Inside a Buried Shipping Container Home
This Novel Underground Home Defies Expectations, Combining Comfort and Resiliency
If you were to visit the property of Steve and Shirley Rees, you might have some trouble finding their home. The only evidence of their place is an entryway on the side of a hill. A hill is all there was until they excavated a 40-foot long trench and buried two shipping containers inside.
Why Shipping Containers?
Shipping containers have caught on as a simple option for inexpensive and sturdy shelters. They’re easy to obtain and offer a solid and waterproof design intended for enduring ocean travel. While an underground shelter is about as far as you can get from their original function, the couple has found many advantages to the setup. The reduction in building materials was a significant cost saving, totaling only $30,000, including solar panels.
Most modern underground homes start with walls made of poured concrete or concrete blocks. The Rees home uses poured concrete and steel reinforcement on the top only. The expense and environmental problems associated with concrete have led builders to search for alternative structural materials such as used tires rammed with earth. Some companies, such as Green Magic Homes, have developed prefabricated modular fiberglass composite shells, which perform a similar role to Rees’ steel containers but with the structural benefit of dome shapes.
An underground metal container might sound more like a prison to some. But stepping into the Rees home reveals a bright and comfortable abode. The only windows are on the exposed eight-foot ends where the original doors open out. Nevertheless, high ceilings prevent a sense of claustrophobia, and overhead light tubes allow daylight to penetrate to the rear.
Benefits of Underground Living
The main benefit of underground living is the free heating and cooling it offers. A below-ground structure utilizes the earth’s heat retention, which works like a passive geothermal system. On a 104 degree Fahrenheit day, the interior remains a comfortable 80 degrees with no air conditioning, while in winter, they make do with a portable electric heater. The lack of heating and cooling needs, combined with solar panels, means that the Northern California home incurs minimal energy costs.
Digging into a hillside is a simple way to derive the benefits of this eco-friendly style of living. When no slope is available, the so-called bermed design where the earth is piled around and on top of the structure is another option. One wall is usually left exposed to admit light and passive solar heat.
Underground and earth-sheltered homes have many benefits beyond reduced heating and cooling needs. In these days of more frequent wildfires, they offer a fire-resistant alternative to traditional homes. They’re also less susceptible to earthquakes and tornadoes. If you’re worried about crime, there’s no better theft deterrent than hiding your whole house. Imagine thieves looking over your land and deciding there’s no house to burgle! There’s also some degree of protection from the ever-increasing bombardment of wireless microwave radiation. At the same time, builders should determine the potential for radon gas in their area and take mitigating measures as needed.
But the main appeal of living in an earth-sheltered home is knowing you are living in better sync with nature. The benefit goes beyond the reduced energy demand. An earth-sheltered home uses less building material, reducing or eliminating the need for paint, siding, shingles, and so on. There’s less outside maintenance needed, as well. On a hot summer day, a conventional home sits below hot asphalt shingles. Meanwhile, an earth-covered roof is a cool meadow that produces oxygen, absorbs rainwater, and provides space for insects and wildlife to roam.
While a buried shipping container eliminates many of the steps found in a conventional building, Rees was aware of some unique challenges to this approach. They surrounded the entire structure with gravel and drainage tiles to eliminate water buildup and insulated it with 4 inches of styrofoam to prevent rust. A ceiling fan keeps air moving to stop dampness. They also had to find ways to finish the interior while working with steel walls. Rees avoided drilling holes, as any punctures could promote corrosion.
Due to its unconventional design, the Rees home was uncharted territory for the building permit office. They were careful to make sure their well and septic system were compliant. As always, checking with the permit department during the planning stage is the best way to avoid complications down the road.
Rees hopes their experiences will help others make use of his innovative design, and he’s detailed the construction process in a book called “Off Grid and Underground: A Simpler Way to Live.”