Renewable Energy: Earth-sheltered house evolving

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117692913932702.jpg’, ”, ‘Rear elevation of the Earth-sheltered house, looks like a Midwest barn.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117692918230255.jpg’, ‘Photos by Sonia Vogl’, ‘Front elevation of the Earth-sheltered House.‘);

From the road, the visitor sees a tan barn with two cupolas behind a small hill blending into the flat prairie farmland. On closer inspection, the barn becomes a garage with an attached house concealed by the mound of dirt.

“Come in—it’s not quite finished,” comments owner Doug Kroupa as he helps the visitor up the gravely approach to the front door. This house is a work in progress—three years ago when the Energy Fair hosted a field trip to it, visitors saw bare concrete and gaping window openings. The concrete has been drywalled and the windows finished, but many months of work lie ahead.

The earth-sheltered house built by Davis Caves of Armington was designed for low maintenance, durability and energy efficiency. Kroupa, who designed the 911 system worldwide, considered the idea for this house during the first oil embargo, and has been thinking about it ever since. His thoughts eventuated in a home for him and his wife, Jean.

The Kroupas purchased 20 acres of land, including a five-acre lake from the highway department after I-88 was completed.

Although the building is earth sheltered, it’s not like the caverns of the 1970s. No windows on the north provide the impression that there is simply another room there, not tons of dirt.

The basic structure was finished in three months. Kroupa was the architect and general contractor for the building and is doing all the finish work himself. Sometimes he finds it relaxing, sometimes maddening. He’s doing his own plastering (someone else put up the drywall), painting, electrical work and trim. He, his son and two nephews installed the hardwood floors.

He feels that by breaking a job down into small steps, it can be done. He claims he would “go nuts if I bought 165 gallons of paint all at once; but a few at a time are ok.” He paints one room, one closet at a time.

Local businesses provided all materials and installation.

A tool shed near the house served as a prototype for the 110-foot long house composed of 30 tons of structural steel, 900 cubic yards of 4,500 psi concrete and 19,000 square feet of drywall.

The roof, at a 43 degrees angle, was designed for solar—either PV or hot water—which could be added later. There is enough space for panels that could provide hot water for six. Overhangs completely block midday summer sun from entering the windows, but in winter, sunlight shines half-way through the house.

Argon double-pane windows provide R10 insulation; large bedroom windows double as escape routes. Foam blown into 2-foot by 6-foot walls provides R30 insulation. Hardwood flooring is renewable bamboo with commercial tile in the laundry room. Solatubes through 6 feet of dirt and ceiling provide sunlight to the long hallway. Ceiling fans prevent the tight home from feeling stuffy.

The house has a heat recovery unit, two air changes per hour and two-stage forced air. The higher blower is seldom used. It also has the first tankless water heater in Rochelle.

Quartz, recycled “stuff” and polymer counters in the kitchen, custom designed for a tall family, won’t absorb anything.

The house is built according to Americans with Disabilities Act standards with 36-inch-wide doors and a water-saving shower head on a wand, which adjusts up for tall people and down for children.

The house temperature is set at 65-66 degrees. Last year, when the gas was out for three or four days, the temperature dropped down to 60 degrees. With no heat, the temperature drops between a half and 1 degrees per hour with below-zero outdoor temperatures.

The electric bill runs $30-$40 per month. Last summer, the air conditioner was on for only one week to control humidity.

Although the flat prairie farmland allows 70-80 mph winds, the only real noise in the house is from the fireplace flue. One drawback to living in such a dense, tight house is that radio antennas don’t work well, but a DeWalt work radio does.

More than 600 people have visited the Kroupa home. Visitors have come from all continents but Australia and Antarctica. Homes are being built in five states and are being designed in three Illinois counties as a result.

Those interested in having a first hand look at this home can attend the open house on Saturday, April 28, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Directions: Highway 38 east from Rochelle to the east end of Creston; turn south on Woodlawn; travel 2 miles to Fairview; turn east on Fairview; travel 1 mile to 20947; turn south and travel down the gravel drive to the house.

The house will also be offered as a field trip during the 2007 Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are also active in preserving natural areas. They are retired professors from Northern Illinois University.

from the April 18-24, 2007, issue

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