A quick tour of our house – even at its cleanest – will reveal our deep affection for the ‘Early American Garage Sale’ style of decorating. We each adopted this approach to interior design out of economic desperation years ago, and our hoarding natures served only to affirm our love affair with ‘Post-Modern Pack-Rat.’ And, while no one will ever accuse me of having flair, our embrace of all things eclectic served us well when we decided to build our current house or, as we like to call it, Our Cool Cave.
I had been googling owner-built and low/no-energy houses since a move to Germany in 2000 introduced us to new conservation concepts. Germans have experienced much higher transportation and heatings costs for years, and that has pushed them to adopt many energy-saving innovations. Some we expected to see, such as the well-known public transportation system. Others, like the numerous solar-powered buildings in my cousin’s town of Freiburg were a complete, inspiring surprise.
To my Favorites folder I added links to low- and high- tech building ideas. I added links on the block house construction so prevalent in Germany. I added links about super efficient water heaters, convection heating and cooling. But what really caught my eye were the websites featuring Earthships.
Originating in the southwest and often owner-built of recycled materials such as earth-filled tires or even soda cans, these designs employed what, at the time, we considered to be innovative but extreme (and out-of-reach) ideas for conserving heat and water. The High Thermal Mass of these buildings kept the interior temperature relatively constant, and, while our German apartment building had been built with the same idea, we realized we were just scratching the surface in terms of energy savings.
Five years later, I was sitting in the kitchen of our charming antique farmhouse looking at the not-so-charming oil bill for the coming season. It had increased almost 30%. Our electric bill was always high, despite our often-draconian conservation methods, and the high price did nothing to stave off the frequent power outages that accompanied storms, Nor’easters… the breaking of a twig five miles away….. I knew there had to be a better way – I had seen it online, and we had lived it. Moving back to Europe was not on the table, but I knew I was not going to pay another oil bill. All I had to do was convince the Big Guy that he was tired of paying oil bills, that we should build a low-energy home to get away from them, and (if possible) that it was his idea.
So I dug out my old Favorites folder and started trolling the Earthship sites again, becoming increasingly enamored with the earth-sheltered and underground versions. Surrounded or buried by at least 3 of dirt, these homes take advantage of both the voluminous insulation and the constant 55 degree temperature of the earth. Many are owner-built, but there are a growing number of companies that are marketing these modern sod house. Earth-sheltering became my new drug. I quietly collected a folder of clippings and waited for Mother Nature and/or politics to create my opening.
One fall afternoon after a particularly long power outage, I waltzed into my husband’s workplace with my folder and said, “We need to make a change.” I spent the next fifteen minutes building up to my pitch, pulled out a flyer from an underground home builder and waited. The printout didn’t even hit the counter between us.
“I love these houses!” Exclaimed the Big Guy. “I’ve wanted to build one of these since the seventies! Don’t you remember me telling you about them years ago?” Obviously it had not sunk in then, but it did now. I couldn’t believe it, we weren’t just on the same page, we were on the same page.
We spent the next year and a half researching and finally building the house. We gave serious thought to having a specialized builder do the design and construction, but ultimately decided to be our own contractors. Managing the design and construction of a house has ended marriages, but I think willingness to experiment helped us build a better house and not go too crazy in the process. We relied heavily on humor and the diverse sources of information we discovered as we went along.
In the end, we came up with a design that got us off of oil (we now heat with wood) and met the lifestyle demands of our growing family, abandoning formal living spaces in favor of flexibility. Extensive conversations with builders and engineers led us to bury the house on three sides only with super insulated conventional roof. Cool in summer and cozy in winter, our mostly-finished six-year-old house is the most comfortable place we’ve ever lived. The piles of earth surrounding the concrete shell insulate us from sound so well that we often aren’t aware of even violent storms unless we go out.
No design is perfect, and if we had to do it over again, we would certainly make some changes, but the one thing we would not change is our status as modern cave dwellers.