Underground homes are rare, but owners rave

OVIEDO — Down a dirt road and between thickets of trees, Paul Queen lives inside a grassy, man-made hill.

Deer try to stroll across his rooftop.

Gopher tortoises attempt to tunnel into the walls.

But inside, Queen can barely hear the rain — or deer hoofsteps. His home is earth-sheltered, meaning it's not exactly underground but is surrounded and insulated by a massive mound of soil. National builders of the obscure style, which first grew out of hillsides and rural grasslands during the energy crisis decades ago, say that amid concerns about power bills and natural disasters, more people are burrowing into the earth.

Although Queen estimates the building style reduces his cooling bills by 40 percent and says he will probably never have to evacuate for a hurricane, the housing concept remains rare in Florida.

"Until you're really in one, you really don't realize how wonderful they are," Queen, who works in marketing, said of his Oviedo-area home. "The way it's laid out, it has as much light as any house."

Most municipalities contacted in Central Florida couldn't name any earth-sheltered homes in their areas, but besides Queen's, they include a home under construction in DeLeon Springs and a St. Cloud home built in 1986.

Stephanie Thomas-Rees, a research architect with the Florida Solar Energy Center, said the state's sandy soil and high water table make managing moisture difficult in an earth-sheltered home. Others say that without hills, which provide a natural construction site, it's harder to find good locations for such homes here.

But for auto electrician Travis Campbell, the earth-sheltered style was the solution to another problem: frequent worries about evacuating his mobile home.

"Every storm or tornado or fire that came along, we were scared for where we were going to live," he said.

He started building several years ago and hopes to finish the home on his small DeLeon Springs farm by Christmas.

Dale Pearcey, president of Formworks Building Inc. in Colorado, designed Campbell's 4,000-square-foot home and said prices are on par with traditional homes, though heating and cooling bills are reduced.

"If some contractor came up with a bunch of model homes and put them all in one place where the general public would just walk through them, it would change a lot of people's minds in a hurry," he said.

Earth-sheltered homes, he said, have an image problem.

"Most people think it's going to look like a dungeon," said Alice McCorkle, who said her St. Cloud home gets plenty of light through windows on one side. Her husband built the home on the highest point of the property, and its dirt-filled walls regulate temperatures so well that family members come over when power goes out during cold snaps.

In Queen's home, the ceiling of a central atrium climbs more than two stories, and a small octagon of windows inside it rises above the peak of the hill. The atrium gets so much light, Queen grows potted plants on its floor. Three other living spaces surround the atrium like petals. Dirt was packed between them, but some areas were left exposed — so even though the home is buried beneath a grassy hill, all rooms have windows.

Queen said he's never had an issue with moisture or bugs. The home's shell is 10 inches of steel-enforced concrete. A layer of asphalt, then a layer of rubber follow. Finally, several feet of dirt coat the rest.

For the most part, life in an earth-sheltered home isn't too different, Queen says. But there are some quirks. Some of the walls are curved so he can't hang paintings (he opts for easels). Cell phone and wireless Internet signals have trouble penetrating the thick walls. And then there are the wild animals that think it's their home too. "The quirkiness is fun," Queen said. "I like that no one else has one like it."

Underground homes are rare, but owners rave 07/19/10 [Last modified: Monday, July 19, 2010 12:58am]

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