ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
The last time the United States faced a national energy crisis, Max Terman and his family joined the underground resistance.
The fuel crisis of 1973 prompted Terman, an environmentalist and natural science professor at Tabor College, to move ahead with his plan to build their new house underground, where they could wage a quiet war against the over-consumption of natural resources and live more peacefully with nature.
And he hoped to live more economically, too.
It’s been 21 years since the Termans moved in to that house, located about six miles south of Hillsboro along Indigo Road. How would he evaluate their pursuit of such lofty goals?
Very down to earth. On all points, the project has been successful.
“The bottom line is that it probably saves us 80 percent on energy costs,” he said.
Interest in conservation and earth-sheltered housing waned during the Reagan years, Terman said. But today, when energy prices are skyrocketing again and the debate between reducing energy consumption and expanding energy production has reignited, people are considering their options.
“People are saying, ‘Wait a minute-the live-it-up lifestyle is not automatically the way to go,'” Terman said.
But he is the first to say earth-sheltered housing isn’t the best option for everyone.
“Earth-sheltering is just one strategy among many,” he said. “I think the very tight, well-insulated small house is an excellent way to go. The style I’ve chosen, if everybody did it, would be a problem. You have to have a mix of approaches.”
The national furor over energy shortages and long lines at the gas pumps in 1973 was the stimulus Terman needed to put his principles into action.
“That’s when I started to think, well, if I’m going to do all this talking (about the environment), I ought to start walking and start living that way,” he said.
Careful planning has been the key to the success he and his family have enjoyed in their nontraditional house.
“Really, it was designed pretty well,” he said. “I really put in the time, hired structural engineers, solar architects and other experts. Functionally, we really haven’t had any problems.”
The only significant maintenance the house has needed in two decades was to seal some plastic tubing in the bathroom. Otherwise, it has functioned-and lasted-as planned.
Terman was so pleased with the results that he wrote a book about the practical issues of earth-sheltered housing. The book was published in 1985 by Van Nostrand Reinhold Co. of New York.
Terman said he and his family average about 600 to 800 kilowatts of electricity a month, compared to the 2,000 or so kilowatts the average traditional house consumes over the same period.
For heat during the winter, the house combines the insulation of the earth with solar heating and wood-burning stove. The earth’s constant 55 degrees is the key source of cooling in the summer.
“We also have a water-heating heat pump that heats our water and at the same time takes the edge off the air and the humidity,” Terman said.
Energy economics was a major motivation for building the house, he said, but he also saw two other significant advantages: tornado protection and a wildlife-friendly living area.
The latter advantage was particular important for Terman because of his work with animals through his biology and zoology courses.
“We’ve really had the opportunity to see a lot of wonderful wildlife up close,” he said.
Even though the house has functioned admirably for more than two decades, he acknowledges that earth-sheltered housing still faces some negative stereotypes.
“I think most people would feel it’s dark and dingy and wet and moldy,” Terman said. “If you don’t design them right, they are. But like anything, if you pay attention to detail, there are ways of solving those problems if you take the right strategies.”
He said it is well worth the time and expense to consult experts in the field before launching such a project.
“You can’t draw these plans on the back of an envelope,” he said.
He estimated that building an earth-sheltered house will cost between 10 to 20 percent more than building a traditional house of the same square footage. The savings comes in energy and maintenance.
Terman thinks that until the United States successfully expands its energy mix to include solar, hydrogen, wind and nuclear, the present energy situation will continue to keep prices high.
“We were at a watershed point during this last election,” he said. “If Gore would have been elected, with his environmental background, I think we would have had more of a top-down look at the issues. With Bush, I think we have a more bottom-up look at it.
“But I think Bush is adaptive enough that he’ll read the handwriting on the wall and say, ‘Well, conservation is important.’ Energy supply is also, but without conservation you’re standing on one leg.”
Terman said conserving energy is not just an issue of the personal pocketbook. It’s also an issue of global justice.
“I heard someone on television say the other day that this is the American lifestyle that we all have a right to,” he said. “That’s thinking in the wrong direction. I think the lifestyle we all have a right to is an efficient stewardship.”
Terman realizes earth-sheltered housing isn’t an option for many homeowners, particularly those who live in towns and cities. But they can make a difference, too.
“The advice I would give people is to insulate well, invest money in good windows, plant a tree out front so you can get some shade during the summer, learn to live at 78 degrees instead of 70 in summer, and in very way possible, get more frugal,” he said.