We don't like our Underground House
Photos of house and settingClick thumbnail to view full-size
Our experience with this eighth wonder of the world!
Eighteen years ago we moved into an earth-covered dome home built on a hillside. We were so excited! It was really lovely inside, and surprisingly well illuminated with natural light. The house has approximately 2,500 sq. ft., including three bedrooms and two baths and an oversized garage. Outside is a 14’ x 14’ greenhouse and decks on three levels that overlook the south view of the Arkansas River and a line-of-sight view of the Arkansas State Capitol on the hill across the river. The large south-facing windows and patio doors of the great room lead out to the greenhouse and two decks. A half-dome third bedroom has a window wall that also shares the view. The third deck is accessed from the rooftop and was built on top of the greenhouse. The rooms are large and spacious, with 14-foot domed ceilings. We were in Hog Heaven -- literally, after all, this is the Razorbacks’ home state.
Our enthusiasm didn't last more than a couple of years. Our dream home was less than perfect and certainly didn't live up to the advertising brochures. This is our true story. I don't want to imply that all underground houses are like ours. I truly hope that they are not. Did we get a lemon? If so, we have not been able to make lemonade.
(As you view the photos, please bear in mind that this house is in the price range of typical underground homes. It is not a staged million-dollar display home that people admire in the advertising brochures and websites. It cost close to $150,000 to build and finish out in 1986, which was above the median price of a conventional home in our state in the 1980s.)
IT LEAKS! The domes and floor are built from concrete poured and reinforced with rebar. In front an atrium is accessed by stairs just a driveway’s breadth from the street. Large windows on the east side of bedrooms front the atrium and let in more daylight than a typical traditional home built during that time period. The garage is on the opposite side of the atrium.
I think the design of the house is part of the problem. The dome construction on a hillside may make the house more vulnerable. The problem began in what appears to be a bad mix of concrete at the west side of the dome that serves as our great room. A year and a half after our purchase and, wouldn’t you know it, during the Christmas holidays, a small wet spot appeared in the ceiling over the couch. Then another spot appeared, then another. We called the manufacturer, Terra Dome, and were told that house was built by a franchise in Oklahoma and that particular franchise was out of business. Just our luck! The remaining franchise was in Missouri and it assumed no responsibility to repair this house. They did “feel sorry for us,” and said they would send materials to repair the leak ourselves. They shipped us a box of Bentonite clay, the prime ingredient in conventional cat litter. We were naïve enough to dig up part of the house, install the glorified cat litter, and replace the dirt (see photo). Most people know what liquid-soaked cat litter is like, and we learned that it certainly is not advisable to put it on a roof in a wet climate.
After the cat litter experience, we called probably every concrete repair company in the yellow pages, and none were willing look at it. We gave up and tried to fix it ourselves by ejecting costly liquid epoxy into the holes and cracks from inside the house. That was a laughable experience. Our attempts merely rerouted the water farther along the dome and into the adjacent half dome, which contains the master bedroom and walk-in closet. We probably have the only house in Arkansas with stalactites on the ceiling. Honestly. Red earth from the house top runs down the ceiling and the living room wall. I’ve joked about building a waterfall in the living room to divert the water.
Despite all repairs, the leaks continued to spread. While making the repairs, we discovered that the house had experienced leaks before we bought it. The owner had jacklegged in repairs and smoothed them over long enough to unload the house on a naïve buyer like us. We consulted an attorney, but he said the discovery came too late to hold the owner or the realtor, who lived next door and must have known about the leaks, responsible or charge them with fraud. The realtor, by the way, could afford a fraudulent sale because he moved to Mexico immediately thereafter and died a year later.
Insurance fix it? Not with all the pre-existing problems that were hidden from us.
The specifications on the house tout that the skin is a “tar modified polyurethane elastomer that is applied as a liquid and forms a bonded synthetic rubber membrane… [that] will permit the membrane to span ordinary shrinkage cracks up to 1/16 inch.” We found it to be as effective as the Bentonite clay. An ordinary house settles more than 1/16 inch in its lifetime, so a glorified tar roof is basically useless. These same specifications contain a disclaimer at the end. In our case it appears to mean that the subcontractor would have been the one legally liable. Doesn't give an owner much confidence, does it?
In 2010 I found a roofer who made an estimate of $100,000 to repair the roof, but he said he wasn’t sure he wanted to tackle the job. We told him that we owned a backhoe and would remove the layers of dirt and insulation ourselves. But he died unexpectedly only two weeks after making the estimate. Around the same time, cracks began appearing in the floors, which are now spreading to the walls and ceilings. To repair the house would take our retirement savings, and at this point, I’m not sure it is repairable. We owe much less on it than the cost of repairs, so we are talking about paying it off and walking out.
