A Tuscaloosa contractor is building dome houses worldwide to protect residents from severe weather.
“The Romans built domes and arches, and that was the biggest part of their architecture,” said John Johnson, owner of New Age Dome Construction.
Johnson specializes in building semi-spherical houses that he said are safer and cheaper. He said they are the only people in the dome industry with domes certified for 250 mph winds, which is within the wind speed range of an F4 tornado.
Johnson’s domes have a web framework, contributing to their structural stability.'
“If you take a box and you try to put pressure on it sideways, it’ll fold up at the corners,” Johnson said. “But you put a triangle, and you try to collapse it, it’s a much stronger structure. The spherical shape of the dome is the reason that it works.
“...The spherical shape of the dome works for the same reason an airplane flies,” Johnson said. “…The wind can’t get ahold of it, and it deflects objects away from it because of the super excited air around the dome during the tornado.”
Johnson once tested a half-scale model of a complete house at the University of Alabama Large Structures Testing Lab. He said only one nail was pulled from the structure at 49,000 pounds. “That’s like parking a semi on top of your utility shed with no ill effect.”
Johnson said one of his clients once wrote him a letter after a large tornado hit her dome house and said, “It’s a pretty good deal when an F5 hits your house and all you have is a few missing shingles, one broken window and your dog pees on your foot.”
“She was happy,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he has steel shutters over his windows, and if there’s a tornado warning, he and his wife close the shutters, then simply wait out the storm. “We live in a tornado shelter. We don’t need to go anywhere.”
Johnson became interested in domes by reading science fiction. “I noticed that all the different authors treated domes as a matter of fact," he said.
At 15 years old, Johnson worked as a carpenter’s helper building log homes. He was later asked by a friend to help build a dome house. He said he was transformed as soon as he walked through the door.
“I live in a dome for a reason,” Johnson said. He said he had a 120-foot-tall tree hit his house. “It didn’t come through the sheetrock.”
Around the time Johnson met his wife, he realized Tuscaloosa had more tornadoes than any other place he’d ever been.
He showed his wife a blueprint to a dome house, which they eventually constructed and lived in.
Johnson started building domes using house kits and noticed flaws in them, which he was able to correct.
Now, Johnson builds domes all over the world. His company serves primarily as consultants and produces kits for experienced clients to put together.
Johnson said he’s constructed domes not just in the United States but as far away as Europe, Belize and New Zealand.
“You can have anything you want on the inside,” Johnson said. The dome’s wind rating is based on the shell alone. “When you add the interior walls and stiffeners, you come up with something beyond that.”
Johnson said some domes in the past had problems with water forming at the top due to pressure, causing it to rot. Johnson solved this problem by designing the domes so that they are allowed to breathe.
Johnson also said the domes more efficiently use power than traditionally-shaped houses. “We seldom turn our air conditioner on until the first of July.” He said it makes his power bill significantly lower for the amount of square footage in his home.
Johnson also said that domes are a cheaper to build because domes typically use 35% fewer framing elements per square foot.
New domes in Tuscaloosa
Johnson’s new dome homes in Tuscaloosa include four bedrooms and four bathrooms. He said the houses will probably serve as gameday condos for University of Alabama football fans.