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1/27/2015

                   

As a reader of Mother Earth News, you likely already know that keeping an old fridge around is a false economy. As someone who strives toward a sustainable lifestyle, you're probably aware that a fridge more than 10 years old is sucking up way more than its fair share of energy, essentially damaging the planet on a daily basis. It would be hard to have missed the fact that replacing an old fridge with a new Energy Star model can save up to $1,000 in energy costs over its lifetime.

Old
 

 Versus

New 

But that decade-old fridge still works, and you've still got it, don't you? Clearly you need a little more convincing that upgrading is the responsible step to take. Advances in refrigeration technology have not only increased the efficiency of these devices that are essential to modern life, but they will also make your life run more smoothly. If it has been more than 10 years since you looked at a new fridge, here are five things that new fridge can do that will improve your sustainable footprint (not to mention, make your life a lot easier):

1. Dispense Water

Through-the-door ice and water dispensers are a staple in most modern side-by-side and French door model refrigerators. The benefits are numerous, including freshly filtered cold water on tap that helps promote healthy living, plus eliminates the need to buy bottled water. Newer fridges come with elongated "dispensing centers" so you can fill large reusable water bottles and even pots for cooking with. Some models can even sense the size of the container you are filling automatically, so you can just leave it in the fridge door, press a button and come back when it's full.

The only eco-downside to the dispenser is that it breaks the seal between the cold air inside the fridge and the warm air outside, potentially making the fridge work harder. However, the break is minimal compared to what happens when you open and close a fridge door (something you will do less when you can access ice and water from the outside).

2. Keep Food Fresher For Longer

Dual compressors have largely replaced single compressors in refrigerator technology. Designed to keep food fresher for longer than a single, less efficient compressor, dual compressors mean each compartment, fridge and freezer, is operated by an independent refrigeration system, allowing for more precise control of temperature resulting in longer lasting food.

Adjustable humidity drawers mean you can more precisely control how your fresh fruits and vegetables are stored, helping prolong their life and reduce waste. (Remember that high humidity keeps the crisper moister, ideal for storing leafy vegetables; low humidity keeps out moisture for better storage of fruits.)

3. Fit More Food, More Efficiently

Samsung
This Samsung has almost 30 cu.ft. of storage space, capable of storing 30 bags of groceries.

Fridges today hold much more inside, without necessarily increasing the overall footprint of the appliance. How do they do this? Thinner insulation. A fridge born 20 years ago will be thickly insulated with Freon or other similar CFCs, leaving just a little bit of space for storage. Open a modern fridge and the thick bands of plastic around the edges are gone, replaced by super thin insulation panels, freeing up space for more storage.

While it's important to choose the right size for your needs, it doesn't necessarily follow that smaller fridges are more efficient; mini-fridges in particular have less insulation. Also, an overstuffed small fridge uses more energy because it doesn't have room to circulate the cold air, and must work harder to keep everything cool. The sweet spot energy-wise is between 16 and 20 cubic feet, but if you have a need for more space, it's better to get one big fridge than two smaller ones. And today you can find a 29.5 cu. ft. fridge that will store up to 30 bags of groceries.

One of the best features of modern fridges is their interior design. A lot of time and R&D has been spent on figuring out how we use fridges, and consequently they are packed with useful storage spaces, from extra-deep door bins to store gallon-sized items — providing more door storage and freeing up shelf space — to sliding shelves and butter keepers, you'll find convenient ways to store all your food in the most accessible way (meaning food is less likely to be forgotten and wasted).

4. Cut Down on Wasted Energy

LG

This LG Stainless Steel side-by-side fridge incorporates a door-in-door to reduce the loss of cold air when the door is opened.

A fridge consumes about 13% of a home's energy, but it's not just the size of a fridge that determines how much energy it uses; the type of model you choose also affects the energy bill. A refrigerator with the freezer on top is the most efficient model, using 10-25% less energy than the other styles. But, considering that opening a fridge door accounts for 7% of its total energy use in a home, there is a new model that has emerged in the last two years worth considering. The door-in-door and exterior drawer concepts, pioneered by Samsung and LG in 2013, allow you to access drinks, condiments, and other often-used items without opening the main fresh-food compartment. This reduces the amount of cold air lost when the door is opened, therefore reducing the amount of energy it uses.

