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Subterranean serenity
Underground home offers plenty of comfort and efficiency

By DONNA PINSONEAULT

 

Hilbert and Mercedes Bruss’s
Town of Vernon home is definitely a model for energy efficiency. The couple installed their first furnace just several years ago in their subterranean home which they built in 1979.

This isn’t the first time Hilbert and Mercedes Bruss have experienced high energy prices.

It’s just that this time, while the rest of us bemoan the dent home heating fuel is putting in our pocketbooks, the Bruss household is prepared to meet the challenge head on.

Back in 1979, after the last major fuel shortage caused prices to skyrocket, the couple traded their conventional two-story home for an underground model on a ten-acre parcel of land in the Town of Vernon.

For the next 18 years, they never saw a heating bill. “The house is very comfortable all year long,” said Mercedes, whose passion is conservation. “It’s a really nice way to live.”

If the idea of an underground house conjures up pictures in your mind of a damp, dusky mole hole with furniture, one visit to the Bruss home will literally open your eyes to alternatives.

Tall trees line both sides of the long driveway that leads to the rear of the home. At first glance, the back entrance seems a lot like any other with its expansive parking area and two-car garage.

True, you are vaguely aware that the large grassy mound rising up some feet from behind the entrance seems a tad out of the ordinary. Then Hilbert emerges from the sheltered back porch, waving in welcome as if you are coming home to the family farm.

“I would have been a farmer,” Hilbert said. “But my dad was a farmer and he was poor. His father was a farmer and he was poor. My uncle was a draftsman, and he had a car and a jacket. So I became a draftsman.”

Mercedes, a draftsman, artist and Hilbert’s wife for 47 years, waits in the back foyer. “We are still above ground,” she says, a point you haven’t even wondered about because the space is flooded with light and your eye is too busy taking in all of the delightful visuals that fill the room. The wall to your left is decorated with a hand-painted mural that recalls the stately stand of trees through which you passed on arrival. Overhead, skylights and windows flood the area with sunshine while mallards, arranged by the couple’s son who is a taxidermist, seem to soar unencumbered. Below them, another wall forms a gentle curve. “It’s a room within a room,” Mercedes said. “The entire house is based on conservation of space.”

A few steps to the right and you are taking a visual vacation. In another curved space, Mercedes has painted a ceiling-to-floor canyon waterfall that cascades into a three-dimensional rock-lined pool with a fountain. “I did this because I had a feeling we might feel claustrophobic,” Mercedes said. A border of lightweight rock surrounds the mural creating a sort of grotto. Until Mercedes points them out, you can’t tell the difference between the face rock and the faux stones she made with paper bags and Elmer’s glue. Those “rocks” are light enough to be removed at a moment’s notice, providing easy access to the plumbing and switches.

Sliding glass doors open into the main living areas, spaces so bathed in light, it is hard to remember that you are now underground. The grassy mound you caught glimpses of when you drove up shelters the home’s north side and climbs over the roof. The home’s south side, however, is wide open to the elements. A long narrow sunroom spans much of the exposed area.

Its paver bricks catch heat from the sun as does the exposed brick wall for the fireplace.

“In summer, it can get up to 120 degrees in there,” Mercedes said. “The flowers would wilt if we didn’t open the doors.” The house is
covered east to west in the back. Mercedes explained that many underground homes are built into a hill.

Mercedes Bruss designed her kitchen to be small and an extension of the living room so that she could still be part of the activity without having everyone crowded into the kitchen.


“We didn’t have a hill here and I didn’t want one,” she said. “With a hill, there is only one exit.”

Instead, the Brusses dug down three feet into the earth, built the house into that saucer, then covered it with dirt. The house is situated so that the sun goes over the top of the house in summer. When its path drops in the fall, it shines through the expanse of glass doors on the south side. The couple controls the temperature by strategically opening and closing the doors. “Wings” on either side of the house keep the wind from coming into the saucer. All of the underground blocks are covered with layers of liquid rubber, insulation, sand, gravel, then dirt. “It’s a strong house,” Mercedes said. “There’s no way anything could take it.”

One end of the sunroom was originally a greenhouse but serves now as a cheerful breakfast room. Painted a deep shade of blue, it features a working wood-burning stove in the corner and a visible chimney pipe rising through the ceiling. “It’s a great place to have a cup of coffee in the morning,” Hilbert said.

