Millions of people have watched and shared “Steve’s Dome Home,” a video on YouTube about a gorgeous dome house built for about $9,000 on an organic mango farm in the countryside of northeastern Thailand. Curious ourselves — okay perhaps “obsessed” is a better word — we reached out to the co-builder of this famous dome home and founder of Domegaia, Hajjar Gibran, to get the inside scoop.
ELSE: Hajjar, thank you in advance for this conversation — we’ve been secretly geeking out about it behind the scenes! So, how did you end up in the world of dome homes?
HAJJAR GIBRAN: It’s a 66-year-long story at this point. I’ll try to be brief.
My father was a very creative inventor, and I went to the inventors’ conventions with him when I was a child. He invented the dome tent. Back in the 60’s, tents were boxy and had straight poles. Now dome tents are the norm. He was ahead of his time. He never marketed it.
He also invented the motor home. Before Winnebagos and RVs existed, he put a trailer house on a truck and hit the road. Our whole family took a trip all the way across the country. People would just pull over on the side of the road when they saw us coming.
I am just following in his footsteps in a sense.
But the other thing is, one of the most important things to me in my life has always been to be free.
I remember my last semester in engineering school, we met with corporations about taking on career positions, and that scared the hell out of me. I did not want to go down that road. I just wanted to be free.
I realized housing is so fundamental to maintaining freedom, so I’ve always found ways to avoid the high cost of owning a home.
All my life I’ve been a passionate builder and designer. As a kid, I built treehouses. I’ve been building my own homes for years. Living in Thailand, I had freedom that I never experienced before. You didn’t have to get permission from anyone, and materials and labor were really inexpensive.
I started building with wood because that’s what I knew. In the tropics, wood was expensive and impractical. So I thought, well, let’s see what we can do. The cheapest material there was a cinder block. So I thought, let me see what I can do with cinder blocks. But I didn’t want to build boxes.
I just had this idea: Why can’t you just stack them into a dome? So I tried it, and it worked out so well!
The first dome was almost a 7-meter diameter, so about 23 feet. It was so much nicer than wood, and it was so inexpensive. It blew my mind. It cost about $1000.
That was the first dome, and it turned out great, but cinder blocks weren’t the best material. I experimented with other materials and did some research, and I learned about something called “cellular concrete,” a lightweight, air-infused cement. I thought “Wow! How come I never heard of that before?” But it wasn’t available on a do-it-yourself scale even though it’s a huge industry around the world.
They’re using it in road construction. They’re building skyscrapers out of it in Bangkok. It’s used a lot in the mining industry. It’s a really well-established material, but no one’s using it for doing low-cost housing.
ELSE: From an engineering perspective, a beauty perspective, and a practicality perspective, what made you fall in love with dome-shaped structures?
HAJJAR GIBRAN: Architects and engineers have known for centuries that domes and arches are strong. If you go to Europe, that’s what you’ll see because it just makes sense.
Personally, something about a box just is not okay. I don’t want to live in a box. I don’t want a flat ceiling over my head.
A dome is the simplest structure. It’s what nature builds. There’s just one dimension in a dome: the radius. It creates walls and a roof that are all integrated into one continuous form. That’s another level of simplicity in terms of construction.
All I need is a compass – something that pivots around the center to define the shape. It’s the simplicity of it.
ELSE: Yes! I hear that something about a dome relaxes your nervous system. Somehow our bodies recognize that there’s something more natural about it.
HAJJAR GIBRAN: Building boxes with sticks, that just happened when we started logging our forests. Before that, we’ve lived in domes.
When you go into a cathedral and you’re in domes and arches, it gives you a wonderful feeling. There’s no reason our homes shouldn’t have that same elegance and beauty.
I built a seven-sided and a six-sided building at the Gibran Center before I built the domes. They’re approaching roundness, but there is nothing compared to having just the pure dome without any facets to it.
I also love concrete in the tropics. It’s so nice because the insects can’t deal with it. There’s no place for the cockroaches to room in. It’s so clean and pure. In terms of the structure, it’s so simple: one material making one shape, and it’s impervious to moisture, and insects, and fire, rot.
Then with AirCrete, you expand the volume of the cement about five or six times with air, which is essentially free. You have to run an air compressor and use soap to create the foam, but it’s low-cost, and you end up with a material that’s easier to work with, that’s much cheaper, and has insulating value.