5. Be a Fridge OR a Freezer

Samsung 2

This Samsung fridge allows you to set the bottom sections to be a fridge or freezer.

Getting into the realm of brand new technology, you can now buy a fridge that can be both a fridge and/or a freezer. How is that different from a regular fridge or freezer? You get to choose which parts are frozen and which are refrigerated, according to your current needs.

In the summer, when you eat more fresh produce, salads and easily perishable items, you can set three of the four compartments to be fridge and one freezer. As you're heading into winter and perhaps want to freeze some of that produce (or all that tomato sauce you whipped up at peak harvest time) you can turn both your bottom compartments into freezers.

Are there any other advantages of modern fridges that you've found you can't live without?

Jennifer Tuohy writes about green-home technologies for Home Depot. Jennifer provides tips to homeowners about energy savings on appliances, including refrigerators. You can view Home Depot's selection of fridges, including energy-saving models referred to by Jennifer, online.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

 



1/19/2015

When we remodeled our "forever" home, I insisted on stainless steel appliances. We were moving from an old farmhouse with ancient appliances that were white and run down. I wanted fresh, clean and modern. I watched all the home shows on television, so I knew that stainless was the way to go…or so I thought. Not one person warned me about cleaning them. Nobody told me that I'd clean them and somebody would open the fridge and BAM... fingerprints galore.

Oh, what a nightmare my first year was in my new kitchen. Yes, it was beautiful. I had every appliance I had ever dreamed of. Double ovens, a large stainless farm sink…the list goes on. It wasn't that I didn't love my new kitchen, it's just that I dreaded ever using it, because then I had to clean it. My poor husband was afraid to open the fridge, turn on the sink or go into the kitchen because I'd huff and puff and then go clean and polish those darn stainless steel appliances.

Natural Sink Cleaner Lemon 

Fast forward 10 years: I've adjusted. I've lightened up. Two kids later, this mom doesn't have time to fret over a fingerprint. The kitchen has to function; we need to eat. I gave up the idea that my kitchen will look like those in the magazines. Those are staged. Nobody cooks in those kitchens! This means, I have lots of fingerprints now and don't jump up to catch one smudge. I deal with it.

I do, however, still clean and polish and desire a nice looking kitchen. I just don't do it daily. I also don't use all those terrible chemical filled products that I was tricked into buying 10 years ago when I was desperate to keep my brand new dream kitchen magazine worthy. Nope, I'm cheap. I'm sensible.

What do I use? How do I clean without the name brand products that promise to make life easy and clean your stainless steel products? Let me tell you my secret.

Stainless Steel Sink

A citrus fruit of your choice, such as a lemon, lime or orange (whatever you have in your fridge) will work. Having gin and tonics? Clean your sink—you have a lime! The two go hand-in-hand.

The only other thing you need is baking soda. Yes, just two ingredients! Now what? Well, as you're sipping your gin and tonic, cut your lemon, lime or orange in half. Sprinkle baking soda into your sink.

Using your half-cut citrus fruit, scrub your sink and squeeze the fruit at the same time. Beware—if you have a cut on your hand it will sting, so you might consider plastic gloves.

After you've scrubbed your sink well with the citrus fruit and baking soda, rinse well with hot water.

Sprinkle the garbage disposal with baking soda, add a cup of ice and your used citrus fruit and turn the garbage disposal on with hot running water. Bam—your garbage disposal is clean and smells good too!

Dry your sink and it will be clean and shiny. Just don't let anyone else use it... ever!

Stainless Steel Fridge

Naturally Cleaning Stainless Steel

Using hot, soapy water, I clean the fridge to get the grime, dirt and fingerprints off. Unfortunately, the soap and water will leave streaks, and you want the stainless steel to shine and be pretty (at least for five minutes). So what's the solution?

