January 1983 // Volume 21 // Number 1 // Feature Articles

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How About Earth-Sheltered Housing

To gain adoption of earth shelteied housing, people must understand the advantages and disadvantages of this housing alternative. A series of Extension seminars can overcome this lack of information.

June Impson
Associate Professor
Department of Home Economics Education and Consumer Sciences
Texas Woman's University- Denton.

Lillian Chenoweth
Assistant Professor
Department of Home Economics Education and Consumer Sciences
Texas Woman's University- Denton.

Mary Greer
County Extension Agent
Graham - Texas

Rising energy costs and interest rates. diminishing land supply, and increases in housing prices are causing great concern to today's housing consumers. Lack of readily available information and prevailing myths have deterred many consumers from considering earth-sheltered housing (ESH). Interest in earthsheltered housing rose in the 60s when many people built fallout shelters. The number of ESH structures increased considerably in the 1980s. but they still comprise a small portion of houses1.

Advantages of Earth-Sheltered Housing

Ecological and safety advantages of ESH are important, but the long-range economic benefits are most often stressed. Reduced fuel costs. maintenance. and insurance rates contribute to long-term savings.

Fuel cost reductions are estimated at from 50 to 70%2. Energy consumption is reduced due to the elmination of infiltration and the earth's thermal mass characteristics. and by the heat storage capacity of concrete3.The earth has erroneously been described as an insulator. Actually, the earth's mass acts to retain and disperse heat energy and reduce temperature changes4. Interior temperatures of 80 degrees or less are maintained in an underground house, while outside temperatures reach or exceed 100 degrees5. Deterioration of building materials due to exposure to the elements is virtually eliminated. Concrete requires almost no maintenance since its known life is a minimum of 1,000 years.

Some insurance companies reduce rates because of the generally accepted safety of ESH6. A significant saving of land space results by putting structures underground. These structures in the city can be built cheaper by using otherwise unacceptable locations near freeways or industrial areas.

Consumer Concerns

Concerns are usually about adequacy of lighting, moisture control. suitable building sites. competency of builders/contractors and cost.Cost comparisons are difficult due to the experimental aspects of ESH. Lack of competition between contractors, lack of streamlined production techniques. and the incidence of customized design increase ESH costs. Underground structures are estimated to cost from 10 to 30% more than those above ground. Actual cost of ESH is more realistically figured by protecting the total cost of the house over its useful life7. In spite of the long-range savings, the increased dollar amount needed for initial construction reduces the number of eligible buyers.

A common misconception is that ESH is dark and dreary. Proper siting, careful design, decorating, and lighting techniques can prevent lighting problems. Indirect lighting can be used to create the effect of natural light.

Many people think that underground structures are humid and musty smelling. Proper siting. drainage, and use of sealants can ensure a comfortable humidity level. Proper waterproofing is a must for moisture control. Choice of waterproofing depends on the building material and construction methods. type of soil, water conditions, and method of application.

The odor associated with cellars and basements derives from two main factors: moisture and air velocity. The natural movement of air in other structures disperses moisture and natural household odors. Ventilators, skylights, and fans can help move and freshen air and disperse odors.

Special emphasis must be placed on climate orientation. topography, soil type, ground water conditions. water table. location of adjacent structures, exit requirements, and site access, Consideration of wind and sun factors is especially important and can maximize the potential of ESH to reduce fuel bills. Doubleglazed windows facing south produce a net energy gain even without draperies or shutters at night8.

Innovative structures often can't be accurately evaluated using codes designed for traditional construction. A board of appeals has been established to allow consideration of unconventional construction and materials used in buildings9.

Unavailability of experienced builders. do-it-yourself projects. and poor quality resulting from improper construction have caused difficulty in obtaining loan approval for ESH. Lenders are also concerned about the possible resale value. Appraisers are unfamiliar with this type of structure and can't easily apply standard techniques. Many of these deterrents will be eliminated as ESH becomes more common and as consumers' knowledge increases.

Programs About ESH

Extension agents in seven Texas counties offered ESH seminars. The objectives were to: (1) provide basic information, (2) assess knowledge about ESH, (3) investigate attitudes toward this form of housing, and (4) see the relationship between knowledge and attitudes --to see if when they learn more. their attitudes toward this housing choice would become more favorable.

A program package was distributed to the agents with information about ESH concepts, advantages and disadvantages, and economic and construction aspects. The package contained articles on ESH, addresses of additional ESH information resources,news releases, questionnaires and answer key, slidetape package, lesson plan, and publication list.

