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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 6/4/2011

Entryways were really slow. So slow that it took a day per entryway (four of them). Additionally I spent another day on the four window dormers. I've also had two hydraulic failures on my Z45 man lift, which has slowed me down (two hours lost on a Friday morning and another four hours lost on a Wednesday morning). Strangely enough, I am actually on schedule through. Today I finished all 15 panels in the fourth row. Monday I hope to concrete the seams and begin the cupola. I will also have to find a boom truck for the panels that go on top of the cupola. Today I already spent two hours digging and searching to find a level spot to place one of the fourth row panels. If I had known then what I know now, I would have rented a Z60 instead of a Z45. I also hate the fact that mine strands you if it gets out of level when you are in the air! But you live and learn...

I've also placed over 20,000 pounds of concrete into the seams and dormers. I've also started framing the entryways and am having an inspector do a pre-walkthrough inspection on Tuesday to give me some advice on the framing inspection.

I had hoped to do a floor covering soon in the form of a sealant, but I ordered trial samples and we hated the results. I did find an excellent deal on a Whirlpool tub for $350 on Craigslist. If I could only find tempered or egress windows I would really have some savings!


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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 5/22/2011

After we finished the riser panels on Friday, I worked Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and finished it Thursday morning. While some of that was spent concreting seams on the riser panels and waiting for those same seams to cure, it was much harder than I expected. For most of it I only had myself, my 8-year-old, and my wife. That puts me alone up high on the scaffolding. One of the big precautions was to use ropes tied to the third-row hubs, which were tied to trees. This allowed me to connect them without them falling.

I hired three others for Friday, and we put up the entire first row of triangles (all 18) starting at 6 am and finishing at 6 pm. Very exhausting! All day Saturday I worked to finish all the seams and also began working on the entryways. What made the entryways so hard was figuring out how to lift the panels in the air. Tomorrow I hope to finish the entryways, which will involve constructing scaffolding.


Last hub
Rib system complete
Lot of work went into getting the two wings of the entryway up.

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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 5/14/2011

We finished our move to the new home site yesterday. This is now our home! 

To celebrate the exhausting trip I hired two teenagers (stronger and braver than me) and with the additional help of a neighbor, we carried and set up the 7 riser panels. I had tried to start this a couple of weeks ago and two of us couldn't safely lift the panels. Though they weigh 250 pounds or so they feel much heavier. Since I had the teenagers until dark we also set up the scaffolding and began the rib system and set up the first two rows. That task is going to be much harder than I anticipated.

The scaffolding really shows how high the dome will be, as the top will be higher than the top of the scaffolding!

Today I re-poured a few of the footings for the kickouts and after it cured a few hours, set up 4 of the 8 buttresses. I'm happy to report that my $300 used mortar mixer works great! I was a bit worried, but it was the only one I could find for sale on Craigslist. All the rest sold before I could grab them.


The buttress on top of the kickout footing.

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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 4/2/2011 1:47:38 PM

Since the fill was brought in last October, it has settled nicely. I had plans for our family to re-level it with rakes and wheelbarrows, but it was too much. Thankfully I had my fill guy bringing two truckloads of crush-and-run and a tractor with blade so I had him take the tractor onto the building pad and level what would have taken us 20 hours in 30 minutes. Only God could have worked that one out!

Following the morning of the driveway, I had hired a guy with a backhoe off Craigslist for the afternoon. He showed up, began digging, and I had footings within 45 minutes. Since I had hired him for three hours minimum, I also had him tackle a few "nice-to-haves" around the rest of the property. Based on the recommendation of both contractors on site, I did not rent a plate compactor. I did use a tamping plate which I had bought for a driveway repair last year. To level the slab finally we checked the formboards with a water level and laser, and then ran a string from the center stake to the form boards. I spraypainted with red or green where sand needed to be removed or added.

During all of this and afterward, I was working on my 2x10 formboards. I had calculated the angles beforehand to be either 24 degrees or 36 degrees (anything touching the long entryways). This allowed me to precisely miter each board. Afterward I drilled each end for five 3" screws. In the middle of the long entryway boards (>18') I scabbed two cut 10' boards. Before the trip down, I had constructed a fixture for my drill press that allowed me to precisely drill through the width of the board with a 3/4" spade bit. I did burn up a couple of bits, but only messed up one hole (out of 30 or so). These holes allowed me to pass my 3' concrete stakes with locking collars. This system allowed me to precisely level each board independently when we installed the formboards. I did mess up the installation the first time as I was placing the strings from the batterboards across the exterior of each formboard instead of the interior. Once I corrected that I had no problems. Pretty long process. This item was the only one I felt I really underestimated. I also attached 3/4" EPS insulation on the inside of the formboards, allotting 6" from the top for termite inspection.

As soon as the formboards were up and level, I began digging the interior trench footings. For this I had to dig by hand and toss the sand over the formboards. We finished this item on schedule and got an inspection fairly quickly. I passed the inspection and quickly began digging for the plumbing. The plumbing went fairly quickly until the last three fittings, which were very close to the slab. I was short on time and afraid I would mess it up, so I hired a plumber. The plumber cut one of my old pressure fittings and replaced it with a drainage fitting (which would later be my only leaker!). He didn't bother with a 1/4" drop for these last three fittings, which, if I had known, would have allowed me to solve the problem myself. Even after a 30-minute discussion about my desired shower location, the plumber incorrectly stubbed up my shower drain line. I'm hoping to bring it over later with a combination of 45-degree fittings with the 6" of tub-box altitude. If not I may have to install a different shower pan or even a custom...  My conclusion here is that I should have just done all the plumbing myself. Either way I had to rapidly cut out the leaker later and re-install one of my pressure fittings (which received no comment from the inspector).

Even before the plumbing inspection had passed, I had already installed my combustion air for the wood stove. My wife and children installed the 6-mil vapor barrier, caulked and duct-taped at the seams. I had previously created templates of 24, 36, and 77 degrees to help me bend the rebar to the right angles. Bending #5 and cutting and bending #4 was easy. Cutting #5 was crazy, and it was easier to just overlap extra. I had also got my 8-year-old to paint marks on the rebar to show the correct 40 times diameter overlap (25" for #5). My wife tied almost all of the rebar and commented that hers was much nicer than the ones I had tied. She also taped cardboard around all the plumbing fittings in case I need to budge them later.

I had done a lot of research on mesh chairs and had selected one I was confident would keep my mesh in the lower third of the 4" slab for strength. However, they were crazy-hard to install, and I think I messed up my wrist installing the 900+ chairs. And it was so cold the chairs didn't rebound like they should, and some shattered. Pretty miserable failure, so I can't recommend the product.

I had made a great effort to deconflict the pour and kit arrival, but failed due to weather and a delayed inspection (caused by my out-of-sequence house numbering). Both started within 15 minutes of each other. Thankfully, my neighbor showed up to shovel sand against my formboards (which had kickers every 4' with plywood backing the insulation in the deeper areas, up to 2.5' on one side). This prevented blowouts. Later I found one where the insulation had cracked, but the sand stopped it immediately. Regardless, the concrete crew had a lot of negative comments about my formboards. However, doing it myself saved several thousands and I'm happy with the result. My calculation of 38.1 CY of concrete was met with 38 CY required on the day of the pour. I used a spreadsheet found on this site.

