An Inexpensive, Earth-Sheltered, Passive Solar House

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Photo by Doug Kalmer
The author, Doug Kalmer, and his wife performed much of the labor on their house alone or with friends, hiring out only the excavators to help with the earth-sheltered part of their home.

Reading MOTHER EARTH NEWS for years gave me ideas on energy-efficient home building. I used a few of these ideas on a 100-year-old run-down home I bought and remodeled. This enabled me to acquire tools and skills, learn about solar, and build equity.

I sold the home in 1982 for a profit after spending five years fixing it up, and bought rural land to build my dream home — an earth-sheltered, passive solar house I built using several techniques MOTHER EARTH NEWS had taught me about. The land had an old trailer on it that we lived in during the house-building process, and then we sold it when we moved into the house. We used locally available, free or inexpensive materials whenever possible. My wife and I gathered local stones to slipform walls, borrowed an old concrete mixer, built forms, and used the forms to build our east, west and north walls. We then externally insulated them before backfilling. I cut logs from my newly acquired 31 acres to make a post and beam frame, infilled with cedar cordwood. I traded some of my time with friends in exchange for them helping us when we needed it, such as when pouring concrete. Because of the sale of our remodeled home, we had enough money to support ourselves while we built, which took about 18 months. We did all the carpentry, cabinet making, electrical and plumbing, only hiring out the excavation for our recessed earth-sheltered home. We added an attached greenhouse, and later solar hot water and solar electricity, all without any sort of loan.

Our home is a direct-gain, high-thermal-mass, passive solar design, inspired by MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ Sun Cottage design, which ran in several issues. We took some ideas from that design, as well as other MOTHER EARTH NEWS articles on post and beam framing, cordwood, solar, masonry stoves, etc.

We spent less than $10 per square foot for the current structure. We originally just had a shed roof, but after five years of living with it, I decided to add an attic space to give me a place not just for more insulation, but also for a southern sloping roof for a solar hot water collector. This also added storage and a guest room. Altogether the structure comes close to 1,400 square feet. But the two of us live comfortably in about 1,000 square feet of conditioned space.

The only code we had to comply with was electrical, and we had no problems getting my wiring job passed. We did all of the design work ourselves, choosing to slightly overbuild structurally instead of hiring an architect.

I would build another home, but slightly differently, because of what I’ve learned over the decades. My advice to others who want to do something similar is to build smaller things first; acquire a nest egg, tools and skills; study similar designs to what you want to build; and then just do it!

To read more about my home, go to Build it Solar or take a virtual tour of my home on YouTube.

Read other debt-free home reports like this one by perusing Debt-Free Living in Your Dream Home or visiting our Debt-Free Home Reports collection page.