ELSE: Right. So for our readers, AirCrete is basically concrete, but with air infused in it so it becomes a lot lighter, but still strong and easier to work with if you need to drill into it. It’s also more cost-effective than concrete because you’re expanding your materials.
This type of material is typically only available with really expensive construction equipment, yet you created a do-it-yourself alternative that basically anybody can use to make AirCrete. Is that right?
HAJJAR GIBRAN: That’s true. I’ve created what I call The Little Dragon which is a continuous foam generator, and I also developed a method of injecting the foam right into the mixing paddles of a handheld mixer.
It makes it really easy to mix it by hand. It’s kind of like a bigger version of a mixer in the kitchen. If you can mix pancake batter, you can mix AirCrete.
ELSE: Wow! And you lead dome-building workshops, something that the average person can learn with a little bit of skill and teaching. Is that right?
HAJJAR GIBRAN: Yes. It’s actually really simple.
There are two processes I’m developing: One is making blocks out of AirCrete, and then stacking the blocks in a dome like we did in Thailand, except the blocks that we’re making are tapered so all the sides point toward the center and nestle together really nicely.
The other is an airform system, which is a better method in my mind, but it takes more to develop. The method is to inflate the shape of the dome as an airform, kind of like a bouncy house, and then put another layer over that to create a four or five inch thick cavity that we pour in the AirCrete in. We’ll cast the building in one piece.
It is more complex to develop this forming system, and it’s probably not appropriate for the do-it-yourself person who just wants to build one dome. But as a method of building domes, it will be better, much simpler, and will cost even less.
If we had that system now, we could go down to Haiti and build a dome practically every day. You just inflate the form, pour in the AirCrete, and then do another one.
ELSE: Wow! So this could really alleviate major problems in areas that have suffered from natural disasters. And, on another level, there are so many people who just want to opt out of the traditional mortgage system. What else is possible with this technology?
HAJJAR GIBRAN: Well, I think anything is possible. It seems like we’re at a turning point in civilization. We either have to start doing things differently or suffer the consequences.
I see housing as fundamental to helping us make a change, especially for people who want to move onto the land and start living in community, growing food, and doing things completely differently. A lot of people would love to be part some kind of alternative, sustainable project. And there are a lot of people who would love to volunteer to make that happen. I really want to support that movement by offering a low-cost housing option.
We have a lot of interest from architects and engineers who want to get involved or support our project. In fact, an architect here in Hawaii just used AirCrete in one of his projects. Once we have an approved system you’ll see AirCrete used in conventional neighborhoods.
There are a lot of possibilities.
ELSE: What is realistic to expect as far as cost of building something like this – a home for yourself using AirCrete and the materials you’re talking about, from start to finish?
HAJJAR GIBRAN: We built Steve’s dome home in Thailand for about $9000, but AirCrete is less expensive than cinderblocks, which is what we used at the time.
So if you build yourself, it’s very inexpensive. If you do it with a group of people who build for each other and you don’t have labor cost, it’s very inexpensive. The materials are about a dollar per square foot per square inch. In other words, if you build 1000 square feet and it’s 5 inches thick, it’ll cost you about $5,000.
And that includes the entire AirCrete structure, including your foundation. It’s basically the finished dome with the openings for the windows, and doors, and the arches.
ELSE: Wow! So glass for windows, doors, countertops – those elements are not included in what we’re talking about here — but $5,000 covers the materials for the full structure of this home. That is amazing.
HAJJAR GIBRAN: This airform system will make it faster because we’ll be able to build a building that costs $5,000 in 2 days. Inflate the form in 1 day, pour the AirCrete in that afternoon, and the next day, take it off and paint it.
ELSE: So, what is the best place to start for those who are interested in building a dome home or getting creative with AirCrete?
HAJJAR GIBRAN: Come to a Domegaia workshop! We just hosted our very first workshop in Mexico, we have one coming up in Hawaii, and more to be announced soon. In the workshops, you learn how to make AirCrete, how to do a block-building dome, how to build arches and round windows, and all the different aspects.
Or, you can order the equipment and start making your own AirCrete for just a few hundred dollars. If you want to build a Little Dragon yourself, we sell the plans for $39, and then there’s about $150-$200 worth of parts in it. Or you can buy a kit with all the parts or the complete unit all ready to use. All of that’s available on the Domegaia website.
ELSE: This is such an out-of-box approach to housing. Literally, out of the box and into the dome! Thank you so much for sharing your innovation and wisdom with us Hajjar!