After you've cleaned the grime off the fridge, wipe it dry.

Stainless Steel Cleaning

Dab a tiny (and I mean tiny) amount of olive oil onto your rag. A little goes a long way, so do not be generous with the oil.

Rub the rag over the appliance to polish it. Make sure you don't miss any spots. I like to start from the top and work my way to the bottom. You'll see that it is shiny and looks all pretty.

After you've polished your appliance with your rag that has olive oil on it, use another clean rag and rub the appliance again, removing any access oil. You don't want to leave your fridge oily—just shiny and polished.

Ta-dah! Your appliances are clean! Cut up another lime to enjoy, and don't let anyone use your kitchen (until, of course, they're starving and it's time to cook dinner!).

Photos by Sommer Poquette

Sommer Poquette is a green blogger and a mother of two who writes about her DIY cleaning tips for Home Depot. You can view all of Home Depot's stainless steel appliances, including refrigerators, at the Home Depot website.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



1/16/2015

 

Trailersteading

Travel trailers and mobile homes help many homesteaders-to-be like Miles Flansburg move to the land more quickly.

How do you fit all of your possessions into a small domicile if you're used to spreading out across the dozen rooms of a McMansion? While it's easy to advise tiny-house dwellers to "just cut down on the amount of stuff you own," it's actually a bit trickier for an American used to sprawling across a large house to enjoy life in a trailer or tiny house. Here are some tips for making small spaces work for you:

Remember economies of scale
. It's easier for two people to live in 300 square feet than for one person to live in 150 square feet because you can double up the bathroom, kitchen, and other communal spaces.

Find places to be alone. I don't think I could have survived in our small house (123 square feet per person) as a teenager if I hadn't enjoyed an outdoor retreat where I spent all of my time between school and supper. It's good for everyone to have private spaces, even if they're tiny, outdoors, or down at the local coffee shop.

Chairs on casters

Maggie Turner puts all of her furniture on casters to make each piece do double duty in a small space. 

Make every inch count. People who live in small spaces often find ingenious ways to arrange one area so it performs multiple functions. Is your dining table also counter space for meal preparation and a spot for kids to labor over their homework? Does a bathtub in the living room double as a padded bench for company? Can you store seldom-used kitchen appliances on shelves near the ceiling or on hooks attached to the wall? You'll probably need to build many of these double-duty pieces of house-scaping yourself, but that's half the fun.

Take advantage of community buildings. One of our blog readers wrote in to tell me that the trend toward small homes in Japan is mitigated by neighborhood meeting houses, which are used for community gatherings and can also be rented out by individuals. This option is sometimes available in the United States as well; for example, we recently discovered that we have an inexpensive community space nearby where we can can put up our guests or host our Thanksgiving dinner. Even though you typically have to pay for these options, the one-time cost is generally cheaper than the ongoing expense of living in a larger home.

Get creative about storage. Many of the things we fill our houses with are just waiting to be used once or twice a year. An unheated, unfinished shed can take a lot of pressure off your inside space—just make sure you don't store anything there that shouldn't be frozen and do keep cloth and food in sealed containers to prevent incursions by mice, ants, and other pests. If you don't have the cash to build a shed and also don't have nosy neighbors, you can follow my mother's lead and store winter clothes in junked cars along your driveway. (Yes, I do come from a long line of permaculture rednecks—reduce, reuse, recycle!)

Playing on the porch

Sitting under a tin roof during a thunderstorm is one of the simple joys of life.

Enjoy the outdoors. In The Tiny Book of Tiny Houses, Lester Walker reports that historically small houses often moved the toilet, bathing, and kitchen facilities outside. Other parts of the house that can bulge into the outdoors include dining and relaxing. We added porches onto our trailer in the summer of 2012, one of which was an 8-foot-by-16-foot roofed space which (including materials and hired labor) cost $950 and was worth every penny. Not only do porches (and gazebos, summer kitchens, etc.) take the pressure off small indoor spaces, they also give you a great opportunity to watch butterflies during lunch and to enjoy the antics of your chickens during dinner. If you need a less permanent space, the big-box stores often sell shade canopies for $100 or less.

