Living in an Underground House

We use less energy, have lower maintenance costs, and more privacy in our underground house.

| October/November 2010

Underground House

Roof maintenance: Merle Alix mows the roof of his family's undergound house.


Here in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we start getting snow in mid-November, though it doesn’t usually amount to much more than an inch at any given time until early December. Then it has the look of permanent snow (the kind you deal with until March), and the cold settles in for the season. Thanks to living in an underground house, we don’t turn on our heater until that cold has fully arrived.

Living Underground

My wife, Anne, and I live with our daughter, Samantha (we call her Sam), in a 1,300-square-foot earthen home, also known as an underground house. The late date for firing up the furnace isn’t unusual for us. Early December isn’t even the latest we’ve turned on the furnace during the past decade. One year we waited until Dec. 24, and we only turned it on because we had the entire family coming for Christmas. It’s not that we enjoy shivering. Because our home is insulated by the earth around it, we simply don’t need regular heat until much later than most folks — even in the harsh, cold climate of the Upper Peninsula.

We moved to the Yoop (as most locals call it), more than a decade ago, and took a chance on an underground home. Though we had never been in an underground house before and were only familiar with them through MOTHER EARTH NEWS, it felt like the right thing to do.

If it weren’t underground, our home would be described as a ranch-style house. Picture a ranch home with three bedrooms and a sunken living room (we enjoy the fun of having a sunken living room in a sunken house) along the south wall, all with large bay windows to soak up passive solar heat. The kitchen, dining, bath and extra rooms lie along the back wall, and a woodburning stove sits in the middle of it all. That’s our house — with three sides below ground.

The house is made of concrete, glass, and stone, and has wood siding and trim along the south face — on the few parts that stick out from ground level. As a result, it’s extremely well-insulated and is protected from the worst winter winds, which means it heats up nicely during the day with average sunlight, and holds heat extremely well overnight. We’ll throw a few logs in the woodstove when we get home from work and keep it going until we go to bed, just to brace the place against winter nights. That routine keeps us warm well into early December.

Even then, it doesn’t take a lot of wood. We usually burn only five or six pieces a night; any more than that and the house gets uncomfortably hot. We’ve never burned a full cord of wood in any winter. And when we finally do need to turn on the heater, we use a traditional, high-efficiency electric furnace with a programmable thermostat. We can’t use gas heat underground because there isn’t enough ventilation for safe operation, but we’re happy with electric heat. Our electricity is renewable and, in this application, inexpensive. It’s supplied by hydropower from the nearby Menominee River, instead of from a coal source. We’ve not paid much more than $150 for a month’s heat, and that was during one especially frosty January when the mercury dipped below zero degrees and stayed there for several days. In case you’re doing the math, yes, that means we heat our three-bedroom, underground ranch that sits about five miles from Lake Michigan for about $500 a year. Better yet, it’s heated solely with a renewable resource. Not bad. Not bad at all.

12/19/2013 1:37:02 PM

WOW! I was really happy and surprised to read your web page: I actually knew the original owner/builder of your house, and visited it! (Once cooked Coq Au Vin for Jack and his wife, in your house!) That would have been about 30 years ago. Jack was a concrete contractor, so he essentially designed and built it himself. I know they liked it a lot, although they did mention some of the same peculiarities you did. Remember it being very quiet, and cozy in there- as long as they burned the wood stove in winter. Great to see the house lives on, and it is wonderful to hear that you're enjoying life there. Guess that shows the permanence and relatively limited-maintenance nature of these kind of homes.

10/6/2013 8:47:31 PM

Very interested in finding builders / craftsmen in the Upstate NY area. Any suggestions or contacts are appreciated. THanks Brooke

8/16/2013 1:13:24 PM

Going through a bank to build an underground house is more like a fad or form of activism. My wife and I ditched our above ground home to live in an RV for two years. We saved every dime to buy property and build our underground home ourselves. No debt. We kept all utility lines off our property. You aren't self sufficient unless you completely cut out the middle man. THAT is green living. The rain keeps us wet. The sun and Earth keep us warm. And the ground keeps us fed. We also have livestock. And the many clever methods that make it all work makes one realize that all forms of modern living are inefficient and wasteful of our resources. People are literally killing the human race. It just hasn't happened yet. Unless all people wise up and stop living for capitalism and consumerism, it's only a matter of time until the largest tragedy in world history will occur. How much do you care for your kid's future??

chef eko
1/10/2013 11:13:41 AM

does the dehumidifier produce distilled water which is obviously then good enough to drink as pure water, in fact better than even spring water so thus a blessing...

peggy olson
1/9/2013 8:37:18 PM

I was going to suggest a Sun Tube. I think that is what Carl Taylor was speaking of. It refracts the light so it disburses around the room and brightens with soft daylight. It isn't glaring or harsh. They are easy to install in conventional houses but I don't know what it would take to install in your home. I have considered several times living in an earth house. So practical, but it would take a like minded spouse to share that dream. Peggy O.

