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Josh Smith, Deseret News
Neighbors gather to watch as a crew from Southern Utah University builds a dome house in Guaymas, Mexico.

GUAYMAS, Mexico — Neighbors gathered to watch as the balloonlike structure rose above the rows of shanties perched on the parched Mexican hillside.

The word igloo comes to mind, but the landscape is anything but polar.

This dome house will replace Daniel and Adela Mendoza's pressboard and cardboard shack that was partially destroyed during Hurricane Jimena last September.

"When the hurricane hit last year, the walls fell down and the entire house was soaked," Adela Mendoza said through an interpreter. "It was like a river flowing through the house."

Thanks to some unusual building techniques, proponents hope dome houses could revolutionize humanitarian work in poverty and disaster-ravaged areas around the world, including recently devastated countries such as Haiti, Chile and now in Mexico, where at least one person was killed and many more injured by collapsing buildings during Sunday's earthquake.

In a flurry of dust and noise, Southern Utah University is joining the pioneering effort to build quicker, cheaper and stronger housing for families like the Mendozas.

A group of students, faculty and staff from the college spent spring break in Mexico, experimenting with the new building system.

The domes are built with an inflatable "air form," which is then covered with rebar and concrete. When the concrete is dry, the air form is deflated, leaving a house 20 feet in diameter.

In a week of work south of the border, the student crew typically builds half a house, said SUU construction management professor Boyd Fife. With a reusable air form donated by Idaho-based Dome Technology, the crew built three dome houses last week.

"This will radically increase the number of people we can help," Fife said. "With this equipment, we've increased our productivity 300 percent."

Fife said the donated air form will allow Utah students to impact more lives in Mexico.

"This is really the way to build," he said. "For the students, I think this will really expand their chance to serve and really help people here."

While the inflatable air frame makes the process fast, dome contractors say the buildings' shape uses half as much material and is more resistant to natural disasters.

Monolithic Dome Institute President David South said every time a natural disaster happens, his company is "inundated" with calls.

"An earthquake means nothing to a dome, a tornado means nothing to a dome," he said.

South said he has been building domes for 35 years; first as a co-founder of Dome Technology and later as president of rival Texas-based Monolithic.

Monolithic has partnered with donors to form the Domes for the World Foundation, which has recently rebuilt villages destroyed by an earthquake in Indonesia. The company is also gearing up to build domes in Haiti.

"People are beginning to look past the funny-looking domes to the safety such buildings provide," South said. "The dome movement is getting bigger and bigger."

For SUU's project, Dome Technology donated construction materials in addition to the air form.

A project manager for the company, Darryl Cunningham has been living in Guaymas while he oversees the construction of two massive fertilizer-storage domes at the city's dockyards. Taking an active part in the university's project, he said no other building system could offer what the domes do.

"To take an untrained crew and build a nearly indestructible house in three days — you just can't get that with traditional cinder block," he said. "If you go into a disaster area, or poor area, and you build typical housing, you lose them all when the next disaster comes along. Domes are permanent housing."

Without further donations, the domes in Mexico may not be fully finished for some time, but Fife said every little effort helps.

"These will change people's lives," he said.

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Beyond the financial challenges of humanitarian work, both Cunningham and South acknowledged that domes face a cultural stigma, making it difficult to fit a round home into a square society.

"It's the Jetsons, it's an igloo," Cunningham said. "But I think that's something that people are getting over. People here seem thrilled."

In the neighboring town of Empalme, Armando Terriquez said he is excited about the new dome house no matter its shape.

"I never thought in all my life that I would receive such a gift," he said through an interpreter.

e-mail: jsmith@desnews.com