Your surroundings make all the difference. If you have the opportunity to buy a homestead, you'll have to make a choice—more land or a larger dwelling. While our trailer would seem excessively cramped if it were located in a trailer park, when surrounded by 58 acres of paradise, it instead feels like a castle. I highly recommend that you do whatever it takes to make your surroundings top notch so that a tiny house is a place you only want to retreat to during cold winter nights and drizzly days.

These tips are excerpted from the revised and expanded version of Trailersteading, which is now available in ebook form and which will be in bookstores in fall 2015. Follow along as thirteen experienced trailersteaders show how a mobile home provides all the advantages of a tiny house at a fraction of the cost!


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


1/13/2015

This is the third blog describing the 15-year transformation of our quarter-acre suburban property.

The previous blogs describe the site in more detail, along with reasons for making these changes, both practical and political. Another blog describes turning the garage into a living space, grass to garden and creating a food hedge along a fence line.

Please check out my website, Suburban Permaculture, where each project has a page with more explanation along with many photos documenting the changes. The website also has galleries of sites in the neighborhood, front yard gardens and notable permaculture and land use sites in the Northwest and beyond.

My place is in Eugene, Oregon. The property is flat. Good soil. The house has excellent solar access.

There was also a driveway that needed to go.

Loading Chunks Of Driveway.
Loading concrete. I kept some, my friend took some.

There are tens of millions of driveways in suburbia. My house had one that could accommodate six cars. I wanted to put the space to better use. No question, taking out the driveway has been one of the most satisfying projects in my life. Cars take up too much space and this was a small push back.

First time for both of us, a friend and I rented a gas powered cement saw. Good move. Bashing a driveway with a ten pound sledge is not recommended. The cement saw is like a lawn edger but a lot bigger. It has a diamond blade, takes two people to unload it and you hook up a hose for constant water to cool the blade and to keep the dust down. Wear ear protection because its loud. A dust mask is a good idea, too.

Intuitively, we scored the driveway a half inch deep in a grid so each rectangle was about a foot and a half long and a foot wide. Important, you don't need to cut deep. Cutting all the way through would take forever and wear out multiple expensive blades. For us, the blade rents separately from the machine and it cost just as much.

Other tools needed - a two or three inch wide cement chisel to place into the score. The chisel is whacked with a ten pound sledge. You may need to whack it a few times – caution, don't strain yourself. You do not have to hit it hard. Several modest whacks is better than one big one. It may take a few whacks but the concrete will break.

sidewalk
Same view as photo above, ten years later. Note shed and walnut tree.

The cracks will mostly follow the score but some corners will break off. After, say eight or ten blocks have cracked, and making sure the block you are working on is cracked on all sides, use a five foot iron pry bar with a fulcrum to lift the exposed edge of the cut. Go slowly, again, don't strain, work the block upward with the pry bar. Some blocks will lift and widen more easily than others. You just have to see what happens. And its really great to daylight that soil!

Then you put the pry bar wedge end into the crack, force down a bit and then as the bar is moved back, and forth, the crack will widen and the point will move more deeply into the crack. The goal is to loosen the block, force it up and work it away from the surrounding concrete. Eventually, the block will move free from the surrounding pieces and you will be able to simply pull it out, pick it up and move away for its new mission. A wheel barrow is recommended. Repeat previous actions. You will develop your own technique. Its actually a lot of fun. You could make this into a work party.

Could be the concrete was poured on gravel and the underside looks attractive, like something bought at the garden store.

I reused the concrete as borders for two water features. Planted with ferns and other natives. Its all grown up now, check the website photos, a driveway never looked so good. Some of the blocks are used as the floor of my covered outdoor work space. My friend took half of the chunks and made a permeable patio.

