Last days of the Domes at UC Davis
UC Davis officials clash with eco-conscious Aggies over its sustainability future—including the fate of four green acres and 14 weird and wonderful domes
An inviting curry aroma fills ecology doctoral student Kurt Vaughn’s kitchen on a drizzly March evening. He’s preparing a vegetarian dish for his neighbors, 25 fellow Aggies tucked away on four secluded acres at the northeast end of the campus. Their student-run cooperative is not your typical college experience: They convene four nights a week for a potluck dinner and embrace such sustainability-minded practices as composting, rain catching and raising free-range chickens.
And every night, they fall asleep in very unique homes: domes. Rotund, alien-looking, 800-square-foot domes, which house two residents a pop. Each structure has a unique layout inside, but most feature small kitchens—many with abundantly stocked spice cabinets—and ladders that lead to loft bedrooms and study areas perched over quaint living rooms. Basically, it’s a dorm scene, but in a dome.
Recently, however, Domes residents received a rude awakening. The university, which has fostered what can be construed as an “adversarial” relationship with Domes residents over the past 40 years, intends to shut down the Domes and disband the community in July.
UCD Student Housing says the domed structures are no longer safe, not up to code, not Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant and not worth spending money on to salvage. Residents, faculty and alumni of the Domes contend the administration has neglected these issues for decades and is simply making a land grab, motivated by budget cuts and pressure to squeeze every last dollar out of campus real estate.
“The whole thing started about a year ago,” recalls Vaughn, who, at five years, is the longest-tenured current Domes resident. During a routine student inspection of the structures, dome No. 10 revealed significant wear and tear.
There had been structural problems before. Forty years ago, the domes were built from giant fiberglass molds and filled with polyurethane foam. “But what’s happening as these structures age,” explained Vaughn, is that the foam is “delaminating,” or peeling off the fiberglass.
This creates what students call “bubbles,” which protrude from the domes’ ceilings and walls. They began fixing them without assistance from UCD housing as far back as 1991. In fact, these annual repairs are now a Domes tradition. (Part of what makes the community “special,” Vaughn says, is that residents, who call themselves “Domies,” do most of the upkeep and maintenance, which keeps their rent low, currently $226 a month.)
Still, dome 10’s bubble was the worst they’d seen: It’d gotten so huge, a hole had formed through the wall.
Residents approached Student Housing, who controls their budget, for additional funds to fix the dome. But officials ordered the students to halt all repairs until it could check out the dome themselves.
“Which was unprecedented,” Vaughn said. “They’d never really come in and inspected these things” like the dorms or other campus living—although officials do look over the Domes grounds, officially called Baggins End Innovative Housing, once a year.
Soon, university fire, environmental-safety and design teams were inspecting all the domes. This occurred in the fall of 2010. Findings were presented to residents earlier this year. It was the worst news for Domies.
“[UC Davis has] determined that it would not be appropriate nor financially prudent to continue to utilize these facilities for residential living,” read a January 24 letter to Domies from Associate Vice Chancellor Emily Galindo. The university claimed it would cost more than $1 million to both bring the Domes community up to code, including ADA compliance, and also replace each dome’s foam insulation, at a cost of $43,000 per structure.
Residents, though, argue that officials inflated these costs as a pretext to get rid of the Domes community and reappropriate the land. Domies recently commissioned two engineers of their own to provide a second opinion. Their verdict? The domes could be fixed in the short term—and for only $5,000.
So this month, residents, alumni and faculty are urging the university to allow “spot fixes” so that the community can remain onsite and living in the domes until a long-term solution is reached.
But Student Housing’s Galindo told SN&R last week that “short-term fixes were not possible”—even though a report by UCD’s own expert, contractor Mason Knowles, concluded otherwise.
Meanwhile, a Sustainable Living/Learning task force—including Assistant Vice Chancellor for Campus Planning Bob Segar; civil and environmental engineering professor Frank Loge; Student Farm director Mark Van Horn; assistant professor of community and regional development Ryan Galt; associate director of Student Housing Mike Sheehan; campus architect Clayton Halliday; and students Veronica Pardo, Byron Hoy, and Greg Robinson—formed recently to conceive a new vision for the Domes community, including future residences and how the 4-acre site will support the school’s sustainability mission. Many refer to the effort as “Domes 2.0.”
“It’s a huge asset,” professor Loge said of the cooperative. “If you look at alumni support for a particular program, [the Domes] and the Cal Aggie Marching Band are the ones on campus that have the strongest alumni support. Why? Because they provide something incredibly meaningful to their participants that goes beyond simply the program.” Despite Domes 2.0, however, current Domies still must move out in July, according to the administration.
