Earth-Sheltered Homes (Part I)

Have you ever heard of earth sheltered homes? I read about these in a Mother Earth Magazine about 35 years ago and was intrigued by them. I still am.

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Earth-Sheltered House

Bermed houses can be one of two basic types of earth-sheltered houses, in-hill or earth covered (green roofs). Earth can be pushed up against the exterior walls, and may even have earth covering the roof. Why? Because the earth helps insulate by absorbing and storing heat; exposed walls need to face south. Skylights are typically added to increase ventilation and sunlight in the northern facing parts of the home.

If the house is completely underground, it is not a berm house (see Earth-Sheltered Homes – Part II).

Earth covered homes only cover the roof with soil. These roofs are typically called living roofs, green roofs or earth roofs. Living roofs can be as simple as dirt or soil while more intricate roofs feature lush foliage and vegetation. These roofs are becoming popular.

Earth Covered (Green Roof) House

In-hill homes are built into slopes or hills with one wall facing out while the earth covers the other walls and the roof. These homes are typically built above ground. The exposed wall has windows to absorb passive heat from the sun. To effectively accomplish this, most in-hill homes are located in areas where the exposed wall can face south to absorb as much sunlight as possible.

Rooms that need natural sunlight like bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms are constructed closer to the exposed wall. Rooms that do not need daylight like storage rooms and bathrooms are commonly constructed farther away from the exposed wall.

So, why would anyone be interested in bermed homes? For starters, temperatures are consistent and are less susceptible to the impact of extreme outdoor air temperatures. This will result in energy cost savings of as much as 60-85 percent. That’s huge! There is much less outside maintenance because most wall surfaces are not exposed to the weather. The chance of pipes freezing is zero, because all pipes are underground. Since these homes are made of stronger waterproof materials, leaks are less of an issue. In addition, they are soundproof because of the surrounding earth. If these are not enough to convince you of the advantages of berm homes, consider the lower insurance costs. This is because berm houses are storm-proof. They will withstand natural disasters like tornadoes, earthquakes, and hailstorms.

As with everything in life, there are also disadvantages. For example, the initial cost of construction can be up to 20% higher than conventional housing.  Too, there are humidity/moisture problems that must be dealt with over the life of the house. Because berm houses are not to everybody’s taste, reselling may take a long time. This said, buyers will likely need to work with creative financing because buying and selling may be complicated and challenging.

Finding an existing earth-sheltered house is not easy simply because there are so few on the market for resale. If you should find one, you will need to judge the soundness of its construction differently than a conventional home. Take a checklist with you so that you consider the interior, exterior, the heating and cooling system, and building code compliance thoroughly.  

Bermed Earth~ Built above ground or partially below ground
~ Earth covers walls and sometimes the roof
~ Less issues with moisture in comparison to underground homes because they are built either above or partially below the ground
Earth Covered~ Walls are not covered by earth
~ Living roofs
In-Hill~ Built above ground
~ Up to three walls are covered – one wall is exposed to allow for a door and windows
Underground~ Not bermed homes
~ Can be built below surface level or deeper underground
~ Typically built on a flat site
~ Central courtyard or atrium
Types of Earth-Sheltered Homes

Most people will either love earth-sheltered homes or would never consider one. The fact is, we are all becoming more green-aware and this type of alternative housing solution is becoming more popular as time goes by. Back 35 years ago, this was a great concept but very few people seriously saw them as a viable housing choice. These days, though, they are a reality.

Give Susan or Phil a call. We’d love to get your thoughts. 971-246-7954.

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