Lately, I have been thinking about where creativity comes from. I have read articles on the subject, sat in on Ted talks, etc. but this is my take on it.
Creative people have a creative mindset that is open to ideas and looking for inspiration all the time. If you were a painter, you would pay much more attention to the visuals around you, you would see more colors. You would pay much more attention to how things look. I remember going to an amusement park after my first year of engineering and all I could see was trusses, momentum, metallurgy and free body diagrams everywhere. Since heading down this earth sheltered path, I constantly come across earth sheltered ideas including everything from welding and concrete to container gardening and tile setting and all the plumbing, HVAC and solar in between. In the old days, it was a lot harder to find relevant new ideas, but the internet has changed all that. Google and YouTube are really stimulating creativity by increased your chances of stumbling across things related to your earlier interests. The world is at your finger tips…
Creativity is also a collaborative process. Yes, you can create something on your own, but even then you are building on earlier ideas you probably got from others. When you collaborate, your creative juices flow more freely. If you don’t collaborate with your spouse during the design of your earth sheltered home, you’re probably gona’ have a bad time. If you collaborate with experienced builders, you could save a lot of time and money. Collaboration with engineers or other earth sheltered building enthusiasts is a great way to get ahead of the learning curve. I tend to have surges of productivity after good discussions with potential trades people who have a specialty in a certain area… No one is universally creative. Instead, we are creative within certain fields. Someone who is musically creative may not be great at decorating or cooking. There is also such a thing as engineering creativity or design creativity… Again, this all goes back to your focus. The more passion and focus you have for a given area, the more creative you can be within that field. When building something like a home, you may need to tap into the creative fields of others to get the job done well.
Passion for an idea helps by compelling you to put more effort into it. Building an earth sheltered home is not for the feint of heart and you should not even consider it if you are not at least a bit passionate about it.
The creative process
Creativity is much more than just a flash of inspiration. In truth, there is a long process of working thru ideas that come in sparks and need work to bring to reality. There has been research into this field and I probably got some of these ideas from various books, but since I was in the mindset, I have been subconsciously scanning for them in my own experience. If you leave out elements of this process, it will stunt your creativity. The inverse is also true. You can stimulate your creative by consciously putting effort into these steps.
Preparation is the first step. It could be research on the topic or practicing essential skills. It could just be your full life experience that puts you in the position to be creative in a certain area. For my earth sheltered home, I have a couple engineering degrees as a good solid foundation, but then I have read more than 2 dozen books on the subject and as many magazine articles as I could find. Every bit of information helps me interpret later knowledge, and new information may lead to a rethink on earlier concepts. I have become an expert (at least a theoretical one) on many related topics. Actually building an earth sheltered home will add to my experience. Reading this blog counts as preparation for building an earth sheltered home. Your background may be unique, perhaps it is in a trade that would be just as useful as my engineering degrees, but you will probably want to read a few books anyway. Passion for the subject will compel you to prepare.
Next comes the incubation phase. This could be over night (sleep on it) or during your daily life between preparation. I get a lot of good thinking done in the shower without computers or other people to distract me. Since you are in a creative mindset, your brain is tuned in and scanning for relevant inspiration. Your subconscious is working to put everything together. Opportunities for collaboration come up and ideas come to the fore. No one really knows how it all works in our heads, but we have all felt it. It is my number one excuse for procrastination. It is why people can spend years designing a home, and then still want to make changes as it is being built (which can be pricey).
After you incubate all that important preparation, you get sparks! Some people would have you believe that the creative spark is the most important part of the process, but it is just a result of doing the first two steps right and then being open to what comes out. It may be that more “creative” people are just more “open” to their sparks (along with having more passion and doing more preparation/practice). I remember the day that I figured out that I would use the open ends of my radiating vaults as dormers… It solved a design problem that I had been mulling over for a while and it was great feeling.
