Monthly Archives: August 2012


Posted on August 22, 2012 by

This is just an update…  Over the past few weeks I build a scale model of my arches, worked on the website a bit, etc.

Scale Arches Here at home I have been working on making models of the main ribs used in the design.  I drew a full scale replica of the rib on my driveway with the help of my kids…   It is based on a 5 point Euclidean egg, a 2300 year old mathematical shape, that will distribute the earth load around my living spaces in an interesting way.  It looked small laying on the driveway until I drew in the 6ft man (actually I lay down and my 6 year old traced it out).

Structural Arch design drawn in Chalk, full scale, on the driveway...

Structural Arch design drawn in Chalk, full scale, on the driveway… The man drawn is 6 ft tall.   Fun facts: I used up 3.5 full giant pieces of blue sidewalk chalk;  Sherri took this photo from a second story window and then I flipped it and stretched it 😉   I had tried taking it from a ladder, but couldn’t get high enough to get it all in.


Google happened to photograph my neighborhood later that day and I got this shot.

Google earth shot of my current house (just a box) taken the day I drew my arch

Google earth shot of my current house (just a box) taken the day I drew my arch


I also built a 1/4 scale model.  The point of the scale model experiment was really to figure out how the forms should be made.  It is one thing to CAD an interesting shape up in a computer, but quite another to take those shapes and create something in the real world.  There is also something unpredictable about working with cement and I figured it would be better to make mistakes on a smaller scale; 1/4 scale uses 1/64th the cement.  I did as much as I could while keeping the scale in mind.  In other words, I used a 3 inch wide board to simulate a 12 inch board, 1/8th inch wire to simulate 1/2 inch rebar, etc.   I created some sections of the form-work with thin hardibacker board, some with polycarbonate and some with hardibacker board wrapped in 4mil plastic.  I used the form twice to prove repeatability (I will make 10 full size ribs for the house).  The Polycarbonate sides could have been used over and over, they easily washed down between uses with no signs of wear.  The polycarbonate also produced a very nice smooth surface.  The wrapped board worked pretty well (sort of smooth and durable) but the hardibacker board (used directly) absorbed a lot more moisture and stuck to the cement more than I expected, it was also in pretty rough shape after the second use.   I took notes on the lessons learned and will soon CAD up the form drawings in the next month or so.

Here is the arch cement in its form-work. The real formwork will need to be done in separate pieces so it can be pulled apart without lifting the arch or damaging the forms.

I used almost a full 80 lbs bag of regular “sidewalk” cement for the first arch.  But I didn’t put in enough reinforcement and didn’t pour the cement very well.  I did it in two pours (mixed minutes apart), but I didn’t mix much across the joint, which is pretty much exactly where it cracked.  I am sure the professional crew doing the actual cement pour will do a better job.

Cracked scale arch

The first arch was made with regular sidewalk cement and insufficient reinforcing, so it cracked…

So I bought a second 80 lb bag cement, but this time I bought the crack resistant kind with the little fibers in it.  I could see the fine fibers before I mixed the cement, but could not see them in the wet cement.  As I mentioned, I poured the second arch in the same form as the first with only a few minutes of prep work to get the form ready for a second pour.   I also used a lot more reinforcing wire.  The second arch worked well, although the hardibacker parts of the form were somewhat damaged by water used to keep the first arch damp during curing.

2nd Scale Arch

This second arch, with crack resistant cement, worked much better.

I would make a few more arches, but I will need to replace the crappy hardibacker board with the polycarbonate material first.  I think I may focus on a few other experiments instead, specifically the solar air heater and some earth tube flow experiments with corrugated drain pipe.  But first, I need to buy myself a decent anemometer… 😉
Architects Over the past weeks, our architects have been busy working on the drawings (they have really come a long way).  At one point, the lead architect realized that they were not going to make it for a fall start to construction.  He asked if we were OK with that or if he should invest in Monster Energy drinks (perhaps applied intravenously to architects chained to their desks) to get things in high gear…   He also mentioned that he was hiring another associate to help with his backlog of projects (we are one of many).  Sherri and I had already figured that we were not going to make it for this fall and would rather things were done well than fast, so we told them we appreciated the faster pace lately, but they could let Peter (the main associate working on our project) off for good behavior.  In the end, a spring start is better for a variety of reasons, so we don’t mind too much.

Website In terms of this website, we are past 1400 unique views and getting roughly 30 to 50 visitors per day (highest ever was 73).  I don’t really think the site is ready yet, so I have not really mentioned it to many people.  Google Analytics lets me see what search terms got people to my site, the number one search was for the new Hobbit movie coming out in December…  Number 2 search term was for Laura Ingalls Wilder (who also lived in an earth sheltered home as I mentioned in my history section).  Some of the other terms that people searched for and found my site were even more humorous.  Oh well, I will take any traffic I can get.  Maybe they will be inspired to research earth sheltered homes further ;).

