Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Home Sweet Hobbit Home

The Conscious Shopper experiences alternative green home-building.

For the past few years, my in-laws have been building a hobbit house. That's what my husband and I call it. My five-year-old says, "Grandma and Grandpa live in a cave."

The house is way out in the country, set midway up a large wooded hill. As you pull into the drive, you might not realize that it's a hobbit house. With it's brick facade and overhanging eaves, it looks almost like any other house.

But as you pull up a little closer, you might realize that the roof doesn't peak the way most roofs do. In fact, it curves a little bit. And there are plants growing on top.


If you wanted, you could even climb up onto the roof. You could drag a lawn chair up there and sit in the shade, watching squirrels scamper up trunks and birds flit from tree to tree. You can do that on the roof of their house. I think that's freakin' awesome.

The technical name for their house is earth-sheltered, referring to a house that uses earth as a form of insulation. There are earth-bermed houses, where the earth only covers one or two walls, or only goes halfway up a wall. But my in-laws' house is earth-covered - three sides of the house plus the roof are completely covered in dirt.

The method for building their house kind of reminds me of those paper-mache maracas all kids make out of balloons in elementary school. They started with three modular forms, poured concrete over the whole thing, and then removed the forms. What was left was a large ranch-style house made up of a living area with two bedroom wings. My in-laws added the interior walls, bricked up the front, poured dirt on top, and moved in.

From a green perspective, this type of house has many advantages. But it's definitely not the perfect house for everyone.

Advantages
  • Energy-efficient. Like the earth it's built into, an earth-sheltered house will maintain a temperature of 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year, especially when combined with a passive solar design. That constancy means that in the winter you'll use less energy to heat your home, and in the summer less energy to cool it. In fact, if 60 to 70 degrees is comfortable for you, you might not have to use heat or air-conditioning at all. An earth-sheltered home is a great style for off-the-grid living.
  • Less Maintenance. Because most of the walls and the roof are covered with dirt, earth-sheltered homes require less maintenance. No siding to paint, no gutters to clean, no termites to contend with.
  • Protection against the Elements. A house made of concrete and steel with only one exposed side is going to be able to stand up to almost any kind of weather.

Disadvantages
  • Dark. I wanted to get a picture of the inside of the house to show how it looks just like any other house, except that it has domed ceilings in all the rooms. But the lighting was awful. My in-laws purposely designed the house to have few windows (they wanted a house that would last forever), so earth-sheltered houses don't necessarily have to be as dark as their house is. But because most of the exterior walls are covered with dirt, an earth-sheltered house by definition is going to be dark.
  • Financing and Building. Getting the original financing to build their house was a huge pain for my in-laws. Because it's non-traditional, no banks wanted to finance them. Building the house has also been a headache. Contractors just don't know what to do with it, and my father-in-law has ended up redoing a lot of shoddy work.
  • Difficult to Sell. My in-laws are building this house to retire in. And that's a good thing because there aren't very many people in the market for a hobbit house. Especially out in the boonies of Southern Tennessee.
An earth-sheltered house might not be everyone's perfect home. But if you're the type of person who dreams of independence in an earth-friendly house, you could someday have a hobbit house of your very own.

8 comments:

Green Bean said...

Now those are some interesting looking houses! I can imagine how, temperature wise, they'd be fantastic. Makes me think of the dug out that the Ingalls lived in in part of the Little House series.

Carmen said...

Ooohhhh!! It reminds me of Laura Ingalls Wilder! Remember when her family build their house in the side of a hill?

Oh wait, I see Green Bean just said the same thing!

Eco Yogini said...

I LOVE this house and adore the idea. I have seen some earth sheltered homes that have skylights dug into the rooves to allow for more light.. but I'm sure that it would add quite a bit to the cost.
What I like is the financial backing info- of course I never thought of this (still renting!), but it's an important aspect.
I didn't watch a lot of the Little House on the Prairies... sadly I missed out on that.

JessTrev said...

That is totally fascinating - thanks for sharing. I love the idea of the constant temps.

Daisy said...

Very cool concept! I like my light, so all three walls might be too much for me.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

Green Bean and Carmen - Exactly like the Laura Ingalls house! Except much bigger and the floor is concrete instead of dirt. When reading those books, I always thought how quaint it would be to live in a house inside a hill. Now I know what it's like!

Eco Yogini - Skylights would definitely help the darkness issue. Especially that new type of skylight that uses mirrors to magnify the natural lighting. Financial backing is an issue with any alternative type of home. I had some friends that wanted to build a strawbale home and never could get a loan so they gave up the idea. Probably depends on where you are as to how likely the banks are to finance you.

JessTrev - Thanks! I like the constant temperature factor too, although it's a little on the cold side for me.

Daisy - I completely agree about the lighting, but there are ways to help it - such as skylights, as Eco Yogini mentioned, or covering fewer walls with dirt. On the other hand, we slept so well at my in-laws house because it was sooo dark. No intruding sunrise!

Truffula Mama said...

Thanks for sharing your perspective on what it's like to live in an earth-sheltered home. Bringing in light would definitely be key for me. Also, I'm thinking that as attractive as constant temps are, I actually kind of enjoy the ebb and flow of the temperature (as long as we're not talking extremes, or lots of cold!) ~ in a way, the house goes to sleep with us.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

Truffula Mama - For me, it would depend on the temperature. 60 to 70 degrees is kind of cold for me, but if my house naturally stayed in the 70 to 80 range, I would be thrilled.

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