Our Active and Passive Solar Earth-Bermed House
(Necessity IS the mother of invention!)
When I first came to Wyoming in 1989, I established residence in the main house on the ranch. At that time, the house was four years shy of being a century old! Needless to say, it did not have any of the late 20th century improvements; insulation was one of those lacking! It was a nice little house, but very inefficient from an energy standpoint. The furnace was big enough to keep us warm, but the fuel bill really reflected the problems. That house could consume 300 gallons of LPG (propane) every cold month! To save money, we kept it cold and lived by the fireplace insert we installed during the first winter.
Not only was the house cold, but the electricity kept going off! We complained regularly to our utility company but got no results. We reset clocks everyday and had ongoing brown-outs, where the grid would drop from 120VAC to 80VAC for minutes at a time. Those problems cost us computers, motors, you name it... If you like, you may go right to the Alternative Energy Page to see how we overcame those problems with a solar powered uninterruptible power supply (UPS).
This struggle for cheap and reliable comfort eventually led me to design and build a self-sufficient home. I got some various books from the library on passive solar design, earth-berming, and insulation systems. I learned everything I could about alternative energy systems. Remember, this was before I had the internet available! (No google, just libraries.) It became rapidly apparent that building above ground and not taking advantage of Mother Nature and the power she provides would be a foolish mistake, especially in our location!
I sat down at the drafting table in 1994 and broke ground in 1995. From the first line on the clean sheet of paper to the finished home, we did everything ourselves, with the following exceptions:
excavation (we had a backhoe, but not of the correct 'caliber.')
concrete (172 yards in this house! WAY to much for novices!)
stone work (from another location on the ranch, we hauled 27 pick-up loads of moss rock. Two brothers from town actually did the masonry work.)
sheetrock finishing (We hung all of the sheetrock, but found the taping to be a real challenge. Better to pay someone else to do it! It was a treat to sit back and actually watch something get done.)
carpet (we did all of the tile and hardwood - just not the carpet)
All of the electrical design and wiring, plumbing, kitchen, bathrooms, tile (>1000 sf,) alternative energy system, one mile (+) of power cable and phone service - literally everything else - we built. Here's how the interior turned out...
(click thumbnails to enlarge, of course)
Our house is earth-bermed on three sides with full exposure to the South. The bermed concrete walls were built with Diamond Snap-Tie concrete forms - 2" thick EPS which 'sandwiches' an 8" concrete wall. All exterior walls are 6" R-Control panels. R-values are R-20 for the concrete walls and R-36 for the exposed walls. We purchased our forms and panels from Advanced Foam Plastics of Denver, Colorado. Here you can see the EPS forms being assembled...
Once we got the walls and slab poured, we built the rest of the load-bearing walls and then installed the pre-manufactured (and spec'd) trusses. There were 90 32' monos and 4 gables! With the help of some friends, we got them up in a day.
For kicks, here are a couple of "before and after" shots...
We broke ground in April of 1995 and had the house dried in by Christmas of that year. It took another summer to get the exterior done, and two more years to finish up inside. We STILL have some trim missing, but we decided to take a break. I diverted my attention to building a new shop, while my ex-wife Andie decorated the house. Here's the house, May, 2000. In the shot of the rear of the home (right) below, you get an idea of the earth berming, which really makes it all work like a cave...
All those windows in the pictures do a lot more than provide an excellent, 100% natural view. That glass is worth 480,000 BTUs of heat every sunny Winter day. The sun shining in the windows during the Winter months strikes a 12" thick concrete 'mass heat wall' at the back of the solarium. In the Summer, the south eave shades the sun from the solarium. Here's a picture of the eastern part of the solarium...
If your curious about the plants in there, we've grown: bananas, oranges, lemons, limes, and kumquats. My ex-wife Andie really enjoyed this, so in 2001 we also built an attached, earth-bermed greenhouse for indoor hydroponic gardening. Shortly thereafter, she read something about plastic being poison, or carcinogenic, of just full of bad juju, I don't know what for sure. She refused to use the greenhouse any longer, after eating what she called "the best tasting salads of her life".
So... what do I think after living here for a decade now? The house performs better than my wildest expectations! No more huge propane bills! We fill our 500 gallon tank once a year with about 400 gallons. During construction, friends showed great concern for the size of our home. They predicted astronomical heating bills. They really scared me! Thank God they were wrong!
The natural climate inside is very moderate. Running no heat, the coldest I've ever seen the indoor temperature is 58.8°F. The record low temperature was recorded one March when I left for two weeks. The temperature outside bottomed at about -14°F and hung below zero for days. Summers are nice inside too, with the temperature rarely climbing above 74°F, even on the hottest of 100º+ days.
I do have a boiler and four zones of radiant baseboard heat (I learned to sweat pipe on that project) but seldom does the home ever call for fossil heat. The propane is mainly used for the sauna, domestic hot water, drying clothes, and cooking. Evening heat comes from either of two wood stoves, depending on what part of the house I'm using. The average afternoon temperature in the solarium is 90°F in the Winter, when outside temperatures are usually in the teens or lower. Heat is circulated into the house with a tiny fan and the house stays very comfortable throughout the day and into early evening.
Here's my home from the air. The large roof covers the house, the smaller roof is the workshop, and the tiny building just below the house (between the house and shop) is the greenhouse...
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