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Affordable Housing Means Cost-Effective

The word “affordable” can be vague and is greatly misunderstood. Modern housing is a poor representation of quality living and is often damaging to both people and our environment. Other nations have used masonry and concrete construction for thousands of years. Even the pyramids were built from an early form of concrete, as has recently been verified. However, in North America our forefathers had a plentiful supply of timber. Having short summers and fierce winters, construction time was a precious commodity, so log homes and later wood-frame housing became the standard. Thus, the lumber industry was born.

Today concrete is being more widely used, providing a stronger and much superior building material. However, many factors have caused construction costs to escalate, making standard American housing unaffordable. Sixty-five percent of families today are renting. Many elderly homeowners are being forced to sell their homes because they cannot afford the high energy bills, maintenance, and other rising costs (taxes). The concept of affordable housing has become an elusive dream for many.

The true definition of affordable housing has to consider value vs. investment based on benefits for all concerned. Conventional housing (wood frame) has offered few returns on our investments and has detrimental consequences upon our health, wellbeing, and negative environmental effects as well. Given these parameters, only Earth Shelter construction (residential, commercial, and multi-family) offers logical, financial, environmental and medical reasons to redefine the term “affordable housing “.

In 1979, the United States government declared Earth Shelter housing “conventional housing”. In April of 1980, HUD commissioned the University of Minnesota to study Earth Shelter housing, codes, zoning, and financial issues. The conclusion was not what anyone expected. Earth Shelter construction not only produced a better style of building, but better living conditions, while circumventing zoning problems of past building systems, and establishing housing values 30-40% higher than conventional wood-frame buildings on resale.

Earth Sheltered Living solves many of the building, environmental ecology, human habitat, and medical health problems we face today with wood or steel frame construction. Concrete is composed of sand, gravel, portland (a natural product), and water. Concrete structures have existed for many thousands of years, whereas wood-frame houses are relatively new (300 years). Concrete is not flammable, is not food for any insect, is not chemically dangerous, and will protect us in many ways. Besides being very strong, concrete structures are not affected by time deterioration, as wood or steel structures are, and take less time to build, conserving financial resources.

The financial investment of concrete structures offers a literal payback compared to wood or steel structures. The cost of making concrete has increased 10 times since 1964, whereas the price of wood studs has increased 24 times! The State of Texas offers a discount for (all concrete) Earth Sheltered buildings, whereas wood frame has no discount unless there is 51 % masonry and/or an approved metal roof installed (both of which adds cost to building).

When we consider multi-family structures, wood creates many problems (density, fire, zoning, egress, and possible danger to adjacent structures). Is it any wonder that construction costs have increased? Our metropolitan city governments do not know how to handle this onslaught of issues caused by high-density building (except to create more cost/problems).

The environmental issues caused by wood-based construction are enormous. Timber harvesting (besides ruining the landscape) results in erosion, increased wildfire danger, and wildlife endangerment, not to mention the years it takes nature to recompose itself in its ecological framework.

Then, there is the human factor. We are endangering our own existence. Many of today’s medical problems today are created from the toxic materials in our building systems (residential, commercial, and industrial). We have allergies, sinus problems, learning disabilities, mental disorders, arthritis pain, cancers, even THINKING issues, and all are exacerbated by the building materials we use today. Man repeatedly fails to respect the balance of the natural world, costing a huge physical, emotional and financial toll on society.

On the other hand, Earth Shelter living has significant health advantages not found in other types of housing. Natural light is essential to healthy living. Our Earth Shelter structure uses a domed ceiling for several reasons: first, to eliminate claustrophobic effects. A domed ceiling is collinear, which results in light traveling on the surface and not bouncing off as on linear (flat, vaulted, or cathedral ceilings) This type of ceiling results in three times the lighting ability.

