Underground living in Belmont County

BEALLSVILLE — Tolkien’s Hobbit holes conjure up a quaint image from literature and film, but some people are undertaking underground living as a reality.

One such pair is Richard and Mary Sidwell of Wayne Township, who make their home underground near Raven Rocks using a combination of inventive, energy-saving methods.

“It really started back about 35 years ago,” Mary Sidwell said. “We were trying to create an area that would be protected from development. The scenic ravines kind of inspired us. They have a lot of overhanging rock, and we had neighbors who were very interested in the same subjects.”

Sidwell credited late architect Malcolm Wells for their home’s design.

“He was considered kind of the grandaddy of underground house building,” she said, adding that Wells visited the property and conceived of house designs for the neighbors. “We were living in a house from the 1860s, and we were interested in having something that was more efficient, that was easier to heat, easier to cool. He got involved. We’ve now been living in this house for 25 years. We really had a strong interest in reducing our footprint on the Earth, and the whole point of sheltered architecture was really to make an efficient place to live.”

Sidwell noted the energy efficiency and convenience of the residence once the house was completed.

“It not only is more efficient in terms of energy use, but it flows rain runoff. It’s very quiet. It’s just a wonderful building to live in,” she said. “Because it’s so heavily insulated and waterproofed carefully, we will never have to replace the roof.”

She added that they have added solar panels in recent years. Their annual electric bill is taken care of using the energy credits that they receive. She noted that since they are still hooked into the electrical grid, excess energy they produce goes into the power supply for the area.

“We also have a greenhouse on the south side that helps produce heat in the cool months, and we have clotheslines in there so we can dry clothes without using electricity. It’s also a great place for growing things. We have fig trees, a lemon tree and a lime tree,” she said. “We wanted it to carry the heat up, and when we need to heat the house we just open the windows that are shared with the greenhouse and the heat comes in.”

She also spoke about the use of space in the two-story residence.

“It’s a very open plan. The main living space is on the upper floor,” she said. “One of the interesting features of the house because we built it using reinforced concrete, the interior walls can be changed. We expect the house to be here for several hundred years easily. If future generations want to change the layout, they can take down the interior walls and reconfigure.”

Sidwell noted that little maintenance has been required due to the security of the construction.

“When there’s a bad storm, this is the place to be. It’s sturdy.”

Sidwell also dispelled the assumption that living underground would be dark and gloomy.

“It’s very bright. We have more windows than a normal house would have. We get lots of great views,” she said, adding that this means they are rarely called on to utilize artificial light, leading to another savings of energy. She added that there is room for a woodshop for carpentry, and the upper story is carpeted for added quiet.

Sidwell said the windows make the residence startling from outside.

“We get a lot of people who drive through and slow way down to get a look. Over the years we’ve had hundreds of visitors,” she said, adding that they have been happy to play host to people interested in architecture and who are considering such homes for themselves.

She noted that preparation is required in order to make use of these advantages.

“It does take careful planning,” she said. “In our case, we built the house ourselves. But if we had to find a contractor who knew how to build this, it would have presented a challenge. There are other parts of the country where sheltered architecture is more common. I think we spent seven or eight years just coming up with the design, and then it took four years of building to really finish it.”

She added that while a certain amount of commitment and resolution is demanded, they have found the results satisfactory.

“It’s well worth it. We enjoy living here,” she said. “I’ve lived in lots of situations, but this is by far the easiest place to live.”

Sidwell said planning and research are crucial in considering an underground home.

“We did not have the advantage when we were planning this place of the internet. There’s a lot more information to find, and we were fortunate to have the good advice of the architect and our friends.”


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