Concept, the birth of necessity
This site is the ongoing story of our house design and construction project.
(New updates are posted to the bottom of The Plan page, for those of you following updates and changes. A link for the scale model (new) and a link for the brow design (new) have been added to the menu.)
As our building process advances, it will be a documentary on our progress. For now, it's just information on how we came to make the decisions and choices we did.
As well as an introduction to who we are, it's the journey we traveled.
It's interesting how an idea or bit of information can lead to research on another idea, whose research leads to another idea, which leads to . . . well, you get the idea.
So here's our story.
We used to live in the rural community of a little Washington town. The start of construction on an ampitheater near our home encouraged us to stretch our wings and fly away . . . so we did.
We sold our house in Enumclaw (I did tell you it was a tiny little town) and purchased semi-improved land in Lewis County in the rural community of an even tinier little Washington town, Onalaska.
The land we purchased is twelve acres of wonderful south-ish facing hillside backed up to 40 square miles of commercial forest. The property was originally a homestead on the Alaska Hiway (now a logging road) and had been broken into five six acre lots with power and water on adjacent lots. Since we needed both power and water to live on the property, we bought both lots. Though it pushed our budget a bit more than we wanted (still only half what we were paying in mortgage at our original place), we're very glad we made the double purchase. The property is fairly isolated and has a hand dug well and (originally) overhead power.
So, with Airstream in tow, we moved onto our new property and, as time passed, proceded to construct horse shelters and outbuildings. What we couldn't seem to do was decide what to do about a house.
We need a house we can live in comfortably without increasing our debt level. The house also has to be saleable when we were ready to move on, so anything too avant-gard wasn't going to work. We toyed with different approaches but nothing seemed to click. It was either labor intensive on our part (that is SO not happening) or it was expensive. In the interim, we had the lots combined and installed a 4 bedroom septic system.
With this property, we have to operate inside a covenant which states mobile homes must be no more than three years old (I didn't want to live in another one regardless, so appreciated the excuse it gave me to say "no"), and whatever we constructed had to be livable within six months of obtaining the building permit.
You can see where careful planning is vital; no more debt, livable in six months, not labor intensive for either Terry or myself, saleable, suited to the site. We weren't asking much . . . *LOL*
With my architectural software, I designed houses, picturing them on the property in different places and in different styles. No matter what I created, they were too small or cost beyond what we were willing to sacrifice to establish a permanent dwelling, and life in the Airstream was getting old . . . VERY old. October 2003 will be our five year anniversary in the Airstream. Yuk.
In my internet travels I came across a reference for a quonset hut which had been buried and insulated and was now an economically thrifty, cozy and comfortable home for a family in Montana. Wow! How exciting! This expanded my horizons enormously and lead me to researching earthsheltering and the technology and techniques for same, which lead me to research sites on earthships which lead me to . . . but I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's back up a bit.
So now I had a mission! I needed to figure out how to have an earth sheltered home that would provide us the quality space we craved without increasing our debt load, and without a lot of back breaking labor! (In all fairness, due to wear and tear, neither Spouse nor self are actually capable of great physical effort. Let that be a warning to you . . . beat yourself up when you're young, pay when you're older.) So there HAD to be a way to get what we wanted without costing us a fortune in materials and labor. Bring on the research!
I found a steel building company having a sale of purchased but undelivered buildings which were really affordable! The possibilities! Unfortunately, to make a fairly long story really short, that steel building company couldn't/wouldn't provide the engineering necessary to bury one of their quonset huts, nor would they warranty the building if it was buried. . . . . *sigh* . . . . back to the drawing board. (Did you know tiny little quonset hut styled buildings were sold during the Second World War as family sized buriable bomb shelters? They were called Anderson Shelters!) Since then I've learned there is a company who will provide the engineering. Cost wise, it is a wash with what we're planning, but I think we'll have a better structure when we're done.
I researched earthships, domes, concrete, ferro cement, adobe, brick, concrete block, insulated concrete panels, combinations of earthshelterable materials, anything I could find regarding cost effective construction that could be earthsheltered. (I will have to say, dry stacked concrete block construction has a lot going for it for method/result!) I literally spent hours on the computer doing research. I bought books to read. Occasionally I'd stray away, but regardless of what I looked at, I kept coming back to earthsheltered. The benefits were SO appealing, and our home site was SO absolutely perfect for an earthsheltered home!
I was still fascinated with the quonset hut. Not the quonset hut itself, the half-pipe shape! An arch in compression would require no interior support, allowing great freedom in interior construction. An earth sheltered half-pipe running north/south through the ridge overlooking the creek would be perfect! The southern exposure could be used for solar gain, the north end ideal for a private summer patio off the ground floor master bedroom suite overlooking the creek! I could even glass in an all season spa off the master bedroom someday! I could just picture it! It would be perfect! The house would be tall enough to be two story, provide a huge amount of storage upstairs and private spaces for both Spouse and self! It could also be remodelled to have two or three more bedrooms for saleability, which the septic system was already designed to handle! I positively drooled over the very idea!
Finally a house I could picture living in on our site! But how to make it happen cost effectively? That, indeed, was the key.
By this time, I'd amassed a bookmarks list in excess of 70 sites with information on earthsheltered construction and construction techniques, solar information, both passive and active, dome construction, concrete (formed and block) home construction, cordwood home construction, radiant heat, hypocaust flooring, . . . the information just kept coming (which is why information here keeps changing).
I looked at the Monolitic Dome, Inc. site and found it interesting, but not exactly what I was after. Selling Spouse on earthsheltered was going to be hard enough without selling him on a less than conventional shape as well.
I looked at the Terra-Dome stuff, but it wasn't a perfect fit for the site or for what we were after. It was also twice as much as I was willing to spend.
I looked at the product and services provided by the brothers in Colorado, and they had what I wanted . . . pretty much! Unfortunately, the quote for the fairly simple building I wanted put the plan $10,000 beyond what I was willing to budget for the task, though it was still an economical solution if I wanted half the living space I needed. The inside of the structure also had a heavily spined appearance I didn't find particularly appealing.
At this point, I felt I was taking more backward steps than forward! And yet, knowledge is power and, a plan was slowly developing . . .
Through one of my bookmarks I found a builder local to my area who was experienced in dome construction and earth sheltered design. With the wonderful technology and techniques presented by Monolithic Dome, Inc., could I do a monolithic type barrel vault using an airform? I knew what I wanted for our budget and our site, I just wasn't sure if we could pull it off! So I called the builder and he generously listened, looked at the site, shared ideas with me and we hit on a possible plan, not knowing if it was something that could be done.
After the builder drove off, I contacted Monolithic Dome, Inc. in Texas and told them what I was trying to do (construct a monolithic barrel vault penetration style earthsheltered home). After a number of emails back and forth with various proposals, ideas and sketches, David B. South said yes, though it hadn't been done in the past, what I was proposing could be done! I was, and am, ecstatic! Picture me grinning from ear to ear!
Since this initial planning we've changed our design just a bit, using a 47' oblate ellipse on 6' stemwalls, but our intention is the same, an earth sheltered annualized geo-solar monolithic barrel vault. We have a builder, an engineer, a person to do the working drawings, we're building our own airform, and we have a solar architect ready and willing to work on this project! Whether we can pull it off technically is the question.
I'd better tell you a little bit about who we are, so our decisions make a little sense . . . About Us.
Enjoy our saga!