Participants were pretested on their ESH knowledge and attitudes. After the ESH slide-tape presentation and discussion, participants were again tested. The pre- and post-knowledge tests related to design, construction, costs, advantages and disadvantages, and siting. Two participants scored a perfect 22 points on the pretest, while 11 had perfect scores on the posttest . Educational benefits of the seminars were confirmed as there was a significant gain in both knowledge and positive attitudes from pre- to posttest scores.

This study indicated that as consumers' knowledge increases. their attitudes became more favorable. The interest and participation in the ESH Extension seminars suggested that additional educational efforts of this type could encourage more consumers to take advantage of this ecologically sound and energy efficient housing form.

A total of 51 females and 40 males attended the seminars and completed the questionnaires. Two participants had previously lived, and four were currently living. in ESH. Pretest data indicated that over 75% of the participants Would prefer ESH if they bought a house in the near future. Of the 20 participants who had visited an ESH, over half indicated they liked that type of housing.

... The interest and participation in the earth-sheltered housing Extension seminars suggested that additional educational efforts of this type could encourage more consumers to take advantage of this ecologically sound and energy efficient housing form.

Educational attainment of participants was about equally divided between high school or advanced degrees, Most were married and less than half had children. About two-thirds lived in rural areas.

Ninety percent of the participants lived in separate unit dwellings. and most of them owned their homes. Tenure status ranged from 10 years or more for one-third of the participants to less than 6 months for others. Most rated their present housing to be in good condition. Over 70% spent 10 or less hours a month on maintenance. Monthly housing costs were estimated in the $100 to S400 range by most of the participants. Almost 17%, estimated costs between $400 and $700.

No major changes had been made on their current housing by about one-third of the participants. Most changes had cost between $1.000 and $5.000 The two major types of changes were remodeling and energy conservation. About 80% of all participants indicated they were satisfied with, their present housing. Only 10% said they were extremely dissatisfied.

In rating the importance of several housing-related concerns, over half considered low maintenance, energy efficiency. storm protection, privacy, and natural light very important. Peer approval seemed to be of least concern to seminar participants. Participants gave economy and ecology high priority.

The majority of the participants ranked financial priorities in the following order: (1) housing, (2) being out of debt. (3) education for children. and (4) savings. Although conservation of natural resources, including fuel and land. is often discussed by housing experts, the consumer's primary interest is conservation of dollars. In a recent survey of earth-sheltered homeowners, the main reason for selecting ESH was to save on heating and cooling costs.10

Conclusions and Recommendations

Although the benefils of ESH are described and verified extensively in the Iiterature, several misconceptions about this housing form still prevail. Extension agents could capitalize on the current interest in the topic and reach people with a factually based program, The-, program would appeal to a wide range of people and could easily be interdisciplinary. In other words, the program would cut across several traditional program areas. Results of this research indicated an interest by both men and women. The interest and participation in the earth-sheltered housing Extension seminars suggested that additional educational efforts of this type could encourage more consumers to take advantage of this ecologically sound and energy efficient housing form


  1. Ray Sterling, Roger Aiken and John Carmody, Earth Sheltered Housing: Code ,Zoning and Financial Issues(Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office,1980).
  2. Lester L Boyer, Human Comfort and Energy Conservation in Earth Sheltered BuildIngs (Stillwater: Oklahoma State Universitv. 1980); Michael B. Barker, "Earth Sheltered Construction: Thoughts on Public Policy Issues, 'Underground Space,IV (March/April,1980), 283-88. and John Barnard, "Earth Sheltering in the Eastern United States." in The Potential of Earth Sheltered and Underground Space, T. Lance Holthusen, ed. (Elmsford, New York: Pergamon Press, 1981), 109-27.
  3. Sterling, Aiken, and Carmody. Earth Sheltered Housing.
  4. Charles A Lane, ''An Essay: Frequently Asked Questions on Earth-Sheltered Housing." Underground Space, IV (November/December. 1979), 143-52.
  5. Loren Impson, ''Ferrocement Earth Sheltered Housing Projects,'' in The Potential of Earth Sheltered and Underground Space, T. Lance Hothusen. ed. (Elmsford. New York: Pergamon Press. 1981), 373-77.
  6. Ernst W. Kiesling. " Economical Wind Production." Underground Space, IV (March/April, 1980), 279-81.
  7. Lane, "An Essay."
  8. Sterling, Aiken, and Carmody, Earth Sheltered Housing.
  9. Lane,"An Essay."
  10. Boyer, Human Comfort and Energy Conservation.