Earth Sheltered (Berm) Home I designed, researched, and Constructed
It was the summer of 1978-79 that our 3200 sq. ft. home in Florien had $400 electric bills.
I saw a news segment featuring a family that constructed their underground home using large cement culverts for exterior walls, cutting their heating/cooling to almost zero. At the depth of ten feet the earth’s temperature is almost a constant temperature; similar to a cave. A slight variation in temperature occurs every four to six months during summer and winter seasons. Summer is slightly cooler from the lag time of winter cooling of the soil while winter is slightly warmer from the summer heating lag time.
It sounded interesting and I pondered the idea of where and how I might construct an underground home in this area; knowing it required a sandy hill location for proper drainage. Strange as might seem and as luck would have it, I stopped by the shop of Mr. Herman Davis’s shop; knowing he owned property with a sandy hill that would be perfect for constructing the home. I asked if he might consider selling five acres where the hill was located. He said he would consider it. Two hours later, although we had not really considered nor mentioned selling our home, I received a phone call asking if we might consider selling our home that was located in Florien. We sold, with the stipulation we required several months to re-locate.
We bought the five acres located about one mile south of Hodges Gardens; a sandy hill with sandstone rocks. June 1980 we moved into the 800 sq. ft. apartment that I constructed inside the 1920 sq. ft. shop (a metal kit that cost about $5,000). I constructed the shop and apartment in less than three months that was located north of what would be the site of our future home (150 ft. north of the completed home).
It was summer of 1980; construction would not begin until a year later beginning with the excavation of a portion of the hill (a 10 foot deep “step”) and construction of the home. I had no idea where to begin to research, design, and construct an earth sheltered home. My wife and I taught school and I was working on my master’s degree the summer we moved into the shop. I also did photography on the side to make ends meet. I would manage to find time researching, designing, and completing the plans for the project in the spring of 1981.
Another twist of luck, Rivers Murphy, a friend and art professor at NSU was also exploring the possibility of an earth sheltered home. The idea of an earth sheltered (berm) construction was a new idea; well, not exactly. The settlers that moved into the Midwest would build their home covered with earth on top and around three sides and certainly others in the past history constructed similar houses and, of course, caves. There was very little information related to building "underground", “earth sheltered”, “berm” homes. Rivers heard about an earth sheltered conference that would be conducted (December 1980) in Birmingham, Alabama. It was this conference that opened the door to resources and information we were looking for. The University of Minnesota had the most current research and had published a book, "Earth Sheltered Housing Design; Guidelines, Examples, and References". It became my earth sheltered “bible” (I still have it and other related books and magazines).
Bill Nixon and I would spend many hours discussing various options related to building a home in the side of a hill. He assisted with solving numerous construction issues as well as providing equipment and time. I would not have been able to build without him (see Moving and Renovation of the KCS depot photos).
It would be a 3800 sq. ft. berm home; first floor 2400 sq. ft. and 1400 sq. ft. second floor. First floor ceilings were 10 ft. and 25 ft in the atrium, center portion of the structure (see second floor windows and chimney in above photo). I worked several months designing and drawing the plans. Doubling the 1/4” scale plans, I constructed a marqet (small model with removable second floor, about 30” long) using illustration board so my wife could see how the exterior and interior rooms, doors, and windows were positioned.
While exploring a number of possible construction methods, my cousin, Tom Phillips had close friend, William Hughs (an innovative Baton Rouge architect and designer of a spiral stairway without a center pole, modeled after the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe. He was using rather simiple method to build relatively large buildings, i.e., furniture store, etc. We toured a construction site where he utilized unskilled labor to stack cinder blocks (no staggers or mortar) and troweling on a 1/8 inch layer of fiberglass impregnated plaster on interior and exterior walls. It provided a water proofed finished wall that was stronger than mortar joint blocks. Of course there were a couple lintel courses that reinforced the walls with concrete and steel.
I used 12” X 16” blocks (40 lbs. each) for all exterior walls and 8” X 16" standard size blocks for much of the interior main floor walls. I would use the fiberglass/cement based plaster on the interior and exterior of all block and cement walls to provide additional strength, water proofing, and finish, not to mention less labor than mortar.
Excavation began in late spring of 1981. During the summer I formed, roughed the plumbing, and poured the post tension floor. Blocks were moved onto slab and began to stack them (not staggered) the summer of 1982. The second course was the first of three lintel (horizontal) courses that we laid rebar, conduit for electrical and poured. Rebar was set into the floor aligned to every fourth cavity.
My wife mixed the cement (1/9 yard mixer) and I moved the wheel barrow with cement to the location where I shoveled the cement into large buckets and poured it into the designated block hole/cavity with rebar to provide vertical reinforcement. As the walls grew in height, I built scaffolding that I could move for stacking blocks and pouring concrete. It was a workout lifting and stacking the forty pound blocks, not to mention the ten gallon buckets of cement (approximately 80 lbs. per bucket). Lintel courses required continuous pours to prevent cold joints. We also formed and poured all windows and door headers/lintels (some requiring more than 2 yards of concrete), note interior arches.
The ground floor was basically a tic tack toe design and incorporated interior shear walls to provide lateral support for the exterior wall (support similar to what a flying buttress provided for exterior walls). The exterior walls were 12’ height on east, north, and west and 10’ on south. 1/3 of the roof was a post tension 5” slab designed to support 2 feet of earth while the three 12’ walls supported 10’ of earth. Water proofing consisted of the plaster, 2” Dow extruded Styrofoam, bentonite (driller’s mud), heavy black polyethylene, and a French drain – in that order, for the exterior wall supporting the earth.
The second floor exterior wall floor plate (2 X 12) was bolted to the top of the 12’ height block walls. Two 2 X 4 parallel studs was separated by a 4 1/2 inch dead air space. The north wall studs were only four feet height. The interior studs and the exterior studs were insulated. The inside wall also included a radiant heat barrier film.
I obtained a roll of plastic coated foil (found in oil cans and orange juice cans) when visiting Ludlow paper company in Homer, LA. I covered the interior second floor walls and ceiling prior to installing 1 X 6 wood walls and sheet rock ceilings.
The center of the building (bank of windows and chimney area) was a 25” height atrium. A walk way linked the east with the west ends and provided an overlook down into the kitchen on north side and atrium on the south. The house was aligned true north. The deciduous trees (oaks) on the south side of the house were incorporated into the plan for providing passive heat gain in the winter (no leaves on trees) and in summer they blocked much of the sun that entered the atrium windows in the winter.
Regret, even though I did photography, I did not document the project with photos as I could/should have. My thoughts and focus was constantly determining the strategy for the next step of construction. We finished and moved in Christmas 1985, five years of labor; the end of construction was depressing. Now what! Could there be a project to top this?
When we sold in 1998 people thought we (should say "I") were crazy. I must say there were reservations, but it was only a house. The only thought was, what challenge would I find that could equal or exceed that adventure?