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Intershelter domes: 'Art that can help people'

Juneau man's business aims to 'shelter the world' with domes

Posted: Thursday, July 02, 2009

JUNEAU - Captain Don Kubley describes himself as "just a fourth generation kid from Ketchikan," but he has a business on his hands that could change the way the world responds to natural disasters.

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Photo Courtesy Of Intershelter
Photo Courtesy Of Intershelter

Kubley is the president and CEO of a company called Intershelter, which manufactures dome-shaped portable shelters. If all goes according to plan, the company's slogan, "We shelter the world," might not be too far off from becoming a reality.

The idea of using domes for housing has been around for quite some time. In the late 1940s the futurist and designer Buckminster Fuller invented the geodesic dome. A student of Fuller's named Craig Chamberlain created a small, economical dome called the OmniSphere. A personal connection brought Chamberlain, the man with the design, together with Kubley - the man who would market the dome to the world. A refined version of Chamberlain's original design is now being produced and sold by Intershelter.

Built to withstand extreme environmental conditions, including Class 4 hurricanes and 8.5 earthquakes, the domes are being marketed as the solution to a range of emergency housing needs - from disaster relief to quarantine shelters to refugee camps.

Domes, Kubley said, bridge the gap between permanent housing and the typical portable shelters of tents and trailers.

Made out of fiberglass with a gel coat, the domes are assembled from 21 round pieces, each piece weighing less than 55 pounds. The pieces can be stacked "like Pringles potato chips," Kubley said, and will fit in the back of a pickup truck.

A 14-foot SurvivalDome can be assembled by two inexperienced people in less than two hours, using just a ladder, a screwdriver and small socket wrench.

Just as easily, the domes can be disassembled and then reused elsewhere. The domes are known to last at least 15-20 years, and Kubley thinks they are likely to last much longer than that.

"It's the only structure in the world that has no frame and has structural integrity," Kubley said.

Instead of relying on tents and trailers to house thousands of people following natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, agencies like FEMA could strategically place domes in disaster-prone areas of the country, Kubley said. After disaster strikes, the domes can be easily constructed by families themselves close to what remains of their property.

"A family can put up their own shelter and stay together as a unit - which helps the healing process - and protect their belongings from looting," Kubley said. "They can live comfortably, safely, and in our (solar powered) SolarDomes be totally off the grid."

Kubley, with the support of a number of high-ranking military officials and disaster relief experts, recently submitted a proposal to FEMA recommending the use of the domes for disaster relief.

Lt. Gen. Craig Campbell of the Alaska National Guard wrote Kubley a letter in support of the mission, writing:

"These shelters are optimal for use as temporary shelters in times of disaster emergencies and these domes would be exceptional for use in Alaska. They far exceed the capabilities of the existing canvas tents."

When he first introduced the domes to people outside of Alaska, Kubley said many of them responded with comments along the lines of, "Oh, it's an igloo!" At first he corrected people, but after hearing it enough times, he decided to embrace the igloo image. "Heck, we're an Alaskan company, why not?" he said.

Call it a dome, an igloo or a shelter - the structures can already be found in 54 countries around the world, and counting. Kubley said he has dealers in 15 countries and receives 100-200 requests for information daily from around the globe.

"Mark my words, a year from today, when you turn on CNN, you'll see these," Kubley said. "Every organized army in the world will be using these.

"We are going to make a huge, positive difference on this planet."

AT&T order is in

Juneau residents might be surprised to learn there are already domes in their midst. Next to the AT&T tower on Lena Loop Road sits a green domed shelter. At just 14 feet across, the dome appears pretty unassuming, but the telecommunications company has big plans for the little structures, said Brian Buck of AT&T.

AT&T Alascom has ordered half a dozen of the domes to be placed at remote towers on mountain tops, Buck said. They will be used to house equipment and will be stocked with food and water to be used as survival sheds if necessary. Buck himself was once stuck at one of AT&T's remote sites for three days with only a helicopter for shelter and melted snow for water.

"If we'd had one of these (domes) we would have been comfortable and safe," he said. "It's all about safety and convenience."

Several thousand miles south of Juneau, domes were used for 12 years for a medium-term housing community for the homeless called Justiceville.

The success of the structures in the "dome village" attracted the attention of Ellis M. Stanley, Sr., General Manager for Emergency Preparedness for the City of Los Angeles.

On the Intershelter brochure, Kubley has reprinted a letter Stanley: "As a 32-year career emergency manager we see few opportunities to really make giant leaps in the way we do things in disaster preparedness. I believe Intershelter is one of those opportunities when we can do some things differently."

The structures meet the residential building codes for Los Angeles and are the only temporary structures that have been approved for migrant worker housing, Kubley said. And since the domes can be sealed to product against biohazards, they would also make ideal shelters for quarantines and sheltering the humanitarian aid workers dealing with outbreaks of serious diseases or terrorist attacks.

"The markets are pretty staggering to say the least," Kubley said.

Right now, Intershelters's focus is on large-scale projects, but Kubley thinks the domes will be popular for individual consumers as well.

"These are perfect for construction camps, for hunting and fishing lodges," he said.

The 14-foot diameter dome, which provides 160 square feet of living space, retails for about $7,000, and the 20-foot diameter dome (320 square feet) for $12,500.

Heading for a growth spurt

Intershelter is currently run by just Kubley, his wife Tracy, and his vice president Shawn Mattoon, but they have a large team of contractors and supporters.

"I've got a team around me, a big global team," Kubley said.

He anticipates the demand for Intershelters will soon rise considerably. There are currently 400-500 in existence around the world, but Intershelter is poised to build 15,000-20,000 units in the next year, then double the following year - and then skyrocket, Kubley said.

"We are about to go through a big, big growth spurt," he said. "We'll be staffing up big time."

This is the perfect time for Intershelter to hit the U.S. and global market, he said. At a time when the country is looking for new industries - green industries, especially - Intershelter is it.

"It's a green technology and it does some great things for the country and the world," Kubley said.

As he awaits the growth spurt, for the moment Kubley still has time to sit in one of his domes and admire the design.

"It's a work of art," Kubley said, gazing up at the top of a dome. "Art that can help people."

Learn more about Intershelter at www.intershelter.com. View additional photos at www.capitalcityweekly.com.

• Katie Spielberger may be reached at katie.spielberger@capweek.com.



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