Some gawk at unusual new Murrysville house
Sunday, June 19, 2005
By Caitlin Cleary, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Laurie Thompson stands near the bottom of a floating staircase. The staircase will have railings when completed.
For the past several months, motorists tearing along Trafford Road in Murrysville have been slowed to a crawl by the sight of three huge domes, mushrooming up from the soil on a hillside to the east.
The colossal hemispheres dwarf the teams of construction workers, well-drillers and other technicians at the site. Their organic shapes draw a stark architectural contrast to the rows of large, boxy, cookie-cutter homes just across the road in the Hilltop Estates plan, all of which adhere to a palette of tasteful beiges and taupes.
“We’ve had lots of people driving by, checking out the house,” said Rob Thompson, who is living in Edgewood until his house is finished in August. “We had one guy here for about a week, just hanging out. Finally we had to ask him to leave — he was holding up the workers.”
Thompson is building his dream home in Murrysville, but it is no ordinary McMansion. He is an admirer of R. Buckminster Fuller, who invented the modern geodesic dome house in response to the housing shortages of World War II. The strong, energy-efficient structure was able to be produced rapidly and cheaply, because its rounded shape enclosed a larger area with less building materials.
Thompson has been planning this attention-grabbing house for the last 10 years. It took him more than a year to plan it all out and another year to find the perfect piece of land. And it had to be perfect — the triangular windows, designed for solar heat, tilt at a precise angle and are oriented to follow the sun during the wintertime. He envisioned a home that was energy-efficient and environmentally friendly, and hired an architect and an engineer to turn his ideas into blueprints.
“The practical benefits of the dome shape are that you can enclose an area with one-third less roof surface area,” Thompson said. “And, it gives you nice, high cathedral ceilings.”
Such homes are a rarity in the region, said Erik Johnson, a marketing executive at Natural Spaces Domes, one of the main manufacturers of dome houses in the world. Johnson estimated that five such homes exist in Western Pennsylvania.
People who build dome houses seek an alternative way of living, Johnson said — unconventional, off-the-grid, self-sustaining. Most domes are found in rural areas, largely because many new, suburban communities restrict their housing to a few types of traditional houses, “where your siding can only be beige, beige or light beige,” Johnson said.
Thompson’s 10,000-square-foot house is made up of three domes and three connectors. On paper, it looks like a diagram of a water molecule. Up close, it’s all gray-shingled roof. And from a distance, it looks a bit like the home of a Smurf.
“Everybody’s curious,” said Peg Kibel, a retired teacher who lives across the road on Murry Highlands Circle. “They stop on the hill and back up” to get a better look.
Neighbors have been watching the dome house go up since May 2004, and it has proved quite the conversation piece. Back when only two of the domes had been built, people called it “Hooters on the Hill.”
“It doesn’t really bother me,” Kibel said. “To each his own. We’ve gotten lots of laughs out of it; that sounds awful to say, but we have.”
Thompson’s house stands out from the others in the neighborhood, unique both in form and function.
While the other homes are ensconced in vast, emerald-green swaths of precision-cut grass, Thompson wants to make his home as self-sustaining as possible. He intends to plant a small orchard in the back with peach, plum and cherry trees, “my kids’ favorites,” he said. The rest of the 2-acre lot will be covered with crops of blueberries and raspberries, and the hillsides will sprout wildflowers and buffalo grass, which Thompson said has to be mowed only once a year.
“The guy next door has a huge yard, and he has to bring someone in to mow it,” he said.
One connector will serve as an indoor greenhouse, adjacent to a twin outdoor greenhouse. Among the three connectors is a triangular courtyard where he will plant a vegetable garden.
Cupolas atop each dome bring in extra light and allow for ventilation. The walls of the dome house are 2 feet thick, twice as efficient as most conventional homes. The foundation is reinforced concrete with high-density expanded polystyrene for double insulation.
“With the price of fuel, you can’t have too much insulation,” he said.
The house will have radiant heating underneath its granite floors, and geothermal cooling, where 10 holes are drilled 300 feet into the earth. Hot air inside the house gets sucked out and exchanged with cooler air from underground, making it much more efficient than air-conditioning. Thompson said the geothermal system will pay for itself within five years.
From the architectural lines to its heating and cooling, the dome is just about the complete opposite of the 110-year-old Edgewood home he’s lived in for the last 25 years. Thompson, a stay-at-home dad who shares custody of his children with his ex-wife, sold his computer software company, Redshaw Inc., to ITT’s Hartford Insurance Group in 1982, making him a multimillionaire. The cost of building his dome house is upwards of $1 million.
Just because the dome house is “green” doesn’t mean Thompson skimped on luxury.
Its cavernous interior is so roomy that his daughter Laurie, 9, can roller skate from room to room. The typical dome house is about 2,500 to 3,000 square feet, said Johnson.
The floors will be all granite. In the wall between the master bedroom and master bath is a see-through fireplace, making it possible for someone to take a bath directly in front of a crackling fire. In the wall separating the kitchen and living room will be a 5-foot-tall, 200-gallon marine fish tank.
One of the domes is devoted exclusively to housing an indoor pool for Laurie and her brother, Rick, 11, so they can swim year-round. And at the very top of one dome, beyond a pull-down ladder, is a small lookout room for the children, with windows offering a 360-degree view of the Murrysville landscape.
“I’ve built structures this large before, but never this unique,” said builder Tom Eckersley. “It’s been a lot of fun. It’s always fun to do something different.”
Construction of the dome house didn’t require any special permits, said Tom McGuire, residential building inspector for the municipality of Murrysville. However, because it is so unlike anything Murrysville has seen before, and so unlike anything the builder had built before, McGuire made more than the standard number of site inspections.
As for the neighbors, a few may grumble about the aesthetics of the dome home, but most are intrigued by the addition to the neighborhood.
“It’s interesting, and it’s been interesting to watch it go up,” said Kibel. “We keep hoping there’s going to be an open house [when it’s all done], because everybody is watching, and wondering.”
(Caitlin Cleary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2533.)