Originally created 04/22/01

Groundbreaking home



LOUISVILLE, Ga. - When Ken Wheatley wanted to build a house underground, his wife, Cynthia, was skeptical.

But an 80 percent reduction in heating and cooling costs was enough to convince her that it was a good idea.

"He's always wanted one," Mrs. Wheatley said. In the 1980s, Mr. Wheatley worked as an electrician in Wyoming mines and experienced the benefits of earth insulation. Despite freezing weather, the temperature in the mines remained mild.

The Wheatleys began building their home into the side of a Louisville hill in August. The land was given to them by Mrs. Wheatley's parents, who own the surrounding 200 acres.

The Wheatleys dug into the base of the hill to create a level surface for their 1,700-square-foot home. Then crews from Earth Sheltered Technology Inc., a design and marketing company in Minnesota, came to do the initial construction.

The company builds dome-shaped modular homes by applying concrete to aluminum molds.

The standard mold framework is assembled on site. After the wall and ceiling forms are set up, steel bars are inserted to reinforce the concrete.

The concrete is poured in a continuous flow, so there are no seams between the walls and ceiling to leak air. After the aluminum forms are removed, the concrete is a free-standing frame that needs no support walls. Each finished module weighs 1 million pounds.

After modules are complete, the soil that was removed is put back on top.

Atop the Wheatleys' home are layers of plastic, dirt, foam insulation, a pond liner and several feet of soil. Mrs. Wheatley said she may do some landscaping, and maybe a gazebo, on top of the hill.

Traditional building materials are used to divide the domes' interiors into rooms.

Jerry Hickok, president of Earth Sheltered Technology, said that concrete does not reach optimum strength until it has aged for about 100 years. So, the home should last about 300 years.

The company has been in business for about 21 years, and has built about 280 homes around the country. Mr. Hickok said the cost of finished homes ranges from $55 to $70 a square foot, about $165,000 to $225,000 for the average house of 3,000 square feet.

Mrs. Wheatley said the cost might have been slightly higher than that of a traditional home of the same size.

"But hopefully, we'll make up for it," she said, referring to the energy savings.

During a recent warm spell, Mrs. Wheatley was able to feel the difference between her earth-sheltered home and conventional homes. It was nearly 90 degrees outside, but just inside the front door it was 25 degrees cooler.

"And we don't even have the air-conditioning hooked up yet," Mrs. Wheatley said.

Mr. Hickok said the climate control works just the opposite in winter. "Our homes will never, ever - even in the deep freeze of the North - get below 55 degrees Fahrenheit, without heat in midwinter," he said. "It can be 40 below outside and our home will never get below 50. You'll never have a frozen pipe."

Earth-sheltered homes are also tornado-proof and require little exterior maintenance.

"Our homes are concrete, and if you stucco, stone or brick the outside, there's no exterior maintenance. No roof to repair, nothing to paint, and so on," Mr. Hickok said.

The front of the Wheatleys' house is stuccoed with a large front porch that spans the width of the house.

Since their children are grown and gone, Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley planned the home to suit their needs. There's one large master bedroom and 21/2 bathrooms. About 19 feet below the surface of the hill, the kitchen and family room make up a great room, with a built-in entertainment center and domed, 14-foot ceilings.

Mr. Hickok said the domed ceilings help reflect natural light from the front windows throughout the house. "In our structure, the light bounces in that dome and actually illuminates it. It makes it lighter than it is in a conventional home."

In fact, the house is very bright during the day, even without artificial light. Only two rooms aren't reached by natural light: the back bathroom and back multi-purpose room. The rest of the house is open to the windows along the front. The dining room, kitchen and living room are all part of a great room that takes advantage of the windows in the kitchen.

While Mr. Wheatley works as an electrician at Plant Vogtle, Mrs. Wheatley works full time on getting their home finished. She used the dining room wall as her canvas for a pasture-themed mural. She created the kitchen cabinets and trim inside the house using wood from a neighbor's 125-year-old barn. To complement the kitchen cabinets, she is making knobs out of red clay.

The Wheatleys also plan to add a bar or island in the kitchen and paint the floors.

The concrete structure has posed a few challenges for the couple, such as installing the electric wiring. Mr. Wheatley had to drill a couple of extra holes to reach difficult spots.

Another distraction has been the steady stream of visitors wanting to see the home, Mrs. Wheatley said.

Curious people from the area cautiously walk up to inspect the hill that they played on as children.

"I don't mind really, but when you are trying to get all these things done, it kinda holds things up," she said.

Until the home is finished, they are living in a small trailer on the property, with all of their belongings in storage.

"I don't even remember what I have," Mrs. Wheatley said. "It will all seem new to me by the time we get move it in."

Reach:Lisa M. Lohr at (706) 823-3332.