Today’s topic is Earth Sheltered Homes
My guest today are Tom Worley with North Texas Basements and Jean Gibson, Vive President of Gibson Home Builders, Inc.
Earth sheltering is the architectural practice of using earth against building walls for external thermal mass, to reduce heat loss, and to easily maintain a steady indoor air temperature. Earth sheltering is popular in modern times among advocates of passive solar and sustainable architecture, but has been around for nearly as long as humans have been constructing their own shelter.
Living within earth shelters has been a large part of human history. The connection to earth shelter dwellings began with the utilization of caves, and over time evolving technologies led to the construction of customized earth dwellings. Today, earth shelter construction is a rare practice, especially in the U.S.A. During the energy crisis and the oil embargo of 1973, along with the back-to-the-land movement, there was a surge of interest in earth shelter/underground home construction in an effort toward self-sufficient living. However, progress has been slow, and earth shelter construction is often viewed by architects, engineers, and the public alike as an unconventional method of building. Techniques of earth sheltering have not yet become common knowledge, and much of society still remains unaware of the process or benefits of this type of building construction.
Types of Construction
1) Earth berming Earth is piled up against exterior walls and packed, sloping down away from the house. The roof may, or may not be, fully earth covered, and windows/openings may occur on one or more sides of the shelter. Due to the building being above ground, fewer moisture problems are associated with earth berming in comparison to underground/fully recessed construction.
2) In-hill construction The house is set into a slope or hillside. The most practical application is using a hill facing towards the equator (south in the Northern Hemisphere and north in the Southern Hemisphere). There is only one exposed wall in this type of earth sheltering, the wall facing out of the hill, all other walls are embedded within the earth/hill.
Underground/ fully recessed construction The ground is excavated, and the house is set in below grade. It can also be referred to as an Atrium style due to the common atrium/courtyard constructed in the middle of the shelter to provide adequate light and ventilation.
The benefits of earth sheltering are numerous. They include: taking advantage of the earth as a thermal mass, offering extra protection from the natural elements, energy savings, providing substantial privacy, efficient use of land in urban settings, shelters have low maintenance requirements, and earth sheltering commonly takes advantage of passive solar building design.
The earth's mass absorbs and retains heat. Over time, this heat is released to surrounding areas, such as an earth shelter. Because of the high density of the earth, change in the earth’s temperature occurs slowly. This is known as ‘thermal lag.’ Because of this principle, the earth provides a fairly constant temperature for the underground shelters, even when the outdoor temperature undergoes great fluctuation. In most of the United States, the average temperature of the earth once below the frost line is between 55 and 57 degrees Fahrenheit (13 to 14 degrees Celsius). Frost line depths vary from region to region. In the USA frost lines can range from roughly 20 inches to more than 40 inches. Thus, at the base of a deep earth berm, the house is heated against an exterior temperature gradient of perhaps ten to fifteen degrees, instead of against a steeper temperature grade where air is on the outside of the wall instead of earth. During the summer, the temperature gradient helps to cool the house.
The reduction of air infiltration within an earth shelter can be highly profitable. Because three walls of the structure are mainly surrounded by earth, very little surface area is exposed to the outside air. This alleviates the problem of warm air escaping the house through gaps around windows and door. Furthermore, the earth walls protect against cold winter winds which might otherwise penetrate these gaps. However, this can also become a potential indoor air quality problem. Healthy air circulation is key.
As a result of the increased thermal mass of the structure, the thermal lag of the earth, the protection against unwanted air infiltration and the combined use of passive solar techniques, the need for extra heating and cooling is minimal. Therefore, there is a drastic reduction in energy consumption required for the home compared to homes of typical construction.
Earth shelters also provide privacy from neighbours, as well as soundproofing. The ground provides acoustic protection against outside noise. This can be a major benefit in urban areas or near highways. In urban areas, another benefit of underground sheltering is the efficient use of land. Many houses can sit below grade without spoiling the habitat above ground. Each site can contain both a house and a lawn/garden.
