Earth-Sheltered, Earth-Conscious Homes
Sustainable Building Ideas for the 21st Century
By Mike Oakes, Washington
Building earth-conscious homes is becoming more relevant as we live in a world where we have increasing air and water pollution, reduction of green spaces due to urban growth, deforestation from high wood consumption, and rampant use of fossil fuels. These are some of the most troubling environmental issues facing our world today. In many cases, despite a desire in many people to help, there is a sense that these problems are beyond reach, with many searching for decades looking for some way to noticeably improve the situation, generally without result.
Looking at modern residential housing alone we see what appears to be monumental problems with no easy fix. A large percentage of America’s air pollution is a direct result of heating and cooling residential homes, representing nearly 900 million metric tons of waste pumped into the atmosphere every year. Talk about global warming!
Unfortunately, that is only the beginning. Domestic building and rebuilding also accounts for billions of board-feet cut from this nation’s shrinking forests and consumes miles of dwindling green space every year, converted into yet another bank of wooden boxes we call neighborhoods. Re-building, or maintenance that we now take for granted, also accounts for incredible quantities of landfill waste, consumption of natural resources, and, of course, an ongoing drain on our precious time. Asphalt shingles alone, torn from houses as a part of routine maintenance, account for millions of tons of waste in the landfills. taken together, domestic housing may be the largest single hit on America’s environment.
But what can be done? Stop heating or cooling our homes? Stop repairing the roof, the walls, and everything else subject to insects, weather, and age? Plant grass and gardens on our roofs to preserve our green spaces?
As remarkable as it sounds the answer is “yes!” to all three of those questions.
Over the last decade or so, several sound, unconventional housing concepts, including the concept of earth-conscious homes, have come along that offer to mitigate one or more of the above problems. We have seen some home systems made from non-wooden, or recycled substances, and some homes designed to make use of solar gain, thermal mass and other concepts, fashioned to decrease energy usage for heating and cooling, and increase self-sufficiency.
Still, few have offered to address all of the above problems, and fewer still are really a solution for the people in general. For example, trying to convince a bank to give you a mortgage for a home constructed entirely from recycled mustard jars can be an adventure all of its own. Also, trying to fit a south-facing, solar-powered hay-bale yurt into a modern suburban neighborhood, complete with homeowner’s covenants, is a prospect not many will greet with joy. Solar panels for home use are still prohibitively expensive in most parts of the country. So the search for a more complete answer that works for more Americans goes on, and all the while, a solution is right here, waiting to be discovered.
Origins of Earth-Conscious Homes
It was 1977 and oil, and the lack thereof, was on many people’s minds, including a certain structural engineer in Phoenix, Arizona named Dale Pearcey. It seemed to Dale at the time that Americans might well be without any energy for heating or cooling within the decade, so he began to research unconventional housing concepts. His idea was to figure out how to build an energy-efficient home that was totally self-sufficient, and that the average American family could afford and use. He sought a design that could fit into a modern conventional neighborhood, replacing existing wooden structures as they succumbed to age, and an utterly self-sufficient design from the standpoint of heating, cooling, disaster resistance and maintenance.
His studies led him to the concept of earth sheltering (though at first glance he believed the shortcomings of earth sheltered homes too severe for practicality) and before long he had a plan, a design, and a U.S. Patent. His first patented model earth-conscious home made its debut in 1978 in Phoenix amid considerable fanfare. It displayed features most architects thought impossible, and provided the four qualities that largely mitigate the environmental impact of residential structures.
Benefits of Earth-Conscious Homes Over Conventional Construction
First, the shell of the earth-conscious home is constructed entirely without wood, sparing the nation’s forests for more important uses. Second, it required little or no energy for heating or cooling despite outside temperatures. Third, a garden or yard covered the structure’s roof, increasing neighborhood green-space and growing area. Here are some great ideas for sedum roofs. Fourth, it was easily financed through a bank, and built in a normal suburban neighborhood, making it an option most American families could (and can) utilize.
Since building that first house, Dale has quietly worked his trade, designing and marketing a custom home system for self-sufficient Americans from coast to coast, but rarely receiving the interest due to such a monumental design. Apart from brief appearances in Popular Mechanics magazine, a few local newspapers and a number of smaller fringe publications, his work proceeded without significant notice by the media. Despite this, his company, Formworks Construction thrives, producing over 1,000 Nestegg structures in America since that first house in Phoenix, making Dale arguably the most active designer and producer of earth sheltered homes in America.
So, from where do the magical qualities of the Formworks design originate?