Some people get too many sparks, not all of them are good and too many can be distracting. I guess it is key to know the difference. You need to carefully select the right sparks to develop. Here again collaboration can be helpful. Running a crazy idea by your spouse can help. In many cases my wife (who is smart, with her own masters degree, but doesn’t have the same preparation in the earth sheltered field as I have) has no idea what I am talking about half the time, but I find that just explaining the idea out loud to someone else can help me decide if I should keep it or trash it. Some ideas have been trashed and then dug up later when other information increased their value.
Cross section showing the sloped front of the house with the vault end as the dormers. It may not seem like much now, but I liked it much better than the large flat front or fake mansard roof I have seen on most other earth sheltered homes.
After an idea/spark is selected, you need to elaborate on it. The devil is in the details… You think you have a good spark, but just wait until you CAD it up, or do the math/trig, or combine it with other ideas. It will either develop into something useful or be proven a bad idea. Elaboration takes work, planning and maybe even some experimentation. In my case with the spark of treating the ends of the vaults as dormers, I quickly found that if I sloped the dirt (like earth on a roof) at something near the angle of repose (lets say 45°) from the large end of a vault, it meant that I had no dirt at the edge of the roof and significantly reduced coverage on the outer half of the roof. Visually, the dormer was too large and I still had to deal with how to retain the earth at the end of the vaults. I was just about to give up on that spark, when it occurred to me that I could bring the front edge of the roof forward. Suddenly, the dormers looked right and the earth coverage on the home was sufficient… Of course, now I had to work out another problem (which some architects call a “pattern”), how to create an overhang strong enough to support that earth?
Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) is famous for saying “God is in the details”, I like that better.
This process of preparation, incubation, spark, selection and elaboration is not just a linear one. It gets repeated over and over again iteratively. Problems appear and creative solutions are found. Costs are estimated, ideas are scaled back, etc. It takes time and work. It is a journey and I am enjoying it.
So, at some point, I decided that I wanted to build myself an earth sheltered home. This is not like saying I would like to build a colonial or a bungalow or something that has some know design DNA, or that uses known systems and processes… This is a wide open endeavor with a wide range of possibilities and even more unknowns. I have always been an Architecture buff, so it would have to be nice looking and functional. The engineer in me wanted to build an “engineered house”, what ever that is… I wanted it to be light, but authentic, and a bunch of other vague ideas that would have left any architect scratching his head. Of course, this wouldn’t just be my vage want list, I had a wife and kids who were also giving vague input. My kids wanted tunnels that connected things impossibly (they were not worried about the engineering or cost). My wife’s wants were harder to nail down, but she knows when she doesn’t want something ;^). But everyone was pretty supportive of the overall idea, so I started trying to add specifics to the vision…
Of course, I started by searching the web for other examples (check out my links page). The range was quite wide, from free-form (curvy) shotcrete vaults without a straight line in sight to more “practical” homes with concrete block walls and simple flat roofs. Some basically just buried Quonset huts (maybe a nice cottage idea some day). I have a big folder full of pictures in my computer. I wish I could share them all here, but getting permissions would be too much pain. Instead, here is a google image search, and here is another. The variety is amazing.
Many of the photos came with detailed blogs about their construction. Many were home builders who kept their budget low and did all the work themselves. I did like that idea, but I am full time employed and too busy to build my own home by hand. I am willing to spend a little more (not mortgage phobic) and wanted something more architecturally interesting. You could also see that many had a lot more money than I did (Bill Gates lives in an earth sheltered home), so I won’t be on that end of the spectrum either. There was also a strong contrast between those that were built without any compromise on the scientific principles (no north windows, brown cement floors, insulating shutters, tromb walls, etc.) and those that were built as art, without any consideration for the scientific principles. I wanted to stay married, plus I am a little artsy myself, so I plan on compromising where I need to. For instance, I plan to have a number of windows on the north side to capture the view even though I know they will leak precious heat. I also plan to have rugs on my floor although they inhibit solar gain into my storage mass…
I shared these ideas and pictures with my wife in an “agile” way, trying to get as much input as possible. For instance, i found it interesting that my wife really liked the concrete block or “ICF” idea because she liked the simplicity of the Lego-like construction method. I also discovered that she thinks about thinks like curtains very early in the design process… ;^) So, we initially co-imagined a rather rectilinear cement home (but with fibonacci proportions) with an undefined roof type (research pending) covered in some unspecified thickness of earth…
We cut these standard room sizes out and arranged them on the dining room table
For the actual layout of the home, I got some plan books and looked at single story homes that were about 2400 square feet. I took the room sizes from those and made a bunch of scale room tiles. Sherri and I printed these out and shuffled them around endlessly as we talked about design concepts.