Problems of water seepage, internal condensation, bad acoustics, and poor indoor air quality can occur if an earth shelter has not been properly designed.
Condensation and poor quality indoor air problems can be solved by using earthtubes. This website suggests a way to use the temperature of the earth to cool aboveground houses, but with modification, the idea of earthtubes can be used for underground buildings. Instead of looping the earththubes, leave one end open downslope to draw in fresh air using the chimney effect by having exhaust vents placed high in the underground building.
Issues also include the sustainability of building materials. Earth sheltering often requires heavier construction than conventional building techniques, and many construction companies have limited or no experience with earth sheltered construction, potentially compromising the physical construction of even the best designs.
The threat of water seepage occurs around areas where the waterproofing layers have been penetrated. Vents and ducts emerging from the roof can cause specific problems due to the possibility of movement. Precast concrete slabs can have a deflection of 1/2 inch or more when the earth/soil is layered on top of it. If the vents or ducts are held rigidly in place during this deflection, the result is usually the failure of the waterproofing layer. To avoid this difficulty, vents can be placed on other sides of the building (besides the roof), or separate segments of pipes can be installed. A narrower pipe in the roof that fits snugly into a larger segment within the building can also be used. The threat of water seepage, condensation, and poor indoor air quality can all be overcome with proper waterproofing and ventilation.
The building materials for earth sheltered construction tend to be of non-biodegradable substances. Because the materials must keep water out, they are often made of plastics. Concrete is another material that is used in great quantity. More sustainable products are being tested to replace the cement within concrete (such as fly ash), as well as alternatives to reinforced concrete (see more under Materials: Structural). The excavation of a site is also drastically time- and labor-consuming. Overall, the construction is comparable to conventional construction, because the building requires minimal finishing and significantly less maintenance.
Landscape and site planning
The site planning for an earth sheltered building is an integral part of the overall design; investigating the landscape of a potential building site is crucial. There are many factors to assess when surveying a site for underground construction. The topography, regional climate, vegetation, water table and soil type of varying landscapes all play dynamic roles in the design and application of earth shelters.
On land that is relatively flat, a fully recessed house with an open courtyard is the most appropriate design. On a sloping site, the house is set right into the hill. The slope will determine the location of the window wall; a south facing exposed wall is the most practical in the Northern hemisphere (and north facing in the southern hemisphere) due to solar benefits.
Depending on the region and site selected for earth sheltered construction, the benefits and objectives of the earth shelter construction vary. For cool and temperate climates, objectives consist of retaining winter heat, avoiding infiltration, receiving winter sun, using thermal mass, shading and ventilating during the summer, and avoiding winter winds and cold pockets. For hot, arid climates objectives include maximizing humidity, providing summer shade, maximizing summer air movement, and retaining winter heat. For hot, humid climates objective include avoiding summer humidity, providing summer ventilation, and retaining winter heat.
Regions with extreme daily and seasonal temperatures emphasize the value of earth as a thermal mass. In this way, earth sheltering is most effective in regions with high cooling and heating needs, and high temperature differentials. In regions such as the south eastern United States, earth sheltering may need additional care in maintenance and construction due to condensation problems in regards to the high humidity. The ground temperature of the region may be too high to permit earth cooling if temperatures fluctuate only slightly from day to night. Preferably, there should be adequate winter solar radiation, and sufficient means for natural ventilation. Wind is a critical aspect to evaluate during site planning, for reasons regarding wind chill and heat loss, as well as ventilation of the shelter. In the Northern Hemisphere, south facing slopes tend to avoid cold winter winds typically blown in from the north. Fully recessed shelters also offer adequate protection against these harsh winds. However, atriums within the structure have the ability to cause minor turbulence depending on the size. In the summer, it is helpful to take advantage of the prevailing winds. Because of the limited window arrangement in most earth shelters, and the resistance to air infiltration, the air within a structure can become stagnant if proper ventilation is not provided. By making use of the wind, natural ventilation can occur without the use of fans or other active systems. Knowing the direction, and intensity, of seasonal winds is vital in promoting cross ventilation. Vents are commonly placed in the roof of bermed or fully recessed shelters to achieve this effect.
