Going Green: The Earth Sheltered Home

I'm just back from a family driving holiday (next time, we won't take the kids), and it certainly got me to thinking about greener building. I'm amazed at the amount of green space that is lost each year to a sea of houses. Why couldn't our building blend into our natural environment better?

Well, the earth-sheltered home could definitely fit that bill. You won't get a conventional-looking home with this kind of construction! This is the next best thing to living in a cave -- and if you know anything about caves, they are often cool in summer and warm in winter, if you go far enough into them. What better than good old fashioned rock and earth to protect you?

The earth-sheltered home is one step up from the earth-bermed home. You can find information on both these kinds of building all over the internet. However, so you don't have to go anywhere, let me give you a short, succinct definition: an earth-bermed home has the sides of the home covered with earth, but retains a conventional roof. The earth-sheltered home has both the top and most of the sides covered with earth. Both earth-bermed and earth-sheltered construction may be found under the term "earth sheltered", but I'll distinguish between the two because I think the advantages to the "true" earth-sheltered are significant.

Earth-sheltered homes are very energy efficient. This type of construction can save as much as 85% on your home's use of fossil fuels for both heating and cooling. In fact, you can even incorporate passive annual heat storage, that effectively allows you to save heat in the summer to use in the winter! Surprisingly, you also can save on lighting. Most designers of these homes recommend a south or south-east exposure, which guarantees a lot of light, as long as the home has a window for most rooms on the exposed side. Any additional needs for natural light can often be addressed with tubular skylights that can actually funnel light to the place where it is needed.

I was surprised to find that you also save a bundle on maintenance. Because your walls are pored concrete, you don't have to do a lot of upkeep. In fact, an earth-sheltered house won't need a new roof or many other kinds of regular upkeep to either the exterior or interior. If you pick the right interior finishes, you could have a virtually maintenance-free home.

Some sites claim that you will actually have increased safety from both fire and tornadoes, especially when comparing the earth-sheltered homes to other types of homes. (Maybe we'll see a new building trend for Tornado Alley? It might even save you some money on your tornado insurance.)

Keep in mind that if your home is underground, you really have to have good drainage. If anything is necessary with this home, drainage would be key. Be sure that any builder that you work with provides a "passive" drainage system that does not depend on electrical pumps or other powered interventions. You don't want to be flooded just because the power was off for an extended period. (While great in Tornado Alley, it might be less suited to Florida's Gulf Coast.)

This probably sounds expensive. It certainly can be. However, while you might think that you'll spend a lot of money for the home, and never see it back, you'd be wrong. I found a list of 25 reasons to build an earth-sheltered home and this list includes a number of ways that you can save money from this kind of home.

And with all that money in pocket, what do you think you should be doing? Why, paying off your mortgage! I can give you at least 5 reasons why you should do that, but the best is that you'll be piling savings on savings. What you save on your running and maintaining your home, can be applied to saving you money on your interest.

Now that's the best kind of double-dipping I can imagine.

Michael Chantrel

Posted by Michael on July 4,2007 at 7:18 PM

I'd have to agree... I like what I've read on this kind of building. I actually knew people who had an earth-sheltered home, built in the 70's. It was a really solid structure! No creaking floors, and no uneven walls or other sloppy finishes (like you often see with builders now). The discipline of the poured concrete structure really makes a difference.

Probably works best, especially if you want to live "offgrid".

Posted by offgrid on July 4,2007 at 3:13 PM

Sounds like a good way to go.

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