Unloading the kit took longer than anticipated, but the truck driver was very helpful. I spent all of my time with the forklift, running over only when I needed to insert rebar into the slab.

The concrete crew was my lowest bid. I had a better and cheaper crew lined up, but they got taken by a commercial job that overran due to bad weather. The crew I used did an okay job, but the slab wasn't burnished to the finish I had hoped. I can also see some of the aggregate where they should have used a jitterbug. Thankfully, my wife and I have low expectations and don't mind. My 7-year-old daughter spent the next three days keeping the slab wet. The cold weather also helped here.

Pulling formboards wasn't too bad, although we had to dig deep to get the plywood out. I also had to use my Hi-Lift farm jack and a chain to pull up some of my kickers on the deeper footings one one side.

Overall an exhausting process. I worked sunup to past sundown for 9 days straight. I owe my 8-year-old for 50 hours of work and my wife contributed 20 hours as well. Knowing what I know now and with a different mesh support, I think I could do it in less than a week with good weather. Thankfully God answered 6 months of prayer with perfect weather.

As for costs, my best bid for the whole pad (minus plumbing) was $11,800. I did it for $8,860 which includes paying the excavator $300 and the pouring&finishing crew $2,350. Also, some of my $8,860 is recoverable such as the rebar bender I purchased ($280), my formboards which can potentially be re-used for joists ($400), my concrete stake setup ($120), and the unused portion of the 6 mil plastic ($80).


Rebar bending setup with 36-deg template
Mesh chair
Slab ready for pour
Worst case timing
Unloading the kit
Formboards removed

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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 2/5/2011

For the last year, I've been reading plumbing books and studying. I've always tackled solder jobs and fixtures for sinks and showers, but I wanted to plan and install my own drainage plan. After going through 10 or more books (bought some and obtained the others from the local library) I've decided my favorite is Peter Hemp's "Plumbing A House" which is a 'For Pros by Pros' book.

Reading his book helped me understand which fittings and which sizes to use, and I compared his notes to the actual codes. The way he explains the drainage path is particularly well written. After talking with inspectors I realized I couldn't pass my 3" drain header from the upstairs through the trench footing in the slab, requiring a new bathroom layout in the mater bath. This was good, as I've already decided to install a Jacuzzi tub for my, wife which was a post-plan-printing change. Now my paper plans will match what I'm doing onsite.

Attached is the final layout. Not only did the plumbing inspector like my layout, he's also allowing me to wet-vent the shower, tub, and toilets via the sink vents. Additionally I will be allowed to use air admittance valves (AAV's) on the kitchen sink and the washing machine. These two allowances will really save me labor and money, as now no vents will be in the slab itself. The inspector explained to me that these two changes are actually better, as long horizontal runs of vent piping tend to clog up with time and become so packed you physically can't clear them.

AAV's are pretty hotly contested among plumbers. However, most jurisdictions are now accepting them as long as you keep them visible so the homeowner can replace them easily. My code still requires one vent to penetrate the roof, but these help in those difficult areas where the vent pipes would be long and convoluted.

Perhaps equally as contested is my choice of drainage line. Many plumbers and inspectors will tell you 3" is not enough and that you should go with 4" for the main line. However, my reading seems to indicate that the newer low flow toilets need smaller plumbing lines to keep the flow concentrated enough to sweep all the debris clear of the lines.

Additionally I found a city's inspection guide that provided some common mistakes along with pictures. This is also attached. I'm not sure why Lincoln County generated it but it was really helpful to me!

Last, through Craigslist I've identified a retiree who does small jobs on the side. He's done a lifetime of electrical and plumbing and he has agreed to act as a consultant for a very, very good hourly rate. This will really help me when I'm frustrated or just need a second pair of hands. He also knows a lot of good subs in the area!



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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 12/27/2010

After a week, my building department called to inform me that my plans have been approved. A big relief! I can finally stop worrying about wetlands and surveys and setbacks and zoning and soil compositions...!

I've decided to do the monolithic slab myself. Before my closing earlier this year, I underestimated my costs badly using RSMeans 2008, so now I'm stuck if I want to stay on budget (which means stay on schedule). I'll tackle everything up to the pouring and finishing. Digging will be pretty easy, as 75% of the footing will be sand, and I'm doing 24" deep footings (12" minimum and until I pass through the sand to undisturbed dirt). Code actually allows me to drop the footing at a 10% slope, so one side can be at 15" and the other at 25". I don't understand the RSMeans error, but everyone in industry keeps telling me that it's worthless.

To start with, I'll spend a few hours re-leveling the sand and running a plate compactor. I think it's pretty well packed already, but I'd like to give it one more try. Plus by that time I'll have to remove all the leaves from the top.

A friend gave me this great idea for making forms with my future joists. I'll be framing later with 2x10's, so I'll drill through the 10" section with a 3/4 drill to fit a 3/4x36" concrete stake. I'll hold the 2x10 in place and level and then hammer in the stakes. Supporting the board will be 3/4" bore collars with a set screw. I was very worried about the angles of each board, so I used basic sine and tangent rules to figure out the angles and lengths. To confirm, I plugged it into a CAD program, and after one minor math error, everything works. This gives me an exact material takeoff and cutting instructions.

Once that's done, I'll place a kicker every 30" to support the board and maybe more if it looks weak. Then at the bottom of the footing, I'll place 3/4" EPS insulation vertically per my plans and then backfill for additional support (more backfill will be added when pouring). Next I'll nail up furring strips at the top of the footing to help the transition to my concrete dome shell later. Last, before or after the footing inspection (not sure yet) I'll place my 6-mil poly followed by my #5 rebar on chairs and tie. I'm going to bend the rebar ahead of time, as the angle differs for most of the turns of the dome foundation.

For the digging, my current plan is to rent a mini-excavator. I can do that for $300, but if I can find someone with an excavator who'll do it for less than my rental cost, I'll go for that.

The trench footings in the interior of the slab will be pretty simple, but the rebar seems tricky here. Once again, I'll bend this ahead of time as well. I think the key is to bend small segments and then tie it to longer, straight bars. If I were better, I could bend it, and then place longer ones, but time will be too short. Instead I'll waste a bit in the excessive overlaps. Under this and the wire mesh will be my 6-mil poly with seams overlapped 4-6" and taped/sealed with silicone caulk.

Next will be my plumbing. I've been working on the plumbing layout for a year. My inspector is actually helping me figure out my latest problem, since most of my interior walls have a trench footing underneath them, which poses a challenge in positioning my soil stack from the second floor. Thankfully, the design requested was one that would place most of my plumbing in a straight line from the kitchen in the center to the septic tank outside.

For the welded wire mesh panels, I'll be using 1" chairs every square foot. This will place the welded wire mesh in the bottom third of the slab, which is where I anticipate the slab to be in tension (footings shouldn't move as much, as the structural fill in the center will continue settling). On top of this, I'll place the radiant tubing. I had a recommendation to put the tubing on the bottom, but I think that has the effect of scoring the underside of the slab (bad!). I need the tubing low so I can do saw-cuts later of about 1" max in depth, spaced 12'. With 3/4" PEX tubing, I should have over an 1" of clearance between my tubes and the saw blade.