One funny thing I didn’t expect was how much spam comes in to the website thru comment links…  I get at least 5 a day, which I moderate and delete before anyone else ever sees them.  They are very complimentary, but vague, and often full of spelling or grammatical errors.   Many are over the top (I will try to remember to leave the first one applied to this post as an example).  For instance, I had one that said “This site change my life”.  Wow, quite the comment.  Too bad it was posted with a link to sell shoes or some porn site or what ever…

I have been working particularly on the Earth Tube sections of the website.  It is not done yet, but it has been good for me to get it out of my head and written down.  I plan to add more images soon, including some computer simulation results and perhaps full size physical tests also.

I am also doing a bit for SEO (search engine optimization), so don’t be surprised if you see “earth sheltered” spelled out many times, and some times in bold or italics, etc.  Strangely, I did not try that with the word hobbit (yet), which is generating the most hits…  The Hobbit, Hobbit, Hobbit… 😉

Sourcing  Since meeting with the first plumber (still no quote back from that by the way), I have got quotes back from other window companies, the skylight company, a glass floor company (that would have been nice in the storm room, but not $7K nice ;^), and a variety of HDPE pipe companies and installers.   Sherri found a nice website and is generating lots of leads for me to follow up, including several more plumbers and electricians that I have not called yet.   In the next few weeks we should research to get the exact costs for permits.  We may even get a driveway permit so we will have an actual address.   We will also start getting official quotes for well and septic.

Personal  On Friday, we plan to drive out to Battle Creek to visit someone building their own earth sheltered home with a similar approach (I Beam arches covered with shotcrete applied by the same company I plan to use, Michigan Shotcrete).   I am gearing up for my fall MBA class starting on Saturday morning, and Sherri and the kids are soaking up the end of summer and getting ready for school again in the fall.





Meeting a plumber

Posted on August 5, 2012 by

Earth sheltered plumber?

From the plumbers perspective, our home is really just a slab on grade house… but he was surprised to hear that there was earth on the roof.

The plumber story isn’t so much about the plumber himself, but rather about our meeting.

We had an appointment with the president of the company, made a couple days prior to our arrival. He gave us specific instructions as to which door to enter from the exterior, and to call him when we were on our way. We followed all these steps.  After entering the exterior door, we found ourself in the middle of two hallways, one straight ahead and one to our left, neither of which was very well decorated.  The building was musty and had paper signs taped to the doors.   A sign pointed us straight ahead and through a set of double doors that led to a very large and very dark warehouse. We thought, “this can’t be right”, and turned around to the other hallway.

Down the second hallway, different company names were listed on each, but not the plumber. We passed one open door with a man sitting behind a desk (no computer, just an empty desk). He appeared to have nothing to do except stare out his door at us as we wandered up and down the hallway.  I’m sure that we looked very much lost.  Since he was very attentive to our wanderings, we asked him for directions and he sent us back to the double doors leading to the “warehouse”.  We went back there, and entered cautiously as Simon called out, “Hello?”  It was rather dark to house an office.

Nonetheless, we did notice the plumbers sign made of metal that was attached to the side of the third door down the walkway in this warehouse.  Hmmm, not what we expected.  Both of us had talked with multiple receptionists on the phone while making our appointment. We expected a large company, a large office, and not a smaller warehouse space through the window of a locked door.  There was a doorbell, but no one answered the door.  Were we still at the wrong place?  We didn’t want to head any further into the darker corners of the warehouse.  Surely, there must be a larger welcoming office for customers and this was just an employee workroom?   Simon called the plumber on the phone to confirm our appointment and asked for someone to open the door, we learned that even the secretary wasn’t there. What? Oh, it was just an answering service, and she would leave a message. But we have an appointment, right?

So, not until we walked back again out the double doors trying to figure out where we should be, and then back through the double doors (a fourth time) into the ominous warehouse did we see the shadow of a large figure approaching. Hello? Yes, indeed, this was the plumber. He was just arriving back late from lunch. Our appointment continued for the next hour. A good 15 minutes was wasted on printing the info that Simon had e-mailed to him 2 days prior.  And much time was spent by Simon explaining how our earth sheltered home will be uniquely built.

Simon has so much patience to explain the building processes to so many contractors who have no experience with earth sheltered homes.  This is difficult because some contractors think they already know so much and feel the need to let us know.

This may or may not be the plumber that we choose to hire, we’ll see how the bidding process continues, but, it certainly was an interesting first meeting with him.