10/12/2012 7:14:02 PM

Hi, In the late seventies I built two earth homes for friends and each was just a little different. The first was in a small rise on the property and ideally faced north. In central Florida this is the opposite from one built in the north since he wanted the hot noon day sun to hit the roof and rear of the dwelling. Massive insulation on the roof and walls keep alot of the moister and heat from the interior. Lots of sonotube thru the roof in every room for good lighting. The other house was a bit different in that all doors aqnd windows which were many, and carved out of the large central mound. Bermuda shutters and low-e glass helped with the lighting. I have often thought about building an earth home for my wife and I, but apparently you need a special spouse to do this drastic way of life. Enjoy, and when fuel cost for the rest of us earthlings goes to the moon, rejoice for you headed it off at the pass.

carl taylor
12/14/2011 12:33:59 PM

Hi Merle and family - I gave up my job in England a year ago to live in a cave in the South of Spain. Best decision I ever made. This whole area is full of caves and cave-dwellers. The problems I have are the same as yours i.e. light, condensation and the strange legal position. I just thought I'd pass on my experiences. My neighbours have a light tube in the back of the cave which works really well - it's just a tube with a mirrored inner surface and I'm sure it would work for you. I use an old method to combat damp, mould and condensation which is simply to have a tray of sea salt in every room. It absorbs all the water in the air. The legal situation in Spain is that the government denies that people still live in caves in this century - therefore legally there are no cave houses - doesn't stop them selling the deeds and charging the bills for services though! I hope this helps and good luck living underground! Carl

daniel marshall
12/10/2011 2:15:15 PM

any one looked at bilding with kataners ( 53 foot ) there is lots of them all steal walls just need cuting toch or cuting saw you can stak them daery them in side hill ( just like lagowes we had as kids lol

j.russell bailey
12/9/2011 1:39:05 AM

Hey there James E........tell me will you, I've heard that one of the major problems with underground homes is arachnids. Now, I'm about as arachnaphobic as they come; I don't even bat an eye at rattlers and other snakes, range moos, or even Grizz (with the proper distances mind you for these last two), but when it comes to the standard arachnid (sans scorpions, for some reasons, scorpions are actually pleasing looking to me, despite them being part of the arachnid family), I'm not really happy with them around. So, tell me true Magoo, are they part and parcel of living underground? Thanks for your time and help!

lance thruster
12/8/2011 10:27:18 PM

I've always been intrigued with the former missile silo homes available in parts of the Midwest. My favorite architecture school project involved a below ground home built into a seaside cliff. I had rooms away from the frontal opening designed to be a little more "airy" by having window fixtures set much like a museum diorama and lit with both natural light from ground level openings and artificial mood lighting to supplement the natural light.

james england
12/7/2011 2:03:03 PM

We moved into our underground/earth sheltered home in 1993, and love it! Living in the south, humidity has been our biggest problem. Two small window air conditioners with a dehumidifier setting work really well for handling the problem. The initial mortgage was a real problem, as we were unable to get an appraisal because of a lack of comparable properties. Luckily I was eligible for a VA loan, and after a lot of groundwork discovered VA could waive the appraisal after an on-site inspection by a VA rep. The only problem there, was they required "permanetly installed" heating for each room. The house only had a central wood burning fireplace. I installed an inexpensive baseboard heater, small ones, in each room to solve the problem, and the waiver was granted. Of course you can forget second mortgages and thing slike that, and I still have to pay for home owner insurance that covers roof damage, but no regrets. Living in a "unique property" (favorite term of the mortagage lenders) is more than worth the struggling with the difficulty of getting it financed.

c miller
12/10/2010 8:13:28 AM

We built our earth-sheltered home back in 1979,in the Arab oil crisis,& lived in it for just 3 months shy of 20 years. I LOVED that house! In the winter, NE Wisconsin can get REALLY cold, even without the wind chills,just as Upper Michigan can.New Year's Eve can be downright brutal. Our house had a great room with 25' of south facing double pane patio doors,3 bedrooms,each with large south or SE facing glass (master bedroom window was 99"w),& was about 1250 sf. Our architect had figured things pretty close,for HVAC,even figuring in the heat from us humans,dryer,frig,& H2O heater.Plus all that lovely passive solar,& an occasional little log in the Baby Bear Fisher wood stove we bought. We went away for 10 days in deep winter,once. When we left, the place was at 79 degrees;when we returned,it had fallen a whole 6 degrees.(HAH! Take THAT, you oil barons!) The one thing we could NOT do with our lovely,efficient house was add on. When our grandkids came along,we needed a bigger place.You don't DARE touch that roof membrane to add on after it's built, so we had to sell. I cried. BTW,we woke up one morning to HOLSTEINS peeking in our window. Went outside,looked on our roof,& sure enough, the neighbors' cows got loose & were grazing the roof.Had to call him PDQ before any fell off our parapet! I wish we still lived there. I'd move back tomorrow if I could! Earth-sheltered is the ONLY way to go,for me.I am spoiled now.

