and trucking the stuff... terrible... and the use of excavated coral reefs near islands to make (not what you bought I'm sure... as it's just how its created when that's whats avail. on an island)... anyway... just food for thought I guess. Cool project though, but I was just a little confused as to the goal (if green... how about tamped earth with a lye based coating)?

stoobers (author)fryek2009-02-05

In response to fryek, I find environmentally friendly building questionable. All the maintenance I have done on houses is because the building materials DON'T last long enough (in other words, you fix the stuff that breaks, not the stuff that lasts.) All the pollution, waste, chemicals, paint, asbestos shingles, etc is due to people making use of "what's available" and cost effective in the short run. Man is there a lot of bulky waste! People seem to be so concerned with the toxicity of materials that last 100 years, but no one cares about the toxicity of materials that lasts for 5 years. Or if they do care, they build for the short term anyway, because its cheap. They fix for the short term, and poison for the long term, then pat themselves on the back for renovating a dilapidated structure using green methods. We create zoning codes that REQUIRE some portion of a structure be preserved, instead of complete demolition. When you build green, build for 100 years or more. "Create" something worth keeping. Don't just slap mud and lye on a wall and feign environmental sensitivity. In my opinion, mining a coral reef for cement that lasts several generations is much more environmentally sensitive than making piles of debris and loading up landfills with mishmashes of inseparable toxics resulting from weathering, insect infestation, earthquake damage, etc.

sklarm (author)fryek2009-01-30

I think the cement issue is a fascinating one. Can you build anything without the usage of Portland cement or type-s lime? I'm not sure that you can. Lime has a higher embodied energy than portland cement (more CO2 pollution) although it is preferred by many green builders over Portland. I like lime too. As far as embodied energy of Portland cement goes it is not nearly what you think. About 1lb of CO2 is produced for every 1lb of Portland used. It is therefore important be mindful of this high energy and only use what is necessary. The paper greatly reduces the need large amounts of cement. Another way to look at Portland cement is compared to a gallon of gas. Gasoline produces twice the CO2 per lb as portland cement. My question to the anti-cement world is "drive lately"?

shooby (author)sklarm2009-02-01 can use the locally available clay that was mentioned initially. I agree thought, while cement isn't "green", people aren't "green", so it makes sense for people to use it.

fryek (author)sklarm2009-01-30

not sure I understand the comparison of cement to gasoline? as most cement is made with coal fired plants, or with oil, natural gas power... etc.? then it's driven using gasoline to many places for all of us to buy it and drive it again... My one lost point was that using a minimal amount of lime or even portland... maybe even flyash portland... with something like rammed earth... no welding required (more electricity)... ahh... I'm getting off topic... they built a nice structure which suits their purposes. I just don't want folks thinking that it's green simply because they substituted paper for the other aggregates/binders... the problem I see with greenwashing is that folks forget to look at the whole picture... no biggie. Just didn't want this to get immediately lumped in as "green" just because it uses paper... I'm sure it helps local pollution. I don't know how (if at all) it contributes to misuse of resources elsewhere.

sklarm (author)fryek2009-01-30

It is difficult to understand the total impact of a structure. Please permit me to try and share the data I could gather. Tapping into the waste stream for building materials is opening a big can of worms. There is a lot of confusion about reuse/recycling/upcycling/downcycling. What material is most appropriate or represents a complete waste of resource. We did a lot of leg work up front to understand what was going into this dome and where it came from. I apologize for my rather abstract comparison of cement to gasoline. What I was trying to do was create easy to visualize way to understand CO2 emissions from both. A bag Portland cement is equivalent to driving about 100 miles in a car in terms of CO2 emissions. Cement is also not driven far. I have two cement factories within 100 miles of my home. Nothing to brag about, just pointing out that those clinks are everywhere. Welding although used here is not required. It could just be all hand tied. This structure was welded to make the building process easier. The solar panels provide all the power for welding future domes (although not this one). The "green" part of this dome is the insulation. It takes no energy to keep constant temperature 60-80F. The paper was rescued from landfill or being hauled across state lines to be 'recycled'. The cement and rebar were local. The structure still takes has a higher embodied energy than rammed earth, but it has completely different thermal characteristics. If it makes any different to you the current 20' dome is being infilled with clay/lime/paper. The cement bags are a nightmare to lift at 92lbs each and the lime does a better job of keeping a high pH necessary to reduce mold/flammability/bugs messing with the insulation.