The plant cover of the landscape is another important factor. Adding plants can be both positive and negative. Nearby trees may be valuable in wet climates because their roots remove water. However a prospective builder should know what types of trees are in the area and how large and rapidly they tend to grow, due to possible solar-potential compromise with their growth. Vegetation can provide a windbreak for houses exposed to winter winds. The growth of small vegetation, especially those with deep roots, also helps in the prevention of erosion, on the house and in the surrounding site.
Soil and drainage
The soil type is one of the most essential factors during site planning. The soil needs to provide adequate bearing capacity and drainage, and help to retain heat. With respects to drainage, the most suitable type of soil for earth sheltering is a mixture of sand and gravel. Well graded gravels have a large bearing capacity (about 8,000 pounds per square foot), excellent drainage and a low frost heave potential. Sand and clay, however, do not compact well and can be susceptible to erosion as a result. Clay soils, while least susceptible to erosion, often do not allow for proper drainage, and have a higher potential for frost heaves. Clay soils are more susceptible to thermal shrinking and expanding. Being aware of the moisture content of the soil and the fluctuation of that content throughout the year will help prevent potential heating problems. Frost heaves can also be problematic in some soil. Fine grain soils retain moisture the best and are most susceptible to heaving. A few ways to protect against capillary action responsible for frost heaves are placing foundations below the freezing zone or insulating ground surface around shallow footings, replacement of frost sensitive soils with granular material, and interrupting capillary draw of moisture by putting a drainage layer of coarser material in the existing soil.
Water can cause potential damage to earth shelters if it ponds around the shelter. Avoiding sites with a high water table is crucial. Drainage, both surface and subsurface, must be properly dealt with. Waterproofing applied to the building is essential.
Atrium designs have an increased risk of flooding, so the surrounding land should slope away from the structure on all sides. A drain pipe at the perimeter of the roof edge can help collect and remove additional water. For bermed homes, an interceptor drain at the crest of the berm along the edge of the roof top is recommended. An interceptor drainage swale in the middle of the berm is also helpful or the back of the berm can be terraced with retaining walls. On sloping sites runoff may cause problems. A drainage swale or gully can be build to divert water around the house, or a gravel filled trench with a drain tile can be installed along with footing drains.
Soil stability should also be considered, especially when evaluating a sloping site. These slopes may be inherently stable when left alone, but cutting into them can greatly compromise their structural stability. Retaining walls and backfills may have to be constructed to hold up the slope prior to shelter construction.
In earth sheltered construction there is often extensive excavation done on the building site. An excavation several feet larger than the walls' planned perimeter is made to allow for access to the outside of the wall for waterproofing and insulation. Once the site is prepared and the utility lines installed, a foundation of reinforced concrete is poured. The walls are then installed. Usually they are either poured in place or formed either on or off site and then moved into place. Reinforced concrete is the most common choice. The process is repeated for the roof structure. If the walls, floor and roof are all to be poured in place, it is possible to make them with a single pour. This can reduce the likelihood of there being cracks or leaks at the joints where the concrete has cured at different times.
On the outside of the concrete a waterproofing system is applied. The most frequently used waterproofing system includes a layer of liquid asphalt onto which a heavy grade waterproof membrane is affixed, followed by a final liquid water sealant which may be sprayed on. It is very important to make sure that all of the seams are carefully sealed. It is very difficult to locate and repair leaks in the waterproofing system after the building is completed.
One or more layers of insulation board or foam are added on the outside of the waterproofing. If the insulation chosen is porous a top layer of waterproofing is added. After everything is complete, earth is backfilled into the remaining space at the exterior of the wall and sometimes over the roof to accommodate a green roof. Any exposed walls and the interior are finished according to the owners' preferences.
