Why We Don't Like Our Underground House
Our Experience With This Eighth Wonder of the World
Eighteen years ago, we moved into an earth-sheltered dome home built in a hillside. We were so excited! It was really lovely inside, and surprisingly, well-illuminated with natural light. Our house has approximately 2,500 sq. ft., including three bedrooms, two baths, and an oversized garage. The rooms are large and spacious, with 14-foot domed ceilings.
The domes and floor of our underground house are built from poured concrete reinforced with rebar. Out front, an atrium can be accessed by a staircase that is just the width of the driveway 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.
Out back is a 14’ X 14’ greenhouse and decks on three levels with a 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 of the decks. A half-domed third bedroom has a window wall that shares the same views. The third deck can be accessed from the rooftop and was built on top of the greenhouse.
We were in Hog Heaven—literally. After all, this is the Razorbacks’ home state.
Pros and Cons of an Underground House
Protection from tornados
Lots of natural light
No noise from the street or neighbors
Cracks during earthquakes
Pets seem to love it
Difficult and expensive repairs
Being closer to nature
Depreciating home value
People will invade your privacy.
Why We Don't Like Our Underground House
Unfortunately, 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 hype from the advertising brochures.
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 you might see in many brochures and websites. Our underground house cost close to $150,000 to build and finish back in 1986, which is above the median price of a conventional home in our state in the 1980s.
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.
Here are some of the problems we've run into:
- Floods during heavy rains
- Limited landscaping
- Cracks during earthquakes
- Difficult and expensive repairs
- Constant mold
- Depreciating value
- People invade our privacy
1. It Leaks!
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 on 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 our house was built by a franchise in Oklahoma that went out of business. Just our luck! The only remaining franchise was in Missouri, and it assumed no responsibility for damages to our house.
They did “feel sorry for us,” and said they would send materials so that we could repair the leak ourselves. They shipped us a box of bentonite clay, the primary 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, but 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 covered 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 top of our house runs down the ceiling and 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 even before we bought it. The previous owner had jack-legged the repairs and smoothed them over just long enough to unload the house on naïve buyers like us.
We consulted an attorney, but he said the discovery came too late to hold the previous owner or the realtor, who lived next door and must have known about the leaks, responsible or charge them with fraud. (By the way, the realtor probably could've afford a fraudulent sale because he moved to Mexico immediately thereafter and died a year later.)
Would insurance fix it? Not with all the pre-existing problems that were hidden from us. The specifications for the house state 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 come with a disclaimer at the end. In our case, it appears 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. Unfortunately, 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. It would cost our retirement savings to make the necessary repairs, and at this point, I’m not sure it is even repairable. We owe much less on it than the cost of repairs, so we are talking about paying it off and walking out.
2. It floods!
Location makes all the difference. I do not advise building on a hillside, but if you do, make sure that you have an oversized drainage system. Water can’t flow underneath our concrete slab like it can with a house built on a foundation, and the French drains cannot handle a deluge.
One particularly stormy night, a torrent poured into the front atrium from the street above the house and flooded the great room. We finally gave up mopping and just 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 to buy flood insurance four a house high upon a hillside?
3. We have limited landscaping.
The rooftop and front yard area were landscaped when we bought the house. We even installed a sprinkler system to keep the areas watered. However, when the leaks began, the sprinkler couldn’t be used. We removed trees and plants with deep roots and shut down the sprinkler system. The landscape is now plain and unattractive.
Most of the plants died, including three large shrubs, the roses, and the 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 would 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!
4. 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.
5. There is limited or no access for some repairs.
The ductwork is made from ordinary materials that don’t hold up underground. The duct boots have rusted through and need replacing. We are not sure if we are even able to access the ductwork to attach the new boots. 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 with 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 of skills allowed him to handle the installation, so it cost us less than $2,000 total.
6. 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 bleach 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 counteract the humidity. 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 comfort-wise.
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, our heating and cooling bills run a little higher than a conventional, well-insulated house of comparable size. My mother’s house—located 100 miles north of us with approximately the same area of heated and cooled space as us—actually used 30% less energy than our underground house.
In the summer, our large south-facing windows let in an abnormal amount of heat despite the roof overhang, and we have to use heavy shades to reduce the solar heat. We also found that in 90-110-degree weather, the ground gets really 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 heating 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 great room as our sole source of heat. Yeah, yeah, I know—gas is a no-no in an underground house, but in our experience, electric heating was just 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.