To simply answer that question with a trite “from earth-sheltering, of course,” would be more than over-simplification. Earth sheltering brought its own distinct troubles to the table, problems that seemed intrinsic to the principle of underground dwellings. Characteristics like darkness, dampness, expense and the atmosphere of an artillery bunker adhered to virtually all conventional earth-sheltered dwellings like a rather unfortunate, subterranean albatross. Dale undertook the task of lightening, brightening, drying and delivering the earth-sheltered custom home design to middle-America.
This involves far more than the addition of skylights and better waterproofing. Earth sheltering necessitates certain structural requirements just to resist the incredible weight of earth. This originally meant specially engineered 12-inch-thick, steel-reinforced concrete walls, and 18-inch-thick roofs, and numerous stout internal supports to sustain the monumental load; all of which generates incredible construction costs and produces the aforementioned Neo Artillery-Bunker look. This dilemma became the core of Dale’s initial research and the driving force motivating his first patent.
The Nestegg solution revolves around a modular steel free span frame and a thin shell shotcrete carapace. This combination obviates the need for expensive concrete forms, expensive masses of concrete, and expensive custom engineering. As side benefits, the Nestegg system opens the internal space of the structure from the confined and cramped Le Bomb Sheltre, to cathedral-like proportions, making free spanning underground galleries of 50′ by 200′ or more, with vaulted ceiling heights of about 25′, de rigeur. It also eliminates dreaded hydrostatic water-leakage problems through a constantly curving roof and outer wall, combined with bentonite waterproofing. As a side benefit, this thinshell structure is actually much stronger than the old 12″ – 18″ concrete-and-steel bunker technology, able to support much greater weights and survive enormous shocks the older technology couldn’t approach.
Earth-Conscious Homes: The Finished Product
Imagine a conventional-looking, Tudor-style home situated in a normal, suburban neighborhood: two levels, attached two-car garage, front lawn equipped with a cat and a pair of rascally children. Enter the garage and discover a short tunnel leading into the house. Everything looks pretty standard; windows in front, windows in back with a quaint walled patio and barbecue, and a large, rooftop skylight or cupola above. The only item of particular note is the curved, cathedral ceiling upstairs and the absolute absence of intruding sounds such as barking dogs, overflying jets and traffic noise. Take a stroll outside, however and find a moderately sloped, terraced garden just behind the Tudor facade running around the cupola, skylight, and down past an open-topped atrium-patio.
No wood used, no energy wasted, no great financing convolutions, no lost greenspace, no roof to replace, and a lifespan of two centuries or more…
So What is the Catch?
There isn’t any, explained Formworks owner Dale Pearcey. “We have a modular, pre-engineered building system for custom homes. Much like building any custom home, we provide parts, plans, and engineering to the owner who builds it, or hires a local contractor to build it.”
What About the Cost of an Earth-Conscious Home?
On the surface, Nestegg homes appear to cost about the same to build as any custom home, varying from around $100-$125 per square foot depending upon the decorating tastes of the homeowner; but in reality, a Nestegg costs about half what a conventional custom home would over the course of a 30-year mortgage. Remember, the house payment is only a part of the overall expense of owning a home. Heating, cooling and maintenance are pretty substantial expenses too, and, according to U.S. Department of Energy figures on Nestegg performance, the savings you gain in those areas with a Nestegg home, when applied to the monthly mortgage payment, will pay off a 30-year mortgage in 15 years.
There is nothing like a paycheck to help people go green, as it were.
There are a lot of reasons people choose the Nestegg system to build a self-sufficient home, Dale said. “We have professional athletes who opt for a Nestegg because it is a very distinctive design with features like a partially earth-sheltered tropical greenhouse to wow their friends, a putting green on the roof, or a space-saving rooftop parking lot. We have customers from earthquake zones in California, and Tornado Alley in the Carolinas, who went with a Nestegg because it is essentially the most indestructible structure you can buy. Of course, many people go with us just because of rising energy costs. When they see our customers heating a 2,000-square-foot home with an occasional hot bath and when the power goes out, and outside temperatures plunge during blizzard season, they really notice.”
Whatever the reason, each time a Nestegg home is constructed, rather than a conventional home, there are that many more trees left standing. More greenspace is retained, and that much less maintenance-waste fills the landfills of the world. Earthship homes also create a measurable deduction from the 900 million metric tons of pollution going into the atmosphere because of America”s inefficient building methods. Since Nestegg and other Earthship homes possess structural lifespans measured in centuries rather than decades, it also means saving tomorrow’s forests from the lumber store, and efficient family homes that can pass from generation to generation.
There is a solution.
For more information on Nestegg homes and Formworks Construction check their web page at www.formworksbuilding.com or call 970-247-2100 and discover self-sufficiency.
Originally published in the July/August 2000 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.