WE REMOVED THE LANDSCAPE and the housetop is now plain and unattractive. The roof top and front area were landscaped when we bought the house, and we installed a sprinkler system to keep the areas watered. When the leaks began, the sprinkler couldn’t be used. Most of the plants died, including three large shrubs and the roses and hardy hibiscus. We replaced the shrubs with a bulb bed. We removed two beautiful pine trees, a golden chain tree, two crape myrtles, and a large Russian olive bush because we feared the root systems might grow into the roof and cause more problems. We would not recommend that you follow the latest trend and plant a rooftop garden in sod – ever!
EARTHQUAKE PROOF, HA! The house was advertised as “earthquake proof” but inside, we feel tremors that don't registered locally on the Richter scale. The house was old enough to be settled when we bought it, so we suspect mini-tremors may be cracking it apart. In the meantime we keep our fingers crossed for an earthquake large enough to register to occur so we can prove it is causing the cracking. I know I shouldn’t joke about earthquakes, but THAT the insurance would pay for.
THERE IS LIMITED OR NO ACCESS FOR SOME TYPES OF REPAIRS. The ductwork is made from ordinary materials that don’t hold up under the ground. The duct boots have rusted through and require replacing. We are not sure if we can get access to attach new boots to the ductwork. The plenum of galvanized steel rusted through after 12 years and collapsed into the hole taking the central HVAC unit with it. We replaced the plenum with one built of ¼ in. stainless steel. Since no sheet metal shop in the area would build a stainless steel plenum, we fashioned and built it ourselves. Then we installed a larger central AC and blower, completely forgoing the central heating unit. Fortunately, my husband’s repertoire includes those skills, so all that cost us less than $2,000.
WE FIGHT MOLD CONSTANTLY. The naturally high humidity in this state causes mold problems in conventional houses, but combine that with the water leaks and seepage problems and we have Mold City. We are bosom buddies with Clorox solution and copper sulfate, but soon we are going to have to replace some drywall. Very few days occur that we aren’t running the AC or the heat in an attempt to keep the humidity down. We installed a humidistat on our central AC so it will turn on when the humidity reaches a certain level. In addition we run a dehumidifier on days of especially high humidity or when we can get away with it comfortwise.
On a 75 degree day in April, the AC was running overtime and the temperature in the house was 67 degrees. I was bundled up in my Snuggie with my two cats trying to keep warm. We have a 19-year-old tabby, a skinny little bundle of bones, and that isn’t healthy for her. Anyway, the next day after work the temperature had fallen to 65 degrees and the humidity still hadn’t lowered to 60%. (Humidity in an underground house needs to stay at no more than 50%, but I get nosebleeds at that level and try to keep ours at 60%.) I told my husband to either turn off the (expletive) AC or turn on the gas logs. He turned off the AC. In the past we have found it necessary to run both simultaneously.
We find that during extreme temperatures, high or low, our heating and cooling bills run a little higher than a conventional well-insulated house of comparable size. My mother’s house of approximately the same heated and cooled space located 100 miles north of us actually showed a 30% savings in energy over our underground house. In the summer our large south-facing windows let in an abnormal amount of heat despite the roof overhang, and we use heavy shades to prevent taking on any more solar heat than necessary. We also found that in 90 to 110 degree weather the ground gets hot, which heats the concrete walls and transfers the heat inside. I suggest not believing the propaganda about being able to use smaller AC units because the house stayed hot all summer until we upsized our AC condensing unit and blower.
I don’t advise electrical heat in an underground house at all because it does not dehumidify the air. It might work in a dry state, but not here. We now use a ventilated gas heater in the greatroom as our sole source of heat. Yeah, yeah, I know, gas is a no-no in an underground home, but in our experience, electric heat was completely unaffordable. When we first moved in, we ran the electric system for two weeks, nearly froze off our tail feathers, and paid double what we had been paying for natural gas heat in our previous home of 1,000 sq. ft.
It is sheer fallacy that cold temperatures won’t fall below the human comfort zone in an underground house. Liquids have frozen and broken glass containers in our unheated underground garage, so no winter storage of canned goods there. Our unheated bedroom temperature has fallen as low as 54 degrees in the winter. We have considered installing a second heater in the guest room, but it isn’t a priority.
Due to the delay in heat transference to the soil and concrete walls, our heating and cooling seasons usually start about six weeks after the regular seasons begin. This is not a problem; just a fact. Guests are surprised to find us running heat in May or the air conditioning in late November. They do find it unusual and remark that we are “whipping the horse and hollering whoa” when we run heat and air at the same time.
