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Home Sweet Dome

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Not just unique in appearance, the energy efficient domes can save a lot of money

By April Wright, Reporter

 As Chris and Maddy Ecker set out looking for a home they could retire to, they wanted something unique.

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It was this idea that led the couple to have a monolithic dome — a large, igloo-shaped house — constructed in Galax. 

Their new home, which they moved into two weeks ago, will be open for a tour Saturday as part of the 10th annual Fall Dome Home Tour happening all across the United States.

Chris Ecker had wanted a log cabin, but decided to go with his wife's choice after thinking about the hard labor and costs that come with replacing the roof, cleaning gutters and other maintenance, he said, recalling the $3,500 it cost to replace a roof on his 1,200-square-foot brick veneer home at Virginia Beach. 

When they started talking about retirement five years ago, they discussed floor plans and what kind of elements they would like in their new home. 

On Chris' birthday, when they took a tour of some dome homes, the Eckers fell in love with the idea. He took a trip to the Monolithic Dome Institute in Italy, Texas for a week-long course on the advantages and disadvantages of the homes. 

“We really appreciated the use of space, and were just sold on it,” said Chris. “The designs are so versatile and it saves a ton on energy bills.” 

The one-story, 1,960-square-foot, tarp-covered, steel-reinforced concrete structure is nearing completion. It includes two bedrooms, two baths, a large kitchen, a living room, a sunroom and a loft storage area. 

The dome home is also handicapped accessible. “We know that this is going to be the place that we are going to live forever,” said Chris, noting the accessible design. “When it came to the design, we wanted an open-loft feel, with a nice, big kitchen that flowed into the living room.”

Monolithic domes cost just as much to construct as conventional homes, but are energy efficient and cost as much as 50 percent less to heat and cool than a traditional structure of the same size. Because there is less surface area, not as much heat escapes in the winter or seeps in during the summer. 

During construction of the home, when all the holes hadn't been completely sealed off and no heating source was available, a snow storm hit in February and temperatures were zero and below. The indoor temperature never fell below 45 degrees, mainly because the 10 loads of concrete that make up the dome act as a thermal battery, said Chris.

The dome offers other ways to save on electricity — big windows bring in sunlight to heat the concrete floor, which stays warm throughout the night; a heat recovery ventilation unit provides climate control; and on-demand electric heaters heat cold water when the faucets are turned on. Also, electrical appliances, windows and doors are energy efficient.

The Eckers' electric bill for February was $300 in their doublewide home, but Chris is expecting a huge drop in that this year in the dome. In fact, the Eckers haven't even used a cooling source all summer. 

“Monolithic dome churches and schools will pay for themselves in energy savings in 15 to 20 years,” said Chris. “I'm not sure the home will pay for itself within that time, but we will definitely appreciate the cost savings.” 

Expected to last between 500 to 1,000 years, one of the major advantages of a monolithic dome is its ability to withstand hurricanes, tornadoes and even fire. It meets the Federal Emergency Management Agency's standards for near-absolute protection, which means a cut on homeowner's insurance.

Chris was born in Raleigh, N.C., and grew up in Ohio, and his wife was raised in Massachusetts. Chris, who served as a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy, and his wife, who served as a registered nurse in the navy, met 25 years ago in Portsmouth while working in the same location. They lost track of each other for 10 years after relocations, but reconnected when Maddy and Chris returned to the same area. 

They married in 1996 and lived in the Virginia Beach area until relocating to Galax over two years ago. 

“When we started looking far ahead about retirement, we looked on the Internet and started looking into Galax,” said Chris. “It's quieter than Virginia Beach, people are genuine. When people wave, they mean it.” 

The Eckers had also looked into moving to Massachusetts, Ohio or out west; then in the areas of Patrick, Henry and Carroll counties. 

When Chris told his aunt and uncle, who live in this area, he couldn't find a place to live with all that he wanted, they quickly found what he requested—five to 10 acres of land nestled near the Blue Ridge Parkway with friendly neighbors. 

“We liked the mountains, the fact that we had all the four seasons, fresh air and the hills,” said Chris. “The ice storms are a little chilly, but all you have to do is shovel.” 

They moved into a doublewide home until the dome could be completed. Built from the inside -out, the exterior of the home is expected to be complete within the next few weeks.

“We're just excited to be in it,” said Chris. “My wife is just tickled. She says to me, 'Do you realize how many get to live out their dream?' We've been blessed, and that's for certain.”

 

• The Eckers' dome home is located at 116 Commodore Lane in Galax. It will be open for tours from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturday. The tour, which is sponsored by the Monolithic Dome Institute in Texas, is designed to raise awareness about these unusual buildings. For more information, visit www.monolithic.com.