An Earth Sheltered House in Michigan

The author built an earth-sheltered house for his daughter because it met her objectives: easy to maintain, inexpensive to heat and cool, and compatible with the landscape.

| November/December 1978

You've heard tales about eccentric old gentlemen who bury their money in the back yard. Well, I went one step further: I buried my daughter, Joyce, along with it! The story isn't at all gruesome, however, because the "back yard" in this case is 4 1/2 acres of forested sand hills in Michigan, and Joyce is happily "dug in" there in a modern three-bedroom, earth-sheltered house with an attached two-car garage.

Joyce decided she wanted an underground dwelling about four years ago, after she read about one that had been constructed in Massachusetts. We didn't jump right in and build the house immediately, of course, but during the next few years as my wife and I enjoyed our retirement, we traveled around the country to investigate all of the earth-sheltered structures we could find. We visited the library at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, an underground elementary school in New Mexico, and a goodly number of other partially or completely subterranean homes and institutions. And we talked to homeowners, realtors (to see how these buildings affected area property values), janitors and principals in the belowground schools—in short, just about anyone who could answer our many questions.

Once we'd gathered all the data we could find, we enlisted the services of Tom Halberg, a local architect. Tom agreed to check the relevant building codes, design the house (with some "back-seat drafting" from me), and build it.

Halberg first suggested that we use an all-weather, pressure-treated wood construction rather than concrete or cement blocks. So, I researched further and found that an Indiana firm had built more than 60 homes with all-weather, wood basements. When I found that the cellars stayed dry despite that wet Indiana clay around them, I was convinced.

We decided upon southern pine pressure treated at 50 to 60 pounds per square inch because it's water-repellent, resists fungus and rot, and doesn't appeal to termites or other insects. I worked out the stress loads and angles myself with the help of a machinist's handbook. Most folks could run these calculations themselves, but my 38 years as a tool-and-die maker made the figurin' especially easy for me.

Just to be on the safe side, we added a layer of 6-mil black polyethylene waterproofing between the wood and sand to all of the building's earth-facing surfaces. The plastic sheet should have a life span of at least 50 years in this particular application.

Jonny Bahk-Halberg
4/18/2012 10:46:14 PM

Hi Maria, My dad was the builder and I remember the (really cool) house. If you are still curious, I could help you find it. I grew up in the area and could help locate the house and current owners. jonnyh(at)usa(dot)net.

9/12/2010 10:33:29 PM

I posted earlier when I registered and am not sure if it went through. I am looking to build an earth sheltered home in Michigan and need to consult with someone who has done this. Does anyone know where this house is located in Michigan and if they have any contact information? Thanks Maria

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