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recently lengthened the expectancy to fifty years, and it may go higher. (Penta is also too new to have been field tested for a long period.) The wooden walls should last nearly as long as the polyethylene behind them. Wooden beams do well. There are wooden beams on old mill buildings in the eastern part of the country which are as sturdy after " two hundred years as they were when they were installed. Some buildings in England are reported to have load-carrying beams four hundred years old.
The one weakness in the system, then, would appear to be the posts. Yet, if industry is guaranteeing the posts to last for fifty plus years out in the weather, we might reasonably expect them to last for seventy years or more in the shelter of a house where they are not exposed to rain and sun, freezing and thawing. And when they do rot out they may be replaced with a minimum of fuss and effort. They may be replaced individually causing no disturbance of the roof or earth, plants and animals above. The technique for replacement is discussed later.
THE EARTH/CARPET FLOOR
Aside from the prevailing prejudices against underground housing itself, there are few concepts which create more resistance than the thought of an earthen floor.
For good reason. Once the straw on the floor of my $50 underground house wore out, the dust began to rise creating a film over everything in the place. Earth is not so much fun to sit or lie on either. You feel, well . . . dirty.
Mexican women seem to solve this problem somewhat by sweeping water into the floor daily hardening or setting up the earth at least temporarily. Some folks in the southwest sweep linseed oil into their floors, wait a day or so, and repeat the process. Though still allowing "give" this sets the earth nearly like concrete; you can wipe up a dropped egg without getting any earth on the rag. Others go to more elaborate and artistic extents: they mix up adobe, pour it six inches thick on the floor, smooth it down, wait for days or weeks for it to dry and crack into the mosaic of dried mud, mix up another adobe mixture and fill in the cracks, wait for it to dry, sweep in linseed oil and wait for it to dry and then repeat with linseed oil again. The resultant floor looks like tile, sets up like concrete yet still has give to the walker and will not poke through except when walked across by someone wearing spike high heel shoes or loggers calked boots. Even then, repair is as simple as mixing up a small adobe mixture and filling the holes.
Our own favorite flooring, bar none, however, is a simple earth/polyethylene/carpet floor.
We vastly prefer this over both concrete and wooden floors even when they are carpeted.
A concrete floor costs a lot of money to pour. It is cold and unpleasant to look at. If there are plumbing pipes, electrical conduits, or radiant heat tubes beneath, any malfunction is a disaster necessitating the hiring of a jackhammer crew and cement mason besides the repairman.
But the worst thing about a concrete floor is what it does to someone who has to walk on it all the time. As countless housewives, store clerks, and factory workers have learned to their sorrow, working continually on concrete floors usually results in varicose veins, fallen arches or other foot and leg disorders.
To be continually pounding your feet and legs against an unyielding surface is only slightly less damaging than to be continually pounding your head, fists or other body parts against an unyielding surface. Duckboards, thick carpets, rubber mats and the like are often employed to help ease the situation but they are only sops. The problem is that concrete was used in the first place.
In recognition of this dilemma, wooden floors are built. There is a give to wooden floors which eliminates most of the varicose vein/fallen arch syndrome. However, wooden floors present a series of problems of their own. Consider:
Wooden floors are quite flammable. Burning objects have a way of falling, and if a wooden floor is what they fall upon it could be all over. Wooden floors should be regarded as fire hazards.
Wooden floors are noisy. At best they creak and groan. At worst, say when there are children playing on them in hard heeled shoes, they are intolerable. You might as well have a herd of children tap dancing across a giant snare drum as have them playing on a wooden floor. Carpets help but do not eliminate the problem.
Wooden floors are expensive. First you have to set 2x6 or 2x8 joists, build cross bracing, lay subflooring, building paper and a good quality tongue-and-groove hardwood. You must drive nails everywhere. That's a lot of material and a lot of labor.
Wooden floors are subject to rot and to termite attack. For this reason, and because it is necessary to do something to make it possible to work on the pipes beneath without ripping out the floor each time something goes wrong, "crawl spaces" are built. (This is where there is no basement or where the house is not pole construction.)
Crawl spaces are just what their name implies—areas in which to crawl around under the wooden floor inspecting or spraying for termites, or to work on the plumbing or electrical systems. Crawl spaces also are constructed to allow circulation of air to inhibit rot in wooden floors caused by damp. This has the unfortunate effect of bringing cold air under the house in winter which makes the floors cold and further raises heating bills and wastes energy. It can also freeze the pipes.
Crawl spaces are usually constructed by raising the concrete footings of a house a ample of feet. This involves considerable ex
pense in the shorings for the pour, re-bars and concrete, and, of course, labor.
Earth/polyethylene/carpet floors, however, circumvent all these problems. Though there is a certain amount of labor involved in smoothing out the earth before laying the carpets, it is less labor than is involved in making a pour. Getting at malfunctioning pipes and conduits is as simple as rolling up a carpet and layer of polyethylene and getting out a shovel. Aside from the cost of polyethylene and carpet, this floor is dirt cheap.
Yet the greatest benefit is how the earth treats your feet and legs. It treats them beautifully. It treats them as though you were strolling in a grassy meadow. Your feet and legs were designed to walk on earth. No one will ever improve upon earth as a composition for the health and comfort of the lower extremities.
The earth/carpet floor is relatively fireproof. It is silent to the tread. It does away with all of the crawl space expense and hassle. The pipes, buried snugly in the womb of the earth, will never freeze. The floor stays warm, drawing upon the geothermal energies. With the polyethylene barrier protecting the carpet, this floor cannot rot. Termites are never a problem.
Some consider the earth/polyethylene/carpet flooring the finest available to man.
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You MUST have a good design if you are to build a fully livable house. Please do not think that you can sink a box into the ground and let it go at that. There is much more to it. Even many of the trained architects building underground today are botching the job so pay close attention. Since you will have to live with your design strengths and weaknesses daily for years, or perhaps the rest of your life, this chapter on design is the most important part of the book for you.
First off, we will be dealing primarily with underground houses on hillsides. Hillsides are preferred building sites for a number of reasons. For one, the drainage is better. For another, you stand a better chance of getting a sweeping view. Still another is that hilly land is traditionally less expensive than flat land, and it is what most back-to-the-landers usually wind up with. Sewage disposal is greatly simplified when there is indoor plumbing. Then there are the terrain advantages of building on the warm, sunny south slopes in cold climates and on the cooler northern slopes in hot climates. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, flat land is usually prime agricultural land and should be left as such.
This is not to turn you off if all you have is flat land or if, for whatever reason, your best building site is in a flat area. If you must build there by all means build underground. Unless the flat land is swampy, poorly drained, or has little soil above bedrock, there is no reason a U house won't work. We'll present some designs later in the chapter which are applicable to flat areas. Hillsides are just better building sites, whether the house is below or above ground, that's all.
Aside from choosing the site itself, there are three major points of consideration when designing a U house. These are (1) drainage, (2) windows and view, and (3) the living area and features. Of the three drainage is by far the most important. It is the one you have to whip first before you can begin to consider the others. A house that leaks is a house that fails.
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