With the driveway gone, I built a storage shed and planted an English walnut. Over the top of the shed, I constructed a trellis 2 to 3 feet over the roof. A grape vine planted at one corner of the shed now covers the trellis over the roof. This past fall, I picked enough grapes to make four gallons of grape juice, which I freeze. The walnut tree is now large enough to climb in and has just stated to produce a useful amount of nuts. Food and aesthetics where there used to be a concrete slab.

vines
From the street. Sidewalk is remains of the six car driveway. Note grapes above the shed.

Reclaiming automobile space for better use is an important task on the suburban frontier. When you learn how, you can help remove other driveways and parking lots. I never had any complaints from neighbors or the city. Taking out a driveway is highly recommended.

You can see photos of the concrete removal before and now on my website.  Also many other images of suburban permaculture.

Upcoming blogs will touch on water features, rain water catchment, sun room, neighborhood collaborations and much more.

If you, friends, or groups you know are interested in webinars about transforming a suburban property and greening the neighborhood, please contact me via my website, Suburban Permaculture.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



1/12/2015

A compost toilet can be as easy as pooping in a bucket, but a bucket system means another weekly chore emptying and managing smelly buckets. When I moved into my cabin in the woods 20 years ago, I started out with a bucket that I just emptied direct into a hole-in-the-ground, but after I got comfortably moved in, I started thinking about a pooper even mom would be happy using.

Mexican friends (also permaculture teachers: see Proyecto San Isidro), recommended building my toilet over a divided concrete vault, and separating liquids from solids. The separator was just a funnel placed low at the front of the seat, where it would catch and divert urine from any (seated) male or female.

harvest time 

We pee more than we poop. In a compost pile, every unit of high-nitrogen pee needs 40 times as much high-carbon (woody/fibrous) material to keep the little compost bugs happy and making sweet-smelling compost. So keeping pee out of a system reduces stink and volume.

I was mulling things over when another permaculture acquaintance, a brilliant guy named Tom Watson (developer of the low-water Watson Wick septic system), affirmed that compost worms would be just as happy eating my poop as my kitchen scraps.

Letting the worms deal with my waste sounded good. The Mexican design specified an above-ground concrete vault with steps up to the seat, but I was building in an existing building, so I had to keep it low. I dug down, pouring a 2-chamber concrete box, topped with cedar 2-by-6s. I hinged one board to make a seat (for comfort's sake, it needed to be 7-1/2 inches wide). I covered the bottom of the working chamber with a drainage layer of coarse woody stuff (sticks, big wood chips, etc.). Then I added a funnel below the front of the seat, a pipe to a 5-gallon bucket outside, and some worms. Done! (here are some pictures of a vermicomposting toilet)

The urine does require emptying, depending on the size of your storage vessel. We use the homesteader's handy 5-gallon bucket. The pee makes a terrific, high-nitrogen garden amendment, which we empty as needed. In spring, my wife takes it for greens and the compost pile; I have to compete to feed my garlic! It's also great for "activating" your . We find that it's not necessary to dilute it, though that does make it go further.

It took me more than a year to fill up the first chamber. About the time I switched to the 2d chamber, I had married a lovely lass who celebrated with me when I opened the chamber to investigate what the worms had done. It was ALL perfect: sweet, black, rich, light compost.

My farmer wife, being a bit more cautious, typically runs it through a regular compost pile before putting it on the garden, but those are decisions every person gets to make for him/herself. (Some research suggests that human pathogens won't survive passing through a worm's guts, but I can't confirm or deny it. If you know more, please comment, and provide a citation!)

Now there are four of us, it only takes about 9 months to fill a chamber, but that's still plenty of time for the worms to convert all that poop into beautiful compost.

The final, but perhaps most important touch has been to make the pooper into an altar to what is a daily miracle of fertility. Our (framed) instructions feature this, from the Upanishads (it has also become a grace we often use at table):

O wonderful! O wonderful! O wonderful!
I am food! I am food! I am food!
I eat food! I eat food! I eat food!
My name never dies, never dies, never dies!
I was born first in the first of the worlds, earlier than the gods, in the belly of what has no death!
Whoever gives me away has helped me the most!
I, who am food, eat the eater of food!
I have overcome this world!
He who knows this shines like the sun.
Such are the laws of the mystery!