fryek (author)sklarm2009-01-30

all good... sorry I made assumptions based upon the sometimes annoying "me too" nature of greenwashing pop-culture... It sounds like you did the research necessary to ensure it wasn't the "wash" I'd thought it might've been. I have done a number of projects in more urban environments... it's always a series of trade-offs to get to an improvement in standard practices. Best of luck.

fryek (author)fryek2009-01-30

hmmm, seeing folks get the idea that this may be a "green option" make me think that maybe most folks don't actually know how cement is made... maybe some info would help understand why it is so bad for the environment (and yes, it might be OK *if* a structure were to be used for centuries... - though portland commonly breaks down betw 50-100 yrs using modern mixes - but as we all know, Americans usually 'level' things and rebuild much more often than an entire century).

Here's some environmental info on just simple Portland cement (not the blast furnace type which increases strength by using byproducts from blast furnaces)... this doesn't include the impact of packaging, driving, storage... see wikipedia entry under Portland cement for this source:

"Portland cement manufacture can cause environmental impacts at all stages of the process. These include emissions of airborne pollution in the form of dust, gases, noise and vibration when operating machinery and during blasting in quarries, consumption of large quantities of fuel during manufacture, release of CO2 from the raw materials during manufacture, and damage to countryside from quarrying."

again... not a bad project in anyway (other than maybe a little over-engineered/ wasteful)... but just not "green" in the sense that it's basically a trade off - removing paper from local waste, producing waste/pollution elsewhere.

BJMN (author)fryek2009-01-31

Hi - just a quick comment on your talk about cement. I noticed someone else picked it up here as well - that cement is not as environmentally-unfriendly as it is made out to be. I am an engineer employed specifically to look into the environmental impacts for cement and lime production - so I've seen the numbers sliced and diced enough to portray the manufacture as both environmentally beneficial and environmentally disastrous... On objective analysis, though, with all upstream and downstream effects considered, it's not much worse than building with wood, and you get the long-term benefits of a structure that will last a very long time. Note that the Wikipedia entry does not quantify any of those impacts. Cement gets a bad rap because all the environmentally damaging and neighbour-disturbing activities get concentrated in the place of quarry/manufacture, and not distributed throughout the supply chain. IMHO, the environmental impact of the manufacturing process of any major structural material (wood, steel, cement, so on) is too complex and to integrated into other processes to be analyzed by anyone who sits down and wants to do a quick surface analysis. (It is, after all, my full-time job, and I'm rather busy...) Be careful what experts you trust - as most people have an agenda of either proving any process to be either "green" or "not". This has turned into a small rant - but I just don't like to see cement summarily dismissed as a poor environmental choice.

kuchinskas (author)2009-02-05

It's gorgeous -- and so tight and together. I fool around with cement and am glad to have learned about waste paper as an additive - although in Berkeley, we can recycle anything paper. Instead of paint, you could try mixing clay or earth into the last cement coat; or old latex paint people want to get rid of; or rusty water.

Divet (author)2009-01-30

There are dome houses that are quickly built using an inflatable form. The interior is sprayed with insulation foam, then rebar is attached and covered with shotcrete. It only takes a few days to build a dome, but it’s not as green as your design.

sklarm (author)Divet2009-01-30

I really like the inflatable form idea. We looked into making our own forms, borrowing them, and even just flat out ordering a pre-made. Our issue was that papercrete is a relatively weak material with a lengthy setup (compared to shotcrete mortars). Maybe one day we can find a way to utilize air forms with this material.

Divet (author)sklarm2009-01-31

Bill Lishman is one of the original proponents of dome houses. I’ve always wondered how hard a job it was to raise and support the large metal trusses of his underground home, while it was being built. What sort of system are you using for your larger domes?

sklarm (author)Divet2009-01-31

Our domes only scale to 20' diameter. This is based on a 20' long stick of rebar. We build the arches and set up in much the same way on these larger domes as we did on the battery dome. I have a flickr set this illustrates how we build and raise the arches.

