The Beauty of Passively Heated Underground Houses

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Illustration By The MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff
Learn about passively heated underground houses and how these well-designed underground homes save more energy and money than above-ground homes.

Learn about passively heated underground houses and how they more than equal above-ground homes in beauty and functionality.

Eco-Friendly Ways of Saving Energy

A Primer on Passively Heated Solar Underground Houses
A Water and Energy Saving Showerhead

Passively Heated Underground Houses

Sure, MOTHER has already told you about ultra-low-cost
semi-subterranean and underground solar-tempered houses.
(William T. Beale’s 16 foot by 30 foot, $6,000 Athens, Ohio guest
house, for instance . . . or the Andy Davis $15,000,
1,200-square-foot “cave” dwelling up in Armington,

And she’s told you how incredibly energy efficient such
beneath-the-surface homes can be. (The Davis family, as
you’ll recall, heated their place during the catastrophic
winter of 1976/77 for a grand total of $1.29.)

And she’s pointed out many of the other good things about
underground houses. (How quiet and peaceful they can be . .
. the protection they offer from tornadoes and other storms
. . . the fact that they can be brighter and far airier
than most aboveground dwellings . . . the ease with which
they can be cooled during the summer . . . and so on and on
and on.)

In short, it has become all too obvious to the editors of
this magazine — and to a great number of other folks
who’ve seriously studied the situation — that
subterranean homes are very definitely going to become more
and more important as we all hurtle into a resource-poor,
harsh-climated, overpopulated, and crisis-ridden future.

Despite all that, however, we are well aware that most
members of our society have yet to discover underground
housing — and the many benefits it offers — at all.
And that the growing section of society which has become
aware of subterranean dwellings . . . well, still generally
tends to think of them as somehow “not as good” as the
flimsy, overpriced and over mortgaged, expensive to heat
and cool, aboveground, stick buildings almost all of us now
live in.

This attitude is not entirely rational, of course, but then
very few people any longer maintain that the human race is
always rational. Think back to your old high school days:
Remember? If the freshmen in a school started a fad . . .
that was usually as far as it went. But if the
seniors in another school started wearing the very
same new style of clothing or using the same distinctive
new greeting or whatever . . . it wasn’t long before the
fashion had spread to everyone in the building.

Now we’ve kinds, got a hunch that that’s what’s been
happening with underground houses so far. Almost all the
subterranean dwellings (at least the ones we’ve heard
about) constructed up to this point . . . have been built
by “ordinary” people, for themselves, on a very tight
budget, and off in an out-of-the-way spot somewhere. Which
is to say that the trend is still being promoted by
“freshmen” . . . good people (darn good people! ), but the
kind of folks that — at least in this field — our
society chooses not to take too seriously.

What we need, then — to really get this very
important movement off the ground — is for a whole
batch of “seniors” to jump on the subterranean dwelling
bandwagon. That is: Joe Suburb is going to keep right on
turning his nose up at underground houses and all the
fantastic advantages they offer . . . until he starts
seeing real contractors building prestigious and very
expensive below-grade homes in some of the ritzier
neighborhoods out by the country club golf course. And
ole Joe is going to start yammering for his very
own underground house so loud and so quick that this
“revolution in residences” is going to sweep the country

And that’s why we were so happy when we first heard about a
new dwelling now being shown off near Columbus, Ohio. Sure,
it’s underground . . . it’s largely passively solar-heated
. . . it’s quiet and vibration-free and very private inside
. . . its interior is also unbelievably bright, and light,
and airy . . . its pipes will never freeze . . . its
exterior will never need maintenance . . . it will never be
blown away by a tornado . . . etc., etc., etc. But far
more important than that:
This particular underground
house is contractor-built, it’s plush, it’s expensive, it
looks great . . . and it’s located on the
northwest corner of Columbus in the “ultra ultra” suburb of

The designers and contractors responsible for the lovely
home you see here are extremely serious about passively
solar-heated underground housing. So serious, in fact, that
they’ve formed an architectural/construction
firm — Solar-Earth Energy, Inc. — expressly for the
purpose of designing and building such dwellings. It’s also
interesting to note that the partners in the company
“really get into their work” too: One of those partners
(Buck Vaile) and his family have been living in the very
house shown on these pages since last November.

Buck reports that his family used no fossil fuels at all,
only a few hours of electricity, and a mere 1-1/4 cords of
wood (burned in a Jøtul stove) to heat their
2,038-square-foot residence during the past unusually cold
winter. Which is exceptional . . . especially when you
realize just how many bitterly cold, completely overcast
days that Columbus, Ohio suffered through earlier this

MOTHER has already covered the basics of good subterranean,
passively solar-heated design (build in plenty of drainage
around your structure, waterproof the dwelling’s exterior
wall, put insulation on the outside of the house’s
mass to turn the whole residence into one gigantic “thermal
flywheel” that will coast right through all the high and
low temperatures of a year’s weather, “point” the
building’s largest expanses of glass — duo-paned and
fitted with insulated shutters or drapes — south for
winter solar energy collection, place an overhang over
those windows to shade them from the high summer sun, etc.)
so often that we won’t repeat them again here.