Mom never did give up her attachment to pooping in a porcelain bowl of drinking water, but she did visit us happily and often! And when we used her gift to buy our own acre, the first thing we did was to install a new pooper!

References:

Worms: not just any worms will do.You want compost worms, variously called "red wrigglers," "redworms," or Eisenia fetida. They are a bit like sourdough starter: anyone w/a vermiculture system can easily get you started. Or you can buy 'em. The queen of vermicomposting (and author of Worms Eat My Garbage) is Mary Appelhof.

Temperature: According to a quick web search worms like warmth, about 40-75 degrees F. Our pooper sits inside one of our (cob) outbuildings, and descends about 16" or so inches below grade, which helps stabilize temps, winter and summer. Adapt your own design accordingly to keep your worms happy.

• Pee as fertilizer: Steven Edholm, Liguid Gold, by Carol Steinfeld. Scientific American
Watson Wick low-flow septic system
Poop In a Bucket, the best poop song ever, by our Texas friend Frank Meyer.
A Work of Art: stories (mine!), all about restoring art to it's rightful place as the verb responsible for ALL labor. Free pdf here. Soon to be on Kindle.
• Joe Jenkin's Humanure Handbook: a sh--y bible (remember, "bible" is just Latin for "book")
• And if you're tired of thinking of yourself as just a consumer, and the earth just as resources (convertible only to cash and trash), here's a book to help you rethink economics (and everything else): The Gift, by Lewis Hyde (I love his original subtitle: "Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property" - no worry, no porn! Just a fundamental understanding that all property is really just - wait - yes...compost!)
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 


1/12/2015

Last year around 21,000 people died from lung cancer that was most likely caused from radon. That’s more deaths than those that were caused as a result of drunk driving.

Radon is a naturally occurring gas commonly found in soils, water and rock. Since it's colorless, odorless and tasteless, it's very difficult to detect without a proper radon test kit.

Radon can be found both in water and in the air. The gas moves easily through cracks in rocks and soils and could enter lower levels of a home (i.e. basements or earth-sheltered homes). It’s important to test your home every two years to easily fix this problem.

Since January is Radon Action Month, here’s an infographic about the dangers of radon in the home and what can be done about it. 

Radon Infographic

Illustration by Radon is Real


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



1/7/2015

Earth Shelter Garage Door

Welcome back to our discussion on underground homes, or earth shelters as they are more commonly called. If you have not read Getting Started with an Underground Home, Part 1, I recommend you do, so that you can better understand the basic steps to getting started in building an underground home.

In Part 1, I talked about land and specific earth shelter styles versus the land that the earth shelters will be built on. In Part 2, I will talk about the costs associated with building a domed earth shelter home.

Test the Soil Before Construction

At the end of Part 1, I mentioned contacting a soil engineer to test the soils where you will build your earth shelter home. This is very important, because the engineers of the multiple earth shelter systems on the market will require this soil report before they can properly design anything for you. The picture below is of a report from a soil boring/testing of the soils for a project we did a few years ago. This is just one page of many, but probably the most easy to understand. Notice that this test was conducted to a depth of fifteen feet, you will also notice that they found water at eight feet and that they mention the soil types that they encountered during their borings. For an earth shelter, a similar test is conducted and the report also helps the engineers to understand the ‘bearing capacity’ of the soil where the earth shelter will be built.

Sample Soil Test

Being that this is Part 2, I would recommend that before you spend money on a soil test, or anything else for that matter, that you connect with someone who has built at least one earth shelter. Whether it’s a home owner or a builder, either person can give you an idea of what to expect during the process. I was once told by a pioneer in earth shelter design and construction, that our job is to try to scare off people before they get too far into the design process. He said this because of the massive amount of time that his company was spending with people who never ended up building an earth shelter…mostly because the cost was too great. I won’t repeat the word he used to describe these people, but what I will say, is that there was never a buffer between people who were interested in earth shelters and his company. It seems to me that no one knows the steps to take before you contact an earth shelter supply company…that is what we are starting to cover here!