Reinforced concrete is the most commonly used structural material in earth shelter construction. It is strong and readily available. Untreated wood rots within five years of use in earth shelter construction, and treated wood has arsenic in it. If there were a fire in the structure, the fumes of the arsenic would kill occupants before any other factor would, making it a less than optimum choice. Steel can be used, but needs to be encased by concrete to keep it from direct contact with the soil which corrodes the metal. Bricks and CMUs (concrete masonry units) are also possible options in earth shelter construction but must be reinforced to keep them from shifting under vertical pressure unless the building is constructed with arches and vaults.
Unfortunately, reinforced concrete is not the most environmentally sustainable material. The concrete industry is working to develop products that are more earth-friendly in response to consumer demands. Products like Grancrete and Hycrete are becoming more readily available. They claim to be environmentally friendly and either reduce or eliminate the need for additional waterproofing. However, these are new products and have not been extensively used in earth shelter construction yet.
Several layers are used for waterproofing in earth shelter construction. The first layer is meant to seal any cracks or pores in the structural materials, also working as an adhesive for the waterproof membrane. The membrane layer is often a thick flexible polyethylene sheeting called EPDM. EPDM is the material usually used in water garden, pond and swimming pool construction. This material also prevents roots from burrowing through the waterproofing. EPDM is very heavy to work with, and can be chewed through by some common insects like fire ants. It is also made from petrochemicals, making it less than perfect environmentally.
There are various cementitious coatings that can be used as waterproofing. The product is sprayed directly onto the unprotected surface. It dries and acts like a huge ceramic layer between the wall and earth. The challenge with this method is, if the wall or foundation shifts in any way, it cracks and water is able to penetrate through it easily.
Bituthene (Registered name) is very similar to the three coat layering process only in one step. It comes already layered in sheets and has a self adhesive backing. The challenge with this is the same as with the manual layering method, in addition it is sun sensitive and must be covered very soon after application.
Eco-Flex is an environmentally friendly waterproofing membrane that seems to work very well on foundations, but not much is known about its effectiveness in earth sheltering. It is among a group of liquid paint-on waterproofing products. The main challenges with these are they must be carefully applied, making sure that every area is covered to the right thickness, and that every crack or gap is tightly sealed.
Bentonite clay is the alternative that is closest to optimum on the environmental scale. It is naturally occurring and self-healing. The drawback to this system is that it is very heavy and difficult for the owner/builder to install.
Unlike conventional building, earth shelters require the insulation on the exterior of the building rather than inside the wall. One reason for this is that it provides protection for the waterproof membrane against freeze damage, another is that the earth shelter is able to better retain its desired temperature. There are two types of insulation used in earth shelter construction. The first is close-celled extruded polystyrene sheets. Two to three inches glued to the outside of the waterproofing is generally sufficient. The second type of insulation is a spray on foam. This works very well were the shape of the structure it unconventional, rounded or difficult to get to. Foam insulation requires an additional protective top coat such as foil to help it resist water penetration.
Design for energy conservation
Earth sheltered homes are often constructed with energy conservation and savings in mind. Specific designs of earth shelters allow for maximum savings. For bermed or in-hill construction, a common plan is to place all the living spaces on the south side of the house. This provides maximum solar radiation to bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchen spaces. Rooms that do not require natural daylight and extensive heating such as the bathroom, storage and utility room are typically located on the north (or in hill) side of the shelter. This type of layout can also be transposed to a double level house design with both levels completely underground. This plan has the highest energy efficiency of earth sheltered homes because of the compact configuration as well as the structure being submerged deeper in the earth. This provides it with a greater ratio of earth cover to exposed wall than a one story shelter would.
With an atrium earth shelter the living spaces are concentrated around the atrium. The atrium arrangement provides a much less compact plan than that of the one or two story bermed/inhill design; therefore it is commonly less energy efficient, in terms of heating needs. This is one of the reasons why atrium designs are classically applied to warmer climates. However, the atrium does tend to trap air within it which is then heated by the sun and helps reduce heat loss.
