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5 Tips for Building a Partially Earth-Sheltered Home

| 4/20/2017 10:50:00 AM

An earth-sheltered home is a structure that’s built below ground, partially below ground, or into a hillside so at least one wall is completely encapsulated by the earth. Earth-sheltered homes have several advantages, especially for people interested in green building or net zero energy houses. They take advantage of the earth’s thermal mass, which can reduce energy consumption. If they’re built correctly, they can have lower maintenance costs and higher strength and durability. A home that’s below ground or nestled into the earth also has a minimal esthetic impact on the property.


Coleman and Susan Pulsifer had all of these advantage in mind when they built a partially earth-sheltered home in northern California. Coleman planned and constructed the home almost entirely by himself. He shares five lessons he learned during his DIY home building process.

Get to Know the Land Before You Start

“If I was going to counsel anyone about the concept of doing an earth-sheltered home, I’d really encourage them to take time on the land and look at it and understand its form,” Coleman says. “They should think very deeply about their particular site and how water flows on it.”

The reason is that building a home into the earth requires a more intimate relationship with the land. Putting the home in the right spot will minimize disruption of the earth and the amount of work for the builders. If you’re hiring a contractor, that will save you money. Understanding the ins and outs of the parcel will give the builder ideas about how they can best take advantage of the sun (both for lighting and passive solar heating) and minimize water intrusion.

“If you’re earth sheltering, you’re going to be doing a lot of grading and moving of soil,” Coleman says. To help picture where soil needs to be shifted around, he recommends using a hand sight level (also known as a hand level or sight level). You look through the small device like a telescope to compare places against a consistent point of reference. That will help you better understand what work needs to be done.

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