ellen kambol
12/9/2010 5:17:05 PM

We live in an underground home in New Hampshire. We didn't build it but knew it as a treasure when we found it. We thought we would have trouble financing it until my husband posted on Green Building News. A former Fannie Mae employee told us about the changes to underwriting in the 1970s to promote energy efficiency. A Fannie Mae Publication called Underwriting Rural Properties states: "Mortgages on nontraditional types of housing-such as earth houses, geodesic domes, log houses, etc.-are eligible for delivery to Fannie Mae...It is not necessary for one or more of the comparable sales to be of the same design..." My lender was skeptical. I had to call Fannie Mae in DC. I was told by a highly place official that he would send me a letter if my banker was "too stupid to read" but he preferred to send me the publication. We have a clerestory to get light into our north side entry, kitchen and office. The only spaces without natural light are the dark room, laundry, work out and storage space. Merle's mother wouldn't feel claustrophobic here. We have 110' of south facing sliding doors. The triangular shape works well. It is 12 today. Our home will be 74 degrees by 10:am because it's a sunny day. We'll need 3 to 4 hours of furnace or wood stove. When it's 90, we stay at 72 by closing our doors. We have had close contact with nature including a moose who jumped a foot when he came around to the south side and surprised us during breakfast. Undergroud is great!

jim womeldorf_2
12/9/2010 11:56:09 AM

My wife and I designed and built our earth covered home in the late 1970s and joked at the time that it was our 'retirement home' since it requires very little upkeep and has no steps whatsoever. Guess what? It is now our retirement home and we still love it! It is 42' x 68' with about 2000 sq ft of living space plus a garage and a shop. We heated it using a wood burning stove and passive solar for the first 17 years (4 chords of wood per year) and then replaced the stove with direct vent a propane fireplace. We now use about 600 gallons of LP/year. Humidity has been our biggest issue. We have had good luck using a small air conditioner rather than a dehumidifier. The problem has been that we have had summers where the house would not get warm enough to get the A/C to run. We now have a solar collector which we use in the summer as well as in the winter. This helps with the humidity situation in those rooms and also provides enough heat in the summer so our split unit air conditioner will run. We replaced our 9 large south-facing windows a few years ago. I was concerned about losing passive solar heat so I questioned the window folks about it. We went with their recommendation, but they do not allow the amount of solar gain we had previously with ordinary glass. It's difficult to know if they are retaining more heat at night. Here's a photo:

sally l_2
12/8/2010 11:54:37 AM

I had a great uncle who built two underground houses back in the 50's. One was in the mountains of Colorado and the other in the middle of Las Vegas. Since these were really underground they could only be accessed by an elevator. He seemed to solve the claustrophobic and lighting issues by building the house inside an outer wall so there were windows all around and lighting from that area so it seemed like daylight. I imagine it would also solve the moisture issues since the warm summer air wouldn't be hitting the colder walls creating condensation. His belief was that as our population grew we would need all the land to grow our food on and people would live underground. A visionary way before his time!

suzanne horvath
12/8/2010 11:21:22 AM

This house looks as if it's in a boomerang shape. If a house like this was laid out as basically one room deep, then all rooms would have natural light and heat. Utility/Laundry room and storage could be tucked in the north side where you don't need the light. And if the shape were reversed - the point of the boomerang shape pointing out (or a half circle shape), then that gives a different set of layout options, and more light. This type of housing is interesting.

12/8/2010 9:28:39 AM

I loved this story. As a native Michigander, I am interested in this story because we pay for our gas heat-- $1,392 a year and we don't even live in the UP (to the Yoopers, we're known as trolls). Thanks for a great story. I have never heard of a house like this and I went to college in the UP!

george works
12/8/2010 9:24:19 AM

I had built, and lived in, a similar house west of Boston in the 1970s. I agree with all the advantages mentioned. At the time I built I didn't have the bank problems. It possibly helped that a reputable architect designed the house and a well respected local builder built it, and both were known to the bank. I did have a few go-arounds with the town getting a building permit, though. My house had a central atrium with a glass roof that stuck up through the ground, so lighting and claustrophobia weren't problems. However, heating the atrium on a cold Massachusetts winter night took a bit more firewood or electricity.

10/14/2010 3:03:31 AM

Nice story (and house). Have you considered using a "tubular skylight" device? It's a sort of pipe, with inner reflective surface that has one end outside to catch the light and one end inside the house to let out the light. This way you can have sun light inside the house, in the rooms without windows.

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