Earth sheltering with solar heating
Earth sheltering is often combined with solar heating systems. Most commonly, the utilization of passive solar design techniques is used in earth shelters. A south facing structure with the north, east, and west sides covered with earth, is the most effective application for passive solar systems. A large double glazed window, spanning most of the length of the south wall is critical for solar heat gain. It is helpful to accompany the window with insulated drapes to protect against heat loss at night. Also, during the summer months, providing an overhang, or some sort of shading device, is useful to block out excess solar gain. Combining solar heating with earth sheltering is referred to as "Annualized Geo-Solar Design", "Passive annual heat storage", or sometimes as an "Umbrella house." (See Nick Pine's posting on usenet alt.homepower and alt.solar.thermal groups about this type of house.) In the umbrella house, Polystyrene insulation extends around 23 feet radius from underground walls. A plastic film covers the insulation (for waterproofing), and soil is layer on top. The materials slop downward, like an umbrella. It sheds excess water while keeping the soil temperature warm and dry.
Active solar systems are beneficial as well, such as solar collector with fan or convection to pull constant 74 degree Fahrenheit temperature air into Earth cooling tubes and then into the house living space. This also provides fresh air to occupants and the air exchange required by ASHRAE.
Earth shelter construction: history and examples
Historically, earth berming was a common building practice that combined heavy timber framing and rough stone work with stacking thick layers of sod or peat against the walls and on the roof. This served as excellent protection from the elements. In a relatively short period of time the earth layers grow together leaving the structure with an appearance of a hill with a door.
In these early structures, the heavy timber framing acted as structural support and added comfort and warmth to the interior. Rough stone was often stacked along the outer walls with a simple lime mortar for structural support and often serves as an exterior facing wall and foundation. There is a greater use of stone work in earth shelter structures in areas where timber is scarce. These are the most sustainable of the earth shelters as far as materials go because they are able to decompose and return to earth. This is why there are few remaining example like Hvalsey Church in Greenland where only the stacked stones remain. One of the oldest examples of berming, dating back some 5,000 years, can be found at Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands off northern Scotland.
Today’s bermed earth structures are built quite differently from those of the past. Common construction employs large amounts of steel reinforced concrete acting as structural support and building shell. Bulldozers or bobcats are used to pile earth around the building and on the roof instead of stacking earth in place.
One historical example of in-hill earth shelters would be Mesa Verde, in the southwest United States. These building are constructed directly onto the ledges and caves on the face of the cliffs. The front wall is built up with local stone and earth to enclose the structure. Similarly today, in-hill earth shelter construction utilizes the natural formation of a hillside for two to three of the exterior walls and sometimes the roof of a structure. Alternative builders craft a type of in-hill structure known as an Earthship. In Earthship construction, tires rammed with earth are used as structural materials for three of the walls and generally have a front façade of windows to capture passive solar energy.
The most famous and probably the largest earth-sheltered home is the residence of Bill Gates, who had it built over a period of several years on a heavily-wooded site on the shore of Lake Washington. It is an excellent example of the lack of obtrusiveness of this kind of home, since it appears much smaller than it actually is, when seen from the lake.
Though underground construction is relatively uncommon in the US, successful examples can be found in Australia where the ground is so hard that there is little to no need for structural supports and a pick ax and shovel are the tools of the builder/remodeler.
In the early 1970’s, China undertook the construction of DiXiaCheng, a city underneath Beijing. It was primarily a complex of bomb shelters that could house 40% of the population at that time. It was a response to the fear of Soviet attack. Parts of it are now used in more commercial ventures.
U.S. Department of Energy - Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
A Consumer's Guide to Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
Site-Specific Factors for Earth-Sheltered Home Design
Before deciding to design and build an earth-sheltered house, you need to consider the building site's climate, topography, soil, and groundwater level.
Climate and Topography
The climate in your geographical area will determine whether an earth-sheltered house can be a practical housing solution. Studies show that earth-sheltered houses are more cost-effective in climates that have significant temperature extremes and low humidity, such as the Rocky Mountains and northern Great Plains. Earth temperatures vary much less than air temperatures in these areas, which means the earth can absorb extra heat from the house in hot weather or insulate the house to maintain warmth in cold weather.
