An Earth Sheltered Home For Independence

A Kansas family built an earth sheltered home with passive solar features to help realize their dream of a sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle.

| September/October 1980

The Knapp family (Evelyn, Gifford, and their son Kenneth) began to work toward self-sufficiency almost 20 years ago ... long before petroleum prices had begun to whittle away at the American lifestyle, and before solar energy became a national topic of conversation. They've pursued their dream of self-reliance in a variety of ways—by planting gardens, digging fishponds, maintaining timber lots, researching wind and water power, etc.—but the Kansans learned early on that the foundation of their efforts to "get away from it all" would have to be a home that demanded an absolute minimum of energy from external sources.

In the beginning Gifford and Kenneth were most intrigued by active solar systems, but—after researching the matter closely—they became convinced that intensive solar collection didn't suit their situation. First of all, the Sunflower Staters reasoned, active collectors really didn't provide many BTU per dollar invested. And the complexity of such devices was bound to lead to extensive maintenance sooner or later.

In fact, the whole idea of active collection, the amateur architects decided, was wrong for a single-family dwelling: "After all," they figured, "why attach all sorts of energy-catching gadgetry to a conventional house when the structure itself can be designed to use very little energy?"

The concept that the Knapps' years of analysis led them to favor an earth sheltered home design that incorporated passive solar features. So, with a vision in mind, the family began searching for a piece of property that would fit their plans perfectly. As you can imagine, it wasn't easy to find the ideal site, but a little over four years ago they managed to purchase 12 acres—on the outskirts of Kansas City—which had a south-facing hillside (unobstructed by topography or trees), a three-acre pond, flat garden sites, and a good stand of timber. Because they were so well prepared (as a result of their decade and a half of research), Mr. Knapp and Kenneth had little difficulty getting the appropriate permits and financing. (In fact, after construction began, the bank loan officer was so impressed by their plan that he actually waived the backup heat requirement.)

Both Kenneth and his father are experienced earth-movers and have worked in contracting—as well as at large-scale farming—so they elected to rent a bulldozer and do their own site preparation. With the forethought that's typical of their efforts, they dug the two-story-deep hole in the hillside a full year before they intended to start building ... to permit the earth to settle and allow time to be very sure that any wet-weather springs had been identified and dealt with.

Post and Beam

As many of you no doubt know, earth sheltering puts unusually high loads on a building ... as a result of the dirt's weight pressing against the roof and walls. Consequently, the heavy-duty construction required by "going underground" can be the source of more than conventional expense. However, the Knapps—dipping into their storehouse of knowledge and consulting with acquaintances in the construction business—determined that a steel beam and concrete assembly approach could save them a great deal of money. ("Post and beam" construction, as it's called, has been used for centuries in wooden homes, but it's primarily employed in large commercial buildings today.)

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