Thirty-two years ago, Bud and Jean Smith knew they had found the perfect spot when they first laid eyes on their Middlesex property. It’s about a mile’s drive up South Hill Road overlooking one of the Finger Lakes Region’s most breathtakingly beautiful valleys. And when they retired a few years later, the Smiths decided to build their new home on the South Hill location. Just as their family roots were planted firmly in the region 100 years ago, the Smiths embedded the roots of their new house right into the side of the hill. They chose to construct and live in an earth-sheltered house.
The Shire of the Finger Lakes
An earth-sheltered house is a structure that is built partially or totally underground. The Smith’s house rests burrowed into the side of a hill, blending perfectly into the natural landscape. “When we first envisioned retiring, we could not think of a more beautiful place in the whole world,” says Jean. Their property, located 1,200 feet above sea level, abuts the Finger Lakes Land Trust overlooking Naples Valley. Residing in such a home fits the Smith’s lifestyle for simple living and caring for the environment.
Not Just a Hole in the Ground
“When you hear the term earth-sheltered house do you picture a dark, damp cave?” asks Joel Smith, the couple’s son and architect. The truth is their house is anything but. Joel designed and built the 1,700-square-foot, two-story house along with his parents. The Smith’s three-bedroom home is actually very light and airy, as modern technology allows homeowners to build houses that are surrounded by earth on one, two or three sides.
The Smith’s earth-sheltered house is fully built into the hill in the back and partially built into the ground on each side. The front of the house juts out with a window-lined façade, so the Smith’s may take full advantage of the southwest view and any available sunshine. “We purposely added this structural overhang to allow the house to use passive solar energy from the windows for maximum gain, especially in the winter,” explains Joel.
Blanketed by the Earth
Approximately 6 to 15 feet under the ground, the earth is a consistent temperature of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, so the inside of the house maintains this even temperature naturally. Bud adds: “There is little need for heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer.”
Temperatures inside an earth-sheltered house are more stable than in conventional homes, and with less temperature variability, interior rooms are more comfortable. The Smiths have a wood-burning fireplace to warm their house further if they choose, utilizing wood from their 11 acres to maintain the supply.
Summers in the house are naturally cool, and a breeze flows through the wide, open windows across the front and sides of the structure. Skylights adorn the roof in the rear to bring natural light to the bedrooms and bathrooms, which are in the part of the house that extends into the hill. The Smith’s open floor plan allows air to move freely throughout the porch, kitchen and great room. Their earth-bound home has saved them thousands in fuel bills over the years, as they only have to pay their electric bill once a month for lights and appliances.
Earth-sheltered homes can be tailored to a wide range of climates, a variety of building sites – not just hills – and come in many different styles. Sometimes, they are viewed as the anti-mansion, pleasantly understated. In fact, some of these homes can barely be seen, as they are dowsed with earth. But, as aforementioned, they are far from caves. Actually, they are quite beautiful – both inside and out. Many of the windows, decks and other decorative touches are featured on the front, sides or roof. Most of these houses are unobtrusive, helping preserve the natural environment around them.
While the Smiths used contractors to carve out and frame their house, they used their own muscle power to finish it. “The foundation walls were built with 12-inch concrete block reinforced with rebar, which is imbedded by a steel bar within the concrete,” explains Bud. “We do not have a basement; rather, the house is built on a concrete slab.” These houses work best if they are built in a mixture of rich, sandy, permeable soil, so moisture is not a problem. Special grating is also used to ensure any groundwater flows away from the house.
A Coat of Armor
As the Smith’s home nestles into the hill, they remain protected from the area’s weather elements, like strong winds and blowing snow. The different designs make earth shelters also semi-weather-resistant to tornados, earthquakes, high winds, freezing temperatures and other natural disasters depending on geographic location. Usually, insurance premiums are much lower for earth-sheltered houses because of their added protection.
In general, earth-sheltered homes are far less of an imposition on the landscape than conventional above-ground houses. They lend themselves to creative design ideas and, in particular, the use of organic architecture, such as garden-topped roofs and curving walls. The Smiths landscaped with rock and stone native to their property.
Earth-sheltered homes are also extremely durable and long-lasting. They cost less than conventional houses and leave very little ecological footprint.
The Smiths know their house is positioned perfectly to take advantage of the earth, sun and view. “We love living here,” says Jean. “We appreciate the nature surrounding us and feel protected from extreme weather, yet we enjoy all the benefits of the beauty, the sun and the breeze. Our house blends into the natural landscape just as generations of our family are enmeshed in the Finger Lakes. We never even considered anything else.”
Earth-Sheltered House: A dwelling that is partially or totally underground or that has earth berms around some or all of its exterior walls. Earth shelters employ the earth as a major component of its thermal control system.
Geothermal Effect: The constant temperature of approximately 50 degrees Fahrenheit found just below the earth’s surface. This keeps earth-sheltered homes naturally warm even on the coldest of winter nights. It also keeps the homes cool in the summer.
Passive Solar Energy: A means of using sunlight for useful energy without the use of active mechanical systems.
Berm: A raised mound or bank of earth, used especially as a barrier or to provide insulation.
Earth-Bermed House: A house where earth is piled up against exterior walls and packed, sloping down and away from the structure.
by Lori Bottorf Petrie