Lifestyles

Rabbits do it but they never mow the roof

Mark Czarnecki February 25 1980
Lifestyles

Rabbits do it but they never mow the roof

Mark Czarnecki February 25 1980

Rabbits do it but they never mow the roof

Lifestyles

Mark Czarnecki

Take five concrete eggs, slice off the tops and replace them with skylights. Join the eggs together, bury them in the ground, clear away a view at one end and what have you got? Bill and Paula Lishman’s dream home, scheduled to burrow its way into a hilltop near Port Perry, Ontario, this spring and become one of Canada’s first completely underground homes.

From the surface it might look as if the Lishmans have gone “back to the earth” a little too far—whole wheat bread, wood stoves and free-range chickens okay, but actually living in the earth, underground ... ? The negative connotations are overwhelming and almost universal, atavistic remnants of the good old days when a caveman’s cave was his deathly cold, dark, wet castle. This reaction is the greatest barrier to public acceptance faced by the proponents of underground buildings (aka geobuilding, earth-contact housing, earth-sheltered housing or tetratecture). They claim, on the contrary, that with proper insulation and waterproofing a completely underground home is infinitely more comfortable than above-grade housing, mainly because the temperature extremes are not so great: earth has excellent heat-retentive qualities so that, 12 feet down, in Canada’s southernmost regions, the av-

erage monthly temperature only ranges from 47°F in winter to 51°F in summer.

Going completely under is an increasingly common venture in the United States where it is estimated that more than 3,000 homes designed by architects such as Jay Swayze and Malcolm Wells have already been built. However, the trend in earth-sheltered housing is to find a south-facing hill, partially excavate a suitable site and use the fill to cover or “berm” the three non-southfacing sides and perhaps the roof (one of this design’s many advantages is that the owners no longer paint their house, they just mow it). The south face is glassed in to trap as much heat from the winter sun as possible. The heat is then recirculated at night ( a “passive” solar heating system as opposed to “active” solar collector panels).

Toronto architect John Hix, who abandoned earlier experiments with active heating systems as too costly and technologically complicated, has constructed several earth-sheltered homes in the Caledon Hills near Toronto. His use of earth as a heat retainer in these passive systems reflects the more integrated approach to human habitats typical of today’s younger architects. “We’re all victims of what I call ‘the syndrome of the magic black box,’ ” he says. “We’re used to having technology solve all our problems for us. What we

really have to do when planning a house is to look first at the climate, the site and the energy sources available. The engineer and the architect must co-operate from the beginning.”

Hix himself has doubts about going completely underground since he believes an adequately insulated and bermed above-grade house is just as energy-efficient, and the cost of structurally reinforcing an underground home to resist the pressure of the large amounts of earth exerted on its walls is prohibitive. Bill Lishman’s not saying how much his earth palace might cost but he thinks that, with enough startup capital, his multi-pod design could be readily mass-produced. Obtaining a mortgage for the prototype is the problem: banks and loan companies aren’t frantically competing to lend money for one-of-a-kind homes whose resale value is impossible to calculate.

But prosperous land developers and large contracting firms aren’t about to become the white knights of earth-sheltered dwellings—or any kind of energyefficient housing, for that matter. The suburban home owner, not the contractor, pays the heating bills; however, in commercial buildings developers have no incentive to dig in and save energy because fuel costs are part of the rent. “What we need,” says Hix, “is to run out of energy for a month. It’ll take something that drastic—an extended blackout maybe—to make Canadians realize the necessity of saving energy. The United States has already experienced severe fuel shortages and they’re way ahead of us in energy-efficient housing.”

One recent Canadian project will soon be monitored by the National Research Council for energy consumption. Riverheights School in Brandon, Manitoba, one of Canada’s first large earthsheltered public buildings, went into operation last fall. Four modules surround a central resource area illuminated by a large skylight, a design similar to the central courtyard or “atrium” configuration most popular in U.S. underground houses; three of these integrated modules are built into hillsides and are covered with two feet of earth, landscaped so that the school blends in with a surrounding park and children can play on the roof of their school with impunity. The school board is especially pleased with positive student reactions and the reduction in vandalism and maintenance costs resulting from fewer exposed surfaces and windows.

With all these benefits, why aren’t commercial buildings going under too? Big companies would have no difficulty financing initial costs and would find

the buildings profitable because of quick “paybacks” from energy conservation. In fact, some underground architects believe that energy costs, generally quoted as 75 per cent less than for comparable above-grade structures, could be cut in winter to almost nil in large underground buildings if proper insulation were installed. The only heat source would be artificial lighting and body heat which would accumulate as it rose storey by storey, neatly balancing the decreasing soil temperatures closer to the surface. The Lishmans will use the same principle to provide extra heat in cool months for a rooftop vegetable garden.

Some commercial structures have been extended underground, the most obvious examples being the conglomerations around subway stops in Toronto and Montreal and the malls beneath tall office buildings which offer the convenience of climate-controlled shopping. But these are located underground only incidentally, and Canada has yet to construct an equivalent to Subterropolis, 344 acres of industrial park housing 2,000 employees in an abandoned limestone quarry beneath Kansas City, Missouri. The reluctance of business to move underground reflects consumer buying habits, since “going down” holds negative connotations which may be transferred to the goods on sale (“bargain basements,” for example).

Businessmen also have long been aware that natural light prompts more consumer spending than artificial illumination, just a minor example of how important sunlight seems to be to man’s well-being. It is perhaps this characteristic of the primeval cave more than any other—darkness and the fear it spawns—that makes people think twice about underground living. Wrongly so, cry thousands of naturally lit earth dwellers and visionaries like Bill Lishman. He believes the shape of the living

space can exorcise the demons of fear: “It’s the flat, oppressive ceilings, the square box effect with all those dark corners that does it,” he explains. “Illumination from side windows doesn’t completely dispel the darkness but with a rounded ceiling and a large natural light source on top it’s like living under the open sky—every part of the room is evenly lit.”

The security of a warm enclosed space, the exhilarating feeling of blue sky overhead, a beautiful natural setting unsullied by incongruous manmade boxes—what could be more habitable? The question may become academic. The age of mass-produced abovegrade private homes, which was made economically feasible by uncontrolled surburban development and cheap fossil fuels, is all but over. Highrises too have had their day. In the future struggle for energy and living space, the only way to end up on top may be to go down. ;£>