A narrow door leads to the adjacent kitchen planned to be small at Mercedes request. “I thought if we made the kitchen small, but kept it open to the living room, I could still be part of things without everyone having to sit around in the kitchen,” she said. “But guess where they are anyway? They’re leaning against the cupboards.”

Mercedes prefers small kitchens, however, and designed this one with a lower level counter for kneading bread as well as cupboards and drawers installed to take advantage of every inch of space.

“If the dishwasher is open and I open this drawer, I’ll get stuck,” Mercedes said. “If I put on weight, I’d have to move.”

Walls are mostly concrete topped with Spancrete and supported by extra wide beams. Every room has openings in the walls to promote air flow which are functionally well-placed without ruining the aesthetics of the design. The kitchen, for example, has a pass-through to the breakfast room. In other rooms, the openings look like ordinary air ducts.

Opening out from the kitchen the first part of the spacious living area holds a comfortable dining space and piano.

“I don’t like the term ‘great room,’” Mercedes said. “This is just the room we live in. We eat over here and we sit over there.” The living room is done in pretty tones of pinks and blues and features many of Mercedes’ beautiful oversize paintings. Though several in the living room are of flowers and other natural wonders, her work covers a variety of themes, including Navajo landscapes, portraits and a duck stamp that placed well in competition. A massive brick fireplace and stove help keep the house toasty all winter.

“At first we watched the thermostat in every room and kept accurate records,” Mercedes said. “You can feel a little difference in temperature in the back rooms, but never more than one or two degrees. I expected it to be colder.”

The Brusses also tried burning coal for fuel, but quickly learned that the substance was messy. They switched to wood then, last year, after Hilbert had a knee operation, they installed a furnace.

“While he was recovering, I had to be the one to carry in the wood,” Mercedes said. “I kept thinking there might be bugs in it.”

A long narrow sunroom spans much of the exposed area on the south side of the house. In summer, the room can get up to 120 degrees, according to Mercedes Bruss.

Though the home could have five bedrooms, only one, the master bedroom, is currently designated for sleeping. Adjacent to the living area, it also enjoys a full southern exposure and the lovely view of the property.

“In the morning, you can just open one eye and it’s so beautiful,” Mercedes said. “It doesn’t seem like it, but the back of our lot out there is 16 feet higher than by the road.”

The living room also opens to the “paint room” where Mercedes both works and teaches art. Hilbert works on his projects in there as well. The room is long enough for a competitive game of darts, but could easily be divided into two large bedrooms. Recently, Mercedes used the room as the site for an art show.

“What is nice is you can leave the mess,” Mercedes said.

Another bedroom features a drop down Murphy bed and provides plenty of room for Mercedes’ sewing projects. Hilbert’s bathroom incorporates bamboo patterned wallpaper with the liberal use of black. The windowless room is nonetheless bright enough to keep plants growing in the stone-lined planter that follows the curve of the wall behind the sink.

The room is lit with a skylight open to the rear foyer and affords another view of the soaring mallards. The computer room opens up across the foyer. A carpeted laundry area with lots of storage space makes it easy to mingle routine household chores with artistic endeavors.

“You’re not running up and down the stairs all the time,” Mercedes said.

The cold room is designed to be absolutely functional. With lots of storage, a freezer and stove, the room stays at 65 degrees all
summer.

“We can do all the canning right here,” said Hilbert, an avid gardener who plants corn, peppers, tomatoes, squash, melons, beans and more every year. “We almost live off of the garden. We could manage for a long time.”

Mercedes admits that building the home took lots of research and study. The couple did not want to adapt the hill or envelope concepts popular for conservation-oriented homes at the time. Also a draftsman, she drew everything to scale, then took the plan to a young architect and challenged him to make sure the design was safe and strong. The architect came back with more typical design ideas which Mercedes quickly rejected. Insisting on their own design has paid off.

Hilbert and Mercedes both seem considerably younger than their years, a condition they would attribute to hard work and love of life. Their home is a big part of both.

“I was skeptical in the beginning but, knowing Mercedes, I knew it would turn out fine,” said Hilbert overlooking the abundant property from the grass-covered roof. “It’s so peaceful here.”