Solar-Heating a Subterranean House

Learn how William T. Beale built an earth bermed house in Athens, Ohio.

| May/June 1977

  • Beale House
    Everyone knows that passive solar heating is a viable means of keeping a house warm in Arizona, New Mexico, or California. Not everyone knows that simple passive solar heating can also be used to "cozy up" a dwelling in Athens, Ohio.

  • Beale House

Imagine a solar-heated cottage with no collectors, no pumps, no storage tanks, no thermostats, no heat exchangers ... none of the trappings of conventional "active" solar heating installations. Then imagine that same dwelling recessed into the side of a hill ... and you've got a pretty good idea of what William T. Beale's $6,000 solar-heated guest house is all about.

Last summer, Beale (a heat transfer engineer of 25 years' experience) set out to design and build a small guest house on his Athens, Ohio farm ... a dwelling that would use the sun's energy for heating, but without the aid of pumps, temperature sensors, and similar high-technology devices. ("I'd helped install an 'active' solar heating system on a house in this area some time before," Beale explains, "and I knew from that experience that a complex, water-carrying system was not the way to go.")

What Beale ended up building was a 16-by-30 foot one-room (plus lavatory) cottage that absorbs the suns radiant energy directly (like a black car sitting in the sun) and uses the earth itself as the major regulator of its temperature. Beale's guest cottage is — in effect — a live-in solar collector built into the side of a hill.

And darned if the little "lithospheric solar collector" hasn't turned out to be quite a comfortable abode! Beale says that there were days last winter when the outside air temperature was a nippy 0 degrees Fahrenheit and the ground was blanketed with snow ... while the tiny guest house was so warm inside that — in William Beale's own words — "we actually had to worry about keeping the place cool!"

Beale's Secret to His Solar Home Plans

Beale's solar-heated guest house is as cozy inside as it is for several (darn good) reasons.

First of all, the house's walls and ceiling contain a full six inches of fiberglass insulation. ("Somebody — I forget who — once said that if you could insulate a dwelling as thoroughly as it ought to be insulated, you could keep the place warm with a toaster," Beale points out. "I operate on that assumption.")


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