Utah architect uses dome design to create safe school buildings

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LOCUST GROVE, Okla. — Unusual new schools are popping up all over the country and the architect, contractors and technology come from Utah. The schools are topped with giant domes that look a bit sci-fi.

"I'm sure out-of-towners think, 'what in the world were those people thinking?’ ” said a parent in Locust Grove, standing in front of one of the new elementary schools. Superintendent David Cash said they were thinking safety first.

Locust Grove is a small community sitting in Tornado Alley without a lot of taxpayer money to burn. So it set out to build the safest school possible at an affordable price. "I know they are safe, from active shooter to earthquake to tornado to any other disasters. This is the safest building you can be in," explained Cash.

When students and teachers moved in, he discovered even more benefits. "I figured about 40 percent in utilities in savings. That is tremendous for us. That is $25,000 a year." He likes the building so much he's doming the new high school.

Teachers are also sold on the design. "It is such a great teaching environment," said pre-kindergarten teacher Julie Atchley "The temperature and everything is perfect all the time."

When you step inside the building, it looks like a typical school with a few minor differences. Some of the walls are curved and a gap in the ceiling reveals the concrete dome.

"When we go to these places — rural Oklahoma, Texas, Mississippi — they are doing their best to keep the costs of buildings down so they can spend more on the kids." –Leland Gray, Utah architect

Utah architect Leland Gray is designing these thin-shell concrete domes all over the country.

"When we go to these places — rural Oklahoma, Texas, Mississippi — they are doing their best to keep the costs of buildings down so they can spend more on the kids," Gray explained.

Both the elementary and the high school in Locust Grove cost $94 a square foot to build. That's a deal considering the price for school construction in the U.S. ranges from $150-$250 a square foot. In Utah, the new Olympus High School cost $174 a square foot.

The use of air-form technology cuts a lot of building costs. First, compressed air inflates a giant membrane. From the inside, the dome is sprayed thick with insulating urethane. It's reinforced with steel bars. Finally, it's covered with layer upon layer of sprayed concrete.

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

The monolithic form makes the school practically indestructible and the concrete naturally keeps the building at a comfortable temperature. Cash attributes a 30 percent drop in student sick days to the building's ductless heating and cooling system.

The New York Times recently ran an editorial encouraging communities to consider building more domes.

"If I was building a house, I would build a house in Oklahoma just like this," Cash said. Some people already are. Italy, Texas, has a subdivision of dome houses.

BYU professor Arnold Wilson engineered the first thin-shell concrete domes with David South 40 years ago.

Architects like Gray continue to improve the look and function.

David Olschewski, a building superintendent with Custom Construction and Design of Herriman, thinks the savings will eventually drive school districts in Utah to think about building under the dome. "If it is affordable, they can look past what they might otherwise not want to look at." Olschewski is currently working on the new high school in Locust Grove.

Utah has one dome school in Genola designed by Gray. The structure with four monolithic domes includes a Head Start school and also serves as a facility for migrant workers.


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