Lightwells are hollow, usually round, shafts of concrete which come from the surface down into the interior of a house to bring in light. The interiors of the shafts are always covered with a reflective paint.
There is no question that lightwells do the job; they can provide a surprising amount of light. They have their place under certain difficult design conditions, particularly where the application is to be an industrial one. Who can deny that, in this era of energy shortage, it is preferable to have a natural light source rather than an artificial one?
However, we do not recommend light shafts for the owner-builder, particularly not for the penny-pinched homesteader. They provide neither view nor (in most cases) ventilation. They solve no drainage problems, can't be used as greenhouses or as barbecue windows.
But the main objection is cost. They are simply prohibitively expensive. In some cases the cost of a ten or fifteen foot concrete light shaft may be more than a homesteader can afford to spend building his entire house. Forget lightwells.
DRAINAGE: The French Drain
Drainage, we have repeatedly said, is our most worrisome problem with underground housing.
Building at as low a cost as we do with PSP we cannot count on the materials to waterproof the house. Polyethylene, though an absolute moisture barrier, is a frail substance prone to rents and tears. Being amateurs who build these things, our workmanship often leaves something to be desired. That forces us to rely on sound design to pull us through the threat of leaks.
For this reason we will emphasize again and again that you must design so that water never backs up against your house or collects in pockets on the roof. Give water an easy exit and it will take it rather than trying to fight its way through your home's defenses. For this reason the initial consideration on all of our designs is drainage.
We have previously stated how the Basic Design with its shed roof effortlessly dis poses of all precipitation falling on top of the house. We have explained how the Uphill Patio intercepts the drainage coming down the hill and gives it a chance to soak into the ground before reaching the house. But what if you are in an area of exceptionally heavy rainfall and/or what if your soils drain poorly? The answer here is the French drain.
The French drain is simplicity itself. It is nothing more than a ditch or trench filled with small rocks or gravel (sand in a real pinch) which gives the water an easy exit away from the house. The bottom of the ditch must be graded for "fall" so that the water runs downhill away from the structure. Water is as reluctant to leave by an uphill route as a journalist is to leave the free bar at a press conference.
If you have any doubts about the soil around your house by all means put in a French drain. Start by putting it the length of the Uphill Patio. Dig a ditch at least a foot below the floor level. Run the ditch around the side of the house which you judge to be the most likely to have drainage problems and off downhill making certain that you have sufficient fall. Should you be in a particularly wet area, you may want to put the drain on all sides of the house from a foot or more below floor level all the way up to roof level. If you happen to be on the Oregon or Washington coast or other area of ridiculous rain, and if your soils are clay besides, you may want to put drain tile at the bottom as an added precaution.
SPECIAL DESIGNS: The Ridge House
There is a design site I haven't mentioned yet: the crest of a ridge. Of all possible underground building sites, I guess this has to be my favorite. It is possible to build a U house through the crest of a ridge which will have optimum drainage, spectacular views, and yet be all but invisible to the neighbors below.
I have such a building site on my property in Idaho. It's on a ridge which rises several hundred feet above the valley floor. There is a house under construction there which when completed will offer a view fifteen miles to the south to a mountain called Roman Nose, and thirty-five miles to the north to the Canadian border. Two valleys are visible from the site—Deep Creek and the Kootenay—and two mountain ranges, the Purcells and the Selkirks. My design fully utilizes this panoramic sweep.
Back in 1969 and 1970, before I received the inspiration to go underground, I began a cabin on this ridge. I got the frame up, the floor laid, the roof on, and was beginning to side the thing off when I came to my senses.
I was having a problem with winds there. The winds tore off the roofing. Taking a good look at the trees around the building site I could see that most of them were wind damaged; they had either lost limbs or had snapped completely off at the top. Since the cabin was constructed up on cedar posts with the floor laid on that and the frame built on top of the floor (this is to say it did not have the strength of true pole construction), I began having visions of the whole house blowing off the ridge like a box kite once it was completely sided off. For a while I considered wrapping cables around the roof beams and attaching them to "dead men" (buried logs) to keep the house in place, but it didn't feel right. Eventually I decided to tear the whole mess down and go underground.
The original plan called for one massive room (which could later be partitioned off along the interior support posts). We would cut six feet deep completely through the ridge from one side to the other, shore up the earthen walls and put doors and window glass from floor to ceiling on the two open ends. This is still the basic plan but there are additions.
The open ends face to the north and south. There is a slight fall to the ridge to the west and it is this fall which I planned to utilize to get a pitch to the roof. Since the fall is only two or three feet in the some twenty-four feet which is to be the width of the room it did not seem to be enough pitch to ensure good roof drainage. So . . .I've decided to raise the eastern portion of the roof some three feet above ground level in a sort of clerestory effect. This should give adequate drainage and at the same time make it possible to add eastern windows to catch the morning sun.
There was still an excellent view to the west which would go unutilized. To the west are the Selkirk mountains. Much of this wall of the house would have to be solid earth to absorb the roof run-off and provide stability of structure. However, there seems to be enough room there to add a gabled kitchen area extended out from the wall which will give the lady of the house the afternoon sun to work by, and the evening sunset. Since kitchens in homestead households are busy areas which must be spacious we'll extend the kitchen into the main room also and partition out the traffic flow by use of a massive built-in dining room table and cabinets and work counters. The end result will be a kitchen which is integrated with the whole house yet is separated by waist-high functional partitions. The kitchen will catch the morning sun, through the clerestory, will have views to the north and south through the walls of windows and will have the single exclusive view to the west. It will be the heart of the house and the lightest, airiest room of all.
Eventual expansion of the house has been taken into consideration. On the southern shoulder of the ridge is an old, grown over logging road. With a minimum of digging this cut can be utilized for rooms stringing off to the east, each of which will have full southern exposure for maximum winter sun. Roof overhang, of course, will provide shade from the high, hot summer sun.
The Ridge House
This is the house the author is most looking forward to building. It is under construction now (has been for several years) high up on his Idaho 40 acres.
The main body of the house cuts through a ridge giving views of fifteen miles to the south and thirty-five miles to the north while remaining all but invisible from other dwellings. This section (kitchen, living room, etc.) is being constructed first. It is designed so that the rooms to the north with their heat bleeding walls of windows may be closed off in the winter to save fuel.
The kitchen (the heart of any true rural household) is placed so that it will be out of the main flow of traffic yet be in sight and sound of most sections of the house ("What are those kids up to now?"). Though separated from the living/dining room area by an elevation change no steps need be climbed up or tripped over when serving at the massive (5'x8') dining room table since this table is incorporated into the level change itself. The table also doubles as a kitchen work table. Depending upon where the worker sits there are possible views in four directions. By sitting on stools on the kitchen side of the table it is possible to look out through the opened doors to the north, or up through the clerestory windows to the east. Sitting on chairs in the dining room section allows views through the sewing and greenhouse areas to the south or out through the gable windows to the west.
The sewing and greenhouse areas are separated only by waist high shelves. People who spend considerable time inside a house appreciate the opportunity to work among greenery.
The east wing of bedrooms and baths will be built later when time and finances allow. This section features a Japanese-style family bath (solar heated), regular size tub, shower and two toilets. One of the.toilets will open to the outside so that those working outdoors need not track up the house.
Unlike the main section which drains to the west, the wing will drain to the north. At a glance this wing would appear to be a First-Thought design, but not so. The potentially disastrous First-Thought design is when a structure is built on a hillside with all that water coming down upon the house. This wing is built into the crest where there is not only no drainage coming down the hill, but a steep north drop off to take care of the roof run-off.
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