Exhibiting Resilience

Strong Monolithic Dome for Ocean Center in Maui, Hawaii

by Marcus Dodson, publisher



The Maui Ocean Center, located in Ma’alaea, Hawai’i, on the island of Maui, is a three-acre oceanography center that houses the largest tropical reef aquarium in the Western Hemisphere. The center is home to live Pacific corals, Hawaiian green sea turtles, sharks, stingrays, and schooling fish. One of the most popular exhibits at the Maui Ocean Center recently has been its new show entitled Humpbacks of Hawai’i Exhibit and Sphere, an immersive experience that brings visitors eye-to-eye with Maui’s humpback whales in their realm beneath the waves.

The new exhibit space is a modern marvel, merging technology with marine observation to create a thrilling visitor experience. Guests are able to connect with humpbacks in their world through the integration of 4k imagery, 3D glasses, and a 7.1 surround-sound system. While science and technology experts came together to create an incredible exhibit, it was another special team of roofing contractors and designers that joined forces to create the monolithic dome that houses Humpbacks of Hawai’i.

The leadership team for the Maui Ocean Center took their research very seriously when it came to choosing a design for their new exhibit. They wanted something strong that could withstand Hawaii’s frequent rains, high wind patterns, and humid ocean air, but it also needed to provide a seamless, immersive 3D virtual experience. After looking at several different options, they chose a monolithic dome to house Humpbacks of Hawai’i.

Monolithic domes are known in the architecture, engineering, and roofing industries to be one of the strongest structures that can be built. They are used for a variety of buildings, including homes, schools, gymnasiums, and arenas. Because a monolithic dome does not have any flat surfaces, its ability to withstand high-wind, including hurricane-force winds, is unmatched. Additionally, the concrete construction makes a monolithic dome resistant to fire, termites, and rot.

Kahe Construction, Maui, were the general contractors brought on to build the new dome. In need of a monolithic dome expert, Kahe Construction worked closely with consultant Dan Hildebrand of HDomes Consulting and Construction, Los Angeles, California. Chris Zweifel of ZZ Consulting, Shelley, Idaho, was the engineer for the project and Chris Masterson is the Maui Ocean Center’s exhibit designer. As with any zoo or aquarium, construction plans must take into account the safety of the center’s live animals. On Maui, the wind can be very powerful, and roofing materials and debris on a traditional roofing structure can be susceptible to blowing off. “Because of the sensitivity of the exhibit’s location, it was paramount that the new dome would not place nearby tanks and animals in harm’s way,” explained Hildebrand.

The monolithic dome at the Maui Ocean Center began with a concrete ring foundation, reinforced with steel rebar. Vertical steel bars embedded in the ring were then attached to the steel reinforcing of the dome itself. An appropriately sized airform, provided by Monolithic Constructors, Inc., Italy, Texas, was then placed on the ring foundation and inflated to create the shape of the exhibit. An airform is a balloon-like, inflatable structure made of polyvinyl chloride that determines the shape and size of a dome. Polyurethane foam was applied to the interior surface of the airform, and it also serves as the base for attaching steel reinforcing rebar. A spray mix of concrete was then applied to the interior surface of the dome, which embedded the steel rebar. “By building the dome from the inside, we were able to ensure the safety of the nearby marine environment and the aquatic life it contains,” said Hildebrand. “This method eliminated the chance of overspray reaching the tanks.”

The Maui Ocean Center held a grand opening ceremony and blessing for the new exhibit in early February 2019. The center’s new dome is 59’ in diameter and houses a 139-seat 360º theater and 1,200 sq.ft. exhibit hall that features local Maui artwork. In true Hawaiian fashion, the center hopes to allow local Maui community centers and non-profit organizations to utilize the dome as well.