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Making the Grade against Disaster

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

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School districts across the country are showing a new silhouette on their facilities, opting for more dome-shaped designs rather than those of traditional buildings, experts say.

Introduced nearly 40 years ago, air-form buildings, or Monolithic Domes, are increasingly being used for K-12 schools in areas prone to tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters.

Why? The concrete domes are “virtually indestructible,” according to Utah-based Leland Gray Architects, one of the firms leading the dome design and construction trend sweeping across Tornado Alley.

Tornado damage in school
Andrea Booher / FEMA

Schools in the U.S.'s Tornado Alley are turning to disaster-resistant building techniques, such as the Monolithic Dome. An EF-5 twister ripped through Moore, OK, on May 20, 2013, killing 24, including nine children. Schools and other structures were destroyed.

Gray told, that the domes were also cheaper and ideal for rural areas with little taxpayer money for new traditional school buildings.

Monolithic Domes were first developed by brothers David, Barry and Randy South in 1975.

Dome Building Process

Designed to last for centuries, the buildings are constructed using an inflatable balloon-like membrane to create the shape of the dome, according to, the website for the South brothers' Monolitic Dome Institute.

The air-form is attached to the building’s circular foundation and inflated using giant fans. Once inflated, workers spray three inches of polyurethane foam inside the building to provide insulation.

Next, a grid of steel rebar is attached to the foam and shotcrete is installed, ranging from four inches at the top to eight inches at the base, the site notes. After this is complete, the fans can be turned off, creating a permanent, safe and energy-efficient structure, the company says.

Safety First

Often described as the most disaster-resistant building that can be constructed above ground, the domes meet or exceed the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s specifications for community disaster shelters.

The domes can resist a EF-5 tornado, with 300 mph winds, and provide “maximum safety” for the inhabitants, according to the Leland Gray Architects.

Dome schools in Locust Grove

The buildings may look out of this world, but they are designed to keep teachers and students in the world and as safe as possible. In 2011, Locust Grove, OK, constructed a series of interconnecting domes, designed by Leland Gray Architects, for its elementary and high school.

FEMA has provided grants to help build domes.

“I know they are safe, from active shooter to earthquake to tornado to any other disaster,” Locust Grove, OK, Schools Superintendent David Cash said in an interview with KSL. In 2011, Locust Grove had Gray design and build dome buildings for its elementary and high schools.

“This is the safest building you can be in,” Cash said.

Construction, Energy Savings

Further, the thin-shell construction method slashes building costs.

For example, in Locust Grove, officials spent $94 a square foot to build both the elementary and high school, KSL reported. The report said the typical price range for U.S. school construction is $150 to $250 per square foot.

School damaged by Tornado
George Armstrong / FEMA

Often described as the most disaster-resistant building that can be constructed above ground, the domes meet or exceed the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s specifications for community disaster shelters.

The concrete structures can be erected in four to six months or even less depending on the weather and other working conditions, according to Leland Gray Architects. The design also provides a building enclosure that protects other building trades work from inclement weather so that the project construction can go on without delay and extra costs.

Gray told KSL, "Whether it is 60 feet across or 600 feet across, there are no columns, which means there is no footing. It is much less expensive to do that.”

In addition, dome-shaped schools’ utility bills are “at least 50 percent less than those for other types of buildings of similar size and use,” according to


Tagged categories: Architects; Building Envelope; Building envelope; Building science; Concrete; Design; Schools

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (6/4/2014, 8:28 AM)


Comment from M. Halliwell, (6/6/2014, 10:57 AM)

I know two families who have built these as family dwellings east of town in summer, warm in winter and able to take a heck of a beating by storms. Interior finishing can be a challenge (square peg in a round hole for joining to the exterior wall), but otherwise they say they are great designs. Nice to see it applied to some larger buildings.

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