The radiant heating is an option I keep coming back to. I really want to keep the concrete floor as my finished floor, but I know it will be cold. Having the tubing already in place ($250 initial cost) will give me the option later to correct that problem. The only places I really care about are the master bath and bedroom and the family room (places I like to stay in bare feet/socks and not in shoes).

The plan is for 4,000-psi concrete. It costs slightly more, but that seems to be the best recommendation for strength as well as for the final finish for the acid etching to be done later.

Eight hours after pouring, I'll cut the relief joints using a walk-behind concrete saw. I'll have the exact position of the PEX tubing, so I can reduce the depth of the blade as I pass over those points.

My very-detailed cost for all of this is $9,500, which includes my best quote so far for pouring and finishing. I'm posting up my plan 2.5 months ahead of time in case anyone can give me advice. None of this is backed up by experience, just conversations and discussions with others.

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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 12/16/2010

To counter the vandalism earlier this summer, I installed a 12' tube gate by placing 6"x6"x8' treated posts 30" in concrete. I think it adds to the farm-ness of the property, and it will hopefully keep joyriders off the property. The gate cost me $75 from Tractor Supply Company and took about four hours to dig, concrete, and install. Now I wish I had done this as soon as I bought the property, especially given that I knew it would be empty 99% of the time.

I also staked out the slab location on the sand fill. I was 5/8" off on the initial run, a far cry from Brian Hoskin's 1/4" but I was happy with it. On his suggestion, I marked all the corners with PVC tubing. This will give the excavator a marker to dig the footings. While I was there, I ran a sprinkler to help with compacting the fill. The site hasn't received as much rain as I had initially expected. So far, it looks like it only rains when I am on site. In the case of this last weekend, we had steady rain, ice, and snow.

I submitted my building permit. So far, no real comments, so hopefully I will have approval soon. I'm still debating the monolithic slab dimensions. I need to reach virgin soil and I have 12" of fill on one side (which happens to be the minimum depth of my footing anyway) and 24" of fill on the other side. I can slope it down 10% by code or I can dig the same depth all around. Still not sure about the footing thickness, but 12" appears to be the minimum by code. Also still debating PEX radiant tubing or not. At the most, it will only be in the bedroom, bathrooms, and family room. I can't even predict when it would ever get hooked up. Certainly not in the next three years of construction.

I've sent bid requests for the slab to 23 contractors. Six responded to ask for detailed drawings. So far I have one bid, and it isn't pretty, nearly double my initial estimate using RSMeans. I need 35+ CY of concrete, and all the contractors agree that the best price will be about $110 per cubic yard for 4,000 psi, 5" slump, no air concrete, which is what I hope will minimize the slab-cracking. I had thought that contractors would get a better price from the local concrete plant and I was somehow thinking $70 per CY was reasonable. I guess I should have called concrete plants in the early stage of estimating costs! At this point, I may at least do the forms myself. I will have plenty of 2x10's on hand to use for joists later in the project, and the dome requires many short ones, so any that get cut and used for forms can still be used as joists. Digging the footings will be easy due to the sand. It does make the forms slightly more complicated, but I can always use plywood.

On the home front, I've tried to lock in the window dimensions. We are almost there. The goal would be to search Craigslist and ReStores (Habitat for Humanity) for new construction windows between now and when I need them. I think I could save 50% or more by doing that. I had hoped to go with impact windows, but there won't be room in the budget. Thankfully, I did include all these 'nice-to-haves', so I have something to cut when other items run over. I went to Lowe's this week and got a complete window package estimate of Reliabilt for $5,000. Plus I still have the option of plywooding over the opening for the second floor (initially attic) and the cupola windows. Makes for a harder job later, but will definitely save money in the first stage of construction. At this point, I'm only seriously considering that option for the cupola. Later I'll install basement hopper windows, which run $100 apiece.

Penetrating the slab will be my plumbing drains, my conduit for electrical and water supply entering the house, and my combustion air inlet for my wood stove. Despite getting no help from any wood-stove company, I've decided to go with 4" PVC from a U-shape above ground (suctioning without rainwater) to a T underground, which slopes up to the final exit at the stove. The slope will drain any water that condenses and the bottom of the T will just dump into the sand around the footer (minimal, but I don't want it puddling in the line). I think I will also transition the PVC to 4" exhaust tubing as it exits, so I don't have to worry about damage/heat from the stove. Part of the credit to this design belongs to a co-worker, Wes, who also helped me with everything else I accomplished this past weekend. Thanks, Wes!

Another goal this past weekend was identifying someone to unload the kit for me. A local concrete block manufacturer gave me the phone number of the guy who owns the delivery trucks, and he agreed to do it for $80/hr. Big relief, as I didn't want to do that one myself.

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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 10/25/2010

Two months late, but I finally got the building pad cleared, filled, and packed! The weather had not helped me the last two months.

Per the recommendation of The Owner-Builder Book, I sent emails to 10 different companies to get multiple quotes. Two responded, and I had one quote from a friend of a neighbor. One was for $2,300, one for $3,000, and one for $4,300. Obviously, I went with the cheapest quote. The middle bid wasn't planning on using a dozer, so I preferred the lower one anyway.

I staked it out myself, as mine is pretty simple with a near-perfect circle for the foundation. I used spray paint to mark the soil where I wanted the actual foundation, and then placed stakes 4.5' from each corner (11 corners on my circle). This accounts for the load bearing of the sand and allows for a little error in the process. I think I was told 4-5' and I just went with the middle of that.

I bought the cheapest laser level and tripod from Lowe's and shot my own levels. First I figured out how high my laser beam was by comparing it the pin placed on a telephone pole by my surveyors (my reference point). Next I verified my level by shooting some points on my driveway and comparing it with my survey map. With my children holding the stakes and a yardstick (with their back to me to avoid hurting their eyes with the laser) I marked off the final height of the fill I wanted. Then I held a sheet of paper and spray-painted red above that. That allowed a clearly visible red marker for each of 11 stakes. Then I did the same for a stake at the center of the plot. Then I measured from the red down to the soil and added 4" for the amount of expected topsoil (a neighbor showed me how to dig a test hole to check the amount). Then I computed an average of all those points, which gave me just under two feet.

Since my foundation is a circle, I used the area of a circle (pi*radius squared) times the depth of 2' which resulted in 4,578 cubic feet, which, when divided by 27, gives the value of 170 cubic yards. You also have to figure 15% compaction which gives a final need of just over 195 cubic yards. My excavation crew can deliver just over 12 cubic yards of sand in one dump truck, so I needed 16 truckloads. I figured we would place 14 and then recheck.

It turns out we needed exactly 16, so I was happy with my math. My excavator also seemed happy with my red stakes, as it was easily visible from his dozer. Next time I think I'll spraypaint all sides of the stakes instead of just the front, so I can see them from the back as well as the front.

First we pulled up one small Christmas-tree-sized cedar tree, scraped the topsoil, and made a berm (he could do this without moving the stakes). Since part of the circle was only about 4" above grade and the other side was almost 2', the deeper side got the majority of the topsoil for the berm. Actually the bulldozer did an okay job and I used a shovel and wheelbarrow to place it closer/more accurately.

When finished I put grass seed on the berm, raked it in, watered it well, and then put four bales of straw over it to hopefully encourage some grass growth to prevent erosion.