Once a person becomes interested in an underground home/earth shelter, it is tough to try to convince them to build anything else, that is, until they see the cost estimates to build that way. This is the part of the process that the earth shelter pioneer guy was referring to. I always asked that guy why he didn’t just give the people an idea of price as soon as he came into contact with them, and he said, “Because most of the time, people aren’t listening or don’t want to listen at that stage.” I would agree with him. I have worked for people who have said, “Cost is not my main concern, I know it will work out, let’s just do it.” Being that the economy has been difficult, it is very hard for a builder to turn down work. HOWEVER (notice the capital letters), verbiage like I wrote above should be a red flag! Never hope that everything will work on a project that has real costs associated with it, especially an earth shelter!

OK, with that said, hopefully you can see that I decided to start being the buffer between earth shelter companies and homeowners. Maybe it is because I wanted to be the sugar coater of reality or maybe it was because I recognized that there was a different way to handle this process. Regardless of how you view my willingness to get involved, I am about to give you square foot prices for building a domed style earth shelter, so that you either move to the next step or decide to wait it out awhile.

I have talked with several people over the years that have said things like, “well, earth shelters do not have roofs, so that is a savings in cost there.” Or, “There is only siding on one side of the earth shelter, so there is a savings there.” I would agree with those statements, but would have to respond with a reminder that there are still costs associated with those covered areas of an earth shelter, you may not have a shingled roof, but you have an insulating layer and a waterproofing layer that is actually more per square foot to install than most shingled roofs that are on the market.

Side note: I wrote a book that compares multiple styles of building (above and below ground) to each other with regards to cost, ease of building, and efficiency. I recommend you read that book to get a true understanding of how an earth shelter compares to other forms of above ground construction. You can get a copy of my book Build Green, Make Green, Save Green by visiting my website, AdamBearup.com.

Square Footage Costs of Building

I know that the suspense is killing you, so I will start to talk about the square footage cost of building a domed style earth shelter.

As with any complex equation or process, there are one or more variables that should be considered. By this I mean, that by putting a square foot price of a domed earth shelter out to the world, I will no doubt get comments or emails from people that would mention that I have no idea what the soil type is where an earth shelter may be built, or the jobsite is so remote that everything will cost double to build. Keep this in mind when you see the price that I have cooked up. Remember that the square footage price considers many variables, but always have a contingency fund when building a project that is outside of the box and expect that prices vary from area to area. Please stop and read that line again…too many things can happen that will zap your funds, so please keep that statement in mind. Also, the number that I give you is an average based on different projects from around the country, so use the figure only to decide if you are ready to move onto the next step.

If you contacted a domed earth shelter company, hopefully you have checked out their website first. The companies that exist have sample plans, different size domes, and different configurations right there on their website. The domed company that we use has dome prices right on their website! Well, you may remove the “!” once you take a closer look at the prices. There is a range of about $15,000 in their pricing — not between different dome sizes, but with regards to the exact same size dome. I recently asked the guy I deal with there, “what is the deal with the huge price swing.” He told me that the price of steel (The actual domed earth shelter structure is arched steel beams) fluctuates by the day and that they have to show the range of price to be sure that they are fair in their pricing. Knowing what I know, I always have to give our clients the high end of that pricing to cover ourselves, too, so immediately you can see that pricing is kind of unsure until you decide to financially commit to your own earth shelter.

When I price any project, above or below ground, I need to know exactly how much of a budget is going to be used on the actual house. That means that I have to determine how much of the budget is for excavation, how much is for the well and septic (if needed), how much of the budget is for the driveway, and the list goes on and on. Once I determine what we have to work with budget wise on the actual house structure, then I work to determine if the project can actually be built for the budget.

