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Shawn Mattoon of Intershelter, Inc., left, stands with Grant Nelson of the Association of Washington Businesses in front of dome housing assembled on the steps of the Capitol in Olympia, Washington. The dome was on display during Washington Hispanic/Latin

Shawn Mattoon of Intershelter, Inc., left, stands with Grant Nelson of the Association of Washington Businesses in front of dome housing assembled on the steps of the Capitol in Olympia, Washington. The dome was on display during Washington Hispanic/Latin

Intershelter dome specifications
Diameter 20 feet
Height 12 feet at center
Floor area 314 square feet
Door opening (standard) 36 by 81 inches
Window opening (standard) 36 by 36 inches
Weight 1,100 pounds
Product life 50 years
Price $12,000

A new type of low-cost, portable housing that can be placed in remote locations could be an innovative solution for farmworker housing.

When Don Kubley of Juneau, Alaska, bought rights to commercialize portable dome housing and started up his new company Intershelter, Inc., in 2007, he envisioned a product suited for emergency housing, storm/disaster relief, military applications, and temporary homeless shelters—not migrant farmworker housing.

But when Shawn Mattoon of Kennewick, Washington, first saw the domes, he immediately thought of migrant farmworker housing. He thought they could be useful for the state’s growers and might be an answer to agriculture’s farmworker housing dilemma.

"When I asked Don if he’d ever thought of using the domes for migrant farmworkers, he had no idea what I was talking about. Coming from Alaska, the only migrant workers Don was familiar with were the ones working on crab boats."

Mattoon, who worked in the furnace and air duct cleaning industry, became aware of the domes while serving as an insulation representative dealing with Intershelter. He now is an equity partner in the company and is vice president of operations, overseeing Intershelter’s Wapato, Washington, facility.

The insulation used in the dome shelters is almost as unique as the fish-scale-type walls of the igloo-looking domes. The P2000 Insulation System used in the domes is a flexible, 5/8-inch-thick, expanded polystyrene board that fits inside the dome walls by simply pushing it in place by hand. It stays in place without fasteners and is "like a dome within a dome," Mattoon explained during a phone interview with the Good Fruit Grower. In Fairbanks, Alaska, the insulation keeps the domes a toasty 72°F inside when outside temperatures are –35°F.

Farmworker housing

A key selling point is that the domes have been approved for temporary farmworker housing by the U.S. Department of Labor and individual state health departments, including Washington, Michigan, and California. Mattoon noted that the domes are approved for H-2A guestworkers, but growers must still submit such things as floor plans and bathroom arrangements to their state or local health department. In Washington State, a single dome can house four workers; California and Michigan health departments have approved the single domes for six workers. Mattoon believes the domes give Washington State growers an alternative to using tents or building stick housing for temporary housing.

"Domes are a one-time expense of about $12,000 and will last for 50 years compared to tents that cost about $3,500 each and last only four to six years, with repairs sometimes needed. And domes can easily be moved with the harvest."

Once harvest is completed, the movable domes can be cleaned, sterilized, and stored for the next year, Mattoon said. "There’s not the vandalism problems from having an empty building, and there’s no maintenance to deal with."

Economical

Although the Intershelter domes have generated a lot of grower interest at farm trade and equipment shows, only a few growers have purchased the units, and none yet in Washington.

Jon Wyss of Gebbers Farms in Brewster, Washington, and president of the Okanogan Horticultural Association, saw the domes on display at the 2007 Washington State Horticultural Association trade show.

"There’s a lot of interest in the domes, especially by small growers. But the uncertainty with immigration reform and potential changes to the H-2A program are holding growers back from making purchases."

A depressed economy doesn’t help.

The response from growers, employer associations, and even legislators to the domes has been "why aren’t we using these?’" Mattoon commented. However, there has been some reluctance by banks in financing something that isn’t a stick-built structure, especially in these times of tight credit.

Wyss believes that the domes would be a good fit for small growers. In Okanogan County, many growers have 100 to 150 acres of tree fruit, he said. "If a small grower wanted to get into the H-2A program, the domes would be a very economical option."

The domes have been certified for H-2A housing and because they are portable, there is no property tax paid, although in Washington State, the units would be taxed as personal property.

Features

The dome shells are made of aircraft composite that is stronger but lighter than fiber glass. The fire rating of the composite exceeds Federal Aviation Administration requirements for airplanes, offering protection that well exceeds wooden structures or tent material.

Intershelter advertises that the high-density plastic dome shelters can withstand hurricane-force winds, 40 feet of snow, and even earthquakes.

Zytell nylon bolts are used to secure the overlapping composite panels. The Zytell bolts are extremely tough, reusable, and won’t rust or decay like steel products. The dome kits include one standard-sized door and two windows. The units use portable, military-grade flooring designed for heavy equipment in the desert, but cement pads can also be used. Domes can be interconnected, allowing the center to be used as a bath/toilet facility or common area. Plumbing can come up from the floor or walls.

Everything is shipped in a reusable, four-foot-wide by four-foot-tall by eight-foot-long crate that will fit on the back of a pickup truck. Three inexperienced workers with a few tools can easily put up a dome shelter in less than three hours, he said. Breakdown takes about 45 minutes.

Mattoon thinks that one of the biggest pluses for the domes is the ability to place the shelter in a remote location. "These can be completely off the grid," he said, noting that solar panels or wind turbines can be added to run LED lighting, and a water purification unit can be used to pull moisture from the air to be turned into drinking water.