The hope is that the weather over the next five months will compact the sand really well, hopefully minimizing cracks in the slab, which will be the finished floor (the plan anyway, as my wife may not like acid-etched concrete). This should be much cheaper than carpet or wood flooring and will help me get my Certificate of Occupancy earlier (so far my construction plan is money-limited instead of time-limited, but that may change also). I also wanted the rain to weather the pad and avoid paying for a compacting roller. The sand looked very high quality and had been tested to be excellent as structural fill.



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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 10/10/2010

This summer has been frustrating overall.

I missed out on the first planned trip because I was sick. I've been diagnosed with Crohn's disease after losing 30 pounds pretty quickly. On new drugs and a new diet, so I hope to minimize that influence on the building plans. I've had it for several years, but didn't realize the symptoms (neither did the two different doctors I visited for stomach pain). This building project didn't set it off either. I had a close friend die in April of pancreatic cancer, which caused my initial flareup that resulted in the diagnosis.

Second planned trip went slightly better, but I was still sick and I had starter problems with my truck at the beginning; but regardless, we made it down. I had called the 1-800-Dig-Safe number beforehand so all the utilities were marked. I pulled my septic work permits and trenched in the new septic force main of about 150' of Schedule 40 pressure pipe. I rented a Ditch Witch from the local rental store for $148. I wound up still paying a local plumbing company to come out and 'supervise' the final install so I could get their help finishing up the final inspection. Codes here have changed here such that a homeowner can't repair a leach field or force main lines. Trenching was pretty easy, but I did it during a heavy prediction of hard rain. My timeline was pretty short, so I couldn't afford to wait. Thankfully we had enough breaks in the weather to do most of it. Definitely some panicked moments, though. Lots of hand-digging across the driveway to get the required 24" down for the force main. Thankfully I had already dug out the actual pump tank, so I knew that connection beforehand. On the other end I used the Ditch Witch to find that line by just cutting into it. Now my septic line avoids the new foundation!

Joyriders ran over my septic riser, so that was damaged. Thankfully mortar patched it up, but it's frustrating to see vandalism on my property. The PVC damage was repaired by leaning into the tank with a hacksaw to cut off the damaged section. A quick trip to Lowe's gave me the parts to replace everything.

While I had the trencher, I used it to dig down for my construction fencing. A friend gave me some used fencing, which saved me $400.

One pleasant surprise: we found a fruit-bearing apple and a peach tree, both overladen with fruit.

I did my homework by calling the building-code inspectors and was told that my land clearing would be okay. However, at the last moment, someone told me otherwise and I had to pull permits, which was exceedingly painful. I had to get more surveys done, which took more time. Pretty stupid and pretty upsetting. I rescheduled a portion of my trip to get this done and then Hurricane Earl rescheduled my bulldozer crew.

I planned another trip a month later to get the bulldozer crew back out, but another 12" of rain canceled that trip as well.

I also finally got my plans sealed by an engineer. Another city requirement that is very stupid. I'm doing a non-traditional house design that is both more energy efficient and more structurally sound, but because it's a unique design I have to pay for an engineer to seal my work. Personally I think it is more about liability. If any of you wonder why we don't see innovative designs that reduce energy consumption, here's another reason. To save money here I attempted bids from 10 different engineers. The final quote was still high at $1,575 but I talked him down to $1,200. A lot of these individuals are just looking for work, so this remains a good time for deals.

All in all, I'm:

...behind schedule on the land clearing after three separate failed events (bad)
...under budget by 5.5% so far, and I'm 56% through my budget (good)
...$4,695 so far has been spent meeting stupid government requirements with zero benefit received (enlightening).

The $4,695 cost breakdown:
$1,500 wetlands delineation
$1,200 survey
$225 additional surveying to meet inspector's requests
$462 to the city to redesign my septic system (moving 150' of force main)
$100 permit to grade my site (take down a small tree and haul in 200 CY of sand fill)
$1,208 for engineer's seal

I still have to pull the actual building permits, which will cost me another $560. No wonder the housing industry is in such a mess.


Vandalism damage (destroyed bunch of PVC inside as well)
Lots of trenching
Peach tree
Apple tree

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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 4/20/2010

The wetlands delineation is now officially finished. Here was the timeline:
26 Feb - I asked for quotes from three or four soil scientists.
11 Mar - I finally got financing, so I then contracted it out to the best bid.
16 Mar - Site work complete
19 Mar - Figured out site was buildable.
22 Mar - Closing shortly thereafter - submitted to Army Corps of Engineers for confirmation.
16 Apr - Army Corps visited site and confirmed the borders.

Incredible that it could take so long. Even more incredible that this is much faster than would normally occur. The soil scientist that I used had very little work in progress, so he was able to quickly get the work done. I had also heard that the Army Corps could take 30-60 days or more to do their sitework. When I called the Army Corps, they stated it was rare that they ever found fault with the soil scientist but if they had, I would have been in trouble. Thankfully they weren't very busy either. And thankfully my soil scientist did a great job the first time.

Even now, I only have five years before this delineation could be reconsidered which could shut down construction if it looked like I was damaging new wetlands that had appeared.

Overall it was pretty frustrating. Timber companies are allowed to step over most of these wetland regulations. Cities don't have to abide by most of the rules either, as they build roads or put in utilities. It seems unfair that the homeowner gets stuck protecting the environment when we rarely are the ones who cause damage in the first place.

Regardless, it is a big relief to be done with this hurdle.


Weeping Willow soaking up the wetland moisture

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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 4/5/2010

I decided to go with a 45' diameter dome. Yeah, it's kind of big, but I have a large family with young children at the moment who will soon be older children and then teenagers. We've lived in some very small houses recently (1,050 sq ft for two-and-half years, 1,100 sq ft plus basement for three years, and then the trailer for a year, which will be around 900 sq ft) so I want to correct that. The dome we're building will have a 1,400 sq ft downstairs with an eventual extra 800 sq ft upstairs and a cupola loft of 140 sq ft. Even living in the downstairs only will be a big improvement for us. And to be honest, I originally wanted a 48' dome, so I am downsizing my dream a tiny bit.

Downstairs I wanted the master bedroom. Since this is our dream home, I couldn't say that we won't end up retiring in it, so I thought it best to listen to all of my elders and put the master bedroom on the ground floor without stairs to climb. Next to it is a nice master bath with double sinks. Downstairs is also a guest bathroom with only a toilet and a shower. Also downstairs will be a living room, dining room, family room, kitchen, and utility room. All of the plumbing works well in this design, as nearly everything that requires water or generates waste is in close proximity.

Upstairs I wanted at least two more bedrooms with a fourth as a possibility. Also there is a second full bathroom with double sinks again and a tub and toilet. Technically to achieve a four-bedroom house I would have to redo the septic and leach field, so it's more of an option. If I did create a fourth bedroom, the city rules require that I put an occupancy limit of 6 people (two is assumed per bedroom) that meets the maximum capability of the existing septic tanks (tank and pump tank) and leach field. AI Domes also tells me that none of the upstairs walls are load-supporting so I should be able to move the walls around as I want later after the kids leave the nest. That may change if I put anything heavy into the cupola, but there will still be plenty of flexibility. Additionally I will be building in bolts into the shell to help support the weight of the cupola from the shell itself.

