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UC Davis to close Domes in light of high repair costs

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February 11, 2011 | Leave Comment

UC Davis Student Housing will no longer offer or renew leases for the Domes residential cooperatives after contracts expire this summer, casting a pall over an experimental student community almost 40 years in the making.

This landmark decision was communicated officially to the Domes residents at a forum on Jan. 24, but the prospect had been looming over the cooperatives for months as Student Housing’s concerns over structural integrity and reliable funding escalated.

“It was a tough decision and we had to take all the factors into play,” said Emily Galindo, director of student housing. “Where we landed had to do with the safety of the students and the financial burden that the necessary renovations would present.”

After interpreting reports by the UCD Fire Department, Safety Services and Design and Construction Management, administrators at Student Housing decided that nine out of 14 domes were in substandard condition and unsafe to live in.

Student Housing has decided that it would be too expensive to remodel the Domes structures and student residents have conceded that the structures, however “wacky and fun,” are on their way out. At the same time, residents are working to raise funds and a new task force is beginning to visualize what future cooperatives will rise from the ashes.

News of the lease-termination decision came as a terrible blow to current Domes residents, who had essentially been told to find a new place to live and leave their innovative living environment behind.

‘Shock and disbelief’

“It’s been shock and disbelief,” said Domes resident Byron Hoy, an international agricultural development graduate student. “People are emotionally distraught, which is a tremendous burden on some students. We all knew in the back of our minds that it was something that could potentially happen, but these places are part of what makes Davis uniquely Davis.”

The Domes have been an unmistakable part of campus since Ron Swenson and his sustainable design crew formed the 800-square-foot hemispheric houses in 1971. For decades, the Domes have been managed as a residential cooperative, where students are invited to try a way of life that’s a little bit different.

“Domies” participate in consensus-based decision-making to facilitate program planning, budgeting and admissions, while paying rent to the university and ultimately falling under the purview of Student Housing. Some basic Domie principles are organic gardening and artistic self-expression in a communal habitat.

Generations of Davis students have passed through the Domes , many of them contributing ideas and activism that have become permanent parts of the town. Seeing that their homes and history are in jeopardy, residents have reacted with alarm that Student Housing’s decision comes without considering the extent of the Domes legacy.

“They don’t see the impact of the Domes on the community as a whole,” said Veronica Pardo, a Domes resident and graduate student in community and regional development. “There’s the Food Co-op, Village Homes, Bike Forth and the Farmers Market, all of which were conceived by co-op residents. And yet they don’t understand that killing the community is a bad idea.”

The aging material of the Domes structures is the primary concern that led to the decision to terminate leases. Domes consist of a fiberglass shell lined with several inches of polyurethane foam insulation — a recipe that was originally intended to last five years, but has endured for 39. Potentially as far back as 1982 the foam had begun to delaminate from the fiberglass, causing the still-solid insulation to visibly hang down from parts of some ceilings.

Residents proposed repairs to Dome 10

In October, Domes residents brought a repair proposal to Student Housing to cut out and re-spray the worst delaminated areas of Dome 10. The students had hoped to do this themselves with a $600 kit from Central Coating, the company that originally built the Domes . The proposal was denied, jarring some residents.

“What’s been lost in translation is that we’ve been in charge of maintenance and upkeep,” said Kurt Vaugn, Domes resident and graduate student in ecology. ” The wording in our lease, a legally binding contract, is that Domes residents are allowed to pursue ‘new and unusual’ solutions to these problems. Which means innovate, but everything Student Housing has done on our behalf has been done poorly and with no creative input.”

After the delamination was brought to their attention, Student Housing prompted inspections from various campus agencies and Domies summoned technicians from Central Coating to evaluate the condition of the dome -foam.

Fixing Domes would cost $600,000-plus

After reviewing these reports, Student Housing decided that the only option was to gut each structure and re-spray all of the insulation. Campus architects estimated the cost of gutting the Domes structures and re-spraying the delaminated insulation would cost $43,000 per dome , or $602,000 in total. Additionally, the Domes would have to be brought up to new housing codes that didn’t exist in 1971, like the Americans with Disabilities Act. Administrators deemed these renovations prohibitively expensive.

“We can’t do these corrective actions; there’s too much of a cost involved,” Galindo said. “We would be looking at taking a loan from our Undergraduate Reserve Account, which would have to meet guidelines and principles for borrowing.”

Student Housing manages different accounts for their revenue sources — one for undergraduates, another for the Domes , a third for the Tri-Cooperatives, etc. To finance these repairs, they would take a loan from their much larger undergraduate account to supplement the $40,000 Domes reserve.

“Students are here to get an education, and when you take on these kinds of debts, it’s future students that would have to pay,” Galindo said.

Student Housing operates as a self-sufficient department of UCD and receives no school or state funding. As one of the few profit-generating university ventures, the department has been under a campus assessment for the past three years, placing a tax on its operating budget. Some Domes residents see finances as a wedge between students and administrators.

“It’s a case of different priorities,” Vaughn said. “They are a money-making entity, and we make them very little money.”

Future is uncertain

The future of the Domes remains uncertain. Some Domies fear that administrators will replace the Domes with high-density multistory housing that could make much more money in the same space. However, the land the Domes occupy is still designated for cooperative housing and is managed as part of the Sustainable Research Area, a collaboration that also includes the Student Farm and the Ecological Garden. Faculty and students also have created the Sustainable Living and Learning Task Force to envision the next generation of sustainable cooperative housing, which planned to meet for the second time today.

” The vision everyone is working toward is a new community that can be lasting for more than 40 years,” said Hoy, who sits as a Domes representative on the task force. “It provides some hope that by being a part of the planning process for future communities, we can provide longevity of our current community.”

Student Housing also has representation on the task force, and Galindo said that she looks forward to seeing the “enthusiastic and motivated” team move forward. Bob Segar, assistant vice chancellor of campus planning, anticipates that the task force will have a workable plan by July.

In the interim, Domies are left to decide what to do with themselves when the bottom falls out. Galindo has hired a staffer to help residents find new places to live in Orchard Park apartments or other cooperatives in Davis.

“I’ll breathe a sigh of relief when I know everyone’s found a place,” Galindo said. “They’ve got a great story to tell, and we should look for a way to memorialize what has been, but it’s also about moving forward.”

To the Domies, however, history isn’t over. Residents plan on registering their communal Yurt, which is up to code, as a campus club and continuing to use the space that they can.

“Orchard Park isn’t unrealistic for an interim occupancy strategy, so long as human presence of community members remains on Domes property,” Hoy said. “We want to breathe new life into a new space, and it could be here.”

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