- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs instead of old-fashioned incandescent models. A wood stove instead of a central heating system. A mudroom to separate main living quarters from the garage.

Bill and Lisa Garay of Clinton, use these and other means to save on energy costs and be as environmentally friendly as they can.

But they have gone further in their efforts than nearly any other homeowner they know by constructing a semi-underground home whose main feature is a rounded concrete dome roof covered with 100 truckloads of dirt. The dirt, which will eventually have grass to help control the water flow, acts as an insulator against extremes of hot and cold and — an added bonus — is said to make the house earthquake-proof.

Earthquakes haven’t bothered them yet, but they are reassured by the manufacturer of the building “kit” they followed that their earth-bound home would hold up well should a tremor come their way.

“I’m told it wouldn’t wiggle or suffer the crack-the-whip effect that happens to homes on the surface,” Mr. Garay explains.

Most owners of similarly styled homes made from directions and materials supplied by Colorado-based Formworks Building Inc., are in the West, where such matters are of greater concern. The Garays simply wanted a dream home custom-made that would reduce heating and cooling expenses to $150 a year.

For a number of reasons, mostly to do with the “tweaking” that all new homes undergo, they have yet to achieve that goal. But even during the coldest days this month, when temperatures were below average most days, their ambient temperature seldom dropped below 60 degrees, Mr. Garay says. During summer’s hottest hours, their main problem was humidity. They fought back by installing a few window-unit air conditioners.

The Washington Times profiled the home in December 2005, tracking progress from May to early December as the 2,300-square-foot dwelling rose from bare ground on an acre and a third at 8305 Poplar Hill Drive. (The home has only a semi-underground status because the facade is exposed in conventional fashion.) In the months that followed, so many strangers came to see it that the couple had to put a “Keep Out” sign on the property.

“They would drive right up to the garage and peer in,” says Mr. Garay, a government certified public accountant who, along with his wife, runs an independent tax and financial-planning service out of his home. Normally a patient, affable man, he drew the line as curious intruders grew in number. With many of the area’s trees felled in ground-clearing efforts since they moved in last June, the Garays’ privacy was eroded further.

Observers keeping their distance on a drive-by in the suburban neighborhood — targeted for development — see a tall two-story red brick front punctuated by white framed windows under a sloping foreshortened roof. But three gray stone block retaining walls hint at the unusual specter in the back and sides: man-made earth mounds resembling camel humps topped by a squared cupola jutting above the roof line.

Interior walls are defined in large part by the resulting rounded curves, which caused a minor problem when the time came to shop for lighting fixtures. “This is very basic caveman style,” Mr. Garay says. But he maintains it is a cave flooded with natural light even on cloudy days from the eastward-facing front windows and the cupola structure on top.

“Curves give it character,” Mrs. Garay says.

There were times early on, however, when the construction team, headed by Odis Johnson of Design Construction Management Team Inc. of Clinton, often had to improvise when putting together the metal frame and Sheetrock molding. Mrs. Garay had hoped to install sconces but settled for track lighting because of the difficulty of working with the curving shape of the walls.

Both natural and unnatural events caused some delays and setbacks, but the couple’s original goal of spending only $400,000, including buying the property, turned out to be an underestimate. Mr. Garay now says the total cost so far is closer to $425,000 and, even at that, they had to scale back on certain projects.

The large garage — the second mound in the rear — remains unfinished; it eventually will contain an entertainment room and storage area as well, Mrs. Garay says. Flooding from heavy June rains slowed them down, too. Then came the birth of Jane Alexandra, now 6 months old. Mrs. Garay gave up a full-time job to stay home with their first child, which reduced their income.

They had hoped to install bamboo flooring in the large open downstairs area that features a kitchen with granite countertops and cherry cabinets, but “we ran out of money,” Mrs. Garay says. A solar water-collecting system also fell prey to budget constraints.

With a newborn in the house, they felt they needed to raise the comfort level. That meant using space heaters, fed by electricity, in addition to the wood stove on the ground floor. Even building a fire only once in three days, with a fan to spread warm air, the stove required two cords of wood at nearly $150 a cord. Space heaters and air conditioners meant that electric bills were $100 a month. This is only temporary, the couple say.

Because not all the four-inch deep protective dirt layer was in place before winter, the soil did not have enough time to get warm, which meant there was not full protection from the elements. The indoor temperature fell to 55 degrees. Normally, temperatures are stabilized indoors each season by a geothermal effect.

“By the time the dirt heats up in the summer, we are into the fall and winter. And by the time the dirt cools down, we are back to summer again,” Mr. Garay says. The cold dirt topsoil currently is covered with straw to protect the grass seeds awaiting spring sun for their growth.

“I would have preferred having a heating-and-cooling system built in, just in case we needed it,” Mrs. Garay says. The irony is that a unique ventilation system that works like a radiator is in place, Mr. Garay says. “Only I failed to use it. The system takes in outside air and runs it through a series of coils. It feeds off the electrical system but is much cheaper than a heat pump. It came with the house, and we should have used it. I just didn’t believe it would work. The manufacturer kept telling me: ‘Did you turn the thing on?’ ”

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