The cupola will be the last thing finished, and it will have a trapdoor for access that sits above a built-in wall ladder. Windows for the cupola will be very expensive and AI Domes has tried to talk me out of it for economical reasons. It takes a lot of man-hours to build it. However, I've wanted a cupola for as long as I have wanted a dome, so I've been stubborn about it. I'm hoping to get away with just boarding it up initially to get the Certificate of Occupancy. Or, since two windows exist per side, I've thought of making my own permanent (non-opening) window next to each window that opens. I've done this before for the tree house by ripping grooves in the 2x4's which allow the plexiglass to slide into the box created from 45-degree chop-sawing the ripped boards. Since I'm planning on keeping the cupola isolated from the main house by a tight-fitting trapdoor (once the house is completely finished) I don't think I will have a problem with heat loss during the winter. Another reason to shove insulation into the joists before installing flooring.

AI Domes had a stock design similar to mine, but I desire the ability to have a fourth bedroom instead of the full-vaulted headroom above the dining room. This meant I had to do a modified design, which they easily created for me. I'm also ordering plans with only the ground floor completed. This will allow me to move in faster as my Certificate of Occupancy will only look at a completed ground floor. I think this will save me just over $25K which would have had to be spent to complete the upper floor before moving in (equates to moving in around 8 months earlier). The attic will likely have to be completely closed off, however, and will need pull-down stairs to meet the city's attic requirement. AI Domes did help me out and positioned the pull-down stairs between the joists to minimize the effect on the floor joists. The building dept. did also say that I could pre-run much of my plumbing and electrical as long as the final connections met code. This will allow me to run those connections before I drywall in the first floor. I shudder at the thought of having to run wires and piping after the first floor is drywalled in. Maybe it's not as bad as I imagine it, but it's certainly not as easy as doing it before drywalling the ground floor.

I also asked AI Domes to put a thicker wall between the master bedroom and bathroom. This will allow me to send the septic waste down this wall and put thick insulation around it to muffle the sound from the master bedroom. It has little impact on the available space in the master bedroom or master bathroom. Since I'm using PVC for the drain pipes, I think they have a good chance at being loud. The insulation will hopefully prevent that. Another advantage is the super-thick wall gives me a tad more room for error when placing the drain pipe before pouring the slab. Most others will tolerate slop by moving the fixture a bit. I wanted this one to have some built-in tolerance as well.

AI Domes was also particularly helpful at generating my footing/foundation plan first as I needed that for my site map.

My plumbing vents will all tie into one vent. The tie-ins will occur in the overhead space available above the upstairs full bathroom.

Any comments on my plumbing ideas will be appreciated. I've done PEX and copper, fixtures and such before, but I've never plumbed new construction. I'm basing all of my ideas off of several books I've been reading. I have tried to plan out my waste and vent stacks, as well as my potable-water lines but I won't know for sure if they will work/pass code until I show them to the building inspector. One of the things I want to do with this blog is recommend the books that have helped me the most. Of course, that actually means I have to physically finish something instead of the years of planning I've done so far.

The final holdup on the plans is the engineer seal. I have a quote for $1,000 but I also have a friend who is a Virginia PE and he also has friends that are Virginia PE's. I'm hoping to coax at least one of them into doing the seal for me. The dome design by AI is far superior to any stick-built home, but building departments worry about liability, and the unique design of the dome scares them. Since I'm building a 'unique structure' I will need a PE seal. Even if they charge me $500, I will have saved 0.25% of my $200K budget. If it comes down to it, I may even barter hunting rights to the marsh on the property.

I'm also been working hard lately at getting a plan together to pour the foundation before winter sets in. This gives me the most time to get it right. I think I have a plan to get one inspection of a temporary electrical pole during the winter to reset the 6-month timer. The only hard stop is the three-year start-to-finish requirement. I'm pretty confident that I will meet that one.


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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 4/2/2010

My surveyors finished the site plan, although I did have to send them a last minute request to move the house a bit (7' closer to the septic) based on the health dept. recommendation. I still have about a 20' distance to reach the inlet to the tank. Since the minimum drop is 1/4" per foot, I only need about 5" of vertical separation. I'm bringing in 2' of fill, so I'll have that and more, allowing me to easily clear the slab foundation before turning the sewer pipe to near horizontal. Also, my bathrooms just happen to be closest to the septic tank in the planned house orientation.

After the site plan was ready, I emailed a copy of the .pdf to the city. Both zoning and planning looked at it and it meets all of their setbacks and it meets the wetlands requirements. I can finally relax a bit and stop worrying that wetlands will shut my project down. Not to get too excited, they did tell me that they would look at the plans again when I submit the building permit. Another reason to move quickly before requirements change!

I have a friend who is looking at my site plan as well. He has access to excavating equipment and will give me a better idea of what/how to prepare the site. My dome diameter is 45'. However, there are protrusions that stick off of the dome that support the entryways. I called AI Domes who promptly told me to allow a diameter of 48.5' to account for all protrusions. Bringing in fill I will need to go beyond that 48.5' diameter by 3 to 5 feet on each side. Compacting it will result in a 20% reduction in height. Before I knew about the compaction I had planned on a 55' diameter of sand required at a height of 2' which is 176 cubic yards. I did this one night and looked up the cost of a cubic yard of clean sand (for fill purposes) online. I found $30 a yard which resulted in over $5,000 in fill costs! Thankfully there is a sand pit about 2 miles from the house location. I called them today and was told $6.04 per yard which is only $1,062. What a relief...

However, I've been pretty worried about costs lately. The septic redesign and subsequent construction permit was unexpected and it is very likely that other costs will spring up as well. So I did a couple of things. Brian Hoskens recommended not using skylights on the second floor. I really didn't need them, as I already had a window dormer per room. He believed that I would have an increased risk of leakage if I used four. I talked to AI Domes and they believe the leaking skylights problem has been fixed and was the result of aluminum corroding beneath the type of caulking compound they once used (butyl rubber I think, which I've used when redoing an automotive windshield). Regardless, I really don't want leaks and eliminating the four skylights saved me well over $1,000. 

Next, I looked at plumbing. I've really wanted to use tankless water heaters. I recently installed one in my church and I was very impressed. Instant hot water, and since they only use hot water on Sunday mornings, they save a lot of money. However, I have a big family that uses quite a bit of water. I think we do about a dozen loads of laundry per week, run the dishwasher every day, and I sometimes take a shower both morning and night (morning to wake up and night because I've often been under the truck or working outside or whatever). Either way, we use a lot of hot water and so I don't think we would ever recuperate the initial cost of a tankless hot-water heater (even with the installation cost at zero, since I'm the plumber). Also, we have a relatively new water heater in the trailer. It was pretty clogged up with scale, but I think I can fix that. So, if I can remove that water heater and put it in the dome when we are ready to move in, I'll save over $1,200 which I had budgeted for tankless water heaters. Plus, our design has the hot-water heater in the utility room, which is very close to the kitchen and bathrooms so the piping runs really shouldn't be all that long.

Most of my budget has also been based off of components found at my local Lowe's. I'm really hoping to find most of my components at Habitat for Humanity or even Craigslist. One good thing about the trailer is the toilet. It flushes even better than the commercial toilets! I've already told the wife that when we scrap the trailer we will be saving the toilet for the upstairs bathroom. I don't feel comfortable using costs from HFH or Craigslist, but it does give me a comfortable feeling that I can save money when we get to that stage.