The site's topography and microclimate determine how easily the building can be surrounded with earth. A modest slope requires more excavation than a steep one, and a flat site is the most demanding, needing extensive excavation. A south-facing slope in a region with moderate to long winters is ideal for an earth-sheltered building. South-facing windows can let in sunlight for direct heating, while the rest of the house is set back into the slope.
In regions with mild winters and predominantly hot summers, a north-facing slope might be ideal. Every site differs, but generally southern exposures offer more sun and daylight throughout the year than north-facing slopes. Most designs can be built to take advantage of each site.
The type of soil at your site is another critical consideration. Some types of soil are more suitable than others for earth-sheltered construction. For example, the best soils are granular, such as sand and gravel. These soils compact well for bearing the weight of the construction materials and are very permeable, which means they allow water to drain quickly. The poorest soils are cohesive, like clay, which may expand when wet and has poor permeability. Soil tests, offered through professional testing services, can determine load-bearing capability of soils and possible settlements that may occur.
Radon is an invisible and odorless radioactive gas produced naturally when uranium in rock decomposes. It is found in the soil and in outdoor air in harmless amounts, but can reach dangerous levels when trapped. Radon levels are another factor to consider in locating your home. Areas with high concentrations of radon can be hazardous, although there are methods that can reduce radon buildup in both conventional and earth-sheltered dwellings.
The groundwater level at your building site is another important consideration. Building above the water table is almost essential. Choosing a site where the water will naturally drain away from the building is the best way to avoid water pressure against underground walls. The site should be surveyed for low spots and areas where water will collect. Seasonal or regular surface water flows should be channeled away from the structure. Drainage systems must be designed to draw water away from the structure to reduce the frequency and length of time the water remains in contact with the building's exterior. Underground footing drains similar to or greater than those required by a house with a basement are necessary in many cases.
Designing Bermed Earth-Sheltered Homes
A bermed earth-sheltered house may be built above grade or partially below grade, with outside earth surrounding one or more walls. Such a structure can accommodate more conventional earth-sheltered house designs, such as elevational and penetrational.
Elevational plans expose one whole face of the house and cover the other sides—and perhaps the roof—with earth. The covered sides protect and insulate the house. The exposed front of the house, usually facing south, allows the sun to light and heat the interior. The floor plan is arranged so common areas and bedrooms share light and heat from the southern exposure.
This type of house may be placed at varying depths below ground level and is usually set into the side of a hill. The view provided will be one of landscape, rather than open sky, as in the atrium design. A structure designed in this way can be the least expensive and simplest to build of all earth-sheltered structures.
The elevational design may have limited internal air circulation and reduced daylight in the northern portions of the house, though there are ways to alleviate these problems by using skylights. The wide design of the house can be offset by close attention to architectural details, landscaping, and exterior materials.
In a penetrational design, earth covers the entire house, except where it is retained for windows and doors. The house is usually built at ground level, and earth is built up (or bermed) around and on top of it. This design allows cross-ventilation opportunities and access to natural light from more than one side of the house.
Designing Underground Earth-Sheltered Homes
When an entire earth-sheltered house is built below grade or completely underground, it's called an underground structure. The atrium or courtyard design can accommodate an underground, earth-sheltered house.
Atrium or Courtyard Design
An earth-covered dwelling may have as little as 6–8 inches (0.2 meters) of sod or as much as 9 feet (2.7 meters) of earth covering the structure. An atrium design offers an open feeling because it has four walls that give exposure to daylight. This design uses a subgrade open area as the entry and focal point of the house.
The house is built completely below ground on a flat site, and the major living spaces surround a central outdoor courtyard. The windows and glass doors that are on the exposed walls facing the atrium provide light, solar heat, outside views, and access via a stairway from the ground level. Atrium/courtyard homes are usually covered with less than 3 feet (0.9 meters) of earth primarily because greater depths do not improve energy efficiency. This style also offers the potential for natural ventilation.