Thanks Sherri for adding to this blog…
The funniest part, from my perspective, was the phone call with the receptionist… When I called to ask her where the entrance to the office was, she just repeated the address back to me. I said, “no, we are already there, we just can’t find anything with “Suite 24″ on it. We were on the first floor in the ware house. Was there a second floor and how could we get to it?” She simply said, “I don’t know.”  What? How could she not know? So I asked her to come and let us in.   she said, “Sorry, I can’t do that”.  Eventually she admitted that she was just part of an answering service and she was not even in Michigan.  So I asked if she could forward me to [the president of the company]?”, but no, she couldn’t do that either.  So I said, “What can you do?”  She said she was only able to take a message.
Anyway, if you have a small company, my suggestion is to skip the silly receptionist service and get a cell phone with voice mail and texting instead ;) You are only fooling customers until they visit. Personally, I don’t mind working with a small company, as long as I can get ahold of the right people when I need them.

Earth Sheltered Architect

Posted on August 4, 2012 by

I am still trying to catch you up on the past tense parts of this project.  This segment of the earth sheltered home history took place over the past 9 months and ends with us choosing and hiring our architect.   However, I met with the architect yesterday, and we are not done yet, so it is actually part of the ongoing story and I am not even really sure how it will work out. 😉

I will add a companion page about what I learn about “sourcing” earth sheltered architects here…

This should be the last of the really long history posts (had to work on it over two evenings, but didn’t have time to put in pictures), I am looking forward to discussing current events in my upcoming posts.

The story…

I had actually searched for architects a few times.  I started trying to contact architects by email and phone back in July of 2010.  I told each one that I was looking for someone interested in working with me on a design for an earth sheltered shotcrete home.   As you can imagine, the responses were overwhelming…  Actually, and this is looking at my email record, of the first 5 emails I sent out, I got one response.  He called and we talked, I don’t recall exactly, but I think he scared me off by telling me that “architects charge 18% of the cost of the home…” (I later discovered that this was not always true)  At about the same time, I also discovered that Michigan did not require an architect on a home the size that I was building, so I decided to keep working on the design myself.

Then I had a bunch of meetings and emails with my future neighborhood’s architectural committee, and hardly got any design work done in the 4th quarter of 2011 (blame my MBA classes) so I started to realize that I may need an architect after all…  I figured it was best to keep working on my contacts.  I tried “Service Magic” an online service that turned out to be useless.  I recommend a Google search instead, even architects without pages all list in the online yellow pages.  On October 1st of 2011, I emailed Scott McElrath from Dangerous Architects for the first time.  The next day I sent my first email off to Michigan Shotcrete.  These two, contacted within a day of each other, will probably end up being the core team for my project, which is why I mentioned them by name, but lets not get ahead of the story.   Scott was interested in a meeting, but was leaving the country for a while (international adoption).  Things were delayed and by the time he got back, Sherri and I were busy flipping our house around and were no longer ready to meet.   Nate Hatfield from Michigan Shotcrete also responded and we started a dialog.  Of all the shotcrete companies I called, he was the only one who knew the difference between gunite and shotcrete or what an Earth Sheltered home was.  He was also the only one who didn’t list zoo’s in his portfolio (he only did swimming pools).  He had never done an earth sheltered home, but since I couldn’t find anyone north of Ohio who had, he was still my best bet.  (I did consider importing a crew from the south west…)

About this time near the end of 2011, I also called my lender, Andrew Kudwa of Greenstone Farm Credit Services.  We had bought the land with Greenstone FCS financing (mostly paid off now) and I already knew of at least a couple of other Earth Sheltered homes that were approved by Greenstone FCS.  Many lenders are refusing mortgages for conventional homes, so it is great to find someone willing to lend for an unconventional home.  The meeting was to get the ball rolling on preparing any paperwork I would need for planned construction the following spring, however, I learned a few other things as well.  First was that part of the construction loan process involved a review of the construction documents (blueprints) to estimate the final value of the home.  This would directly affect how much the bank would be willing to loan me.  Apparently this process goes much more smoothly if you hire an architect rather than draw up the plans yourself.   Secondly, I learned that the the money I spend for the architect, engineer, surveyor and other construction related services all counts toward my down-payment on the mortgage.

1) Construction loans are easier with an architect

2) Architect fees count as part of the down-payment on a construction loan.


Since I was having a hard time finding architects experienced with earth sheltering in Michigan, I decided to try some companies who specialized in it and see if I could access their “in house” talent.  I contacted Formworks.  They sell a pretty complete solution, from architectural services, thru engineering and even materials (steel, insulation and waterproofing, all shipped from Colorado).   The problem was that I am not a big fan of their use of insulation or waterproofing, let alone being forced to use a supplier shipping tons of material from thousands of miles away, so asked about excluding those components.  I got a polite letter back about how they have patented their system for building earth sheltered homes, not individual components.  It was all or nothing, so I continued my search.