Built by students and founded in 1972, the Domes community is the school’s last remaining low-income-housing option. Former residents include founders of the Davis Food Co-op and Davis Farmers Market. Many say the Domes are a beacon of UC Davis’ mission, more than any academic department or sports team.
For instance, Ron Swenson, typically credited with creating the Domes community—which was funded by University of California Regents grant money, not UC Davis dollars—is an example of Domes alumni’s international impact: These days, the Santa Cruz-based engineer is heading a project to make the Galápagos independent of oil by installing photovoltaic cells across the islands.
“These are the types of people that largely come out of the Domes,” explained Danielle Fodor, a former resident whose thesis, an oral history on the Domes, featured dozens of interviews with Domies. She rattled off many notable alumni, such as Bike Church founder Chris Congleton, in addition to the many attorneys, environmental activists, performance artists, professors at UC Davis and elsewhere, international-aid and small-farm workers, regional agriculture officials, and local business owners from the Domes.
“The Domes [are] an amazing place,” Fodor said. “[It] does exactly what higher education should at its best: attract exceptional, smart, creative people and nurture them so they can reach their full potential.”
While other schools house nonprofit cooperatives, the Domes site is a village-type setting unlike anything on any campus in the United States. Residents learn firsthand about sustainable agriculture, permaculture, rain catchment, composting, small-scale waste management, greenhouse growing, raising farm life, reducing personal waste and channeling greywater. There’s no leadership hierarchy at the Domes—decisions come by consensus—and parties and celebrations abound, such as on the first day of each academic year, when the community hosts a fête for alumni and new students.
Current Domies include Brennan Bird, who in 2010 was named Greenest Student by Think Green Live Clean for living a zero-waste lifestyle for an entire year. (He won an iPad.)
“It offers a truly formative experience,” Vaughn said. “This community, over our four-decade history, has made Davis what makes Davis good.”
Yet UC Davis has a track record of hostility toward the Domes—and most student-run organizations.
Activist and journalist David Kupfer lived in the Domes for six years and seven months beginning in 1980. “I never felt an ounce of appreciation by the UCD administration for the Domes,” he wrote to SN&R via e-mail while traveling abroad in Cambodia. He cited a long history of the university opposition toward student-initiated institutions, including the Experimental Organic Farm, established in 1977; the Experimental College, established in 1968; the UCD Coffee House; KDVS; student co-ops; and The Bike Church.
“It truly seemed that if UCD could not control or take over these activities,” he wrote, “they wanted absolutely nothing to do with them, even when it came to celebrating and recognizing these institutions’ 20th or 30th or 40th anniversary.
“It is rather shameful and disrespectful.”
As a student, Kupfer remembers meeting with Ed Spafford, vice chancellor for physical planning, who “never failed” to talk jokingly about “bulldozing The Domes.”
Turns out he wasn’t kidding around. In the spring of 1974, Spafford convinced student-run organizations—including the coffeehouse and experimental college—to temporarily move out of the former East Hall for seismic repairs. “That summer, when all the students were gone,” Kupfer wrote, “East Hall was bulldozed to the ground.”
Current Domies worry their community will share a similar fate if they leave Baggins End.
“The university is in a poor financial situation,” Vaughn said while stirring his curry. Student Housing is one of the few campus departments, like Transportation and Parking Services, that is revenue-positive, he explained. So the Domes, a tiny acreage on Orchard Street across the street from a soon-to-be-demolished apartment complex, is now viewed as underexploited, insofar as density and profitability go.
Domes residents have paid nearly $3 million in rent over the years, but say they don’t have much to show for it, especially when it comes to keeping the structures up to code and ADA compliant.
In recent weeks, residents acquired copies of Domes budgets dating back 14 years, which reveal that UCD Student Housing had, in fact, allotted funding for ADA fulfillment, totaling $80,000 since 2006. But this money was never spent, and Domies are now asking Student Housing where the funds went.
Housing director Galindo said she’s waiting for her associate director for finance to return from vacation and explain the “flow of funds” to residents.
In the meantime, the Domies are spreading the word. Supporters—who, as of last week, includes the Associated Students of the University of California, Davis—await possible word from vice chancellor of student affairs Fred Wood, who could possibly intervene and save the Domes.
This would be welcome news to Veronica Pardo. She’s lived in The Domes less than a year but is the only current resident on the Sustainable Living/Learning task force. She’s optimistic, but has “no idea” what will happen next. A graduate student in community development, she instantly embraced the Domes community and wanted to “share it, spread it,” inviting classmates to the grounds frequently for study sessions and get-togethers.
Like all Domies, Pardo accepts that the dome structures themselves won’t last much longer—even the Minnesota Vikings Metrodome is falling apart—but says that it’s not about the domes: They just want to keep the community alive until Domes 2.0 is ready.
“For the past 39 years we’ve been fighting for this thing,” Pardo said. “It would be nice to stop.”