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.
- 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.
- Natural Landscape. Earth-sheltered homes blend into their surroundings and can create an amazing visual impact, such as this pristine house in England or this very Hobbit-looking earth-sheltered home.
- 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.
- 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.