Build a Greener Future with Earth-Sheltered Homes

Reader Contribution by James White
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Without a doubt, it’s back to the basics for many of us. In spite of drones, iPhones and smart televisions, many individuals are craving record players, paper-bound books, board games and bicycles.

The same goes for homes. Some environmentalists and green construction and architecture specialists are digging in (literally) to earth-sheltered homes. These homes are new (but really old) types of dwellings that incorporate the natural landscape into their footprints.

Quick and Dirty

Three types of earth-sheltered homes exist for those wishing to tap into their inner caveman. The first involves piling earth up against exterior walls and even the roof of an existing building. In contrast to “earth berming,” builders carve out space underground for a subterranean building, leaving only the roof exposed.

Another approach involves re-purposing and relocating abandoned missile silos, tunnels, mine shafts, and concrete boxes to become underground living spaces. In a “cut and cover” process, a bulldozer or track-hoe digs a trench. A crane lowers boxes into the trench and then it is covered.

According to Underground-Homes, most earth-sheltered homes are set into a slope or a hillside. Since only one wall receives light, the dwelling should be built into the side of the hill facing the equator.

Digging In

Incorporating an earth-sheltered home into a hill usually involves excavating a space several feet larger than the planned perimeter to make room for adequate waterproofing and insulation. Reinforced concrete is the most popular choice for walls and the roof, although other choices exist as well.

Next, the builders apply an extensive waterproofing system. The system involves attaching a heavy-grade waterproof membrane to a layer of liquid asphalt. They follow up this step by spraying on a liquid water sealant to ensure all seams remain closed at all times — after all, it’s difficult to find and fix leaks after they are done building.

Finally, builders look at the outside of the waterproofing and add layers of insulation board or foam. They complete this step before backfilling earth into the remaining space at the exterior of the walls and roof. Based on your preferences as an owner, builders can finish exposed walls and the interior accordingly. Many owners choose to place living spaces on the side of the house facing the equator to provide light and heat. Bathrooms, storage and utility rooms are typically located on the hillside of the shelter.

Light on the Land

There are many “green” reasons to consider an earth shelter as a home. They are a great way to help you:

• Conserve energy. The team at Inspiration Green points out that soil maintains a fairly constant temperature equal to the annual average temperature of the area’s surface air at fifteen feet below the ground. This makes it easy and affordable to cool or heat the space throughout the year.
• Go solar. Many earth-sheltered home builders incorporate passive solar design techniques to lessen the need for extra heating or cooling.
• Avoid doomsday. The structural integrity of earth-sheltered homes makes them safe from hurricanes, tornadoes, hail, fire, earthquakes and other natural disasters.
• Enjoy peace and quiet. An earth-sheltered home is effective at blocking outside noise, even the sound of people only a few feet away. This makes it a peaceful sanctuary free of outside disturbances.
• Use land efficiently. Since earth-sheltered homes are unobtrusive, they help to preserve the look of the environment around them. It’s possible to start a garden or grow a manicured lawn right on the wall or the roof of your home.

Pack Your Bags

Malcolm Wells, known as the father of the earth-sheltered home, once wrote that, “The act of building, whether it involves giant hydroelectric dams or a single small home, is an act of land-destruction. Buildings destroy land for as long as they stand.”

In response, he proposed properties that every building should emulate:

• Create pure air and water
• Store rainwater
• Produce food
• Create rich soil
• Use and store solar energy
• Create silence
• Consume waste
• Match nature’s pace
• Provide wildlife and human habitat
• Moderate climate and weather
• Be beautiful

So is an earth-sheltered home the right choice for you? If you’re interested in building a greener future, this could be the perfect first step.

Photo by Flickr/Wolfgang Staudt

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