Driving down I-35 in Texas, between Waco and Dallas, there's a curious site just off the interstate. It looks like a massive, comical caterpillar rising up from the arid land, complete with antennae and smiling eyes; its sides are decorated with frolicking, painted cowboy boots. The structure could easily be mistaken for an art installation or whimsical tourist trap, but the building is, in fact, a 14,000 square foot factory. The Monolithic Institute in Italy, Texas calls its caterpillar factory Bruco, and it is within his bowels that a curious choice of home design begins to come to life.
Monolithic Domes are constructed from concrete ring foundations, reinforced with steel, and an inflated fabric Airform which creates the shape of the home – which is coated with polyurethane foam and a special spray mix of concrete. The homes are energy efficient and highly durable, built to withstand tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires. They're the domestic choice for hundreds of homeowners and families across the country; every year, the Institute hosts workshops for people interested in learning how to build domes – and also conducts feasibility studies to help evaluate plans for such dwellings.
Here, a few dome dwellers share snapshots of their near-indestructible dwellings – and their reasons for living without edges and angles.
The Monolithic Institute's manufacturing plant in Italy, Texas looks like a giant caterpillar and can be seen from the interstate
The Monolithic headquarters' property features an office, homes and experimental domes in addition to its caterpillar-shaped manufacturing facility, nicknamed Bruco
Before Matt and Jari Whiteacre got married 30 years ago, they'd always talked about the idea of living in a dome – particularly from the environmental and efficiency perspectives. But as their brood of four children grew, they had another priority: security.
'Safety quickly became a serious concern,' says Matt, a professor at Texas A&M. 'At that point in time, we had kids – so safety from a hurricane, tornado. We live in Texas and we actually could have either one of those.'
They began seriously researching their options and were highly impressed with Monolithic domes, both from a practical and aesthetic standpoint.
'There's just something about the aesthetics of a dome, that the more you look at them and work with them, the more you think they're really kind of a nice structure,' he says.
They began seriously working to construct their dome in 2011, determined to move from their 'regular, small neighborhood house on a tiny, little-bitty postal-type lot,' Matt says.
They bought nearly two acres on the edge of town in College Station and set about planning their dream dome home with the health of the Monolithic Dome Institute based in Italy, Texas. Matt documented the process on a blog and very succinctly summed up the unusual construction procedures.
Matt and Jari Whiteacre live with their family in a three-dome complex in College, Station, Texas, where Matt is a professor of engineering at Texas A&M
The main living space of the Whiteacre home includes a library, game room, sewing room, office, dining and kitchen area
Matt Whiteacre says many local contractors declined to work on the home because they had no experience with domes
The family moved from a 2,200 square foot house to the 5,500 square foot dome - without any change to their energy bills
The Whiteacre dome complex includes a 'pool dome' which can also convert to be used for guest quarters
'The process, in short, is to make it sort of like you make papier mache balloons,' he wrote. 'You blow up a really big balloon (well, a half balloon actually) and the cover it with concrete. In practice, you will cover the inside of the balloon (called an air form) with a layer of insulation and then spray concrete inside of that. The result is a structure that is very energy efficient (the walls are rated at at least R60 insulation and is very durable. Structurally they can withstand an F5 tornado or a category 5 hurricane.'
He tells DailyMail.com: 'Monolithic built us the foundation and the shell, and then our local contractor came in and installed the windows and the walls and all of that good stuff. It was a rather entertaining process to go through talking to local contractors about, would you put a bid on this house. Half of them said "No, I don't know what I'm doing."
'We had three or four that were kind of interested, but not one of them had ever worked on anything like this before. One of them said, "I don't really know much about this, either, but it looks like a really interesting technology. I would love to have it on my resume." He gave us a really nice price.'
Matt says he found the cost of a dome to be slightly higher than what he would estimate for a 'conventional' house but believes that, adding in the energy and maintenance savings over ten years, he believes you'd make up the 20 percent.
'We went from a 2,200 square foot conventional house to a 5,500 square foot dome, and our energy bill stayed the same,' he says. 'We had two and a half times our floor space and did not raise our energy bill.'
Their home comprises a main dome with a large open foyer, a master bedroom suite, an office, a sewing room, an exercise room, kitchen and dining area, library, game room, two other bedrooms and a bathroom. They also have a two-car garage dome and a 'pool dome' that also serves as a guest house.
He says he would 'absolutely' recommend dome living.
'It takes a little getting used to on the inside with curved walls and not bopping your head on the side of it when they curve in, but other than that, absolutely,' he says.
'If you like to be a conformist and don't like people to say you're weird or strange, don't do it – because you're going to have lots of people that are asking, "Why would you do that?" If you want everybody to think you're just a plain old boring person, don't do it.'