- How do we divide the public and private areas of the house?
- How do we keep the TV noise out of other areas?
- Where can Simon’s office go? (I work from home 80% of the time)
- Why do people put laundry rooms by the garage instead of next to the bedroom?
- Do we need somewhere for our guests?
- How can we keep it affordable and make it interesting?
Also, we didn’t like the idea of an entry that appeared to be leading to a bunker. We wanted the functional areas of house to be on one floor, but I liked the idea of a “storm room” like a gazebo/conservatory on the roof that would give me 360 degree views. I thought a zero flush urinal in the boys bathroom would be a good idea. I really wanted a courtyard, but that idea morphed into a more practical green house or sunroom.
We some how expected that we would be entering from the North side (the earth bermed side) and wanted to avoid the bunker look, so we came up with the idea of the entry cottage. It would look like a little house to disguise the entrance to the underground portion of the house. I liked the idea of a modest little cottage concealing the larger home inside it.
We worked out the look of these rooms with extensive notes (in ppt) for each room.
Layout from Nov 2007, featuring the entry cottage and a decent sized courtyard. It also had a lot of small sunrooms… Funny now to look back at this.
By Dec 2007, I had realized that the courtyard wouldn’t work well in our norther climate, and moved it to the south side
By July 2008, we shrunk the courtyard, tilted some rooms (solar angles) and added the start of the rotunda idea. The walls were still straight because I had not yet figured out a roofing plan. I was considering individual square shotcrete domes for each room.
I used my ppt “skills” to record/share our ideas and layouts for each room in a rudimentary, but useful way. We could edit these easily as we tweaked our design.
I really spent the most time thinking about the structure of the house. I was I going to safely hold up all that dirt without spending too much money or having a house that looked like a bunker? I ended up with this idea of a central tower (the rotunda), with site-cast concrete ribs radiating out from it. There would be shotcrete arched vaults between the ribs passing the load to the ribs, which passed the loads to the ground. It was this central “structural umbrella” concept that changed the design from angular concrete block to the more circular layout built with shotcrete. It was somewhat of a Eureka moment for me as I saw it all come together in my head.
From there, I spend few minutes here or there each day for a month researching shapes for the ribs. I ended up looking into the mathematics of natural shapes such as shells or eggs. These had been studied by ancient mathematicians and Renaissance men and there was a lot of information on the web and in books. Since the ribs would need to be cast on site and lifted into place, I was particularly interested in designs that could be drawn in the field with just a piece of wire (or a stick) and a pencil. I tried these shapes (such as the golden egg, a mathematically sacred shape based on the golden ratio) built into arched ribs at many different angles and simulated loading the ribs with an estimated 68000 lbs of load until I eventually settled on a particular orientation of a 2300 year old euclidean 5 point egg design that had the right proportions.
Golden Egg design
“Golden egg” on its side as part of a rib. However, the heights at the ends were not right, so I would need to tilt it up…
Golden egg, 19 degrees tilt, but still not the right proportions…
Golden Egg, 38 degrees, still not right…
I tried a lot of other eggs, the Euclidean 4 point, the Moss Egg, etc. But this Euclidean 5 point egg, tilted at 41 degrees, had the right clearances, proportions and strength…
I created computer simulations for most of the promising candidates and loaded them with the estimated 68000 lbs that I expected they would each need to carry…
Eventually, by the end of 2008, I got into Autodesk Revit where I could CAD up the model in 3D. Now it was getting interesting. We had spent a lot of time discussing each little detail and there was a reason for everything. All the rooms had purpose, even the angles of the windows were designed to line up views thru the house (and even functioned as a solar clock).
