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





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

About: 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 I am not working on electronics I like to ...
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 Discussions

    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?

    2 replies

    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.

    2 replies

    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.

    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".

    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.

    2 replies

    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.

    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.

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

    1 reply

    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.

    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.

    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????

    1 reply

    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.