The Crestone Eagle, December 2003:

Inventive team plants sphere in Baca Grants
story & photographs by Roni S. Chernin

These guys are friends of mine—one has been like a brother to me for about 8 years. So when Larry Erpelding and Keith (Skillet) Fancher of Colorado Springs bought a tax property in the Grants at the auction last fall, and told me they were going to build something on it, I was delighted. Skillet is a builder who specializes in restaurants and domes. Larry is a master cabinetmaker. Together they decided to do something experimental. A sphere. Like, in completely round. Like, what’s it going to sit on? Like, how will they create living spaces in there?

Somehow, it was approved by the E&AC. Larry was able to answer every question they threw at him, until Kelly Hart just threw up his hands in resignation. I have to admit, I was skeptical, but now that the project is underway, it is fascinating to watch how the problems are being resolved as the construction progresses.

Buckminster Fuller is credited with popularizing the dome structure. He believed it would be a more healthy and amenable environment for people to live in, since round forms are closer to nature than rectangles. When asked why a sphere, Skillet said he always wanted to do a sphere, and Larry got intrigued by the prospect. Since most buildings are square and most furniture is built to fit square buildings and rooms, building for round shapes would be a new challenge for him. Larry says, “You spend a lifetime in a trade, doing the same thing over and over, you want something different, something to stretch your imagination. This is definitely doing it!” So began their brainstorming partnership.

Referring to themselves as “dome and domer”, Larry and Skillet had to figure out how to put together the two 32 foot diameter domes. They wanted a strong, lightweight and flexible system for applying the stress-skin panels, and the underside had to be waterproof. Originally thinking they would need to rotate the dome to apply the skin materials, (and joking about rolling it down the Valley) they devised a method of building the sphere around and attaching it to a large axle, which would be rotated as needed for application of cement and papercrete. Quickly dubbed “the rotisserie”, the axle turned out not to be needed, because once the sphere was stabilized, it sat without a foundation, literally “planted” in the sand.

You don’t realize it is a full sphere until you are right on top of it. An icosahedron is a 20 faced polyhedron, usually with 20 equilateral triangles, and this is the structure that is being used because it provides increased height and strength in the structure. Larry came up with the idea of including large washers at the point of contact, which strengthens the corners of the triangles—what Skillet calls “a huge structural innovation in the construction of pipe domes”.

The structure of a sphere is different than most domes. It has an increased sheer load because it is not on a foundation. The full sphere is a tension structure like an egg—it is strong enough to resist earthquakes and tornados. The building material is fireproof.

The bottom of the structure is coated with a 2” cementicious, waterproof stress skin, sandwiched with layers of mesh, similar to what is used to build swimming pools. Once it is fully “planted” and secured, they will start on the dormers and south-facing atrium. Above grade, they will be using a quick drying papercrete formula that Skillet developed, which has shredded paper, Portland cement, chopped strands of fiberglass, lime and a masonry accelerator. It dries much more quickly than a conventional papercrete mix. His test samples were drying in five days at 55 degrees with no sun. A faster curing time puts less stress on the structure, and they estimate they can do a spray lamination of a couple of inches at a time. If the entire structure were of masonry base coat, there would be no ability for expansion and contraction, but the papercrete will allow for climate-related changes.

They think that the cost of building the skin of the sphere will be less than that of a conventional building, because sitting it in the earth eliminates the expense of a foundation. Another advantage of having half your building underground is the equalizing of temperature, significantly decreasing the cost of heating and cooling.

The structure is planned to have three floors, totaling about 1300 square feet of usable space. The biggest challenge will be the dormers, which will define the interior space.

Skillet says, “The road is long, long, long, and we’re just barely getting out of the driveway. I adhere to the philosophy that it’s easy to screw up. The challenge is to fix it, make it right, and learn from it. That’s what life is about—learning. Challenge is what feeds and makes me stronger. I come from the school of hard knocks; it’s a good thing I have a hard head!”

Located on Beaver Trail off Homestead Road in the Grants, the sphere is hard to miss. From ground level, it looks like a dome. Once construction starts up again in the spring, visitors are welcome to stop by, but be forewarned; you might be put to work! Skillet will be updating his website with photos from the project at http://www.futurespaceinc.com.

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