WonkotheSane (author)2009-01-30

This is awesome! I imagine that there are plans to replace some of the living structures on the property with similar building techniques? Have you had any code issues in your locality?

sklarm (author)WonkotheSane2009-01-30

Our property was pretty much empty when we purchased it. We have permits to build four 20' diameter domes. We are about half way into the first. We do have code enforcement in our area. It is based on the IBC 2006. Since papercrete and ferrocement are both outside of the standard UL listed building materials we needed to employ a structural engineer to review our sketchup drawings. The engineer did not cost much ($100) and had some good suggestions which we incorporated into our design. Our building inspector was pleased about the engineers stamp as it removed him from direct liability. We have pulled permits and are working with our local inspector since this type of building is outside the norm.

dchall8 (author)2009-01-30

I hope I'm not posting this twice. I've been having computer and browser problems today. In the interest of speeding up and possibly improving, have you considered making a tipi instead of a dome? It takes a while to build/plan it but it goes up in a few minutes. If it's double walled (inner and outer) it has some special properties for conducting heat out. I used bamboo poles and plastic sheet to build one for my girls. As you know neither of those materials are naturally available in NM. You can probably find pine poles, but nothing comes to mind for the skin. No skin I can think of would be as durable as what you're using, but even the papercrete might not be permanent. The big tipi design the Sioux and Crow came up with after horses arrived is a good one.

velacreations (author)2009-01-30

This is a great instructable. For those of you wondering the environmental impact of concrete, consider a building like this will last centuries. So, that inherit energy is spread over a long lifetime. Compared to wood or steel, concrete is far better for the environment. Some would argue that wood is ok if harvested sustainably, but it rarely is, and the stuff you buy at your local hardware store is not produced in that way. Plus, there is a lot of inherent energy is logging, not to mention destruction of ecosystems. Earthen materials are overall much better because they last longer, are generally more efficient with heating and energy, and can be made efficiently by localized labor. And rebar is usually recycled steel. Awesome work!

Rebiu (author)2009-01-30

You guys are awesome. Please consider that Papercrete has a high fiber content that gives it the tensile strength that concrete uses re bar for. You structure may be stronger but suggest that it is excessive. I understand the wire makes a nice armature there may be better ways. Including wrapping livestock panel around you perimeter and using precast papercrete elements as part of you armature. Maybe you could use a jump form to cast the cylindrical part of the dome. It seems very wasteful to me to not have you panels as shelter for the building.

codwithchips (author)2009-01-30

hi i have read about ferocement can the papercrete be used in any situatin such as a wet country like ireland answer please if you can

sklarm (author)codwithchips2009-01-30

I personally do not recommend papercrete be used in wet climates. Even in the US it is centered around the southwest desert regions. Some have used it in wet climates, but I would expect mold and other health concerns to arise. There are other additives such as foam shavings (from a waste stream), pumice, or perlite which can all be used with cement as a alternative to paper. These alternatives would do better in a wet climate.

rimar2000 (author)2009-01-29

Excellent work, congratulations!! A home made painting (a Russian friend gave me the recipe, I did not tried it, but he praised it a lot) is: portland cement, to add skim milk (it is important it be skim) until it acquires the desired consistency.

sklarm (author)2009-01-29

Thanks for the correction about terminology on hydrating vs. drying. However, this is not concrete. When papercrete is made/shred there is no monitoring of water % which is so critical to getting a good concrete or cement mortar. Papercrete is a very wet material which holds moisture for a much long period of time while curing. While concrete and cement mortars can quickly hydrate papercrete can take months to dry out.

jimwig (author)2009-01-29

concrete does ;not dry. it hydrates. it needs to be kept wet while it does so. cover it with plastic sheeting while it hydrates so as to prevent dehydration. get it? that is why concrete can set up under water.

John Kiniston (author)2009-01-29

Very cool project.

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Bio: I design and sell two different electronic devices. The first devices desulfates old dying batteries. The second assists people with the fermentation of foods. When ... More »
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