We will, however, point out that Buck Vaile and his SEE,
Inc. partners were well aware of all those basics and used
them to good advantage when they constructed Buck’s new
home. And we’ll mention a couple of additional twists of
their own that the SEE boys also incorporated into the

First off, there’s the “solaratrium” located on the north
side of the underground house . . . between the living
quarters themselves and an above-ground garage and storage
area. The solaratrium’s roof extends up above the earth’s
surface and is covered with transparent fiberglass sheets
which are angled south to collect as much winter sunlight
as possible.

The Vaile home does gain some wintertime solar energy
passively from this sun room. Much of the warmth collected
by the solaratrium, however, would just rise to the top of
the 1-1/2 story room and stay there . . . except for a
small fan installed in the house. The blower pulls the
stratified thermal energy down through a duct running up to
the top of the atrium, and distributes the heat to any
areas that need additional warmth.
(Another — exhaust — fan near the sun room’s roof
will expel any unwanted heat which builds up in the atrium
during the summer.)

Secondly, the SEE crew has built 60 square feet of active
hydronic solar collectors into the roof of the Valle home’s
garage/storage area. These collectors supplementally heat
the household’s water.

As Buck explains the systems: “We have passive solar space
heat supplemented by what we call “hybrid” solar space heat
from the solaratrium and active solar water heating. The
entire package didn’t add more than $3,000 to the cost of
the house, though, and we feel it was money well spent.”

For backup and additional warmth during the coldest part of
the winter, the SEE home is outfitted with a Jøtul
woodburning “firestove” (which consumed less than $100
worth of fuel last winter!). A duct directly above the
stove collects heat which a fan then pushes to other parts
of the house.

The sun-tempered underground dwelling is also equipped with
baseboard electric heaters “mainly for reassurance and to
please the bank”. These heaters were used only in the
youngest children’s room a few nights at the heights of the
winter’s worst blizzards and once in a while in the
bathrooms when someone was showering.

The SEE designers and builders were just as clever when it
came to using the sun’s rays for illumination in the Valle
home. Every major room in the house gets abundant natural
light from either the solaratrium or the windows across the
front of the dwelling. Enough light streams in, in fact, to
grow houseplants throughout the building . . . and food can
even be grown in the atrium when it’s used as a greenhouse.

Claustrophobiacs should be further reassured to learn that
the interior color scheme (it reflects light) of the Valle
house contributes a great deal to the open, roomy, bright
feel of the structure. This feeling is enhanced even more
by the building’s ceilings . . . which are
nine — instead of the usual eight — feet high.

To put it another way, everything about this SEE, Inc.
dwelling is first class. From its oversized rooms, to the
materials used throughout, to the careful thought that went
into every facet of its siting and design, to the use of
the natural light and heat which enters the structure, to
the very expensive neighborhood in which the building is
located . . . nothing has been stinted. And the price tag
on the house — $122,000 — certainly reflects the

If you find that figure a little rich for your blood,
though, don’t panic. Thanks to this plush “showplace”
(remember the senior class back in high school), interest
in passively solar heated underground dwellings is starting
to boom up Columbus, Ohio way. SEE, Inc. has already been
commissioned to construct five more houses of the
same general design . . . and some of them will cost only
half as much as the original (the rest of the “school” is
rushing to get in on the act).

And there’s even better news yet: Buck Valle tells MOTHER
that SEE, Inc. is just as anxious to promote passively
sun-tempered underground dwellings — whether or
not SEE, Inc. builds them
— as we hope you are to
give such a structure a try. For this reason, the firm
stands ready to license other qualified contractors to
fabricate SEE, Inc. designs.

And the best news of all: Solar-Earth Energy, Inc. is also
putting together an information packet (available for
$5.00) which contains further details about the house you
see here and other SEE, Inc. designs. In addition to that,
the company is assembling a $500 construction manual so
detailed . . . that “almost anyone” should be able
to use it to build his or her own SEE, Inc. design for tens
of thousands of dollars less than a contractor-fabricated
version of the same house. Send your $5.00 to Solar-Earth
Energy, Inc., Dept. TMEN, 1695 Kenny Rd., Columbus, Ohio
43212. The information packet you’ll receive in return will
tell you all about this exciting program.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you like the house you see here,
you’ll be pleased to learn that MOTHER has made some
special arrangements with SEE, Inc. Working drawings of the
home (suitable for presentation to the VA, mortgage
institutions, zoning boards, etc.) are available from
Mother’s House Plans, P. 0. Box A, East Flat Rock, N.C.
28726. A single set of the plans is $100. A materials list is also available, when ordered
with the drawings, for an additional $10. Orders will be
sent just class.

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