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 remark that we are “whipping the horse and hollering whoa” when we run heat and air at the same time.
You might be wondering, "Why aren’t we using solar energy? 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 falling apart.
7. Our house depreciated in value.
The depreciation was 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 the cost to build it. During the housing boom, we watched the other houses in the neighborhood increase in value—many doubling in price—while we sat here holding the equivalent of rent receipts.
8. I wish somebody had told us to keep our pest control contract.
Both our realtor and our insurance agent told us 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 later, 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 just 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 our home 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.
Our home has been invaded by fire ants, 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.
9. People invade our privacy.
This came as 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 there is no visible property above ground! 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.
5 Things We Loved About Our Underground House
I don’t want people to get the impression that this article is only a rant. I do dearly LOVE living underground. I'm just trying to warn people of the problems that the advertisers don’t want you to know so they won’t get unrealistic expectations the way we did.
We enjoy so many things about living underground:
1. 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 a tornado comes close, and we do have a plan in case one ventures too close our house.
2. We love the floor plan and would change very little about it.
The plan allows for big windows or double windows in every room that let in more natural light than most conventional homes. Most people are surprised that an underground house lets in more light than their conventional houses do.
3. The house is virtually noise-proof.
Except for the guy down the hill who occasionally revs his loud truck engine. Neighborhood parties and street noise from above never bother us.
4. The cats really enjoy living here.
So did our dog, who sadly died at close to age 14. I think they actually relate to their ancestors who lived in caves and underground burrows. When they were young, they freely roamed the hillside, but after some coyotes invaded the area between our house and the river, all pets were confined to the house.
5. We have an atrium full of frogs and rescued box turtles outside.
We enjoy them 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—one of which actually allows petting—have also taken up residence in our rock steps above the atrium.
Do the positives outweigh all the problems we encounter? No. 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 have to be in a dry climate!
Questions & Answers
Your house looks as though it isn't completely underground. Don't you think an earth-sheltered atrium would be better, maybe something more along the lines of a bomb shelter?
Our house is completely underground as far as the roof and sides of the house go. We've thought about covering the atrium, but covering it like a bomb shelter would block any light coming into two bedrooms, one of which we use for our office, and block ventilation coming in from the front. It would have to be completely sealed, including keeping the outside door closed to keep the water from pouring down from street level. But then we would have to install French drains and re-route the water around the house. Right now at least the drains in the atrium do work except for sudden deluges.
The cover option would be more feasible if the first owner installed a couple of skylights in the roof. It is too late to do that now because of the rebar frame. Also, the atrium is the only convenient access to our house. The long winding driveway keeps us from coming in through the garage. (I've slipped and fallen on my back trying to navigate the driveway on foot, and as I've stated in the article, we can't drive our cars out of the garage and up it.)
We've also thought about building a shell of a building on top of the whole house, but that would be about 3,000 sq. ft. of roof alone if we covered the atrium, too. It is just a poor design, poor location, and shoddy construction that doesn't deserve to keep on existing. We were much younger when we bought it and just didn't think it through. Several friends warned us that underground houses were impractical in our area and would leak. We should have listened to them.Helpful 18
It seems like most of these problems are from poor design, poor construction, and poor ventilation. Have you thought about adding an air-to-air exchanger, or removing the dirt on the roof and sealing it with newer products?
Yes, we have thought about all that, but it would cost more than the house cost. Please note that I stated in this article that we had one estimate for $100,000 to remove the soil and add a new skin to the roof. We are retired and aren't sure that we could afford to pay for it on our retirement income.Helpful 9
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Did you use clay top soil and 10% slope?
I'm sorry, but your question is ambiguous. I would have to know where you are talking about, beneath the house or on top. I will answer that we did not build the house. It was six years old when we bought it, and the owner did not provide us with a soil report. As I stated in the article, the house was built on a hill that was measured at a 45-degree angle. Then a mound was built up to make a level building surface on which to build the house. I included a photo of the house taken from down the hill that shows the steepness of the slope and the back of the house with attached greenhouse. You might look at it for the slope. I don't know what the builder used. In our area builders use donafil, but I have no proof that it was used here.Helpful 7