Co-founder and CEO Karim Bishay’s company is poised to meet the dwelling space needs of crowded California homeowners.
Serial entrepreneurs who’ve spent the past 20 years founding California companies as well as serving as consultants, Bishay and his brother Shereef were initially inspired to create Zomes to satisfy their own need for an accessory dwelling unit on land they own in Marin County.
“We had a yurt before and were pretty dissatisfied with it,” Bishay explains. “It got very cold, the waterproofness wasn’t very consistent, and we really didn’t like the way it looked. We started researching other possibilities and came across magnesium phosphate cement.”
A “miraculous material,” the brothers quickly “fell in love” with magnesium phosphate cement for several reasons.
“It doesn’t burn,” Bishay says. “You can hold a flame thrower to it, and it doesn’t catch fire. It has been used in nuclear waste disposal because it lasts for so long and doesn’t transfer heat. It also sequesters more carbon out of the atmosphere over its lifecycle than it costs in its production, so it’s incredibly environmentally friendly.”
Working with an architect, they eventually settled on a polar zonohedron dome design — and the Zome was born.
“Usually, the domes you see are geodesic,” Bishay continues. “Those are the most common because they’re easier to build. They basically consist of the same triangle over and over again, but they’re notoriously leaky. Polar zonohedron domes are naturally more resistant to the elements. We also think they’re more unique and beautiful.”
Determined to avoid cutting corners or compromising on promises, the brothers spent the better part of a year on pure R&D before opening their doors to sales in the fall of 2021. Within a few months, they had 10 reservations for 15 Zomes and were manufacturing one unit every two days at their two 20,000-square-foot facilities in Petaluma.
“One facility is dedicated to just manufacturing the Zomes themselves,” Bishay says. “That’s the wooden frame, the bioceramic shell, the internal paneling, and the insulation. The other facility is used for research and development as well as manufacturing the add-ons. These include lofts, bathrooms, and kitchens. We’re also building out a showroom for customers to come and visit.”
Bishay explains that manufacturing of a Zome begins with the creation of a mold. “We use a five-axis CNC machine to cut the shape we want in EPS foam,” he continues. “Then we fill that foam with rubber, which creates a mold that we can pour cement into. The cement dries over a couple of hours, and we basically pull it out. That’s how we make the shell cladding. We have a mold for each shape and can use them over and over again. Each mold can make almost 1,000 panels.”
The team’s director of R&D designed the production line for the wooden frame at the heart of each Zome. “This is a machined product and is accurate down to a thousandth of an inch,” Bishay explains. “We’re always refining our processes to make it as machined as possible. The wood gets moved along the production line and cut at very specific angles and drilled at the exact same place every single time.”
The materials used in each Zome are sourced locally whenever possible. “As much as we can, we get things from either California or the United States,” Bishay says. He also notes that the team is planning to increase production and installation to three Zomes per week over the coming year.
Customers put down a $1,000 deposit to start the process. A complete Zome starts at $64,000 plus tax along with $10,000 to $15,000 for shipping and installation. Buyers can handle the construction of the foundation for their Zome themselves or hire the company’s team for $8,000 to $36,000.
“We’re trying to establish Zomes as kind of a restorative construction experience,” Bishay adds. “From a customer perspective, there are no hidden costs. You’ll never pay a cent more than what we agreed upon. From the moment you pay, and we schedule it, it will take somewhere between one week to 10 days to completely install your Zome. No heavy machinery. No ruining your land. Nothing unexpected.”
Challenges: “We’re not from the construction industry,” Bishay says. “That makes us ignorant and arrogant enough to think we can do something new. But I think you need optimal ignorance to try something like this. We’ve been at least smart enough to surround ourselves with people who know way more than us and who have been giving us great advice and anchoring our vision into reality.”
Opportunities: Bishay says “the sky’s the limit” in terms of the market for Zomes. “I’m spending less than $1,500 a month on marketing, and we already have over $1.2 million dollars’ worth of orders, so we’re already in the black.”
He notes that three factors are likely driving demand, the first being the increasing frequency of wildfires. “It’s really one of the first buildings of its kind that is truly fire resistant,” Bishay continues. “I think that’s attractive to most people in the Pacific Northwest.” Zomes are also waterproof, snow proof, and rot proof.
A growing number of consumers interested in hypoallergenic dwellings is a second factor. “There are no chemicals, glues, or paints used in a Zome,” Bishay says. “Basically, nothing that does any kind of off gassing. And it’s very difficult for mold to grow on our Zomes.” The structures are pest proof as well.
And finally, the recent passing of SB 9 in California is making it easier for homeowners to add accessory dwelling units to their properties. “Depending on specific county and city requirements, homeowners can now subdivide their land and build upon it,” Bishay explains. “I think that is going to be a massive market.”
Needs: “I’m not tracking any specific needs right now,” Bishay says. “We’re in a great position. We expect to be running off our own revenue pretty soon. We don’t have any debts. We have the team that we need and the space that we need. And it seems like people want [Zomes], so I feel really grateful.”