The family eventually secured the services of a local contractor who was fascinated by the dome structure and offered them a good price to have a chance to put the work on his resume
Matt Whiteacre says the family feels secure in the dome, which is built to withstand tornadoes and hurricanes, both of which are threats in their area of Texas
In addition to the main living space and a pool dome, the Whiteacre residence includes a two-car garage
Phil and Melody McWilliams were finally finished renovating their Orange County, California home ten years ago - a wooden house with a beautiful large deck that they'd fixed up just the way they wanted – when disaster struck. A terrible fire burned through Santiago Canyon in their rural California neighborhood, destroying their beloved home – and prompting the couple to vow to never live in a destructible house again.
'We decided that it would make no sense whatsoever to build another house that'd just burn down,' says Phil, a grant writer. 'So we looked around to find a way to build a house that would be fireproof.'
They considered unorthodox structures such as rammed earth homes, but their hunt for a fireproof abode eventually led them to the Monolithic Dome Institute in Texas.
'We found that this Monolithic Dome idea really encompassed all the great things we were looking for – not only being fireproof but being extraordinarily energy efficient and termite proof,' he says. 'It's even tornado proof, not that we have tornadoes out here, but it's also earthquake resistant. I'm not sure it's earthquake proof, but since it's like an upside down Tupperware bowl, it doesn't go anywhere in an earthquake.'
Phil and Melody McWilliams lost their previous, wooden home to a 2007 fire that swept through Orange County and destroyed 13 houses
The couple decided 'it would make no sense whatsoever' to rebuild in the area unless they chose a fireproof home
Their home is comprised of two domes connected by an elevated walkway; the couple consulted with a local architect to make sure the structure would fit in with the community surroundings
Phil says that he 'can't tell you what peace of mind it is to know I can go on vacation and not worry about the house burning down while I'm gone'
He and his wife hired the Texas-based company to build the dome and local contractors to outfit the interior. Phil was also careful to ensure the structure would fit into its surroundings.
'We're very sensitive to our history here in Madjeska Canyon, and one of our local architects, I asked him, "What do you think about this house? Does it fit in with the community?" And he said, "Yes, I think it does." It's nestled in trees and seems to be fine.'
He says: 'The cost wasn't prohibitive; it wasn't out of line with what an ordinary home would cost – considering that the house lasts 100 years and you can save so much on air conditioning, you save so much on heat, you don't even have to have it termite inspected. All these pluses, it just made a whole lot of sense. Psychologically, I had some friends of mine worry that it'd be weird living in a round home, that it'd affect us psychologically – but we found that that was not at all the case, that having a round home was great and no problem.'
The McWilliams' home is comprised of two domes; a two-bedroom main house and a guest/garage dome. The living space is 2,295 square feet and includes a large kitchen, master bedroom and bath, and second bedroom and bathroom. In addition to the kitchen and living space, the dome also features a game room with pool table.
The best part, though, Phil says, is the security and safety offered by the family's unusual setup.
'I can't tell you what peace of mind it is to know I can go on vacation and not worry about the house burning down while I'm gone,' he says. 'It is a very, very safe home, and you feel very, very secure.'
When Beverly and Ken Garcia began thinking of building a new home, there were a lot of factors to consider – not least that his parents' Gulf Coast home had been destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.
That motivated them to begin 'looking at structures that could withstand that kind of bad weather and also be super energy efficient,' says Beverly.
'The other thing we were looking at – we're years from retirement age – but we were looking in the future, as we wanted to go lower maintenance,' she says. 'Our house previous to this was three storeys in the back high – and you don't want to think about having to do maintenance and stuff on a structure of that size when you're getting older. It's just a lot.'
The couple are also quite environmentally conscious, and it wasn't long after they stumbled upon Monolithic domes that they were sold.
'It was pretty much domes came out on top, right off the bat,' says Ken about the couple's structural search.
They decided to build three interconnecting domes in New Hope, Alabama – where they'd enjoyed family vacations when their children were young - and hired local contractors in addition to doing much of the work themselves as avid DIY-ers.
'I did most the painting myself,' says Beverly. 'We did the concrete floors; I had someone come and teach me how to do it. So I did the concrete staining myself. We're DIY-ers, and we enjoy that.'
