Angus Wyman Macdonald: Professional Earth Sheltered Architecture

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The Bresee house incorporates several features of earth-sheltered architecture, among them a large front room that gains solar heat through south-facing double-paned windows.
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All windows are shielded in the summer by overhangs and are ready for the application of another glazing layer in the winter.
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The architect, Angus Wyman Macdonald, in a contemplative moment.
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Steel joists brace reinforced concrete block walls in the under-construction McLain house.
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Drains help release water that might otherwise be trapped on the roof.
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From the north side, the Bresee house is quite inconspicuous. Note the three skylights, which provide outside light to the bathroom and the two bedrooms.

Through an unfortunate set of circumstances, many people
have come to assume that architects (and architecture) have
little to do with the construction of dwellings within
reach of the budgets of average families. Instead, we often
assume that such artists design spectacular and expensive
(but not necessarily useful ) structures such as
the St. Louis Arch. Or–far less
happily–chrome buildings with exploding windows and
column-supported skyscrapers that promise to tip over in an
earthquake … and produce wind-tunnel-effect
tornadoes at street level until they do!

That’s a shame really! Because, as MOTHER EARTH NEWS was recently
reminded, architects–the ones with what we might call
“right minds,” can be indispensable in helping others learn
to live more comfortably for less in earth sheltered architecture and other sorts of
energy-efficient buildings most readers of this magazine
would prefer.

Angus Wyman Macdonald is a Yale University Master Architect
who chose his path early in his schooling (he can’t even
recall when he decided to become an architect! ).
The central emphasis of his studies was on low-cost,
energy-efficient construction … and his master’s thesis
involved designing a low-income housing project in Harlem.

After graduation, Angus spent a few months with a large
architectural firm, and then–somewhat
disaffected–chose to leave the corporation and tackle
a low-cost housing project in Jamaica. There he researched
the potential of bagasse boards (made from a sugar cane
byproduct) as a building material, and worked side by side
with local people to construct prefab houses from the
recycled substance. Upon returning to his family’s farm in
rural Virginia, the young designer spent time
reconstructing some innovative buildings that had been
erected by his architect grandfather almost 40 years

Living His Work

If one considers Macdonald’s background, it’s not
surprising that the designer’s own home–a
sod-roofed block building equipped with many of the
numerous alternative energy schemes he’s worked
on–reflects a continuing experimentation with
materials and techniques as well as its owner’s
commitment to a set of essential principles.

The architect believes that there are perhaps three basic
aspects to good home design … all of which are, of
course, united under the rubrics of energy-efficiency and
simplicity. First of all, Angus states, a home should be
comfortable (bright, airy, spacious, and warm). Second, it
should be no larger and no more complicated than is
absolutely necessary … both to reduce expense and to
maintain simple, environmentally harmonious forms that are
pleasing to the eye. And third, structures should demand as
little energy as possible (and the bare minimum of
nonrenewable resources), both in the course of their
construction and during their years of use. But the best
way to get a feel for Angus’s theories is to take a look at
their application to homes that he has designed in and
around his community.

The Bresee House

The first of the Macdonald earth shelters to be completed
was a surprisingly spacious, 820-square-foot, two-bedroom
home with a sodded roof. Suzanne and H. Pendleton Bresee
are the owners of the structure, and did the contracting
themselves hoping to become educated in the ways of

Each of the house’s three main rooms receives
direct sunlight through at least one south-facing
double-paned window, and the roof overhangs the openings
far enough to block direct sunlight in the summer.
In addition, provision has been made for adding a layer of
fiberglass glazing against the fins that extend at the end
of each window. During the winter, the area between the
double glass and the fiberglass panels acts as both a solar
collector during the day and an insulative air gap at

The walls themselves are made of 8″ concrete block,
reinforced with 1/2″ rebar and concrete fill in alternate
cavities. The exterior of the earth-bermed masonry is
protected with a heavy coating of Thoroseal brand
waterproofing, and appropriate gravel-and-pipe drainage
paths are set against the base of all the walls.

The Bresees did go slightly over the $21,000 budget that
Mr. Macdonald had allowed for the construction, partly
because an underground stream was unearthed during the
excavation. (While the well on the property had to be sunk
300 feet, a Caterpillar operator ran into plenty of running
water, at a depth of seven feet, on the
construction site … and extensive grade work was
required to reroute the flow.) Still, the Bresees managed
to complete the building for about $25,000.

The McLain House

While the Bresee house was of a standard design, Ferrel
McLain’s home reflects an interesting one-of-a-kind
approach. The building is sited at the very peak of a hill,
and is dug into the earth to the depth of the roof on the
east and west sides.

The south end of the structure is a production greenhouse
(Ferrel is in the nursery business), and it is equipped
with a plenum system to move solar-heated air around the
home’s interior. The view to the south is of wooded
hillsides and pastures, and directly to the north are the
Blue Ridge Mountains.

One of the most interesting structural aspects of the
building is that the stresses imposed by the earth fill are
directly opposed to each other. So the architect and Mr.
McLain decided to use reinforced concrete block walls, and
to brace them by positioning prefab steel joists in
between. With the 2 1/2″ slab roof formed on corrugated
steel above the beams, this earth shelter’s “top”
is far stronger than the 8″ of earth fill demands.

Ferrel did some of the work on the structure
himself–including applying a triple layer of
Thoroseal on top of the thick foam insulation–and,
although he’s on the verge of completing the construction
of the 1,800-square-foot building, he’s still
$2,000under budget … at an
out-of-pocket expenditure of $18,000. That works out to a
square footage cost of $10, a truly remarkable figure for a
mostly contracted earth-sheltered home!

Other Projects

The volunteer fire department in Rapidan has been in need
of a new building for quite some time. So, about a year
ago, a community group got together, and its members have
been donating time and materials to help with the
construction ever since. Macdonald offered his
architectural services, and–not
surprisingly–Rapidan now has the first
earth-sheltered firehouse we’ve heard about.

Toward the beginning of November 1980, Angus was busy
racing winter in an effort to get the walls up on
another earth-bermed, passive solar home near the
Bresee house. At the same time he was involved in a few
larger out-of-state projects … but, after his
years in the city and in Jamaica, the Virginia boy has
rekindled his love for his country community. He likes the
idea of being a local energy-efficient architect, one who
can operate with a low overhead and who has the ability to
tailor his services to the needs and finances of his
neighbors. He believes firmly that our land’s energy
consumption patterns must change in the future, and that
the basis for making a comfortable conversion to a happier
and more efficient lifestyle is to be found within
the structure of the typical individual community.

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