So why aren’t we using solar energy, one might ask? When we first bought the house, we didn’t have the money to invest in solar. Now we don’t see the practicality of a retrofit to a house that is cracking apart.
DEPRECIATION. The depreciation is shocking! Our house depreciated faster than a mobile home or an automobile. We should have been forewarned when we were able to purchase the house for $45,000 less than it cost to build. During the housing boom, we watched the other houses in the neighborhood increase in value, many doubling in price, while here we sit holding the equivalent of rent receipts.
LOCATION MAKES A DIFFERENCE. I do not advise building on a hillside, but if you do, make sure that you have an oversized drain system. Water can’t flow underneath our concrete slab like it can a house built on a foundation, and the French drains will not handle a deluge. One particularly stormy night, a torrent poured into the front atrium from the street above the house and flooded the greatroom. We finally gave up mopping and opened the doors. We swept water out the back doors as a river poured through the front door. Luckily, the carpet had been removed years ago. It wasn’t any consolation to hear one of our neighbors say that the bottom floor of their two-story house flooded and they were forced to live upstairs for a couple of months until repairs were made to their house. We don't have an upstairs to move into. Who would have thought about buying flood insurance high upon a hillside?
WISH SOMEBODY HAD TOLD US TO KEEP OUR PEST CONTROL CONTRACT. Both our realtor and our insurance agent advised that we had no need to renew the termite contract after we closed on the house. “It is a concrete house, and termites don’t eat concrete,” they said. Ten years into the house, I leaned against a wall in the small bathroom and my hand went through the paneling. We discovered that the wall covering had been eaten away from the inside, leaving the vinyl sheathing on the outside. The next year the wooden wall under our kitchen window facing the atrium had to be replaced. The house was a magnet for termites, and they were happily gnawing away all the woodwork that touched the ground and the concrete. We replaced all damaged wood with treated timber and soaked it in creosote for good measure.
Other critters love it, too. We have more than our share of spiders and centipedes, especially in the bathrooms. On two separate occasions, a salamander was found swimming in the toilet in the master bath, and we are still mystified as to how it got there. Did the same salamander return or was it a different one? We have a septic tank, so how did it get there? I wish we knew. We have been invaded by fire ants inside the house, and troops of mice find us to be a haven. A groundhog took up residence on top of a bedroom dome, digging up my favorite flower bed in the process, and raised a family. Her children are now digging up the dirt floor in our greenhouse. We are going to have to buy a bigger live-trap or replace our late chow-pei.
PEOPLE INVADE YOUR PRIVACY. This was a surprise! Some people treat our home like a public park. The same people who would never invade your front yard or sit on your front porch without an invitation take for granted that they can walk on your roof! Nervy neighbors use our roof as a putting green – or a sand trap. We have a gallon bucket of golf balls they’ve lost, retrieved mostly from the woods below the house.
HAPPY THINGS. I don’t want people to get the impression that this hub is only a rant. I do dearly LOVE living underground. I am trying to warn people of problems that the advertisers don’t want you to know, so they won’t buy an underground home with unrealistic expectations the way we did. We enjoy so many things about living underground:
v The safe, secure feeling during a storm. We watch tornadoes from our back door as they follow their usual route along the Arkansas River. We are both trained weather spotters, so we are well aware of the danger of suction if one comes too close, and we do have a plan in case one ventures too near our house.
v We love the floor plan and would change very little about it. The plan allows for big windows or double windows in every room, which let in more light than most conventional homes. Most people are surprised that our house lets in more light than theirs do.
v The house is virtually noise-proof except for the guy down the hill who occasionally races his loud truck engine. Neighborhood parties and street noise from above never bother us.
v The cats really enjoy living here, and so did our dog that died at close to age 14. I think they actually relate to their ancestors that lived in caves and underground burrows. When they were young, they freely roamed the hillside, but after an invasion of coyotes between our house and the river, all pets were confined to the house.
Outside the house we have an atrium full of frogs. We enjoy them and some rescued box turtles so much that we installed a small garden pond for them. The turtles and the several varieties of frogs and toads share the pond with no problems. A pair of king snakes have taken up residence in our rock steps above the atrium. One actually allows petting. The groundhogs we could do without.
However, the good does not outweigh the bad. If we ever get rid of this albatross, would we ever again consider living in an underground house? Definitely, but we would carefully select the site and supervise the construction every step of the way. And, oh yes, it would be in a dry climate!