An early version in Autodesk Revit, windows are missing, furniture is still sitting outside, but you can get the idea.
At some point, I hit that little button that calculates the square footage. Ouch, 3917 sqft, plus another 1035 sqft for the garage. We could not afford that much house… How had this happened? We had started from the rooms of a 2400 sqft house, but then probably added a few feet with each alteration. We ended up making some drastic cuts to get it back under control.
Our original footprint was much too large, the house had to go on a diet. The purple outline is the original floor area, the white walls are the shrunk down version… At least for a few days… A lot has changed since then.
Then we went out to shop for some land… I will save that story for another day, but the punch line is that the lot we bought had primary access from the south and best views were to the north, so we had to scrap much of what we liked about these these early designs… More on that later.
I keep checking with my wife and a few other people (architect, engineer, builder, friends, etc. but no qualified psychiatrist yet) and I am told that I am not crazy. So then, why would I want to build an earth sheltered house?
I had just bought my first home when the “Northeast Blackout of 2003” occurred. My new home was poorly built and thinly insulated and had no backup systems. The blackout clearly demonstrated that my home was not designed to keep us comfortable without consuming vast amounts of energy. Maybe at some point I will share some of our regular electricity and gas bills, but suffice it to say they are large. However, I was thankful that the 3 day power outage had not happened in winter, because we also had no backup heat. Since that time, there have been several shorter-term winter power outages where I felt my homes temp drop to the low 50’s in just a few hours. A number of other times we have had the natural gas shut off while the gas company was doing repairs. Our furnace (like most) was designed so it would be worthless if either the electricity or the natural gas stopped flowing. I thought back to the Quebec power outage of 1989 where 4 million people lost power in the middle of winter for up to 33 days. Can you imagine if some freak storm did that in our area? Neighborhoods like the one I currently live it would be devastated. I became interested in moving my family to somewhere more stable.
In 2006, Al Gore released his award-winning “inconvenient truth” about global warming and sea level rise and then (several years later) infamously purchased a 9 million dollar, 10,000 square foot ocean side (sea level) home in Malibu CA. The irony between his stated belief in an impending carbon-induced global-warming seal level rise and his actions to purchase such a huge (carbon footprint) home right at sea level helped push the story all around the world. While others were laughing, I had to think, “If you really believed in global climate change bringing extreme weather, what sort of house would you build?” What if you also believed energy prices would continue to rise? Or if you believed our energy distribution systems were crumbling or threatened?
There have not been very many generations that made it thru their whole lives without being impacted by war or weather or at least a fuel shortage. Consider England 100 years ago… In 1912, two years before the first world war, England had the largest army in the world (and its first airforce), the most advanced education system, a large number of colonies that kept resources and fuel flowing cheaply to its shores, the Titanic had just been built, but not yet sunk, non-stop flights to Paris had just begun, etc. England was on top of the world and I am sure that many Englishmen assumed it would stay that way, but the only constant is change.
If we look at our current situation, do we expect things to remain stable for the rest of our lives? What do we expect will happen to the costs of energy (barring the invention of a nuclear fusion power
plant)? Every one expects energy prices will continue to rise.
Do we see our energy distribution infrastructure getting better? Nope, crumbling.
How about our governments ability to look after us? Soon they will be struggling just to pay the interest on the debt. Taxes will rise, jobs will be lost, etc.
If you agree that one or more of these things are likely, then what sort of home should you build?
