Earth-friendly Buildings Offer Affordable Beauty

Eco-Domes near Brainerd model an energy-efficient future

            Imagine living or working in 10,000 feet of space, yet consuming a small amount of energy, using very little water and creating only a tiny amount of waste while being surrounded by the beauty of nature.

Sound too good to be true?  After 20 years of imagining such a concept, David Winkelman is living this dream today southeast of Brainerd.

Winkelman designed and constructed the Eco-Domes, located at 9121 County Road 23, Brainerd, as a showcase for environmental options in building materials, waste reduction.  He calls this creation the Living Arts Center.

            “The buildings are testing practical, affordable ways we can work and live in better harmony with nature,” Winkelman says.  “We are giving people a place to get hands-on ideas for existing in a more environmentally friendly, cost effective way.”

            The geodesic domes, which require no load bearing interior walls to support the rood, use 33 percent fewer materials to enclose the same floor area as more conventional buildings.  In every aspect of the building process, Winkelman selected conservation options.  As a result, the Eco-Domes burn no fuel, produce only two cubic feet of waste per week from 10 employees and pollute no water resources.


Both science and art

As Winkelman designed the Eco-Domes, he wanted to capture a creative spirit.  He integrated beautiful paintings, woodwork, stonework, water sculptures, gardens and ponds into the buildings and grounds.  The resulting place comes alive with warm wood tones, flowers and green plants, a peaceful backyard pond and the soothing sound of running water.

            The center uses nature’s bounty.  For power, the Eco-Domes use the sun and the wind.  Photovoltaic (PV) generators, or solar panels, provide most of the Eco-Domes’ electricity.  A wind generator provides electricity for the center’s utilities and appliances.  The PV generator should pay for itself in about 10 years, the wind power in less than eight.  After that, the building electricity is virtually free.

            Geothermal energy heats and cools the domes, the warmth from the earth’s core eliminating fuel burning and pollution.  In winter, heat from the relatively warmer ground goes through a heat exchanger into the building.  In summer, the process is reversed and hot air from the building is pulled through the heat exchanger into the relatively cooler ground.

            A walk-in underground cooler, designed by Winkelman and his brother, Dennis, uses geothermal energy.  Inside, it’s similar to an old-fashioned root cellar.  However, the humidity and temperature are controlled by using adjustable ventilation.

            Because Winkelman’s concept is to live in harmony with nature, trees removed during construction appear throughout the center.  Winkelman crafted flooring, stairs, walls, framing and handrails from the harvested trees.  Only dead trees were harvested, so no live trees would be sacrificed.

            Compact fluorescent bulbs and tubes light up the Eco-Domes.  This results in a 75 percent energy saving over standard incandescent bulbs, enabling the center to save money while reducing pollution.  The bulbs produce a soft, natural light.

            Thermal ceiling tiles not only maintain the natural-looking lighting by cutting down on glare, but they have a high thermal resistance (R factor) of 4.55 per inch, providing good insulation.  These tiles, made from recycled polystyrene (disposable food packaging items such as foam egg cartons and coffee cups), are washable, reversible, shed no fibers and give off no fumes.

            As Minnesotans know, choosing the right insulation is one of the most important construction decisions in Minnesota.  Winkelman chose spray-on cellulose for the Eco-Domes.  It’s made from recycled paper mixed with borax and is fire retardant and pest resistant.

            To keep plants both inside and outside of the building watered, the center uses a system that recycles and treats wash water (from the washing machine, dishwasher and sink water) and disperses it into the planters.

            Even the toilets in the Eco-Domes are earth-friendly.  Most toilets flush into some type of septic system, whether it’s an individual system or a municipal treatment plant.  The Eco-Domes’ waterless, composting toilets prevent pollution, conserve water and actually compost human waste into a usable product, fertilizer.  Plus, no septic system is needed with these toilets.  Since 1996, the toilets have been used more than 50,000 times, but have not needed to be emptied.  Human waste is 90 percent water and the bacteria eat most of the rest.

            And what would a building, no matter how beautiful and earth friendly, be without a solid foundation?  The domes have permanent wood foundations made from pressure-efficient than traditional block or concrete foundations because it won’t crack.  Wood is also warmer in the winter.


Natural harmony—inside and out

Winkelman put just as much thought into the center’s grounds as he did the buildings.  The result is relaxing, low-maintenance and harmonious with nature.

            The pond, located behind the Eco-Domes, is man-made but looks as if Mother Nature designed it years ago.  Plants native to area ponds grow at a healthy rate, making the pond an ideal habitat for the fish that have been stocked, as well as frogs and other living creatures.

            The docks and decking materials consist of recycled plastic lumber, fabricated from shopping bags and shrink-wrap mixed with 50 percent waste wood fiber.  It’s a low-maintenance material that won’t rot, sliver or crack.  Recycled asphalt and concrete pave the parking lot.

            The plants and granite materials adorning the grounds soothe the spirit.  Minnesota granite, used throughout the center for flagstones, retaining walls, boulders and plaques, will last hundreds of years.

            Among the sounds of native songbirds, frogs and other small creatures is that of flowing water.  Several types of water flowforms decorate the grounds.  Water flows through figure-eight patterns, generating pulsing, rhythmic whirlpools.  The flowing action cleans and oxygenates the water naturally, resulting in little maintenance.


Testing more eco-technologies

Winkelman is already planning to remodel the Eco-Domes so he can test more products.  Plans include adding solar thermal water heating systems under sidewalks to melt snow, roofing with shingles made out of solar panels, a larger wind generator and other types of geothermal systems.

            The Eco-Domes also house two more of Winkelman’s endeavors, The WATER Foundation and The WATER Foundation Radio and Community Programs.  The WATER Foundation is a not-for profit organization whose mission is “to harmonize with nature, conserve natural resources and save money.”  The Radio and Community Programs are for-profit businesses that create educational, practical and entertaining programs, products and promotions.

            To set up a tour or for more information on the center, call (218) 764-2321.