Beverly and Ken Garcia placed great importance on living in a safe and secure structure after his parents' home was destroyed on the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina
The Garcias chose to relocate from Mississippi to New Hope, Alabama, where they spent happy family vacations when their children were younger
The couple decided to build a tri-dome over 40 acres in the rural Alabama mountainside and christened their dome 'Sweet Dome Alabama'
Beverly and Ken enjoyed building and decorating their dome in Alabama because they are 'avid DIY-ers'
Beverly and Ken found the energy efficiency of the dome enticing and say they try to always be environmentally conscious
Beverly and Ken Garcia have given advice to other potential dome owners about the unique building challenges presented by the structures
The couple say the durability of the dome means that, regardless of the weather, they never have to worry when they go to bed at night
Beverly compares the rounded rooms of their dome to 'slices of a pie;' she says the dome's significant insulation means indoor temperatures do not fluctuate much during the year
The home includes two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen/dinette area and an office which can convert to guest quarters
Beverly and Ken say they were looking for a home that would be relatively low maintenance and energy efficient
The living space includes two bedrooms, an open kitchen/dining area, two bathroom and an office that can be converted into guest quarters. The Garcias christened their home 'Sweet Dome Alabama' – and Beverly compares the round rooms to 'slices of pie, in a way.'
'It's different,' Beverly says. 'It's definitely something you look at and then you look again. It's like, oh my goodness, that doesn't fit the 90-degree mindset that people have towards houses!'
Ken says: 'It is such a well-insulated structure – and very tight. You don't have drafts if it's built right.'
The feel incredibly safe and secure in their hillside dome, despite the fickle Alabama weather.
'We have a lot of bad weather up here in Alabama,' Beverly says. 'Everywhere you go, there's something. Down on the coast, we would have hurricanes, but a hurricane is predictable days out – whereas tornadoes are not necessarily predictable – sometimes minutes out. One of the nice things about living in a dome, no matter what the weather's doing, you can go to bed, go to sleep, you're not going to wake up in debris.
'The other thing about living in a dome is that it's so well insulated. Our temperature doesn't fluctuate much year round.'
They would undeniably recommend dome living and have offered advice to potential dome dwellers considering building similar structures – even giving tours of Sweet Dome Alabama to a few.
'We've allowed some people that have come to us, because they're seriously considering it, to look at ours,' says Beverly. 'We've talked to them and given them some information; some of our experience we've shared with them, because we would've really appreciated had somebody shared with us – because there's a lot of different things that you run into when you're building something unique. It would've been nice to have somebody guide us through things.'
And it's not just potential homeowners interested in viewing Dome Sweet Alabama, laughs Beverly.
'We have a lot of what we call drive-bys,' she says. 'We're located up on the mountain, and in the fall, when the trees lose their leaves, you can see from the road – and people will drive by and you'll see them hit their brakes. We've had people come up here and just take pictures or ask if they can take pictures before they leave – delivery people, just random people. So we're kind of like, well, what do you say?'
Retired television executive Joe Gora says he'd been mulling over dome living for a few years before he actually bit the bullet and decided to build one of his own in Marietta, Georgia.
'You just kind of hang around earth-minded people, alternative living magazines, and somehow it comes up,' he says. 'You look into it and then, stage by stage, you get more interested in it. That's the way it was for me.'
He did his due diligence, however, booking a stay in a similar structure before he fully committed. He found a place that rented out small domes in north Georgia.
'I wanted to make sure I wanted the experience of being in one for 24 hours versus just visiting one for a few minutes,' he says. 'So I kind of went that route and found it attractive and interesting.'
It took about six or seven months for the interior and exterior of his dome to be fully complete – during which some of the neighbors didn't quite know what to make of it, Joe says.
'During the construction phase, the guy next door would show up every morning,' he says. 'He was retired; he'd show up in his pajamas and watch us work.'
Joe Gora rented a dome in north Georgia to experience living in one before he committed to building one himself
The dome - which Joe calls an 'empty nester,' features one bedroom, one bathroom, a jacuzzi and several skylights
Joe describes himself as a 'food nut' so decided to design his dome with the kitchen in the center
And Joe is delighted with the finished product, which he's lived in since 1999.
'It's everything I expected,' he says. 'My heating, electric bill is stupid cheap. Being a single guy, you don't have a bunch of teenagers running water all day, and just that kind of stuff being cheap.'
He's also seen the benefits of the dome's durability.
'I did have a tree [fall] – instead of destroying the house, like it would have any other house, it made a six-inch hole in the ceiling,' he says.
He calls his one-bedroom, one-bathroom dome 'an empty-nester home.'
'It has a Jacuzzi in it, and then the main living area is the vast majority of the dome – and because I'm a foodie, a food nut, the kitchen is in the center of the home, up two steps – so it's like the center, on a pedestal, and circular – then a big five-foot skylight over the center of it.'
He says: 'It's what I call a Home Depot home: everything on the inside is not Italian marble imported from Italy but bought from Home Depot. It's basic; it's good stuff.'