Earth-sheltered homes were considered the ultimate in green building practices back in the 1970s and ’80s.
Using dirt as an insulating material and covering the houses on three sides, leaving only one side exposed, considerably reduced utility bills for heating and cooling as the earth thermally protects the house from temperature shifts.
Four decades later, the buzz about underground living seems a quaint notion, more likely found in science-fiction books than suburbia. But dotted about the country are vestiges of this experimental style.
The Fort Worth area boasts almost a dozen. Local architect Frank Moreland, now deceased, was a huge champion of the building practice, and many of his are still in existence. In 1980, he completed a small, one-bedroom earth-sheltered home in far northwest Fort Worth for a couple who wanted a weekend getaway.
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By 2007, it had become derelict and was in sore need of renovation. There were moisture issues, and an overwhelming musty smell pervaded the interior. That’s when Belgian-born architect Matthijs Melchiors first came upon it. Where others had fled from the daunting project, he embraced the possibilities.
Matthijs (Matice) and his wife, Jie (Jay), whom he met while studying in Shanghai, had moved to Fort Worth to be near his parents, who live in Azle. They were looking for their first home when they found the underground dwelling on slightly more than an acre of land. They bought it, moved in and immediately began work.
The young couple spent three years adding a second level on top of the original dirt roof and connected the two structures, which remain almost independent of each other, with an interior stairway to form a three-bedroom family home. During construction, they lived in the bottom level, added two children to the family dynamic and moved around the construction site as work progressed. The laundry room did double duty as the nursery.
“We built the envelope and then began moving around the house as construction demanded. Every day, the challenge was to keep the electricity and the gas on,” he says.
Matthijs scrounged construction materials from local building sites. When the Amon Carter Museum of American Art was reopened in 2001 following a two-year expansion, a pile of leftover limestone blocks was left in a parking lot. Matthijs negotiated their purchase from the museum. He bought enough to line the first-floor hallway. An entire wall of windows on the upper story was appropriated from renovations to the Bombay building on Bailey Avenue. The inch-thick windows, plus the thermal components still in existence on the first level, insulate the house so well that the average utility bill only runs about $100 a month for the 3,000-square-foot house.
Matthijs put a V-shaped metal roof on the second story that collects rainwater and equipped it with a misting system that automatically turns on when the roof heats to over 120 degrees. The first time it deployed, a cloud of steam rose from the roof, causing the neighbors to think the house was on fire.
Matthijs repurposed beams from an old warehouse, but says he reuses materials because, “They are nice building materials.” He is not a stickler for using salvage or recycled materials but will do so happily. He doesn’t preach a green agenda, but he does wear it lightly, and thoroughly.
He has two old Mercedes sedans in the driveway — both are diesel — and in the summer, they run on used vegetable oil from a local Chinese restaurant. It doesn’t take much to convert, he says — just run the used cooking oil through a kitchen strainer to remove the large chunks, and the engine burns any remaining smaller bits. While the car’s interior does tend to smell like french fries when burning biodiesel, Matthijs says, the engine seems to love running on takeout fuel.
There is an obvious transition of building eras on the exterior of his home, but, from inside, the house moves seamlessly between the first floor and second. There are vestiges of Moreland’s penchant for oddly shaped rooms downstairs. Matthijs wanted to honor the first architect’s vision. They had met at the beginning of the remodel project and Moreland had given his blessing to the addition. The odd-shaped master bedroom was restructured much as Moreland had originally designed. Jie’s observance of feng shui principles ruled the design of the second story.
From every room, though, it is the view of the landscape that dominates the interior. The large wall of windows frames a 20-mile view. “This time of year, you see more houses; in the summer, it is like a big green oasis. It’s dramatic all year round,” he says.
With a bit of reluctance, Matthijs and Jie will be leaving their first house. Matthijs is scouting universities on the East and West coasts to continue his education. They hope to relocate in time for the fall semester and, with the move, Matthijs hopes there will be another project.
He says he would gladly do it all again.