Off the map

Bob Schuler’s foam house turns 40 this year.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Schuler, who was “sort of teaching art” at SUNY-New Paltz, got the idea to build a house for his family up on top of a mountainside he had just purchased. The site abutted Mohonk land. “We were still living outside of New Paltz [on Albany Post Road] but I wanted to build a teepee and cover it with bark. But Jimmy Pellish, a friend and roofer from Poughkeepsie, had started to work with sprayed styrofoam. He thought it would be a good idea to drape a parachute over the teepee frame and then foam it. I figured I’d try it.

“It worked great. The hut was next to a stream. No electricity. We used a ski-doo to get things up there. We were off the grid,” says Schuler, smiling.

After a year or so, the Schulers decided that they wanted to live full-time on the mountain but would need something a bit bigger. “The hut still exists, but urethane foam needs to be coated with paint or it breaks down with ultraviolet and infrared light. I never got around to it, so it eventually started disintegrating and became uninhabitable.”

For a while, various friends and kindred spirits used the hut as a kind of guest house and retreat. The prototype still sits, tinged orange like a hut in Cappadocia, on a ridge above a hill of shale overlooking the distant Catskills. Now only a black snake and other assorted animal guests occupy it.

 

How the dome was built

With Schuler recognizing the advantages of foam, he and Pellish soon founded Big Foot Foam, located in a garage just outside of New Paltz on Route 299. Urethane foam had been developed in the 1930s in Germany for use in Luftwaffe airplane wings, then was developed by chemists through the years primarily for insulation. Big Foot’s main clients were apple growers who wanted their coolers insulated.

In 1972 Schuler, helped along by then-New Paltz students Gary Allen, Jack Murphy and others, decided to build a large dome-house next to his recently dug spring-fed pond. They poured a concrete slab with reinforcement I-bars, put in electric conduits, and using a small fan blew up a home-made parabolic balloon that could be sprayed with foam.

“It took one day to inflate the balloon,” said Schuler. “It was slow. The next day we built a scaffold around it and started spraying with a urethane unit from Jimmy Pellish, trying to keep the nozzle at a right angle to get even coverage.” That first day’s foam hardened in a few minutes and expanded to a three-inch thickness at the bottom and two inches at the top. Over the next couple of days of coatings the thickness expanded to twelve inches at the bottom and five inches at the top.

“This was closed-cell foam, meaning it was stronger than open-cell foam, which is used only for insulation. This foam and the parabolic shape precluded a bending moment, so it wouldn’t just collapse into itself.” The dome was 15 feet high and 30 feet in diameter.

Doors and windows? “A saw,” replied Schuler, “Just cut into it the shape, put a piece of lexan [plexiglass] on the outer shell and a piece on the inner wall, and foam the edges so it’s double-paned. I put argon in between, but over the years it dissipated into the foam, which is very, very absorbent.”

The whole process from pouring the slab to finished dome shell took less than a week. A bathroom was added soon after on the front edge of the dome.

“And of course it wasn’t up to code, even then, but it was the hippie era and people all over the country were experimenting with alternative building materials, none of which were legal, I’m sure,” says Schuler.

A more complete view of the exterior. (photo by Dion Ogust)

How did the dome did get approval from the local authorities? “I went to see the [building] inspector with a bunch of drawings by an architect friend in New Paltz showing the dome construction, but he wasn’t there. The lady there told me that he always went to the Rock Cliff House [in High Falls] after work every day for a couple of drinks. So I walked into the bar, he was there drinking with a bunch of his friends, told him that I needed approval for the house. He told me to roll them out on the bar, looked at them for a couple of seconds, said, Looks good to me, and signed off on them. Like I said, it was a different time.”

Schuler and his gang then built bedrooms off the main dome, one on each end joined by tunnel-like hallways. “Again it was balloons for the bedrooms,” he said, “but the hallways were sprayed over fiberglass because of the oblong shape.” Including the added bedrooms off the hallways, Schuler estimates the total cost for materials was approximately $10,000.

 

Foamers everywhere

“At that time there were foamers everywhere,” chuckles Schuler, “and I partook in some syn-foam conferences at Oklahoma State University and in Colorado with foamers who were building all kinds of houses all over the country. Lots of them in Boulder, where one of them was used in Woody Allen’s [film] Sleeper. There was a group in Texas who foamed houses between trees, so they looked like they were growing out of the roof. Gary Allen and I were part of Whiz-Bang Quick-City with architecture students from the city, and we built a foam house that floated on a lake in Woodstock.”

Schuker thinks Frank Lloyd Wright, who Schuler studied with as a college student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, “would have loved foam.”

As a sidelight to the buildings, Schuler has taken to making foam animals (hippos, alligators) and objects (multi-colored pyramids, big pink chairs, various “skiffs” and “rafts,” a big “Yes” and “No”) to float in the pond. In the middle, anchored to the pond-bottom, is a Monet lily pad. In the woods leading to the pond are foam figures tied or suspended from trees, and inside are glass rectangles, and foam tables with flowers and vases falling over. The place has become a wonderland of invention.

But the dome, simple as it was to construct, must be taken care of. “It breaks down, absorbs moisture and is a fire hazard unless you coat the inside with plaster,” says Schuler. “That’s probably the biggest drawback today to getting it approved. That and you would need complete and detailed architectural plans, an engineer, and that would add a lot to the cost. I did paint the inside, but my place is the most primitive type.” Since urethane foam is essentially insulation, Schuler heats his three domes with light bulbs and small heat lamps.

“My friend Bill Clopping, the American guru of foam, thought that spraying concrete would increase the lifespan of the house, but it’s 40 years old now, showing some cracks here and there, but it’s held up well. It was more rural around here then, so it was just easier to build a house like this. Besides,” notes Schuler, “not too many people want to live in round houses anyway.”

For the past 30 years Schuler has been working on The Tethys Project, which entails Schuler (and various assistants over the years) sand-blasting drawings, glyphs and texts onto 500-pound granite cubes, painting them with urethane (there’s no escaping the material), and then going out into the world’s seas and throwing them overboard at carefully selected coordinates 100 miles apart. He has already crossed the Atlantic from Beaufort, South Carolina to Gibraltar. Then the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Israel. Then from Miami, through the Caribbean and the Panama Canal to the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Chile. Remaining is the Pacific to Indonesia, and then the Indian Ocean past Cape Horn and back to the Atlantic.

“It’s my everlasting gift to the world, a necklace of stones that will last millions of years on the seabed,” notes the Stone Ridge artist. “I look at it as a kind of cold storage.”

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