Once you find the perfect spot of land to enjoy a more self-reliant lifestyle, it is time to start building a home. A traditional brick and mortar home or a modular might be the easiest choices, but several types of unconventional dwellings offer far more opportunities to employ more sustainable and defendable systems on the property.
Earth berm homes utilize the architectural process of using soil against multiple walls to garner thermal mass. The practice reduced heat loss and helps sustain a steady temperature inside the home. Earth berm homes have become a favorite among off-the-grid families because they enhance the ability to use passive solar power, even in colder climates. Although the earth berm homes have become extremely popular in the past decade, they have been around since folks started gathering rocks and logs to craft shelters.
Types of earth berm homes
There are basically three different types of earth berm homes: 1) earth-covered, 2) earth-bunded, and 3) subterranean.
- An earth-covered home can have soil solely on the roof or be an extension of earth berm dwelling side projects.
- An earth-bunded home is a dwelling in which a thermal mass element is significantly applied to insulate one or more the sheltered side elevations of the building.
- A subterranean home is a structure where the vast majority of the home is covered by soil.
Earth berm homes  are often built into a hillside or slope, but sometime are constructed after land is excavated and the house is set below ground. In addition to generating thermal mass to help reduce energy consumption and costs, the earthen wall coverings also provide added protection for the home. Earthen homes are often touted as being quitter, the soil against the exterior walls help in reduce outside noise. From a defensive standpoint, the home is reportedly easier to defend when one or more walls, or the roof, are pressed against a hillside or slope.
From a fire prevention standpoint, earth berm homes also have distinct advantages. When the homes themselves are built out of storage containers or poured concrete walls, the fire prevention aspect is further enhanced. When designing an earth berm home, concerns regarding lack of light and fire safety should be a top priority during the initial stages of the planning process.
I recently toured an earth berm home in southern Ohio owned by Selena and Randy Yates. Selena and her late husband Frank Pittman built the home about 30 years ago. When Frank was in the process of convincing Selena that an enhanced thermal mass dwelling was the way to, he found an existing earth berm house also located in Vinton County, for her to view. Being an incredibly sweet and giving woman, Selena readily agreed to her husband’s dream home, with one provision – he did not put dirt above her head.
Although Selena is not claustrophobic, the thought of essentially being buried did not appeal to her at all. Unlike Selena, I am incredibly claustrophobic, and got a bit anxious at the mere thought of touring their home.
My visit had a two-fold purpose: First as research for off-the-grid living home styles, and second because my own husband wants our next home to be an earth berm. I want a shipping container house with an atrium for my tortoises, so we decided upon a combined approach, providing I “survived” being inside Randy and Selena’s house. I was pleasantly surprised about the cozy yet unconfined atmosphere inside the house. The home is earth berm on two sides and built into a hillside. The house once had soil on three sides, but once Nick came along, Selena wanted a clear view of him playing outside in the yard, so the soil covering was removed and an enclosed porch added. The area is still incredibly warm with the back of it still being nestled against the hillside. The heat and humidity inside the enclosed porch make it a perfect place for growing plants, and to take a soak in the hot tub and watch the snow fall.
Randy and Selena recently added a new metal roof to the home, and now wish they had added skylights to the project – and are considering adding them. Randy is a postal carrier by trade, but a local hero by nature. As a member of the all-volunteer fire force which serves the county, he is concerned about an escape if a blaze does break out inside the home. Although earth berms are less of a fire hazard than conventional homes, Randy was quick to point out that if a fire starts and his brethren enter the home with hoses, steam will quickly be created and anyone in the back bedrooms could get scorched quickly, in addition to the smoke inhalation they could already be suffering from.
Doesn’t feel closed-in
The bedrooms pressed against the hillside did not appear dark or confined even though there were no windows in the room. A person who thoroughly enjoys quiet and darkness when going to sleep will likely love having an earth berm bedroom. The kitchen inside the Yates’ home is also part of the earth berm wall of the home, but does not feel dark or closed in, either. The wall which was removed does border the kitchen and dining area, but even before the soil was removed, the large glass double-door entryway likely provided ample light into the cooking and eating area.
The enigmatic Randy had another important word of warning about earth berm home construction: Never put a swimming pool on the level ground behind the home. Several years ago, right after installing a new pool liner, the Yates’ pool collapsed while people were floating around in it cooling off. Water from the pool was able to seep over the concrete walls where the roof adjoins. The couple sustained some water damage, and learned a valuable lesson they wanted to share with others considering building an earth berm home.
The earth berm combination shipping container home my husband Bobby is designing for us is going to make good use of the thermal mass for food growing and preservation purposes. The home plan we worked on for hours and finally agreed upon involves two of the shipping containers being placed against earth berm walls. An expansive pantry, storage room, and workshop will be housed inside parts of the storage containers. One wall of an enclosed porch will also be an earth berm. The room will provide a warm and humid location for my Sulcata tortoises to winter and for year-around crop growing.
I am very excited about following Survival Gardener Rick Austin’s Camouflaged Greenhouse  design and sustainable heating plan so we can grow not only crops typically found in our region during summer months, but also so we can add miniature citrus trees and coffee trees, as well. Once we decide upon the perfect piece of land and start creating our new home, we will be documenting the building process for Off The Grid News readers.