Now that the site map is approved, I will be talking to the health department again. As much as I don't want to pay all the fees, I have to get their approval in order to submit a building permit. Their approval will require the redesign of the force main coming off of my pump tank. 

Additionally I am trying to talk to the building dept. about scheduling inspections. I need to find a way to pour the foundation this fall and then build on it in the the spring. That would allow me the most time to reduce errors (and costs).


Trailer view (Dome to be built in front of trailer.)
Road view

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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 3/28/2010

The trailer is now livable, but only barely. I had never run PEX before, but it was quite simple. I ran it to all the fixtures, which of course leaked as well. I replaced some of those, but I will take additional parts down the next time we go. The rotten floors also have termites, so I treated them. I never did figure out if the water heater leaks or not. It was plugged up at first due to the hard water but I back-flushed it enough to make it usable. I think I will need to build fast to make sure the trailer lasts until we have a Certificate of Occupancy. My wife did do a good job of painting, so it looks nice and clean now. Very frustrating, but as I see it, we bought the property and the trailer came free.

The well is a 20' deep, 8' grouted shallow well. The water is not great, but hopefully it will be okay until I have the house built. I can't afford to dump money into it at the moment. I did do a water quality test on it before I left. Hopefully the results will be okay. At one point it looked like I would need to move the well, due to some IRC requirement that a well be placed greater than 50' from a termite-treated foundation. However, I found a local termite company that can do something called a wood treatment where they come in after the slab is poured and framing is completed and spray treatment over all the framing (in contrast with treating the ground before pouring a slab). Of course, all the wood in contact with the slab will be pressure-treated, so this should meet the requirements of the city and allow me to use the current well without contaminating it with termite chemicals. I did price a new shallow well. It costs $850 for a 2" well to reach 50'. Beyond that is $8/ft. I think it was $1,600 for a 4" well to go 50'.

Septic. The property has an engineered system with a 1,000-gallon septic connected to a 1,000-gallon pump box which pumps the water about 300' (horizontally) to high ground on the property where the leach field was placed. The pump was bad, so that cost me $600. The leach field had roots in the distribution box, so I had to seal off one line. Thankfully the original engineer for the city over-designed the field, so I am still good for a three-bedroom house. The septic tank had never been pumped since work was done in 2001 so I also had it pumped for $215. Additionally, the main coming off of the water pump passes under where I hope to place my foundation, so I will have to move it. For this the city wants a new septic permit, so they can 'redesign' the system to incorporate a few bends into the pipe going from the pump tank to the leach field. That will probably cost $500 in permits with $200 or $300 in site work. Everyone laughed at me when I asked if I could just run the main under the foundation. I guess a leak would quickly undermine a foundation if left.

Surveyors came out and finished surveying the wetlands flags and the topography. Since they had already done the boundary survey, I think this will finish it up so we can submit a site plan. Once that is done, I can then submit my septic permit which will send the main drain line around the foundation. My next trip I will try to get that installed. If I submitted the septic permit now, I'm afraid that the site map would have corrections that would require redoing the septic design. Better to wait and have an approved site map first.

With site plan approval, I can also go ahead and clear the site of the foundation. Three trees will need to come down, but it is very flat. Regardless I hope to go ahead and bring in sand and compact it. That should allow me to pour the foundation. Based on my current problems I'm trying to move up construction. I have to get the shell dried in during the month of May, 2011 as that is the only time I'll have 30 days off at once for many years. If I move up the pouring of the foundation, I should create more flexibility. I am a little nervous about pouring a monolithic foundation during the month of December, but hopefully the weather will cooperate.

I have no leeway with my setbacks, even with agricultural zoning. I'm allowed 50' to the front property line and I'm currently at 57.5'. I'm allowed 20' on the side but the driveway pushes me out to 42'. In the back is the existing well and pump house which are 23' to the edge of the foundation (I needed 50' originally). On the other side is the existing septic and pump tank. My health dept. recommended coming as close as possible to the minimum allowed 10' which will help with the slope of the drain lines entering the septic tank. Even with 10' to the pump tank I will still have about 20' to the actual septic tank. Hopefully my elevation will be okay. I'm already bringing in 12" of sand, but perhaps I should bring in 24". I did price moving the concrete septic and pump tank. That would cost me around $2,500.

So far, all of my money saved during the closing and title insurance is being shifted into septic work. Pretty frustrating for my budget.

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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 3/22/2010

We closed on the land today. Took a while to get here:

So I picked this property after forgoing any properties that showed up on the national Army Corps of Engineer wetlands maps. Even though this property didn't show up, it has wetlands. I had a delineation performed, and it also showed wetlands in the center due to a 'spring'. This drainage then extended across the entire width of the property. Using 100' buffer zones, the entire property became nearly unbuildable.

However, this city is a bit behind the national requirements, so currently I will not be required to put a 100' buffer zone on the wetlands drainage in the center of the property which will allow me to position the house where I like. Very good news, but another reason why I need to quickly get a building permit. The creek will still have a 100' buffer zone, but it will not impact my building site. Still I will need confirmation by the Army Corps of Engineers which may take 60 to 90 days.

The spring also bothered me. I contacted a landscaper to get an idea of what it would cost to run 4" corrugated drainage pipe from the spring to the creek. Materials alone would have cost me over $200 plus renting a trencher for at least a day (maybe more). The landscaper said springs could be dangerous and turn into a sinkhole. To further illustrate, he told me a story when his backhoe fell into a spring that turned into a sinkhole. He needed a crane to recover the backhoe and they had to condemn the house he was working on when the spring appeared under the foundation. He thought that the spring could be a fissure off of the well.

This made me quite nervous, so I called in a well inspector who confirmed that the well is fine. I hated to spend the money, but I didn't want to close with significant well problems (I already had some other doubts about the well). This well company also told me that the spring was really just a rotten stump providing an easy point for the high groundwater to come up to the surface. Due to all the rain the last year or two, the groundwater at that point is only 6" below the ground. The well got a clean bill of health. This week I also ordered a well-testing kit. I will perform that myself and mail it in.

So we proceeded to close. The honeymoon didn't last long. As soon as we closed I began the process of making the trailer livable. First is the plumbing. It wasn't winterized, so many of the pipes are busted. Instead of trying to piece-in new piping into the rusted mess that currently exists, I will be running PEX. Hopefully tomorrow I will have everything but the bath hooked up to new PEX plumbing. Meanwhile my wife is busy painting everything. The goal this week is to fix all the plumbing, paint the exterior and all rooms, and fix the rotten floor in one bedroom. At this point I think the rotten floor was caused by the busted pipes. Both the hot and cold busted a few feet from the hot water heater, so I think a lot of water drained onto the bedroom floor next to it. My plan for the floor there is to rip the entire thing out and put in new plywood, pad, and carpet.

A local surveying company mistakenly performed a boundary survey already, so I'm able to acquire that at a good discount. I will go ahead and have them survey the new flags indicating the wetland boundaries and place my dome foundation for the site map. While they are out, I will also ask them to give me the elevation difference between the spring water table and the stream.