Another advantage of the domed ceiling is that air can move three times easier than on liner surfaces, resulting in better ventilation and fresher air throughout. Domed ceilings are tremendously stronger than linear surfaces. Our domed ceiling is poured monolithically with the walls, resulting in a structure that can bear 50,000 pounds per square foot. Note that most wood frame buildings are designed for 35 pounds per square foot and tilt-wall buildings as much as 120 pounds per square foot. Question: which building would be the most protective in case of a tornado, an earthquake, or a direct hit by lighting?

To examine the medical advantages, we look deeper into Earth Shelter construction. The concrete structure, coupled with higher quality window specifications, will enable the occupants to have a “clean room” type home. These concrete structures have less than a 5 % air infiltration factor. That is to say, air in these homes is exchanged naturally two times every 24 hours. Most buildings leak air constantly; therefore, whatever is outside is coming in. The windows we recommend have thermally-broken frames, are air-infiltrated tested, and the “squiggle” is non-energy conductive. This means that the air inside the home can be of significantly higher quality than that outside. Another way to improve air quality is to use live plants indoors. House plants do three things: 1) remove air contaminates, giving off oxygen as a by-product (called photosynthesis), 2) regulate temperature – heat or cool 70-75 Degrees, and 3) regulate humidity – 50-60%. These plants are God-given to aid us and give us better quality of life.

Health advantages of the Earth Shelter building’s 4-1/2 to 5-1/2 average feet of earth cover are several. First, the occupants are now in a constant negative ionization field. There is much we do not know about magnetism and molecular weights, but this much we do know. Air filtering machines (negative ion generators) improve breathing. Studies have also shown that negative ion generators have relieved arthritis, some forms of cancer, hypertension in people, and in factories work production increased. The negative ionization field created inside the Earth Sheltered home by the thermal mass (earth cover) makes for a healthy breathing atmosphere. [Please note that all earth-covered buildings are not alike in their capacity to support the depth of dirt needed (over three feet) to accomplish this. The depth of dirt is also vital in the safety (protection) of the occupants. These homes are capable of surviving earthquakes of 6th magnitude with no structural damage.]

Let’s examine some differences in Earth Sheltered and wood and/or steel structures. First, Earth Sheltered buildings are “thermal mass”, not “insulated boxes”. We are all familiar with refrigerators and ovens: insulated boxes which require an external energy source in order to function. Concrete and the earth are thermal mass mediums. Thermal mass is the absorption and dispersion of energy flow over a period of time called time lags. In any given geographic area, there is an average yearly temperature. This temperature will equate to the soil’s temperature at some given depth beneath the surface (3-5 feet of depth). This temperature will change in time due to the depth of soil, the type of soil composition, and the amount of solar gain (directly and indirectly). In Austin, Texas, our yearly average temperature is 70 degrees and at a soil depth of three feet will yield a temperature swing of +/- five degrees over the year. In other words, the Earth home would theoretically have a yearly temperature of 70 degrees +/- five degrees with no supplemental heat or air conditioning. I used the word “theoretically” because there are no constants. Inside the building, people generate heat; a baby will generate three times the BTUs that a 50-year-old person will. A refrigerator generates heat, as incandescent light bulbs do, cooking, hot water showers, etc.

Outside the house, we could evaluate the type and amount of grass cover on top of the building. How much solar gain does it receive? Is the grass mowed, or did someone plant prairie buffalo grass to let nature help us? A typical Earth Shelter home of 2,400 square feet in Austin will require about 21,000 BTUs, one fourth or less than is required by a wood or steel structure. Thermal mass has a direct relationship between size and energy requirement, whereas wood and steel have an inverse relationship. A 2,400 square foot Earth Sheltered home may average $85.00 in utility bills per month, where as a 6,000 square foot Earth Sheltered home may average $40.00 monthly (both houses being totally electric, family of five people, and same number of kitchens and baths). The wood or steel building would cost conservatively four or five times that amount in energy bills. So, for the same amount of energy used, we could operate four or five Earth Shelter homes for each wood-frame or steel-frame home. Now, that is affordable housing!

Ralph C. Smoot, Agent