Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

House burrowed into earth costs just $20 a year to heat

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NEAR MACGREGOR -- So what does it cost Cam and Lisa Cleaver to heat their home, nestled in a gorgeous 22-acre woodlot atop the Manitoba escarpment?

Twenty bucks.

No, but seriously, you guys, what do you pay to heat your home?

Twenty bucks -- the same as they've paid every year for the past 14 years.

Oh well, they must live in a shack, you're thinking.

No. At 2,500 square feet, their house is probably bigger than yours.

The Cleavers live in one of only two known underground homes in Manitoba, but theirs is all the more fantastic for its location -- burrowed into the top of a hill.

In fact, it's located right on the line where the escarpment begins. Ten thousand years ago, it might have been a beach house on Lake Agassiz.

There are two reason the Cleavers have virtually no heating cost. First, they are embedded in at least five feet of earth on all sides (except the south side, to maximize sunshine for light and warmth). At anything more than four feet below ground, temperatures are from 10 to 12 Celsius.

So the Cleaver home only has to be heated eight to 10 degrees above that soil temperature to be made livable. That's compared to most houses which have to be heated against the outside air temperature.

The second reason their heating cost is so low is they live in a forested area and use an outdoor boiler. Cam and the kids take the pickup truck each fall to gather and cut deadfall. The $20 is the gas for the truck and chainsaw.

They feed the boiler once a day and burn about four cords (a 4 x 4 x 8-foot stack) each year, but that's also to continuously heat a workshop separate from the house. Even if they paid for the four cords of firewood, it would only cost in the $400 range, depending on the type of wood.

On a day when it was worse than -40 Celsius with the wind chill, their home was unbelievably cosy inside, especially with its radiant floor heat.

They have electricity and could use electric heat, but it would still be jaw-droppingly cheap. Plus, they pay no air conditioning cost because the earth cools their residence in summer.

Cam built the underground home 15 years ago, working evenings after his day job. He was frequently interrupted by gawkers who stopped by to shake their heads and tell him to expect a visit from some men in white suits. "Everyone thought I was a lunatic," Cam said.

Wife Lisa included? Well, let's just say she went from being a city girl from Winnipeg's North End to a country gal when she met Cam, to one of the mole people.

Cam originally bought the property as a place to hunt. He got his idea after visiting cousins in Wichita, Kansas, where he spotted a house piled with dirt to keep it cool in summer.

The floors, walls and ceiling of the Cleaver home are concrete. Cam knew concrete because he was employed at the time by a company that built concrete septic pools for large hog farms.

The home's inside walls have been textured so they look like a stylish stucco. The ceiling is a story in itself. Cam erected 500 two-by-four studs, one foot apart, to hold a plywood platform while concrete was poured over top. The studs were removed once the concrete hardened.

When you build with concrete, you have to plan in advance for things such as switches and electric plugs, because you can't make new holes later. Cam almost forgot the dryer vent. Just as the concrete was being poured, he shouted for the operator to stop so he could make the adjustment.

The home is 100 feet long by 25 feet wide. "It's like a long trailer home," said Cam, although it's much wider. From the front, it looks like a one-storey school, or even a little strip mall, although that sounds uncharitable and the description isn't meant to be.

The bedrooms and main rooms, such as the den and living room, all face south to obtain natural light. The bathroom is on the other side and has no windows. Lisa said it's like living in an apartment and not an issue.

It's also the safest kind of building in a tornado. There were two tornados in the general area last summer, including one south of the town of Holland.

Their kids love the house, plus the giant playground of 22 acres of hilly woods around it.

Cam has a word of caution for anyone wanting to duplicate his feat. Lenders will not grant a mortgage on an unconventional house, he said. He had to take a regular loan like you'd get for buying a car, at a higher interest rate.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2009 A2

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