The atrium design is hardly visible from ground level and barely interrupts the landscape. It also provides good protection from winter winds and offers a private outdoor space. This design is ideal for an area without scenic exterior views, in dense developments, and on sites in noisy areas. Passive solar gain—heat obtained through windows—might be more limited, due to the window position in an atrium plan. Courtyard drainage and snow removal are important items to consider in design.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Earth-Sheltered Homes
As with any home design, earth-sheltered houses have their advantages and disadvantages.
There are many advantages to earth-sheltered construction. An earth-sheltered home is less susceptible to the impact of extreme outdoor air temperatures, so you won't feel the effects of adverse weather as much as in a conventional house. Temperatures inside the house are more stable than in conventional homes. And with less temperature variability, interior rooms seem more comfortable.
Because earth covers part or all of their exterior, earth-sheltered houses require less outside maintenance, such as painting and cleaning gutters. Constructing a house that is dug into the earth or surrounded by earth builds in some natural soundproofing. Plans for most earth-sheltered houses "blend" the building into the landscape more harmoniously than a conventional home.
Finally, earth-sheltered houses can cost less to insure because their design offers extra protection against high winds, hailstorms, and natural disasters such as tornados and hurricanes.
As with any type of unusual construction, there are some disadvantages associated with earth-sheltered housing. Principal downsides are the initial cost of construction, which may be up to 20% higher. Also, an increased level of care is required to avoid moisture problems, during both the construction and the life of the house.
It can take more diligence to resell an earth-sheltered home, and buyers may have a few more hurdles to clear in the mortgage application process.
Construction Materials and Considerations for Earth-Sheltered Homes
Before designing an earth-sheltered house, you should consider what's involved in its construction, including your construction material options.
The construction materials for each type of structure will vary, depending on characteristics of the site and the type of design. However, general guidelines show that houses more deeply buried require stronger, more durable construction materials.
Materials must provide a good surface for waterproofing and insulation to withstand the pressure and moisture of the surrounding ground. When soil is wet or frozen, the pressure on the walls and floors increases. Pressure also increases with depth, so materials such as concrete and reinforced masonry, wood, and steel are all suitable.
Concrete is the most common choice for constructing earth-sheltered buildings. Not only is it strong, it is also durable and fire resistant. Several forms of concrete are used. Lightly reinforced concrete, which is poured and reinforced at the site, is used for noncritical structural elements such as concrete foundations, floor slabs, and exterior walls with less than 6 feet (1.83 meters) of earth cover. Precast reinforced concrete can resist loads at any reasonable depth and can be used for floors, walls, and roofs. Concrete absorbs and stores heat, helping to prevent temperature swings that can damage some building material.
Precast concrete components are cured at a plant or on-site location before they are used, thereby decreasing construction time and cost in comparison to cast-in-place forms. The uses and advantages of precast and cast-in-place concrete are similar, except that precast concrete works best in simple or repeatable shapes. Special care must be taken to make the joints between sections watertight.
Concrete can also provide supplemental strength in other types of earthen construction. For example, a concrete topping can be added to wooden roof planks, and cement "parging" (or coating) can be added to walls with masonry construction before waterproofing.
Masonry (i.e., brick or stone) can be used for walls that will receive vertical or lateral pressure from earth cover. It is reinforced with steel bars that are put in the core of the masonry in places of high stress, such as weight-bearing walls or walls with earth against them. Masonry generally costs less than cast-in-place concrete.
Wood can be used extensively in earth-sheltered construction for both interior and structural work including floors, roofs, and exterior walls. Wood is attractive for its color and warmth, and complements tile and masonry, as well as concrete walls, floors, and ceilings. However, using wood as a structural material requires wooden frame walls, which must withstand lateral pressure and be restricted to a burial depth of one story. Beyond this depth, the rapidly increasing cost of wood construction restricts most builders from using it as a structural material.
Although wood can cost less than other materials, it does not offer the strength that a material such as steel does, so it may not be the best choice for structural material in some houses. Wood must also be treated with preservatives to prevent damage from moisture. If your structure can make practical use of wood as a framing material, employing carpenters who can rapidly construct a timber frame for an earth-sheltered house can decrease labor costs.
