So You Bought an Earth House. Now What?

When Andrew and Emmye Cahn bought a partially subterranean house dubbed "the Hobbitat," they had to figure out how to update it without losing its essence.

Here’s an unusual design challenge: What do you do with a home that’s part hobbit hole and part armageddon-proof bunker?

That’s what Andrew and Emmye Cahn were faced with when they bought their Asheville, North Carolina home, originally built in the late 1970s. It’s no run-of-the-mill house: it’s earth-sheltered, built partially underground with a myriad of sustainability features including a solar attic. Featured in Mother Earth News in 1982, the original owner dubbed it "the Hobbitat."

"We didn’t know what to think of it, at first," Andrew Cahn says. "It’s so atypical, you know?" And so they set out with Erin Britton of Scale Interiors and their partner on the project and co-owner of the house Andy Brokmeyer to keep the original, unique spirit of the house, while transforming into a space that was warm, comfortable, and inviting.

What originally caught their eye was the location. "It’s in a great spot, a large wooded area, in a big, spacious lot," says Andrew.  The wild card was the house itself. "It was older and hadn’t had any updates, and we were concerned about moisture and how the thing had survived over time," he explains. Not to mention it was just plain unusual, made of rock-solid concrete. "Definitely, the bunker element was strong," Andrew says. "But you know, then you have this beautiful lush lot, and the way it’s built into the hillside with the green roof and all these mature trees around it, the hobbit element is strong. So it was a little bit of a weird contrast."

The house was originally built in 1977 by a UNC Asheville chemistry professor, Lloyd Reminington, whose motives were pretty straightforward. Mother Earth News reported in 1982: "Dr. Remington knew all the time what sort of ‘return’ he wanted to realize from the time and resources invested in his project, and felt that ‘going underground’ was the simplest and least expensive way to achieve his aims. Put directly, he figured it would be sheer insanity to lay out money to build a home, only to continue spending substantial sums–year after year–to maintain the structure and its interior comfort level." And so he built the home not just partially underground, but with a large solar attic running along the top as well as heat pumps and a wood stove. (He told Mother Earth News that the house wasn’t designed primarily as a nuclear bomb shelter, but it was a nice side benefit.)

The home had only been owned by Remington and the woman who later bought it from him (who ramped up the Tolkien vibes by devoting more time to the gardens around–and on top of–the house). And so it basically hadn’t been updated since it was built.

As it turned out, the house was, if anything, built way more solidly than it needed to be: "It turned out that it had been built so well that it really had withstood the test of time and held up really well," Andrew explains. It was built with massive, reinforced concrete blocks and enormous, essentially industrial grade metal beams. "It’s overbuilt compared to any other residential structure I’ve seen," he says.

"We always says when we looked at it that it was clearly designed to survive the zombie apocalypse. He didn’t kid around," Andrew adds.

Keeping the outside out

Their biggest concern was, unsurprisingly, moisture: "This is this in-ground, subterranean sort of design. How’s it going to do over time with moisture? Is it musty?" And it’s much more complicated to figure that out with such an unusual design, as opposed to a more conventional home: "It wasn’t straightforward to be able to do a good assessment on that." You can’t exactly just call any roofer on Yelp to come out and give it a look. Luckily, it was in pretty good shape: "We had to do some stuff in terms of resealing it to make sure we felt really comfortable, but it had held up pretty nicely."

That left them mostly working on the interior, which was very 1970s and very concrete. Not to mention the bunker touches: "All the doors and windows had a second layer of metal grates or protective layers."

Considering the house is partially underground, they did have one asset: pretty good lighting. "For being subterranean, it has all these solar elements," Cahn explains. The solar attic provides not just heat, but light. (They replaced some panels, but left the design essentially intact.) The exposed part of the house also faces south, and each of those rooms has sliding doors. "It doesn’t feel dark and dungeon-y in there. But definitely the old industrial elements with the concrete and stuff just don’t make it very warm."

Eliminating the bunker vibes

The first challenge was simply to warm the place up, visually. That meant adding wood and soft organic elements, textiles and nice rugs, rather than ripping out what was already there: "The concrete block and all the lines were left unchanged," explains Andrew. "Midcentury modern was kind of our thought process, because it fit the time and fit the space and fit the lines."

"But we weren’t boxed in," he adds. The space was unique enough that they didn’t have to wholly commit to a particular time or style. It was more about finding the right balance of staying true to the original design and bringing it up to date: "You don’t want to abandon the origins of the place," he says. "You’re trying to keep this modernized and make it different and comfortable and also stay true to the origins of the place. That’s kind of an interesting design challenge."

Cahn credits their designer, Erin Britton, for her contributions: "She’s got a great eye and it’s really just wonderful what she can do. So we got her on board, and she was so excited about it, and started pulling in a bunch of ideas."

Necessary cuts

One original element they did decide to ditch: the wood stove. They just didn’t need it that much, because the house just doesn’t get that cold in the winter. They struggled with taking out such a striking feature of the original plans—but you really have to be all-in on a giant wood stove to make it worthwhile.

"I grew up with wood stoves in the mountains of New Mexico. We lived off wood for years," explains Andrew. "So the romance of it, I was sort of over it. You have to haul wood and split wood, and I spent my childhood doing that," he says, laughing.

Ultimately, they’re pleased with the results: "At the end of the day, you go into these projects and you’re never quite sure if they’re going to work," Andrew says. "And then, you know, you come through the end of them and you’ve just kept your fingers crossed, and then you see wow, this really worked."

Top photo courtesy of Norbert Försterling/Picture Alliance via Getty Images 

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