Talking to the previous neighbors and the sellers, it looks like the best place to place the dome will be on the back. This will still require significant fill of sand, but I think it will be worth it. This means I will also have to tear down a pole barn that is in the way. The trailer's septic tank would also have to be moved. I had planned on pumping the tank and finishing up an inspection on it that has been incomplete for years, but there's no point in spending that money if I have to move the tank in a year.

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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 3/11/2010

First off, I've realized that I need more minutes on my cell plan. We don't have a land line, so my cellphone usually has enough minutes if I only call at night or weekends. Well, that doesn't work when you're making phone calls to building departments and bankers and surveyors, so I doubled my cellphone minutes. My carrier also offers 10 friends and family which may also help me if I can predict which numbers I'll be calling the most and keep the list updated.

Second, someone else mentioned doing internet faxing. The cheapest is by for small usage. They allow you to pay by the page with no subscription fees. I couldn't get it to work at first, until I downloaded their program to my computer, which installed a fax machine as a print driver. That has worked well for me.

And now for the depressing portion:
I expected financing problems because I have other mortgages (rentals), because it's a single-wide trailer, and because I'm in another state. The one thing I didn't expect was that banking regulations have changed. To borrow from my forum post:
"My lender once allowed me to offset my rentals' mortgages with their rent income if I had a one-year contract. Now they don't even consider the rent income, but yet want 6 months' reserves for each mortgage that I have, including the one I'm applying for. This is crazy! Fortunately, they do allow me to count IRA's but only at 60% and the current market doesn't really help me there either." Additionally, the rental mortgages count against your debt/income ratio. This run-down trailer is really all I can now afford.

Believe it or not, I made it past the new FHA hurdles (barely). My problem is that I couldn't call this my primary residence if I live several states away and won't be moving for a year. End result is the loan was denied. I also called my secondary sources and none of them do mobile-home loans. Next, I added my wife to my loan so that she could call the property as a primary residence. That just allowed the first lender to find new faults with my loan package such as "This is a trailer?" after pulling up the listing. End result is that primary lender, the one I've done dozens of loans with over the last 15 years, clearly does not want to lend me money. This ends my hope for a loan as a single-family residence, which would have given me low interest rates for 30 years. This means my only option is to finance the property as a land loan. The worst part is it took me 15 days to get to this point from the time I submitted my loan application. And I did my homework, too. I called this bank three times before even making an offer to ensure they would give me a loan on this trailer and I even had a pre-approval letter from them. Their original words were "the trailer just has to be habitable with a working kitchen and a permanent foundation". What a joke. I look forward to commenting on their review sheet that I should be receiving soon.

I got some other bad news this week. Turns out the trailer has some issues with flooring and the well breaker wouldn't shut either. This is a minor issue if I'm on site and can fix them, but as it is I would have to pay someone to come out and fix it to get it past the new appraisal requirements (now appraisals have to do indoor inspections of the residence). Even if I do pay someone to correct those issues, the appraiser will likely find new problems for me to spend money and fix. The land loan, aside from minimizing many of my other closing costs, doesn't even look at the trailer for the appraisal and won't force me to insure the crappy trailer which was going to cost me $300 a year. So land loan it is!

My first choice for the land loan was a bank that I routinely do business with. However, the interest rate is near double what I was hoping to get and at a shorter time period of 20 years. End result is my construction timeline (cost driven) just got pushed further out. The extra money ($152/month) I had planned on spending on building materials will now have to be spent on mortgage payments. Regardless, I later found out that this bank won't lend on agricultural land and won't lend on any vacant land that has taxable improvements on it. Double hit for me on this property.

Thankfully I had identified two more lenders who seemed willing to do the land loan. They have even higher interest rates and even shorter terms, which means I will have even less money to spend on construction. After another week working with the two new lenders on land loans, one of those also denied me financing based on the property itself. No real specific details, but it wasn't what they were looking to finance, even with 25% down, excellent credit. I didn't even know banks walked properties themselves...

The last lender, a local bank, however, will extend me credit, but it's a 5-year balloon with 20-year amortization at 7% interest and 25% down. Talk about a budget killer...  Can I still build? Yeah, but the timeline for completion will immediately move right if any of my estimates are incorrect. The wife is already taking my two-year guesstimate and saying that it will take me three years.

And we're back to the wetlands issue. Before even looking at this property I researched the Army Corps of Engineer maps available online and didn't see wetlands on this property (in contrast to every other vacant land MLS that was covered in wetlands). However, there is a 2-3' stream on the border that would be considered wetlands. If I begin construction and someone declares that wetlands I would be shut down. So now I'm back to doing a wetlands delineation. Hopefully the delineation will find no issues that will prevent my construction, but it's still more money to be spent. Thanks to the advice, I did attempt to obtain quotes from several different soil scientists. Only two responded, but that at least gives me a reasonable range for pricing, which allowed me to talk down one to a good price. Since I now have a loan commitment letter, I've signed the contract for this portion. If it comes up with major wetlands problems on the land, all of this work will have been for nothing.

Once the delineation is approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, I have five years before someone can change it, which would allow me to get the new house built. There is also a question about buffer zones, but I'm still learning about that one. It has to do with whether the stream drains into the Chesapeake or not. If it does, a 100' buffer zone is required around the stream.

One cost savings that I am working on is my survey. I've been advised to get a survey before closing and the building dept. requires a site survey before approving the building permit. I called four surveyors and am getting quotes from all four for the combined work. My plans dept. is preparing a foundation plot early to get it on the site survey. However, the surveyor can't do work until the wetlands is flagged on site.

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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 2/21/2010

After the previous search for land fell through, I began a new search for a piece of property. The one I've found is a 4.4-acre mini-farm property with a single-wide trailer already on it. This will allow me to obtain financing as a single-family residence - unlike vacant land. It also already has septic, water, power, and a driveway!

It's relatively flat and I've already verified the following before going under contract:
-Not in a Chesapeake Bay Protected Area
-Not in a flood zone
-Not impacted by wetlands where I hope to put the new house
-Per the Health Dept. a repair was made to the septic some years ago, but never re-inspected so I will need to get it finished. Should be relatively minor and at that time they can tell me whether the tank is big enough for a three or two-bedroom home. My house plans are for a three-bedroom home, but initially only one bedroom will be finished, according to the plans. I was told that the leach field will support a three-bedroom; so even if the tank is too small I can fix it by adding a larger, 1,000-gallon tank in series with the smaller tank. That's something I can do myself if I can get access to a backhoe, I think.
-The building dept will require an engineer's seal of my dome.
-The soil will support a normal foundation. It's not the special soil that requires structural-engineering analysis.

I've also changed the design of the house. Before, I wanted a little vacation cabin. Now I need a primary residence for the next 10 years. So I'm going with a 45' diameter dome, which is one of the largest. I'll only finish the downstairs at first, to get the Certificate of Occupancy. For financing, I'm hoping to only need the original 30-year loan on the property and trailer, use a HELOC I already have available, and then pay for the rest as we go. Currently we hope to do the majority of the work. Attached is the new design. I'll also be adding one more additional bedroom upstairs. I can get something from the health dept. that limits me to 6 people for a four-bedroom house, since I'll only have the leach field/septic tank to allow a three-bedroom (times two is the occupancy allowed).

