Tour an Earth-Bermed House in Upstate New York

Bob visits with architect Alan Shope who has built a unique earth-bermed house at his farm in Upstate New York.

Clip Summary

Bob visits with architect Alan Shope who has built a unique earth-bermed house at his farm in Upstate New York. Alan has used recycled building materials and completed his construction without sacrificing good design and while leaving a neutral carbon footprint on the environment.
In upstate New York, on a farm dedicated to energy efficiency, world renowned architect Allan Shope has built his new home into the side of a hill.

It's called earth berming. And by using this technique, along with recycled and high tech materials and lots of help from the sun, Shope's house is at the cutting edge of the green building revolution.

So, Allan, why an earth bermed house?

Well, earth berming is undeniably seductive as a way to mitigate freezing cold temperatures and blistering hot temperatures.

Animals have used it to protect themselves for millennium. Human beings have used it.

The cliff-dwellers used it. People have used caves to protect themselves.

And in modern society obviously, we don't want to live in a basement or a cave or a bunker.


But it's possible to take a southern sloppey hillside as we have here. Simply insert a house into that southern sloppy hillside and to create an enormous buffering effect, where the fifty four degree temperature of the earth creates a gentle cradle around the house.

It's actually a triangle, like an arrow-head into the earth.

Yes, it cools the house in the summertime. It heats it in the wintertime and is a wonderful protective blanket around the house.

All green projects share the same goals.
To use recycled materials whenever possible.

And to obtain carbon neutrality by generating at least as much energy as they consume.
People try to reach these goals in all sorts of ways.

That's why I often say green means different things to different people, and for Alan Schope, going green did not have to come at the expense of design.

Everybody has green, we are going up, one, two, three up, up.
We're going, we're going all the way up. We're building a house all the way.

I found that as I learned more about carbon neutrality and about energy efficiency in buildings, that I thought it was going to be a constraint and it was exactly the opposite for me.

As I abandoned various pre-conceptions about architectural styles and how materials should be used.
I gained nothing but freedom.


The freedom of seeing things in a new way that allowed different influences to guide me.

Yes. It's a fabulous combination when you think of it that way. So now lets look at the specifics. What are we looking at? What's it made out of?

Well, everything about this building is recycled. The glass is recycled. The stones in front of the building are the floors of old prison cells.

What kind of stone is it?

It's New York state blue stone that would have originally been quarried up near Albany. It was brought here, to this area, to make a prison in the 1800's, and it was about to be destroyed and thrown away. I thought they were wonderful stones to create the terrace out of.

Right, and so each stone was a jail cell, and this is the ghost or the footprint of where there was toilet installed?

Exactly. Correct.

Wow. And lets talk about the actual facade of the house, because it's like a work of art art, and yet this is all recycled material. What are we looking at here?

Well, it was the coping flashing of the old institution of the Wasaik developmental complex here in town.


Then I was incredibly excited about them. I thought that the blue/green copper of the sheeting panels for this house were like the waves in a Turner painting.

I was just enthralled with them.


And all we had to do was cut them with a simple hacksaw to make the permanent siding for this building.

Well, can you take us inside?


So, what's the square footage of this house?

This is 1876 square feet.

Under two thousand?


So that's smaller than the average American house, right?

It is smaller than the average American house.


Let's talk about the design of the kitchen. Everything is very woodenly made in here.

All of the wood in this project, the ceilings, the walls, the cabinetry, the mill work, the draws.

Every aspect to it came from black cherry trees that grew along around this property. We have a small sawmill here.

We cut the wood ourselves, we dry it ourselves. We did all of the woodworking here on this property so none of this wood has ever left the property.

So there's no carbon footprint related with transporting materials to the site?

No, there isn't and actually even the electricity for manufacturing these things here on the property. And actually the fuel for our saw mill, we produce here on site.

That's very impressive. Now, traditionally, when you've got your solar exposure and your solar gain happening, your concrete floor is a very big part of the system.


Is that the case here?

It is. The slab is two feet thick, it's made of recycled concrete.

Ah, ah, two feet thick.

Yes, it's an enormously thick slab that has a lot of thermal mass to it.


So, it can store a lot of energy, and on a bitter cold winter day with the sun warming the slab all day long. The slab stays warm right through the night.

Now, the color of it is somewhat reminiscent of Frank's Lloyd Wright's Indian red.

It is. It actually we use a muriatic acid which turns that cement this reddish brown color.

Many people are convinced that building green means building ugly, but as we can see from Alan's house, that's not the case.
In every episode of Bob villa building green, I'll show you examples of green design that will actually enhance the beauty of your home.

I'll also show you how building green often involves mixing old recycled materials with new hi-tech products.

So, Alan, tell us about the, the roof and the photo of all takes, but first of all the roof, which seems to be a beautiful standing seam copper jock.

Ah, it's 20 oz. cold rolled copper which was recycled from old copper pipes and bits and pieces of copper plumbing fittings from the old institution.

So you actually salvaged all that metal.

Melted it all down and made new copper.

In the photo-botague is a very simple, wonderful way to make electricity for a house.

Athis roof is everything we need for this 2000 sq. ft. house.

That's excellent.

Can we take a closer look at that salvaged chimney?


So this is all more salvaged copper.

Now, what are they used for in the new house?

The one on that side is the actual chimney for our fireplace and the one on this side is the fresh air intake.

In a house of this type of design, the tightness of the house is very important for its function.

So, there's very little infiltration of fresh air.

And if you are going to light a fire in a fireplace you use up most of the oxygen in a house.

So this basically is replenishing all of the oxygen when that a common fire would use in the fireplace.

So, there's an enormous amount of recycled interesting building material in here, and there's an overall kinda aesthetic, that I think is very successful.

And the main thing that you were after which I guess you pretty much accomplished is what we call a zero carbon footprint.

Essentially what that is, is creating a building that is not compromised architecturally in any way, that produces more energy than it uses for the lifetime of the building.


That was our original goal. It is still our goal today. We're very close to accomplishing that right now.


And we are very proud of it.

You're not burnig any fossil fuels . You're making your own energy. You are doing a great job .

Thank you very much.


Home improvement is at an exciting crossroads.
Old assumptions about building, like relying on a steady supply of cheap heating oil, are just not realistic.

Meanwhile, going carbon neutral at home has finally become affordable for almost everyone. In Bob Vila Building Green, I want to help you onto the green road. It's the right thing to do. I hope you'll join me.