- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 6, 2005

The Garay home nearing completion in Clinton is an underground house built on top of the ground.

That’s not the only unusual element about what Bill Garay calls his “dream home” — one that he estimates will cost just $150 a year in energy bills.

The facade open to the road is a conventional two-story red brick exterior with white columns, an upstairs deck and a bank of windows on either side of the front door. The only clue to the special nature of the site in this tree-lined suburban neighborhood not far from Route 5 is the sight of the sides and rear. They’re rounded and include a planned utility room and garage behind the main structure.

To tease a sense of logic even further, a cupola juts up on the roof, where Bill and Lisa Garay plan to have a garden. The domed roof is made of earth piled atop a cement shell.

The house is more than meets the eye. What an outsider might imagine to be a cavelike interior is really a well-illuminated space. Light comes in from the front and filters down from the cupola onto an open staircase connecting the two floors. There is no basement; storage areas are included in the design. The project is expected to cost around $400,000.

“There’s nothing unusual about the materials, [just] how they are put together,” says Odis Johnson of Design Construction Management Team Inc., the firm that is putting together the 2,300-square-foot house from a “kit” supplied by Formworks Building Inc. of Durango, Colo.

Mr. Johnson has been inventing solutions to match what the couple had in mind for the site — 11/3 acres in the Poplar Hill Estates area.

“We buy a version of the plan and design our own,” says Mr. Garay, a government accountant who clearly is pleased with the gamble he and his wife took when they purchased the plans from Formworks, a company they found on the Internet.

The contract with Formworks includes the steel used on the interior frame but not the cost of the concrete, dirt — some 50 tons of it, wallboard, windows and such things as a sewer and well.

“We’re going on faith, essentially, to see how this thing works. We really don’t know,” he says.

Mr. Garay was looking for energy-efficient homes and thought Formworks had the best model at the best value.

“I like the fact that the house has a small footprint [on the land] and the fact that using concrete means termites and other pests won’t be a problem,” he says. “Another issue I liked is you don’t have to use a whole lot of wood to build it. And it is apparently set up to resist hurricanes and tornadoes.”

Local banks refused the couple a building loan despite professing great curiosity about the project. (They got financing through a Texas bank Mr. Garay had used when he was stationed there with the military.)

The first four contractors they contacted turned them down before the Garays found Mr. Johnson through the Yellow Pages. The architect by training rose to the challenge in part because he hopes to become Formworks’ representative for the Greater Washington area.

Most Formworks homes are built against the side of a hill to take advantage of the site, says company President Dale Piercy, who adds that the building system is designed to “create all kinds of configurations and meet all buildings codes that are pretty much national.”

The dome shape contributes to its stability, he says, as opposed to a square or rectangular shape, which is less strong when subjected to heavy pressure from above.

The earth cover acts as an insulator and is key to keeping the environment at a steady temperature. “Once you set the temperature, it stays because you have so much thermal mass around you,” Mr. Piercy explains. “Outdoor changes can go down to 10 degrees, but the house doesn’t know it. There is no high tech involved, no real maintenance.”

The Garays aim for an ambient interior temperature of 55 to 60 degrees, or higher in winter, and expect to use a wood-burning stove with a heat exchanger as their auxiliary heating source. They also eventually will set up a solar water collector.

“What happens is through cooking and the opening and closing of windows, the interior adjusts to a temperature that is comfortable to you,” Mr. Garay says. “The whole structure will be one temperature. There will be no cold spots.”

“Once the interior reaches a temperature, it is hard to move it,” Mr. Johnson adds. “It can be warm in here and cold outside, and it won’t change because of the soil on top and the lack of any leaks that other houses have. During summer, the sun heats up the soil and permeates down slowly. By the time the heat works its way down, it is winter. And by the time the soil cools down, it is summer again, and you want the cool.”

A small air conditioner can help crank down the temperature as needed.

“We figured during snow season, all the kids around here will come by,” Mr. Garay says, considering the home’s graduated sides as ideal sledding ground.

“I’ll have the waiver sheet ready,” Mrs. Garay says.

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