In February of 2012, with work getting really busy, I asked my wife Sherri to find us some architects.  She found several more and we began setting up appointments.  Interestingly, one of the architects was the “Dangerous Architects” firm that I had contacted weeks before.  The problem was their website “contact us” link was dead and their phone was not working (maybe the website had the wrong number).  I nearly dropped them from the list, but then I remembered that I had got emails from Scott the previous October and was able to find the phone number and email address.

Up to this point, I had been pretty close vested about my plans, so it was an interesting process to prepare a presentation on what we wanted and deliver it to professional architects.  Most of the meetings took well over an hour.  I had a variety of questions, including “do you think I am crazy?”   No one said yes, but I could tell at least one or two probably thought I was. 😉

Scott McElrath of Dangerous Architects was the first one we visited.  We liked him for many reasons (including the name which suggested that he would be brave enough for our project).  He appeared to listen well, he took notes, he didn’t seem to think we were crazy, he was the only architect that wanted to see the property (and drove out to see it that day).  He also scheduled a second meeting (still not hired) to meet with “his” engineer and get his take on our plans.  Scott’s primary concern was that we had not budgeted enough money for the house.  We are hoping that our simple materials (such as cement floors, cement shower surrounds, etc.) and other aspects of our design (no drywall, no painting, very little roofing) would make enough difference… but we will see.  

The next architect we visited seemed arrogant and talked down to us a bit too much.  They didn’t bother to take any notes, when I asked about this, they said that they would get into that after we hired them.  It seemed clear to me that they planned to take us all the way back to programming, except this time it would be on the clock.    Because they planned to start over, they estimated that it would take 6 months of full-time work to get the plans together (with a correspondingly high estimate).

The third architect had some experience with green roofs, but thought that earth was the same temp all the time (heat sink),  that 8 to 12 inches of cover was optimum, that only the top few inches of cement directly in the sunlight could store heat (He thought I had too many windows), and several other fallacies (or at least things I didn’t agree with).  I don’t even recall everything he said, but he spent most of the time trying to impress me by pointing out all the horrible mistakes I had made.  He said I should dump the green house (this one is debatable since many experts would agree with him, but I want one anyway) and dump the storm room (but that is one of the funnest things about the house ;)) and go with bermed walls and a mostly conventional roof and an above ground garage.     His estimate came in at the 18% mark (no real hourly break down, just 18 percent of our budget, he was the only one who quoted us a percentage like that).  Anyway, he wasn’t going to work out.

The 4th architect told me that they didn’t visualize 3D well!  That is like your surgeon telling you that they have shaky hands or your pilot saying they are blind.   Pleasant enough, but not a real candidate for a project like this.  This architect actually bowed out gracefully.

The 5th architect was licensed in Chicago, but had moved back to Michigan for family reasons (his old boss had lots of good things to say about him).  Since he was unlicensed in Michigan, he had to call himself a designer and therefore charged much less than anyone else…  During our initial meeting, he seemed very responsive and made several good suggestions to improve the layout.  He was quite pleasant and likable.  He said he also used Autodesk Revit and thought my drawings would be a good starting point, so he wouldn’t need to charge me to recreate the part I had already done.  That sounded good to me.  The one problem was that my wife Sherri had not been able to attend the meeting.  He had made my short list (along with Scott from Dangerous Architects), but he couldn’t win the bid without meeting Sherri.  We had a second meeting just so he could meet her, but he struck out.  He didn’t make good eye contact or appear to listen to her needs.  This tilted Sherri strongly in favor of Scott.  Since Scott cost 3 times more, I gave her a few days to be sure she liked him that much better, she did.

By mid April, we had signed on with Scott McElrath at Dangerous Architects.   I met his associate, Peter Shaw, who seems really good and had some pre-existing interest in earth sheltered homes.   I guess we had missed Peter with our earlier visits because he is not in on those days.

Since then, the design has been steadily and iteratively moving forward.  It wasn’t easy to hand over the plans like that (or the money), but I am glad I did.

One mile stone was a meeting between the architect and his assistant, and the builder and his partner, and the engineer and his assistant, and me and my partner/assistant…  During that meeting we worked out how the house would get built.  Some big things got changed, for instance, I had planned to shoot the shotcrete from below (based on earlier discussions with the builder), but they said it would be easier (and therefore cheaper) to shoot from above.  We worked out how it would be done to minimize form and labor costs, etc.

The drawings are getting close enough that I actually showed them to friends and family this past weekend.   It still feels like there is a long way to go before it is “right”, but it is definitely moving in the right direction.

That is it for now…  Maybe Sherri can write in about the plumber we met with today… 😉