This article is a follow-up to a March 2022 ‘North Bay Bohemian’ article, ‘Residential Renaissance—Alternative architecture in the North Bay.’
It’s been a dynamic year at Zomes; public interest in the unusually beautiful, efficient and durable dome-shaped dwellings it builds remains high.
“I hear from plenty of people who are totally in love with them. They are really moved by the design; it really appeals to them,” company founder Karim Bishay said during a Zoom meeting on a recent afternoon.
New Zealanders have expressed interest, and inquiries flow in from across the U.S. “Sixty percent of our customers are in California, but there’s a lot of interest in Texas, New Mexico and the Southwest,” Bishay said, adding, “We’re big in Spain, too.” A Zomes video produced by Freethink recently went viral there, garnering a half-million views (www.tinyurl.com/Freethink-Zomes).
Born in Egypt, Bishay immigrated to the United States in 2005 to study theology in Boston with the intention of becoming a priest. He then earned an MBA at Boston University before moving to Oakland, where he met his wife. They now live in West Marin. A serial entrepreneur, Bishay has founded and managed more than six companies during the last 15 years. Construction is a new venture for him.
Zomes, Bishay’s brainchild, are organic, onion-shaped structures built to withstand just about anything. He initially conceptualized Zomes as a solution to durable housing in the wake of the devastating local wildfires of the past few years. The visually striking structures, in which bioceramic tiles sheath a wooden structure, are unusual enough to defy easy description or categorization.
Per the company website, they are 90% recyclable, 100% fume-free, entirely non-toxic, built from sustainably grown and ethically sourced materials, with low carbon footprints. Their bio-ceramic cement and insulation is fire-resistant, mold-resistant, pest-resistant, rot-resistant and water-resistant. Each Zome comes with an integrated, operable skylight and bamboo flooring. While chimneys don’t integrate with their design, vents do.
“We [initially] thought of these as ADUs [accessory dwelling units]; we thought of them as this niche, little quirky building you could have as an office or a yoga studio in your backyard,” Bishay said. “And the vast, vast majority of people who want them want to live in them. So we’ve had to adjust to that very quickly. So that’s why we’ve built bigger models … because people are like, ‘No, I just want to live in one. I want a kitchen, I want a bedroom.’”
The result? The original 211-square-foot shed model that the company showcased when it opened in late 2021 is now the smallest in a line that also includes a 386-square-foot Small model; a 580-square-foot Medium model with a 150-square-foot loft; and an 800-square-foot Large model with a 200-square-foot loft. Options include kitchens, bathrooms and a cooling system.
Zomes can be used as offices, home gyms, art/design/yoga/massage studios, guest bedrooms and tiny homes. Their open floor plan can be augmented with room divisions, a loft or an upper floor; or a hallway option can connect two or more Zomes into one unified structure, allowing each to function as a separate room.
During the process of planning the larger models, Bishay redesigned the entire shape of the structure, resulting in Zomes that are sleeker and, according to director of operations Michael O’Neil, “allow customers to place windows anywhere they want.” O’Neil pointed out that the long line of windows spiraling up to the skylight on the show model at the production plant resembles a palm tree from the inside of the structure.
But perhaps more importantly, the new design is much less expensive to build than its predecessor. The savings are incorporated into the final price, making them cost-effective in today’s market.
“Now we’re half the price, twice the size, just as sustainable, just as fireproof, and we can go all the way up to a thousand, 1,500, even 2,400 square feet. So, actual homes,” Bishay said. “We’re building at $300 a square foot, so we’re coming in at a half to third of the market.”
In addition, Zomes provide local wildfire victims, some of whom have rebuilt twice and had both rebuilds burn down, with an actual possibility of building a home that won’t burn down, even if another fire sweeps right through the neighborhood.
Why Zomes Don’t Leak
One of the most important aspects of Zomes is that, unlike traditional domes, they don’t leak. This is because Zomes are zonohedrons, as opposed to geodesic domes.
“Geodesic domes are much easier to build because you are using the same triangle over and over. That’s what makes them so attractive,” Bishay said. “But the seams are exposed, and eventually water will find a way to make it through, especially with freezing and expanding and contracting.”
Because the new Zome shape curves inward at the bottom, water falls off the structure at a certain point. More importantly, the overlapping outer shingles prevent the seams from being exposed. “Also, there are three or four layers of vapor waterproofing under the shingles,” Bishay said. “So there’s just no way any weather’s getting anywhere.”
Bishay continues to tackle, successfully, the issue of permitting, which stymies so much local California construction, particularly when it comes to “alternative” design. Prescriptive permitting is the rulebook for building a “normal” house, he said. “Follow the code and it [the structure] is assumed to be permittable.”
“Obviously a Zome doesn’t work that way,” he added. “It doesn’t even have walls. What’s a roof and what’s a wall? There’s nothing in there.”
Enter descriptive permitting, which allows a builder to provide the county with an exact description of their non-conformist build, including engineering specs and stamps from a structural engineer, an energy engineer and an architect. Once the build is deemed safe and viable, the county issues a building permit for that structure.
Zomes are currently permitted in Marin County; Lake County; Santa Rosa; Ashland, Oregon; and Sedona, Arizona. Bishay said they are even permitted in West Marin, adding, “If you can permit in West Marin, you can permit on the moon.” Texas, perhaps unsurprisingly, doesn’t require permitting.
Sales and Business Growth
To date, 60 people have placed Zome deposits, 14 Zomes are under contract and eight Zomes have been built.
Bishay said that while the business is doing well in terms of getting over the initial startup hump, he is initiating a couple of projects with investors to expand sales. “We’re co-purchasing these properties in Sedona and building 12 Zomes on them over the next year, as well as some kind of speculative homebuilding where I’m looking at really nice properties in California and considering just building Zomes on them and selling them,” he said.
The Zomes website is exhaustive, covering every conceivable detail and question anyone could hope to know or think to ask. Director of operations Michael O’Neil is happy to give interested parties tours of the two models on site at the Petaluma manufacturing facility—an old-model Small and a new-model Medium. Just call in advance to make an appointment.
Zomes, 1297 Dynamic St., Petaluma. 707.302.0702. www.zomes.com.