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UC Davis Plans To Close "The Domes"

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(Davis, CA)
Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Built in 1972, Baggins End is what some people might consider a throwback to a hippie commune.  Most people know it as the Domes, because its residents live inside fiberglass geodesic domes.  Imagine 14 large igloos spread across a wooded area of gardens and bark-covered pathways.  Apart from the spherical shape and colorful polka dots and spirals painted over the walls, the domes are no different than a typical two-person dorm room.  They have all the normal living essentials . . . a kitchen, a loft, a bathroom, and a living room.

Dome1But it's the community-based agricultural lifestyle that attracts students like Kara Sweeney to the domes.  There's an organic garden outside each dome.

"It's called Permaculture.  And that's like this basis of having your gardens like right near where you live," Sweeney said.

There's also a large communal garden, a greenhouse, and a well-equipped tool shed. 
"This is like a collection that has been building for 40 years.  So we pretty much have any tool that we need to fix anything on site here," Sweeney said.
Chickens [chicken noises] in two coups produce eggs daily.  Everyone eats in a communal dining area.  And there's a large community room full of couches and pillows for relaxing and playing games like spin the bottle.
"It has a laser right here, Sweeney said. "So whoever has to be kissed will have like a laser on him." 
But the domes have a problem. 
Dome2"In January we had a meeting with student housing going over their findings for ADA compliance and for structural integrity.  And they came back saying that these were not up to 2007 building code.  And they were not going to be renewing leases once our current ones expire in July . . .  the end of July," according to Sweeney. 
Students built the domes nearly 40 years ago, expecting them to last maybe ten years.  The construction is basic; an 1/8 inch thick fiberglass shell, lined with foam insulation.    
Ramona Hernandez is a manager with UC Davis Student Housing. 
"The UV rays from the sun eventually degrade the foam that's on the inside . . . just the heat," Hernandez said.  "And that's been happening for some time and there have been some foam repairs, but it was to the point where they wanted us to help them and came to us and that's when we first went down this path." 
Hernandez says the domes need to be totally re-foamed.  And renovations of that scale make the domes subject to 2007 building standards, and trigger much more costly repairs.
"Building codes in California," Hernandez said.  "If one were to do major renovations to a building then you have to bring them up to standard code.  If you're not doing major renovations, as long as basic things are maintained, then you don't have to make those changes."
Hernandez says it would cost about $43 thousand per dome to make them comply with modern building codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act. 
Dome residents claim they can fix the spots where the foam is degrading and still use the 1972 building code.  Then they can build new domes as the old ones are phased out. 
Dome3But Hernandez says state law requires Student Housing to bid projects to union contractors and pay prevailing wages for construction work.  She says her department has 6,000 students to worry about, and it can't justify spending nearly a million dollars to save housing for 28 students.   
"We did a financial analysis and looked at the risk and looked at the benefits of putting more funds into the buildings to keep them going a little longer and found that the most prudent financial decision was to close the domes," Hernandez said.
But Kara Sweeney says her dome home is a unique piece of history and an opportunity for experiential education.    
"I've heard plenty of people say that they think that they've learned got way more out of their four years of living here at the domes than they did out of their four years of education here," Sweeney said.
Hernandez says there may be a future version of the domes in the same spot.  But for now, no new leases are being offered after July.
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