Steel is used for beams, bar joists, columns, and concrete reinforcement. It is particularly useful because of its high tensional and compressional strength. The primary disadvantage of steel is that it must be protected against corrosion if it is exposed to the elements or to groundwater. It is also expensive, so it must be used efficiently to be economical as a structural material.
Alternative Construction Materials
A form of earth-sheltered house that has been receiving much attention is referred to as an Earthship. These houses are built to be self-contained and independent; their design allows occupants to grow food inside and to maintain their own water and solar electrical systems. Some builders believe they have proven the design's ability to tap into the constant temperature of the earth and store additional energy from the sun in winter, although a back-up system, usually electric, may be recommended.
These Earthships carry out their environmentally conscious theme by employing unusual building materials in the form of recycled automobile tires filled with compacted earth for thermal mass and structure. Aluminum or tin cans are also used for filling minor walls that are not load-bearing. Foam insulation can be applied to exposed exterior or interior walls and covered with stucco. Interior walls can also be drywalled for a more conventional look.
Other Construction Considerations
Waterproofing can be a challenge in earth-sheltered construction. Keep in mind these three ways to reduce the risk of water damage in your house: choose the site carefully, plan the drainage both at and below the surface of the house, and waterproof your house.
There are several waterproofing systems currently in use, including rubberized asphalt, plastic and vulcanized sheets, liquid polyurethanes, and bentonite. Each has its advantages and the one you choose will depend on your site and house plan.
1) Rubberized asphalt combines a small amount of synthetic rubber with asphalt and is coated with a polyethylene layer to form sheets. It can be applied directly to walls and roofs and has a long life expectancy.
2) Plastic and vulcanized sheets are among the most common types of underground waterproofing. Plastic sheets include high-density polyethylene, chlorinated polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, and chlorosulfonated polyethylene. Suitable vulcanized membranes or synthetic rubbers include isobutylene isoprene, ethylene propylene diene monomer, polychloroprene (neoprene), and polyisobutylene. For all these materials, the seams must be sealed properly, or the membranes will leak.
3) Liquid polyurethanes are often used in places where it is awkward to apply a membrane. Polyurethanes are sometimes used as a coating over insulation on underground structures; however, weather conditions must be dry and relatively warm during their application.
4) Bentonite is a natural clay formed into panels or applied as a liquid spray. The panels are simply nailed to walls; the spray is mixed with a binding agent and applied to underground walls. When the bentonite comes in contact with moisture, it expands and seals out the moisture.
Humidity levels may increase in earth-sheltered houses during the summer, which can cause condensation on the interior walls. Installing insulation on the outside of the walls will prevent the walls from cooling down to earth temperature; however, it also reduces the summer cooling effect of the walls, which may be viewed as an advantage in hot temperatures. Mechanical air conditioning or a dehumidifier is often necessary to solve the humidity issue. Proper ventilation of closets and other closed spaces should keep the humidity from becoming a problem in those areas. See our section on moisture control for more information.
Although insulation in an underground building does not need to be as thick as that in a conventional house, it is necessary to make an earthen house comfortable. Insulation is usually placed on the exterior of the house after applying the waterproofing material, so the heat generated, collected, and absorbed within the earth-sheltered envelope is retained inside the building's interior. If insulating outside the wall, a protective layer of board should be added to keep the insulation from contacting the earth. Depending on the type of structure—wood, masonry, concrete, or steel—insulation may instead be placed inside the walls before the waterproofing material is applied. See our section on insulation for more information.
Air Exchange/Air Quality
Adequate ventilation must be carefully planned when building an earth-sheltered dwelling. Generally, well-planned, natural ventilation or ventilation by exhaust fans can dissipate ordinary odors. Any combustion appliances that are installed should be "sealed combustion units," which have their own, direct source of outside air for combustion, and the combustion gases are directly vented to the outside. In addition, indoor pollutants emitted by formaldehyde foam insulation, plywood, and some fabrics can accumulate and become an irritant if ventilation is not properly planned. See our section on ventilation for more information.