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One mans igloo is another mans castle
A brick and warm-wood kitchen creates a cozy place to fix meals. - photo by Photos Courtesy Joel Emerson

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - After years of reading the "Three Little Pigs" to his kids, brick mason Joel Emerson built his own storybook structure - a brick dome home that not even the Big Bad Wolf can blow down.

"I told my wife many years ago that I was going to build her a brick igloo," he says, jokingly.

"No need for a carpenter or a roofer."

It used to be a brick house was a brick house, according to Emerson, 52, a bricklayer for his father for two decades and a self-employed masonry contractor for the past 10 years in southeastern Virginia.

"Not just veneer, but the framework or structure itself was brick," he says.

Emerson's goal to build a solid brick and concrete house that no one or nothing - not even a hurricane - can destroy comes from a personal life and career filled with ups and downs. He was tired of tearing out rotten or bug-infested wood from customers' brick homes so he could make repairs. He was weary of living in a 150-year-old farmhouse and then an old house trailer that always needed something. Then, there was the heart-wrenching time when he helplessly watched his van burn, all his tools melting inside.

On Saturday, you can tour Emerson's dome home in Gloucester, Va., and talk to him about the design and construction during the 10th annual nationwide Fall Dome Home Tour sponsored by the Monolithic Institute in Texas. Emerson's residence is 52 feet in diameter and 22 feet high; a living area of 2,000 square feet includes a central great room, foyer, three bedrooms, two baths, kitchen, laundry and loft.

Known as a stem wall design, the house consists of concrete footers, cinderblock crawl space, 7-inch-thick concrete floor, 12-foot-high brick walls, inflated air form for the dome shape, sprayed foam insulation and rebar-reinforcements encased in sprayed-on concrete, a product known as shotcretg. Because the dome's air form is supposed to last only five years, Emerson covered it with chain link fence and 2 inches of shotcrete, all painted with a protective rubbery pool sealant.

"I hope the basic lesson people get from seeing this house is to not be afraid to venture outside the box," he says.

"It bugs me to go into subdivision and see all the houses basically the same. Variety is the spice of life."

Emerson's drive to build a strong, maintenance structure didn't come easy. He credits his father, Herbert, who recently died from a brain tumor, and his faith for helping him get to the finish line

"I would have given up many times if not for his help," Emerson says of his father. "He taught me the trade and taught me how to do it properly. That was his gift to me.

"Arranging brick and stone a certain way, it's like you and God are doing something together."

When Emerson's vision of a dome house emerged in his mind more than 10 years ago, he first experimented with wooden templates to build arched brick walls. He also considered using AAC blocks for the dome but found each unit had to be cut wedge-shape horizontally and vertically, which was far too labor intensive. Finally, someone suggested he check out dome structures online, which is when he found the Monolithic Dome Institute in Texas where he attended a seminar in 2003.

"Two weeks later, Hurricane Isabel hit," he says. "Although I personally didn't get much damage after the storm, I saw the problems other people encountered, which helped increase my determination."

Construction on the house started in 2006 and Emerson and his wife,

Debbie, and daughter, Elizabeth, 17, moved in spring 2009. There are still some finishing touches to do, but Emerson will get those done during winter when he can't work outdoors.

Of course, a unique house deserves a special name, so Emerson christened it Sty Manor, in honor of his business name, the Third Pig. The words

"Sty Manor" are etched in a round stone set within intricate brickwork at the home's entrance.

To Emerson, the dome home is a far cry from a pigsty.

"This thing feels like a castle," he says.