By David L. Brown
I recently included in a post about a demonstration solar house in Michigan (“Bumps Along the Way to Clean Energy,” May 15) some discussion of my long-time interest in the concept of underground dwellings. A major advantage is that building below the frost line would require little energy to keep the house warm in winter and cool in summer.
Now the house pictured below isn’t exactly what I had in mind, but it’s in the right ballpark. It shows a “Hobbit house” built in Wales by British nature photographer Simon Dale.
You can imagine that Bilbo Baggins would feel right at home here. You can read more about this project and admire his photography on Simon’s web site, here. As you can see, his newhouse, which he terms a “low impact woodland home,” is not entirely underground as I have envisioned, but built into a hillside. It is heavily insulated with straw bales and a layer of sod on the roof. It features all-natural materials, a wood burning stove for heat and solar panels for lighting and electronics. Even the floor and walls are layered with straw bales, making it remarkably energy efficient. Virtually all the materials used to build the house are natural, with a total investment of about £3000, or around $4500.
Explaining why he chose to build this energy efficient house using natural materials, Simon writes on his web site:
Our society is almost entirely dependent on the availability of increasing amounts of fossil fuel energy. This has brought us to the point at which our supplies are dwindling and our planet is in ecological catastrophe. We have no viable alternative energy source and no choice but to reduce our energy consumption. The sooner this change can be begun, the more comfortable it will be.
Below is an elevation cross-section drawing showing how the house was constructed. The structural rafters and beams were all made using limbs and wood trimmings from the surrounding forest. The house features a skylight and an interior composting toilet.
Simon’s house is probably more, well, basic than most people would prefer, but the underlying ideas concerning energy efficiency and the use of low-impact materials are important. Concepts like these must be developed as quickly as possible as resources continue to dwindle. I think it is particularly interesting to note the modest cost of Simon’s new house compared with the demonstration house in Michigan, which was built for a reported $900,000 (£600,000). That’s about 200 times what Simon paid for the materials used in his Hobbit house, most of which probably went for the solar panels.
Simon estimated that construction required approximately 1000-1500 man hours by himself, his father-in-law, and “passers by and visiting friends.” Incidentally, he said that essentially the only tools used in the project were a chain saw, a hammer and a one-inch chisel.
In the long run, only if humans can learn to live with a far smaller “footprint” on Mother Earth can we expect to continue to exist. I hope to see more examples of innovative thinking such as this. Let’s hope Simon and his family enjoy many happy years of living in tune with nature.
Here’s one more view of Simon’s amazing house, a wide angle interior shot. Nice, eh?