I’m a big admirer of interesting architecture. As a photographer I love to photograph buildings and as a designer I really appreciate well designed spaces. I’m also a fairly practical person so I like clean useful design. Pittsburgh, like most cities in the eastern US is full of different kinds of architecture from classic and somewhat boring homes to modern very odd looking abodes. I’ve looked at a lot of them both inside and out and have a good idea of what I like and what I don’t.
When it comes to owning my own place my wife and I have looked in the past and even went as far as putting a deposit down on a place a few years ago that didn’t pass inspection so for now we are still renting while we pay off our credit cards and save up a bit. Lots of things have stopped us from buying our own home it seemed that no matter where we’ve looked we’ve never found a place that really had everything we want. Where we’ve rented we’ve always had issues with noise, temperature changes, energy costs, allergens, and most recently hellish neighbors. These neighbors have gotten us thinking and talking about what we want in a house.
Underground & In-ground Homes
While talking about these things I stumbled upon a few really cool designs like this “Hobbit House” in Wales and this Swiss Mountain getaway. Both of them are greener than the average house because they are either earth bermed or are built mostly underground. This lowers energy costs, cuts down on noise, and has loads of other benefits like lower risk of damage from natural disasters and lower allergy issues. There are a few different ways to build underground and while we’d love to do so in as cheap and as low impact as we can we recognize the need to offset costs enough to make it affordable and we’re in favor of longevity which means building with concrete and not wood. If we do use wood we plan to use as little chemically treated lumber as it’s treated with toxins such as arsenic.
We’ve found a few places that do monolithic poured concrete homes – that is reinforced concrete shells that are pored once, not pieced together with joints that could leak or that are not set at different times. With that in mind we’ve began planning and looking for possible places to build. We’d love to stay in the city of Pittsburgh but we also want to find a south-facing hillside that we can build into. I won’t say where we’ve found for fear that someone else will buy it in the mean time but I will share some of our design ideas with you.
We want to find a south-facing hillside because we want to maximize the sunlight that will strike the face of the house that is not in ground. Our design calls for 3 sides and the top being underground as you can see from the picture on the left (click on the picture for a larger view).
The design calls for the house to sit back from the road (at the end of an alleyway in this design) will house a two-car garage, will have space for 3 bedrooms and will have a terraced lawns on the top of the house and behind (though also above). These lawns will not just be wasted on grass. Though not pictured here there will be vertical containers for gardening. The area behind the house will be higher than the area on the top by 5 to 6 feet and will be even with the sidewalk on the street behind it. This area will house trees that root deep and not wide. We’d like to use fruit or nut trees if possible but that will depend on the root system of the tree. To the east of the house we’ll only have 3 1/2 to 6 feet of space. 3 feet of it will be taken up with an exterior staircase that will lead to the terraces and will be gated to the sidewalk above. The space we’re looking at would be about 50 feet deep and 100 feet along the front.
As you can see in the photo there is another staircase near our property. If you’re familiar with Pittsburgh you know that these are actually considered streets and they were built for the mill workers to travel between the mills along the river and their homes at the top of or along the hills. These staircases often cover ground that is too steep to build a road on so we most likely couldn’t build a driveway down from the main street to the alley that we are looking to front the property along. That’s fine with us as it will allow us to live in the city but have some seclusion.
Planning to live underground
The people that we’ve talked to about our idea don’t always “get it”. My business partner Dave keeps talking about my wish to live in a hobbit house but honestly if you look at the example of the “hobbit house”above you’ll see that my design and our goals are very different. While we hope to build a house that will not scar the land as badly as a traditional home can we simply can’t build a cob house or earthen walled home that will have any real longevity. Plus Pittsburgh is termite and carpenter bee territory whereas Wales is termite free so you can build with untreated woods there. Here there would be stability issues and we’d need to rebuild in 10-20 years when we were in our 50s. While building a house ourselves in our 30s sounds fun it might not be so much fun when we’re 20 years older.
The hobbit house also doesn’t have much of an earth-covered roof. It’s a living roof but it’s only thinly covered. While the roof design is reciprocal and very low-impact we’d rather have a monolithic poured concrete shell which will not only keep out water and be resistant to insects and other pests but will also last hundreds of years (if not longer).
What do you think?
Would you like to live underground and save 70-80% of energy costs? Would you like to have more outdoor space (on the top of your home)? Would you like to live in the city but have much less noise? Would you like to live in the city and green it at the same time? Reducing the carbon foot-print of you, your home, your neighborhood, and your city?
Leave a comment and let us know what you think. Check back in the future for more info and to keep an eye on our progress. If you’d like to see us progress faster by donating to our project please use the contact form to ask how!