Earth-sheltered homes bring environmentally conscious living to SWFL

Local scientists are building an earth-sheltered home in Southwest Florida in an effort to create a sustainable way of life.

The earth-sheltered movement has arrived in Southwest Florida. Or at least one earth-sheltered home has arrived. It’s being built by FGCU environmental scientist Dr. Serge Thomas and his wife, Marsha Ellis, a middle school science teacher.

“I think we went to visit a few (earth-sheltered homes) in north central Florida,” Thomas said. “When you first enter the home there is something magical that happens and you can only understand it when you get into one. I didn’t expect that.”

What is an earth-sheltered home?

Thomas’ home consists of multiple domes connected by tunnels. The structures are covered in concrete and then three inches of dirt goes on top, covering the home. Grass, or in this case, creeping ficus, gets planted in the dirt to help keep it in place.

The structure is designed to be sturdy and protect against natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, and keep your energy costs low.

“Realistically we’re able to cut 90 percent of the heating and cooling costs out of a home, no matter where we place that home,” said Jon D’Aleo, a Formworks Building, Inc. sales representative.

The Colorado-based family-owned company has helped create plans for earth-sheltered homes all over the U.S. and Canada. Formworks Building, Inc. also designed Thomas’ home.

“It’s a real cool design, it’s going to function real well down there,” D’Aleo said.

How does it help the environment?

As an environmental scientists, Thomas wanted to make sure what he built was sustainable and good for the ecosystem. He’s also using this project to teach his college students.

“This is a good opportunity to show them (students) you can build sustainable and still have an attractive house,” Thomas said. “It’s not a tiny home or a home built with tires or bottles, so it actually is something that is solid concrete, very appealing aesthetically, so I think it’s really a big plus.”

Some of the building materials have dual roles. For instance, the foam in place on the inside of their dome is helping to keep the concrete in place while curing. It will then be taken out and put on the outside of the home, before the dirt is placed on top.

The dirt is also key in keeping energy costs down.

“Basically the temperature stays constant all the time and you don’t have to do much to keep it constant because the earth is acting as buffer between you and the outside,” Thomas said.

And the time and energy you save in maintenance is also alluring to customers.

“Replacing your roof in 15 years, painting your home, we cut out a lot of that from an exterior standpoint,” D’Aleo said.

Do-it-Yourself Kit

Just like a lot of their customers, Thomas and his wife are doing a lot of the work, themselves.

“It’s a relatively easy system to assemble,” D’Aleo said. “You stand up the ibeams, bolt it together. It requires rebar then we shotcrete.”

And when the job is too big, Thomas says they hire a company, like the one they called out to put in the shotcrete. But overall, Thomas said anyone can put the home together, even with no construction experience.

“If you’re in decent health, because you have to climb, and if you’re not afraid of heights you can do it,” Thomas said.

Work-in-progress

It will take a few days for the crew to get all the concrete in place, then a protective membrane will go on, followed by the foam. Then it should be ready for the dirt.

The plants, which Thomas and his wife are growing on site, will be transplanted after that.

Meanwhile, Thomas hopes more people in the community will become interested in this greener way of life.

“We are the pioneer and we hope that more people will follow.”

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