12th December 2011
By Merle J. Alix
Here in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we start getting snow in mid-November, though it doesn’t usually amount to much more than an inch at any given time until early December. Then it has the look of permanent snow (the kind you deal with until March), and the cold settles in for the season. Thanks to living in an underground house, we don’t turn on our heater until that cold has fully arrived.
My wife, Anne, and I live with our daughter, Samantha (we call her Sam), in a 1,300-square-foot earthen home, also known as an underground house. The late date for firing up the furnace isn’t unusual for us. Early December isn’t even the latest we’ve turned on the furnace during the past decade. One year we waited until Dec. 24, and we only turned it on because we had the entire family coming for Christmas. It’s not that we enjoy shivering. Because our home is insulated by the earth around it, we simply don’t need regular heat until much later than most folks — even in the harsh, cold climate of the Upper Penninsula.
We moved to the Yoop (as most locals call it), more than a decade ago, and took a chance on an underground home. Though we had never been in an underground house before and were only familiar with them through MOTHER EARTH NEWS, it felt like the right thing to do.
If it weren’t underground, our home would be described as a ranch-style house. Picture a ranch home with three bedrooms and a sunken living room (we enjoy the fun of having a sunken living room in a sunken house) along the south wall, all with large bay windows to soak up passive solar heat. The kitchen, dining, bath and extra rooms lie along the back wall, and a woodburning stove sits in the middle of it all. That’s our house — with three sides below ground.
The house is made of concrete, glass and stone, and has wood siding and trim along the south face — on the few parts that stick out from ground level. As a result, it’s extremely well-insulated and is protected from the worst winter winds, which means it heats up nicely during the day with average sunlight, and holds heat extremely well overnight. We’ll throw a few logs in the woodstove when we get home from work and keep it going until we go to bed, just to brace the place against winter nights. That routine keeps us warm well into early December.
Even then, it doesn’t take a lot of wood. We usually burn only five or six pieces a night; any more than that and the house gets uncomfortably hot. We’ve never burned a full cord of wood in any winter. And when we finally do need to turn on the heater, we use a traditional, high-efficiency electric furnace with a programmable thermostat. We can’t use gas heat underground because there isn’t enough ventilation for safe operation, but we’re happy with electric heat. Our electricity is renewable and, in this application, inexpensive. It’s supplied by hydropower from the nearby Menominee River, instead of from a coal source. We’ve not paid much more than $150 for a month’s heat, and that was during one especially frosty January when the mercury dipped below zero degrees and stayed there for several days. In case you’re doing the math, yes, that means we heat our three-bedroom, underground ranch that sits about five miles from Lake Michigan for about $500 a year. Better yet, it’s heated solely with a renewable resource. Not bad. Not bad at all.
The History of Our Underground House
We didn’t build our home, nor did we buy it from the original builders, but as best as we can piece together its history from neighbors, it’s a story straight from Hollywood.
Sometime shortly after the Summer of Love in 1967, eight young couples decided to leave their big city problems behind and buy an old farmstead, complete with a barn, outbuildings and about 10 acres of land. The plan was to build a back-to-nature commune of sorts and live simple lives with just the basics.
The couples renovated the farmhouse, put in a large garden and set about the task of building a new house to the east of the original—two stories high, complete with eight suites, and with shared kitchen and living areas on both floors. As their families grew, they decided they wanted individual housing and started building earthen homes. They built the first underground house — our home — west of the main house, near the large garden.
I’m not sure what eventually broke up the minicommunity, but after a number of years on the land, the residents divided the three houses and land and sold out, leaving the dream behind for those of us who followed. Today, we’re a group of independent families that share a common water well, and other than that, we’re no different than any other neighbors.
The Downside of Underground Living
It’s not all peaches and cream. The rooms along the north wall are a bit dark during the day, even with the open layout of the house and large southwall windows. We have to use lights in the enclosed rooms along this wall (including in the kitchen and dining room) all day, as there just isn’t enough light in those rooms otherwise.
We also have to run a dehumidifier much of the year. It’s not as critical in winter, as the woodstove and furnace keep moisture levels down, but it’s absolutely crucial in summer. And we can forget opening the windows for a summer breeze. I’m not sure whether it’s a problem with all earthen homes or just those as close to a large inland lake as ours, but leaving the windows open for more than a couple of hours can make the place damp and really stress the dehumidifier.
There’s also the possible problem of claustrophobia. My wife and I have raised three children here and none of us has experienced it, nor have any of our guests, but my mother won’t sleep in the house and sits by the window when she comes to visit.
Advantages of an Earthen Home
There are other benefits to living underground besides just the low heating bills. It’s also the best place in the world to sleep. A tornado could be raging overhead and you wouldn’t know it. There have been plenty of times when we’ve awakened to a power outage and later turned on the television to discover that a wicked thunderstorm had blown through and we simply slept through it.
We don’t need air conditioning, as the same factors that keep us warm in winter keep us cool in summer, which saves us even more money. There’s little in the way of maintenance to the house beyond normal cleaning, as there’s no siding and no roof — other than the grass we mow on top. (That’s me mowing the roof in the photo (see Image Gallery).) This means we’ll never have to caulk windows (other than those along the front), or replace any siding or the roof. Ever. That amounts to a lot of savings over a lifetime — not to mention the amount of fossil fuel saved from not making shingles and siding.
Another benefit is that we aren’t bothered by many unwanted visitors. Our house faces south, and with the road on the north side of the property, passersby don’t even see us. We’re a couple of acres away from the road, and the only thing that shows above the ground is the woodstove chimney and a few ventilation pipes.
We really enjoy the privacy — as well as the increased interaction with animals that results from being so far from any hustle and bustle. One morning not long after moving in, I awoke early and noticed movement in the bay window on my way to the kitchen. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a small black bear, maybe 60 to 80 pounds. It pressed its nose against the glass, wondering whether there was room inside for him as well. We stared at each other for a few minutes before he finally decided to move on, and I enjoyed the moment.
The Challenges of Owning an Underground House
The biggest problem with an earthen house — one of the reasons why I’m telling our story — is the novelty of it all. There simply aren’t many underground homes, at least not in our part of the country. That creates problems that I think contribute to keeping their numbers limited — it’s a Catch-22.
First and foremost, financing an underground house can be a challenge. We struggled mightily to find a bank that would finance our earthen home. At the time we purchased our house, we had to find a bank that would do it “in house,” as it’s called, because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac wouldn’t touch an underground house. I don’t know whether that is still their stance, but it was what we faced at the time, more than 10 years ago. And the difficulty was compounded by the fact that it’s almost impossible to get a true appraisal value (which makes banks even more reluctant to lend), as there simply aren’t enough “comparables” for them to use to come up with a reliable number.
It’s unfortunate. We live in what could be one of the best housing options for reducing our dependence on foreign oil and curbing our carbon footprint at the same time, but banking policies and politics have made it difficult — if not almost impossible — to buy and finance this kind of house. That said, aside from a few stumbling blocks in the beginning, the benefits of living underground far outweigh the few difficulties.
It’s been a little more than 10 years since my wife, kids (our daughter who lives with us now and two sons, Merle and Xander, who have since moved out on their own) and I took a chance on an underground home, and I can tell you that not one of us would change it for the world. It has been — and continues to be — great to live underground.