A hallway leading to other rooms and to a side exit is dome-shaped, revealing the shape of the original forms used to build it. - Jim Craven

A home filled with light

Nestled deep in a rocky hillside in Evans Valley, the underground home of Kathi Sherrill and her partner Pam Buss Sherrill surprises the senses.

"You have no idea there's a home here 'til you get around the corner," said Kathi. "We're underground here. But you'd never know it by the light that's in here."

Inside, under arched ceilings, the living room windows look past the spacious overhang of the front porch toward the rushing waters of Evans Creek. Although the majority of the three-bedroom, two-bath, 2,700 square feet home is located under the hill, the atmosphere is not cave like. Instead, light floods the rooms and bounces off the curved walls.

Constructed from three large connecting concrete domes, the house's structural support is bolstered by red iron eye beams, rebar and extruded polystyrene. The roof is covered with yards of dirt, rocks and living plants.

"We mow our roof," says Kathi. "Most people replace their roofs every ten to 15 years."

The muffled quiet of the buried home exudes a soothing sense of cozy comfort — a feeling commented upon regularly by guests, Pam said.

"An aunt I call 'the Martha Stewart of the family' comes to visit us sometimes," said Pam. "She always says the house has a real calming effect."

The rolling Evans Creek property encom-passes 29 acres and also features a 30-by-40 feet pole barn, a 25-by-40 foot shop with a half bath, more than 30 fruit trees and numerous raised vegetable beds.

A licensed contractor and realtor, Kathi researched several types of alternative, energy-efficient homes before settling on an underground home because of its ecological advantages — and because it fit the sloping topography, she said.

The biggest problem in selling people on building earth-covered houses is the false perception that the home will be dark, dank and bunker-like, said Dale Pearcey, owner of Formworks Building, Inc, in Durango, Colorado.

"People conjure up all kinds of crazy stuff," said Pearcey. "But they offer the same plumbing, mechanical and electrical as any other home. And they need very low upkeep and maintenance."

No re-roofing is required. Exterior maintenance is reduced by about 90 percent, and heating and air-conditioning bills are nominal, he added.

"My heating bill was $200 last winter," said Pearcey.

Another advantage, he said, is that Mother Nature has a tough time damaging an underground home.

"If a tornado hit, you're not going to lose the house," Pearcey said.

The key selling point for Kathi, a former Florida native, was learning underground homes are energy efficient, quiet and safe, she said. They are also safer than regular homes in earthquakes, Kathi added.

"I believe in underground technology because of the enormous energy savings," said Kathi.

Construction on the underground home began in 1999. Seven years later, it is finally finished except for a few touches. But the Sherrills' building delay was not due to complicated construction, Kathi said. It was soaring material costs and a lack of finances that slowed down completion, she said.

"We just flat ran out of money," she says. "This took a ton of money to build."

A desire to live closer to Pam's aging parents in Eugene has the Sherrills looking to sell their unique home. The asking price is $685,000. A bargain, Kathi said.

"I'll tell you what, material costs increased so much, I couldn't have built the house and bought the land today for what we're selling it for right now," she said.

However difficult the project may have been to finance, working with local contractors and the Jackson County Planning Department "was easy," Kathi said.

"They are familiar with alternative building," said Kathi. "There are a lot of alternative homes around in Jackson County — straw bale and other homes built with green construction."

The Sherrills are so enamoured of life underground, they plan to build a similar home once they relocate to Eugene.

"I'm going to build another one," said Kathi, adding she will use the lessons learned in her first underground construction to build the next one.

"You have to design it right from the beginning," she said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail

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