How about the weather? Regardless of if you agree that global warming is caused by our pollution or just some natural cycle thousands of years long, the data does seem to indicate that it is getting more extreme… (perhaps weather like this has happened before, but can we at least agree that extreme weather is possible?) More tornadoes, hotter summers, colder winters (the winter between 2011 and 2012 was an anomaly with the jet stream (arctic oscillation) that kept the bottom half of Michigan very warm by keeping all the cold further north, but next winter could very well see the Jet stream come lower and blast us with a colder than usual Canadian winter.) The thought of riding out any of these sorts of events, or even a regular Michigan summer, where my AC struggles to keep the house at 80°, in my flimsy 2×4 and vinyl siding home was not appealing. Tornadoes and strong winds could easily rip my home apart. We had a hail storm last year that put a number of holes in my siding. I always chucle when I see people on the news after a storm (or fire) vowing to “rebuild” after their homes were totally destroyed. Why do most of them build the same type of weak structure that blew away last time…? “Oh no, ya see, this time I used these here hur-can’ straps to hold my roof down…” “Great, much better.” Instead of just hoping for mild weather, why not build a safer way?
So I started looking around. I started with more traditional passive solar concepts, along with the super insulated “passivhaus
” concepts. Some how, I don’t even remember when exactly, I became aware of this “earth sheltered home” idea as a way to moderate the volatile environment around the house. I liked it and started researching, casually at first, but then heavily. I couldn’t find an “off the shelf” idea that I liked. For instance, many of the homes combined earth sheltering with passive solar. This was a good combination, especially in sunny/freezing Minnesota, because the passive solar energy could be stored by the massive cement structures needed to support the earth, and then returned to the home over night. But in S.E. Michigan, we only have 21% sunshine in January, so traditional passive solar with a daily cycle probably wouldn’t work very well. Then I discovered this idea that I could cheaply incorporate the earth around my home into my “solar mass” so I could store even more energy, perhaps several days worth. John Hait takes it further by suggesting you include enough mass to hold the home thru a cold dark winter. I liked that idea, but it called for letting solar heat gain directly into my home during the summer. This would result in over heated summers, and then thanks to losses found in any system, colder than comfortable winters. Then I started reading about solar hot air collectors and it occurred to me that I could reserve my home for living in
and build an external solar collector to “by-passively” heat the earth under my home. If the pipes were buried the right distance under the home, the stored heat would take months to reach my floors at just about the time that I needed it. Also, since I could push the solar heater up to much higher temperatures, I could drive much more heat into the earth (ΔT), and I could be charging up the earth away from the home to take greater advantage of the earths heat conduction lag time. I will talk about many of these ideas in the “Tech Notes” pages of this site, such as Earth Shelter Basics
, Umbrella Basics
, Passive Solar
, Soil Properties
and Earth Tubes
(still working on this last one ;^).
I now had the basic idea, I would look to build a “by-passive
” (my own term) solar earth-sheltered home in S.E. Michigan… I shared the idea with my wife
and she actually LIKED IT! Well that was helpful. This is not the sort of thing you embark on without your significant other. Of course the kids were on board, they put in their requests for secret rooms and tunnels. So I started planning. I used Autodesk Revit for the drawings and tried a number of different configurations. I crunched numbers for engineering and cost, etc.
Back in 2007
, I told my friends that I would probably start building in about 2 years… Well, breaking ground as been at least 2 years away for quite a while now. The 2008 housing crash slowed us down on the sale of our current house (its value dropped to 1/3 of its 2003 purchase price
), but it did make it cheaper to buy the land
we would need. Buying the land in 2009 was clearly a serious step, however, the orientation of the lot forced a serious redesign. Now that we have hired an architect
and an engineer
(two serious steps toward the final goal), had meetings with a builder, got quotes on windows (and more), I would adjust that estimate down to less than one more year (giver or take a few). In fact, we would like to start building in 3 or 4 months, but a lot would have to fall into place for that to happen.
This website will journal my progress as I prep for building and then eventually (Lord willing) as I break ground and begin to actually build this crazy home… We will probably start with some past-tense posts to catch you up to where we currently are…
“The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success.” Bruce Feirstein