PLYMPTON — June and Richard Shire share their home with a whimsical collection of teddy bears that attests to the cozy ambience of their one-story, partially underground house.
A bear family gathers at a table near a nook in the kitchen, ready to enjoy a bowl of porridge. Another band of bruins stands ready to play marching music, and the rest of June Shire’s collection is scattered playfully in rocking chairs or lounging in a corner, waiting to be held.
“I love my bears,” she said to a visitor recently.
Like their grizzlies, the Shires have hunkered down to enjoy winter in their snug Terra-Dome, an unusual-looking house consisting of concrete dome modules reinforced by steel and built into a hillside, almost like a cave. The modules were configured to form a custom earth-sheltered dwelling, said Richard Shire, a retiree who set out to build this highly energy-efficient home more than 27 years ago — long before going green became fashionable.
“You can stack them at different levels, use half-domes,” he said of the Terra-Dome’s design. “You can do any kind of configurations.”
The Shires began thinking about building a green home after living in a “Homes by Hendrich” ranch for more than 20 years in Halifax. They were ready for a sea change after losing both their sons in separate car accidents about two years apart in the early 1980s. “After both our boys were killed, we wanted to start fresh,” he said.
The couple considered all types of construction, from log cabins to post and beam, and even visited the 1982 World’s Fair in Tennessee to see the geodesic dome, a free-standing sphere pioneered by R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1993), the Milton-born inventor perhaps best known for the iconic dome he built in Woods Hole in 1953 as a project for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with students from 10 universities.
“I consider myself an expert — I studied up in the 1980s on domes, said Richard Shire, who at the time was director of the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department’s criminal investigation bureau. When he came across a business card from the Missouri-based Terra-Dome Corp., he was intrigued.
Shire investigated and, he said, “I was impressed right away.”
But his wife wasn’t so sure. They were the butt of a few jokes from friends about living underground, but June Shire didn’t try to dissuade her husband because, she said, he could be stubborn once his mind was made up.
“At first I thought I’m not going to like living like a mole,” she said. But after more than a quarter-century in their Terra-Dome, she said, “Now I don’t think I could live in a regular house.”
Domed structures are an ancient design used by the earliest tribes to build circular yurts, teepees, African beehive huts, and igloos. They are the strongest structure known and use the least surface area to enclose the most space, winds roll right over them, and they can withstand earthquakes.
Large public domes, some of them ancient, are scattered all over the world. Among the most prominent: Agrippa’s Pantheon, a Roman temple built in 27 BC and replaced 60 years later by Hadrian; Turkey’s Hagia Sophia, built by Emperor Constantine in 306 AD and converted to a mosque in 1453 when Sultan Mehmet II sacked the capitol city and renamed it Istanbul; Israel’s Dome of the Rock, built in 691, a focal point of strife between Arabs and Jews who both consider it among their holiest sites; and the US Capitol, built in 1793 and today still a symbol of freedom throughout the world.
The Shires built their 3,400-square-foot version on a 7-acre retreat lot off Route 106. They were still in their 40s then, but had retirement in mind and wanted to make sure the structure was handicapped-accessible, generated minimal utility bills, and required little maintenance. Between the land and building they spent $200,000, saving on costs such as a solar water heater paid for with federal and state grants. The couple’s utility bill today runs $70 to $100 a month for electricity; heat is generated primarily from wood Richard Shire harvests off their lot.
Their home is not well known in town, and most people who drive past don’t even realize it’s there.
Joseph E. Webby Jr., an engineer whose office shares a driveway with the Shires’, said that the house is unique and striking, but that the style might not be for everyone. He designed the site plans for the Terra-Dome, but he lives in a Colonial and says he prefers traditional designs.
“The only real advantage is the tremendous fuel savings,” said Webby. “Every time the oil man comes, I cringe.”
The Shires’ home consists of four side-by-side domes, covered with rubber-coated concrete, insulation, a 3-foot layer of earth, and topped with planted shrubs. When the Shires built their home, the dome modules sold for about $18,000 each; today they run $20,000 to $25,000 and are made by a number of other companies as well, with names like DomeGuys International and GoodKarmaDomes.
The modules are poured on location over a fiberglass mold lined with steel reinforcements. Shire said more than 6 tons of steel rebar was used in his house; once the concrete is dry, the reusable mold is removed, and the entire structure is fused into one piece that can be lifted with a crane. Utilities are installed under the floor in a concrete pad, he said.
“We cut into the hill, built the house, and put the hill back,” he said, adding the ground provides insulation against sound and weather, and the walls maintain interior temperatures of about 50 degrees, winter and summer.
Shire believes his home has better air quality in winter than found in many traditional houses. His Terra-Dome has air exchangers at each end to bring in fresh air that is warmed and filtered as it is exchanged with the stale hot air. To ensure the air remains good, his wood stove draws directly from the outside and doesn’t use indoor air to burn, he said.
He said his dome home does not require center supports as in traditional construction, and lends itself to wide-open spaces. The interior is bright and airy from rooftop skylights, and the few walls inside are largely for privacy. “You can do anything you want inside, chop it up any way you want, because there are no bearing walls,” he said.
The interior reflects the couple’s tastes for entertainment, from the 92-inch flat-screen television and motorized easychairs, to a collectible Thomas Kincaid village, complete with a working train, tucked into a corner. He does most of the cooking, in the modified kitchen or at the indoor grill.
Over the years the Shires have felt only slight vibrations from the minor earthquakes that have hit the region. When the 1993 quake hit Abington, Richard Shire said he heard a dull roar pass through the house, but beyond a few rocks rolling off the top of it, nothing happened.
“The house is so stable we never feel anything,” he said.
The south-facing side is lined with a bank of windows to allow the warming rays of the sun to heat the house. At night the windows are covered with thermal shades to keep heat in and cold out.
“We take advantage of sunny days,” Shire said, with an electric water heater kicking in when it’s cloudy.
And this might make other property owners envious: The small yard around the home requires little maintenance. “I don’t even own a lawn mower. The most we do is pull a few weeds,” Shire said.
The biggest chore is cutting wood for the three cords they burn a year. “I spend a lot of time working on wood,” he said. “It’s my exercise — cutting and splitting.”
But it takes only one wood stove to heat the entire house.
The couple started out with a wood stove, moved on to a pellet stove, and switched to propane, but when gas prices rose they switched back to heating with wood.
Shire said they would build another earth-sheltered home in a heartbeat.
“It’s a lot easier, it’s 100-percent maintenance free,” he said. “I never think about cleaning downspouts and gutters — we have a built-in drainage system. If I built a regular house, right now I’d be thinking of replacing the roof.”
Visitors will probably first notice the sign at the foot of their long driveway: Paul Gary Way. It’s the Shires’ way of keeping alive the memory of their children, Paul and Gary, who died in 1981 and 1983.
If they could have a makeover with their remarkable home, they said they would change only one thing: build it bigger.
Alice C. Elwell can be reached at email@example.com.