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Penny’s Hobbit House

The interior of my finished dome.

Near the end of my junior year at Verde Valley School I discovered the empty shell of the earth-molded free-form dome that had been built by one of the field trip groups. (See the Verde Valley School Dome #1 page.) I loved to study there, sitting on sacks of cement in the middle of the floor. It was cool and quiet, not easy things to find in late spring. I found the gentle curves of the dome and the splashes of color that sun shining through the embedded glass bottles appealing. When my parents informed me that they were renting out our big house and all three of us would be spending the summer in the small one bedroom house that used to be Dad’s workshop, I had the brilliant idea of building myself a bedroom–a dome. I didn’t really think my parents would agree, but I wrote out a proposal, complete with an ambitious floor plan. The next time I called home, Dad’s first words were, “Is this the Cunningham Construction Company?”

Permission came with a few caveats. I had to pay for it myself, do my own research to learn how to do things before asking for help, and make a commitment to complete it. My parents didn’t want any half-finished construction projects cluttering up their land. I agreed. Beautiful as Sedona is, I always looked forward to returning to the Colorado mountains. This year I was more eager than ever. I couldn’t ask for a more perfect summer than spending it working on a creative project in our beautiful aspen-lined meadow.

One load of topsoil was surprisingly within my budget.

The dome takes shape one shovelfull at a time.

Phase 1: Making the Mold

After selecting my site, the first thing I learned was that bedrock was much closer to the surface in our meadow than it was at school. In order to make the free form earth mold I would have to build up a rough shape with various pieces of lumber and junk from our junk heap. Then I had a truckload of topsoil brought in to cover this armature. Preparing the mold and bringing electricity to the site took far longer than I expected. That was my second big piece of learning: large projects always take far longer than you expect.

Every day I was up early, working to exhaustion but loving it. There were so many details to figure out. How was I going to fit a rectangular door into a curvy dome? I decided I wanted one normal window that would open and close. Once I bought it I had to figure out how to make it part of the dome, too. I made my own door and door frame, mostly out of scrap. The beautifully weathered wood of the door came from a nearby ranch. I had to water down the topsoil to get it to hold together on the steep parts of the walls and then protect it from summer afternoon storms. After countless shovels full of dirt the mold was finally finished. Then came more details: making spacers to hold the reinforcing bar away from the dirt, creating another small window, and arranging all my pieces of found colored glass and plastic.

The door frame had to be constructed and tied in to the dirt mold.

The shape of the door frame echoed the free form arches of the dome.

Phase 2: Laying Up Concrete

Next I had to research the proper proportions of sand, gravel, and cement. I bought the cement a few sacks at a time on our various trips down the canyon to Boulder, but the sand and gravel meant another dump truck delivery. I had them both delivered in the same truck to save delivery costs, so it became a challenge to measure the right proportion of sand to gravel. I was very grateful that the original bridge my parents had built over South St. Vrain Creek had broken under a load of gravel my father had ordered a few summers before to work on our road. Now there was a sturdy new bridge that could easily hold the truck.

All the cement that covered the dirt mold was mixed in the same small cement mixer that my parents had used to mix the mortar for the original Lyons sandstone home in which Dad started Gerry Mountaineering Equipment and the larger four bedroom home they built when their third child (that would be me) came along. I had been used to build the cinder block addition that turned the sandstone house into Dad’s workshop and later the one bedroom ranch house that we lived in that summer. This same cement mixer was used in the construction of every dome described on this Web site. When my father passed away on May 15, 2010, my niece Heather, who had used it to help her grandparents build their last and most beautiful dome, asked if she could have it.

Like coils on a clay pot, the cement went on in horizontal layers.

That old orange cement mixer doesn’t hold very much, and progress was slow. I had to mix it to just the right consistency. If it was too wet, the section sagged; too dry and it messed up the dirt mold as I tried to smooth it out. August turned into September, and still the work went on. I had to wait out two snowstorms before the last trowel of cement closed the top of the dome like a capstone and I scratched out my name and the date before it hardened.

Phase 3: Digging it Out

A September snowstorm interrupts the concrete mixing phase.

The thing about making something over a mold like this is that the inverted shape that results can be full of surprises. What looks like a plain ditch in the dirt becomes a graceful arch, and features appear that you didn’t even realize were there. Waiting for the cement to cure before I started digging out the dirt and the armature was agonizing. Finally, out came the first wheelbarrow load. I used the topsoil to create a terrace in front of the dome and returned the junk to our junk heap. Slowly I was able to experience this newborn space, to look out my  front door and my window for the first time, to see arches and curves emerge.

Out comes the first load of dirt.

By now we were into November at 9000 feet in a Colorado winter. One thing I learned about dark rich topsoil is that when it is wet and it freezes it has the consistency of hard rubber.
Once the cold had penetrated into the mold my work became much harder. My pick would bounce off it, jarring my shoulder without dislodging a cubic inch. I began raiding our scrap wood pile to light bonfires inside. After the fire died out the mud would rain down and bury it. I would fill the wheelbarrow with muck, scraping as much as I could off the ceiling. At some point I finally realized that the amount of extra work to dig it out once it froze wasn’t worth it.

Wait a minute, you say, it’s November. Aren’t you supposed to be at school, completing your senior year of high school? Fortunately for me, Verde Valley School at that time had implemented a schedule in which a student took fewer courses at a time so I could take the two classes I needed to graduate–senior English and American history–in one semester. Also fortunately for me, the school had one opening left. Back I went and graduated with my class.

Loading up the wheelbarrow with soggy muck.

Home again, I was sure I would finish in time to spend some time actually living in my creation before heading off to Colorado College in the fall. I still had to light a few fires, but soon summer warmth permeated the last of the mud and I was digging out the original meadow soil. I hit bedrock less than two feet down. My design included ledges along the back wall that held twin mattresses. Even so, I had to use the pick on a few inches of crumbling granite to make the floor low enough.

Phase 4: Finishing Touches

The two major projects for finishing the inside were pouring the concrete floor and plastering the walls/ceiling. When I tired of these I could take a break with smaller projects like building my fireplace or making my door latch, constructed according to the detailed descriptions in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. As usual everything took longer than expected. Still, I would have finished a week or so before heading off to college except that I came down with a severe case of what I now realize was giardia. I was so sick that I couldn’t even read a book. That was a first for me. At the last minute a large crowd of family and friends gathered one weekend and troweled on the last of the plaster.

If Pa Ingalls can make one, so can I.

Though Dad called it Penny's Igloo, most people call it the Hobbit House because of the shape of the door and the way it is buried in the hillside.

Once I went off to college my life took other turns. That was the last summer I spent on our land. I never did spend more than a few nights in the dome. My parents, however, did live in it for a few weeks when my grandparents came to visit and took over the ranch house. Though they made that decision for practical reasons, they fell in love with the curved walls and splashes of colored sunlight. Those few weeks ended up shaping the rest of their lives. For the next phase, see the Verde Valley School Dome #1 page.

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