I will have already received a list of wants and needs for a house, and with that list, I can determine what square footage the homeowner's wants and/or needs. With that square footage number, I can look on the earth shelter company’s website and find the dome size that will be big enough to house the number of bedrooms and living space that their list tells me they want or need. Below is a rough sketch of an earth shelter configuration that I recently determined would be adequate for a client’s wants/needs.

earth shelter sketch

The big dome on the left will be the house dome with two levels, the connector dome is for mechanicals and other rooms, and then the dome on the right will be a garage with a workshop in it. The house dome is about 3,000 square feet, the connector dome is just below 200 square feet, and the garage is a total of just over 600 square feet.

For this square footage price to work, you have to take the total square footage of the project; in this instance, the house dome, the center connector dome and the garage dome, which equals 3,842 square feet. The square footage cost I am giving you is just for the domed earth shelter systems and is on the high end of their price range, which includes everything you need to get the domes standing and ready to cover (excavation costs, steel, rebar, shotcrete, insulation, water proofing, front icf wall, etc) nothing inside of the house or siding. Does this make sense? Just the ‘shell’, interior framing, siding, finishes, plumbing, etc are not included in this price.

Based off of this sketch above, the cost per square foot of the project for just the earth shelter, excavation and Insulated Concrete Form (ICF) front wall part of this project comes in at about $60 per square foot (no profit is built into that number from a builder standpoint, just labor is figured in). Again, that cost is just for the earth shelter. If I had to put a square foot number on an all ICF above ground house with a basement and main floor that would have a 50 year, high wind rated shingled roof on the roof and basically apples to apples with an earth shelter as far as being at the same level of being closed in, that price would average out to about $40 per square foot (again, counting total square footage of project). Isn’t that interesting?! On a 3,000 total square foot project, that equates to a $60,000 difference. If someone built an earth shelter for the first time, this price difference could be higher because of the learning curve just as if someone had built one or more earth shelter projects in the past, they would know how to build the project for less!

These numbers come from projects that we have built. As I mentioned above, the square foot prices are for structures, and the remaining costs are to finish the house. The earth shelter in the sketch estimated out to be about $575,000 to build (not including the land) which averages out price wise to a middle of the road custom home as far as square footage prices, at least where we would build the project. Not true for areas of the country where new homes build for over $200 per finished square foot. Remember, this pricing information is just a sugar coating of reality, so you have to understand that where you build is just as important as how you build when it comes to pricing. The actual cost of your earth shelter project will vary because of resources and finding the right team members to build your project.

I hope that I have not lost anyone. Here is one more thing to consider. The cost per square foot for an earth shelter will be higher the smaller the project is. As the project grows in square footage, the cost per square foot actually decreases. We see this in above ground custom homes also.

The hardest part in your quest to move to the next stages of building an earth shelter/underground home is to find a company willing to build it. Most builders have no idea where to begin or what to charge — perhaps we can cover that area in future posts. Until then, email me at hybridhomeguy@gmail.com if you need someone to listen or advise you on what to do next.

Designing an Earth Shelter Home

If I have sugar coated this information enough for you and you are not scared away yet, it will be time to move on to part 3, which is when you start to develop the designs for your earth shelter project.

Below are pictures of a set of floor plans for a domed earth shelter project. The quality of these pictures is poor on purpose, it is so that no one tries to copy them and attempt an earth shelter on their own. Please don’t do this; we want earth shelters, bermed homes, and underground homes to be presented in a positive manner. Making the evening news because your homemade underground home fell down is not positive, but I digress.

Earth shelter plan 1

joist plan

Notice the information on the floor plans, the information is very precise so that there is no guessing when it comes time to building your project. The other picture is of the floor joist system and how those joists layout inside of a dome. Getting a plan in place for building the project is the key to success. In part 3, we will discuss the design process and look closer at what it takes to build an Earth Shelter Project. We will use the Earth Shelter Project Michigan as our example. If you are interested in seeing our online video series of the building of this project, please go to my website, AdamBearup.com, and click on the links to our Earth Shelter Project Michigan videos. If you watch the videos ahead of time, you will know exactly what I am talking about as I write about each step of domed earth shelter construction.

Stay tuned for Part 3. Until then, keep safe and keep dreaming!


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