Editor’s note: The following article was published by US Builders Review in its “Best of the United States 2017.” Author is Mike Schoch.
The brute strength and space efficiency of Dome Technology’s domes make them ideal for storing bulk products like grain and wood pellets. In fact, the domes are so strong they can weather hurricane-force winds and tornadoes, which is why the company now builds shelters for school kids and their communities.
The key to doing this, according to Dome Technology’s vice president of Marketing, Jason Miller, is cutting literal corners.
With their rounded walls, dome-shaped structures have no corners to catch the wind, and flying debris from a storm is more likely to be deflected by a dome than by a flat wall.
“In the bulk storage world we build on ports next to oceans, lakes and rivers,” Miller says. “That means you have a high potential for storm-related disasters.” Similarly, Dome-shaped structures are useful in the landlocked middle states, which are prone to tornadoes.
When founded in 1975 by Barry South, the Idaho-based company focused on storing potatoes. After word spread about its strong, versatile facilities, Dome Technology became popular for storing commodities like wood pellets, coal, sugar and cement as well.
Miller says the company doesn’t just bank on the shape of the dome. It incorporates safety into the interior design as well. That’s because bulk storage facilities can be susceptible to explosion. “Dust is your enemy in bulk storage. Once you get dust in the air from wood pellets, grain or coal, a tiny spark can ignite and explode,” he says.
In massive storage facilities like those found at Drax power station in the United Kingdom—Dome Technology’s largest project to date—a single spark has the potential to ignite 80,000 tons of wood pellets, which would cause a massive explosion.
That’s why the facility is equipped with a 90 foot-wide vent at the dome’s peak that allows pressure to be released up and out.
Recently, Miller says the company has pioneered a proprietary circular vent that more evenly absorbs explosive force, further protecting workers and products.
Beyond its safety measures, Dome Technology’s structures hold more of a product compared to an equivalent-sized rectangular structure or silo. That’s a crucial feature for Dome Technology’s customers who must often build where real estate costs are sky-high.
Though Dome Technology’s bread and butter is storage, it has built more than 20 FEMA-approved schools and community shelters, primarily in the so-called tornado belt of Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.
“When these tornadoes roll through and there are projectiles driving everywhere and 200 mile per hour winds and all the devastation that comes with them, domes withstand the storms extremely well,” Miller says.
The same qualities that make domes ideal storage facilities also make them great for keeping people safe. In 2015, Dome Technology built a storm shelter that doubles as a gymnasium with locker rooms and offices adjacent to a high school in Webb City, Missouri. The structure can withstand 250 mph winds and will shelter up to 3,000 people.
Miller says that students and parents know “when the wolf comes knocking at the door, this is the place to come to.”
As with its storage facilities, Dome Technology’s shelters are safe because of their construction as much as their design. To build the domes, workers first inflate a massive PVC membrane, then they spray polyurethane foam on the inside of it, insulating the dome against heat and cold.
The final step involves installing a rebar skeleton against the interior foam and reinforcing it with concrete. The inflated membrane skin is left up even after construction is complete to act as a water barrier. Not only does the construction process keep workers safe during building, it makes the final product sturdy and very easy to modify because it doesn’t have interior walls for support.
“What if the school decided it needed a gymnasium instead of classrooms? The school could simply knock out all the interior walls because the dome is self-supporting,” Miller says.
Because Dome Technology’s products are so versatile, the company works closely with clients on design. “We pride ourselves on talking to the customer and combining their ideas with our ideas to get the best solution,” Miller says.
Miller recalls an instance when Dome Technology were able to design a system that would cost $3 million dollars less than the model a customer thought it wanted.
Despite the unconventional construction process, Miller says most facilities, whether storage or shelter, take as little as three to five months to build. He says traditional facilities just can’t compete—price- or time-wise—and believes dome-shaped structures will become more and more common.
Being blunt, he says, “we feel we can beat the socks off outdated building methods.”
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