September 2018
Simple Times

Life Underground

 

Owners of earth-sheltered homes enjoy the benefits of greater energy efficiency.

How many thousands of children (and adults!) have been fascinated by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of "the House in the Ground" in her book, "On the Banks of Plum Creek."

Commonly used by many settlers out west during that time period, "dugouts" were quick ways for settlers to get their families safe, warm and dry.

As Laura described the tiny home her Pa had traded for, she noted, "The front wall was built of sod. Mr. Hanson had dug out his house, and then had cut long strips of prairie sod and laid them on top of one another, to make the front wall. It was a good, thick wall with not one crack in it. No cold could get through that wall."

And what about that roof!!! The ceiling was made of branches woven together and then with hay piled on top. On top of that was sod.

Laura continued, "They all went up the path and stood on the roof ... no one could have guessed it was a roof. Grass grew on it and waved in the wind just like all the grasses along the creek bank."

The family was snug in that little house (even though cattle hooves often threatened to tumble the roof down upon them!) until Pa was able to build yet another log cabin.

But what memories that little dugout brought!

Then there’s the Hobbit House in J.R.R. Tolkein’s books … the home for thousands of young folks’ minds as they imagined "holing up" snugly away from the world.

But type in "underground house" or "earth-sheltered" or "earth-bermed" house now and you may find that building at least partially underground may not just be something for fairy tales and books!

Every fall there’s folks in Blount County that sponsor a Solar Tour and in addition to a hay-bale house and others, there’s an underground house to tour. And construction makes sense in a lot of ways, not just for us old-school back-to-the-landers.

Mother Earth News notes in an internet article that back in the 1970s, earth-sheltered homes "enjoyed great popularity, thanks in part to the energy crisis resulting from the 1973 oil embargo. Adventurous builders and researchers explored various forms of earth-sheltered building, from underground excavated spaces to surface-level buildings with earth piled in berms against their walls. People searching for alternatives to conventional building showed that sheltering a building with earth could reduce energy costs for both heating and cooling by half or more, at little or no increased expense."

While I’d often thought about that technique and even considered it here on a hillside on the farm, I’d never really been associated with an underground-type house until my husband began the process of selling his.

That spacious three-bedroom home was built in 1968 by a man who dug into a bank and built away!

From the roadway in front, the house looked like a conventional stick-built brick home. Even folks from our church who had visited regularly (often at night) didn’t realize the home was partially underground!

Mack bought the home in 1976 and lived there until last year. It was a spacious, three-bedroom home, with a partially underground, huge covered patio as well as a partially underground three-bay workshop.

Since he had originally bought the home with owner financing, we had no idea the hurdles the new buyer and we would have to jump in order for that new young man to qualify for a conventional loan.

While the Department of Energy touts the marvels of underground, earth-sheltered, and earth-bermed homes as bastions of energy savings (and they are!), getting that loan proved to be the proverbial threading a camel through a needle’s eye ... although it was accomplished!

So here’s some advantages and disadvantages if you want to build or buy such a home!

The walls of Mack’s house are 10-inch concrete block, with one-inch rebar through those blocks every seven to eight feet and the blocks then filled with concrete. The floors are concrete slab on which was originally tile and later carpet and ceramic tile, but which the new owner plans to cover with laminate flooring.

The windows across the sides and back are 2 feet by 4 feet and are situated right under the roofline, with the earth up to those windows on the outside on the sides and back.

The front opens up to a spacious, approximately 8 by 20-foot sun porch and the front bedroom and living room feature conventional full-sized windows.

The house had no central heat and air for the first decade or so that Mack lived there, relying instead on the natural coolness of the home (and fans) during the summer and a wood-burning heater in the winter.

The roof sits just above ground level. Unlike the dugout in Laura’s story, this house has a regular rafter roof (see photos) which were originally shingles but which were replaced by a metal roof less than five years ago.

Mack laughs and notes the first couple of years friends and family from far and near found it convenient to visit whenever tornadoes were in the forecast!

The home required little upkeep and kept his energy costs way down.

He had planned to live there the rest of his life. But sometimes life takes turns we don’t anticipate, so the house was put up for sale.

Lots of folks were interested, but one young man in particular fell for the house the first time he toured it. And the loan process began!

While he had already been approved for the amount of the home’s purchase, governmental regulations began to surface one at a time! Although the house is in an unincorporated area of our county, most building codes and regulations still had to be adhered to.

These windows were initially too high off the floor for government regulations requiring safe escape in case of fire. 

 

One of the main sticking points was the location of the two back bedroom’s windows. According to governmental regulations, the windows were too high off the floor for safe escape in case of fire. That problem was eventually handled, but that’s something you need to be aware of if you are buying or building such a home!

Also, underwriters and lenders require that appraisers produce several "comps" – similar homes in your area and county, that have recently sold, and that are approximately the same age and same size.

Hum ... well it’s not like Blount is a haven for underground homes even though there is one just about 200 yards from the house that was just sold! It appears that once someone buys or builds an underground or earth-sheltered home, they don’t ever want to move ... they’re pretty happy right there! So finding comparable homes that had been sold was just another hurdle, that was also later overcome.

(Somehow they wouldn’t let us use one I found on the internet. Known as "The Burrow," in Canterbury, Great Britain, it sold in 2007 for $2 million! It featured five bedrooms and was designed by Patrick Kennedy Sanigar, who then decided to build an entire village of earth-sheltered homes!)

Mother Earth News reminds us that a common misconception is that earth is a great insulator. "In fact, earth is a poor insulator, even more so if it’s wet. However, earth is a good capacitor that can absorb and store heat; its excellent thermal mass" storing not only warmth but coolness, which Mother Earth News notes is simply "heat at a lower temperature."

Wikipedia on the internet notes that such underground or earth-sheltered homes’ aim is "not to live under or in the ground, but WITH IT," using the ground as kind of an insulating blanket.

So would I build an underground house if I ever had to leave our current ranch-style house? We might. But if you make that decision, first see what building codes and regulations are in your area. Then ask yourself if you have the money on hand to build or buy what you want or if you’re going to have to finance at least part of it.

Find those folks hosting the Solar Tour in Blount County and go look at those houses. Ask a million questions and then ask some more.

And if you get it built and are enjoying its snugness, be prepared for lots of visitors during tornado season!

 

Suzy McCray is a freelance writer who lives on a Blount County homestead. She can be reached on Facebook or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..