It will likely be a slab foundation, as that is easier and cheaper. A lot of people dislike them, but I've lived several years on a crawlspace and they leave a lot to be desired. In a crawlspace, the floor often squeaks and acts springy. Mold grows on the joists, requiring moisture abatement (yeah, I've installed 6-mil poly to fix it, which helped some). Plus, it's a lot harder to do your own foundation if it's a crawlspace vs slab. A slab offers radiant heat.

Now that I'm under contract, I'm still a little worried about financing. I've never bought a mobile home, particularly one where the mobile home is worth less than 5% of the value of the land. I'll feel better once I hear those magic words from the lender, even though I've already called them three times to verify they will do it.

For cost estimation at this point I've only used this website, RSMeans Cost Book, and Where that left holes, I've called contractors and made trips to Lowe's and Home Depot to get basic quotes.

For a timeline, I'm planning on taking the next year to finish my building plans, get the engineer seal, permits, and finish all the planning. Then I'll do the slab in the spring, followed soon by the shell when we'll also be moving into the trailer. Then I think it will take me a year to get the certificate of occupancy, upon which we'll move into the dome and scrap the trailer. As funds allow, we'll finish the downstairs and then start work on finishing the upstairs. Living in the trailer will be a big money savings that will help me (hopefully) rapidly devote a large portion of my income to building supplies. Since I'm now 1.5 years away from moving, I felt like this month was the last month I could look for land. Good thing I found this property!


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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 2/13/2010

Two years later...

The building site in Vermont didn't work out. I had plans, contractor appointments, and financing, but the building site didn't work out. Lots of time spent planning, but not too much money. I did compromise by building the nicest tree house you'll ever see. It is 8' x 8' and the bottom joist is maybe 12' off the ground. I'm 6' and can stand up inside. It has plywood walls, rolled metal roofing on top, a trapdoor, and four windows. Two windows on opposing walls open out and two are fixed plexiglass windows that I created. The flooring is treated wood decking. My children love it, and we camped in it this last October. Build time was about 10 days. The whole thing is treated lumber and screws and TimberLoks, so the cost was around $1,000. Hopefully it will last forever. I picked the nicest tree on about 10 acres that is a 30-something-year-old evergreen. Great building experience, but I did need help hauling the 3/4" treated plywood up for the roof. It also gave me a great opportunity to buy a few more nice DEWALT cordless tools.

I'm now a year and a half from moving again, so I restarted the land search to build my dome. I found the nicest property about 10 minutes from my next job. It had just over five acres and was very secluded. I spent many, many hours calling contractors and getting quotes. The property was set back about 700', requiring an easement through three other properties for the driveway. Here are my concluding remarks:

The driveway would have been a minimum of $12,800 if no fill had been required. That’s for a 12’ wide driveway that met the fire dept. requirements, but not necessarily their checklist. Their checklist specified a 20’ driveway for greater than 100’ long. This price is for the absolute minimum amount of work that would stand up to code.

Electric was free up to 200’ from Dominion. Past that you had to pay extra. If I had dug the trenches myself to put in underground cable, it would have cost me $8,000 to run electric the 800’ to the closest housing site. Plus, we would have had to get that additional easement (currently only an ingress/egress easement). One neighbor saying no to the easement would have shut the entire building project down from an on-grid-electric aspect. I was also planning on running the electric under the driveway, which would have probably raised my driveway costs. Most municipalities require electric to be run 4’ down or so. I think trenchers exist that can do this, but if the soil had been rocky, then costs would have escalated quickly.


Septic fields need dry soil that will take moisture. This property didn't have that, so previous attempts looked at Engineering Drainage Management. This creates ditches around the septic field that then drain to deeper ditches offsite that then take that water to even deeper, public ditches offsite. This property could never reach public ditching (without being deeper than the public ditching by the time it got there) hence the inability to use a standard septic system. At present, the only engineered septic system passing the health dept without problems was a mound system that I was quoted $50,000 to engineer and install. This system is also higher maintenance and has a higher risk of failure as compared to conventional septic systems that often last 30 years with only routine pumpings every three years or so. I did find a second system called the Clearstream drip irrigation that was costing $18,000 but it was currently in appeals with the health dept.

Lot clearing for this lot also proved to be more difficult. I wasn't sure the fire dept. would approve burning of debris (like stumps and limbs), so all of the debris generated would have to be hauled away in dump trucks. That placed the cost of clearing only two acres around $9,500. If I had gotten the permission to burn, that cost would have been reduced.

The driveway would have started in a Chesapeake Bay Conservation Area 50’ buffer zone. I was confident that I could get my variance approved to put in a driveway, but the engineering analysis alone was expected to cost $1,500, which could also reveal higher costs for the actual driveway itself.

I had an idea that wetlands existed, but I thought that they would be limited to the borders. During my snow-covered walk on the parcel, I didn’t see any of the aquatic plants that I expect to see on wetlands. On recommendation from one of my many phone calls, I called the Army Corps of Engineers hoping for a quick answer of 'no wetland problems'.  Instead he told me that the property has massive wetlands.  Having a lot of wetlands either rules out construction completely or requires massive amounts of money for individual permits and/or wetland credits. Either way, the initial engineering estimate was another $1,500 or so just to determine where the wetlands started.

This ended my planning for this property. I did make a 24-hr drive (round trip) to see it, and I learned quite a bit. Now I'm working on a second property, but I'm not sure what land mines it will contain.


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Posted to DomeSweetDome by Rich in Suffolk, VA on 1/1/2008

I've wanted to build a dome by American Ingenuity for over 6 years now ( The problem is that I am in the Navy and move frequently. Even this may be premature, as I am not even sure yet that I will be moving to the northeast. But all I can do is plan, hoping for the opportunity. If I wait until I find out (March) I will probably miss the summer window for getting a house shell up to allow interior work throughout the winter.

That said, however, I do have some land picked out in the wonderful town of Irasburg, VT which has the most amazing mountain scenery you've ever seen.

After talking some with Brian Hoskens (TheHoskensProject) I think we will be going with a 36' diameter dome. This is the largest size that you can build by using a radial support method instead of a rib method. In short, it's easier and simpler and will work better for me as I'm doing this on a weekend basis only. While this smaller-size dome will not minimize the price per square foot, it will, however, minimize the cost of the project as we are financing this on a second home basis.

Financing will be via a Home Equity Line of Credit on another home that we own as I am trying to avoid a construction loan which would require some painful inspections and questions that I'd like to avoid. Thankfully, Vermont is limited to inspections only on the sewage system as of yet. Once the dome is built we would wrap up the HELOC into a single mortgage on the dome.

Why a dome?
R-36 insulation for the walls with incredible airtightness
I can owner-build the entire shell myself with zero construction experience
Spherical design is incredibly strong for all snow loads
No shingles to replace (I have roofed three houses in last year...)
No gutters or siding
No way for insects to get in
Nothing for termites to eat or for fire to burn on the outside
Nothing to rot or grow mold
Innovative design that is still very, very unique

We are planning on a timeline that will likely run at least two years and possibly even more. My wife's uncle lives a few doors down and he has offered to give me a lot of advice. Depending on cash flow, I also hope to sub some of the work out to him to help the pace of construction (drywall, trim, etc).

The Excel document for the budget is probably too aggressive, but I'm really trying to do this on a shoestring budget.


Already has some slight modifications to the bathrooms.

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