As summer arrives in Nevada County, and temperatures rise to new, unseemly highs, the electric bills can spike significantly. Lack of air conditioning could be a deadly situation for some, but for Brad Peceimer-Glasse there isn’t any need.
Peceimer-Glasse’s abode, located in Alta Sierra, looks like something out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” From one perspective, it seems as if a building is jutting out the side of an oddly shaped hill.
Inside, the house is a cool 70 degrees. The main floor is completely open, with a kitchen and quirky living room.
A bathroom runs up against the side of the hill, which made it a challenge to tile. According to Peceimer-Glasse, it was “like fitting squares into round holes.”
The second floor consists of two bedrooms and another bath, along with a computer room that leads out to a patio overlooking the property. It’s a unique house, but far more complicated and intricate then that description allows.
Construction on the plans began in 2003. Peceimer-Glasse decided on the earth-sheltered house model for its efficiency.
“I was looking at different energy-efficient structures” he said. “If you’re familiar with military storage, when they store either rocket propellants or explosives or ordinates, they store them in bunkers which is very similar to this. So I kind of copied it off that.”
Peceimer-Glasse is used to working on military projects, as he has been a manufacturing engineer for the Department of Defense for more than 12 years.
“I copied a lot of the engineering out of military information,” he said. “This house will be here in 5,000 years. This structure could survive a Hiroshima-sized atomic blast.”
The work, as one could imagine, wasn’t easy. As Peceimer-Glasse recalls, “to get it from start to finish was about 18 months … I just went, ‘OK, that’s how it’s done, let’s go do it’. There really wasn’t a model to follow. I just read a lot about how to do it.”
Due to the unique nature of the house, Peceimer-Glasse used shotcrete to form the frame.
“What it is, is they spray concrete using high-pressure air, and what you have is a form, and this form (had steel ribs) and was then covered in burlap wire,” he explained of the process. “What the burlap does is it allows the air to flow through but stops the concrete so when you spray it on there, it provides a spray form for the concrete. “
Ironically, the toughest obstacles came not from the building itself, but from outside intervention.
“The hardest (challenge) I had was … the house next door, they complained to the county building department a couple hundred times. She was a maniac, she would complain about things like ‘their lumber isn’t stacked neatly,’” he said.
“Sometimes, (the county building department) would come out seven to 10 times in a week. I knew the guy that ran it, and him and I just came to an agreement that I’d stop by every Friday at 3 and we’d just settle up everything for the whole week. They were calling so much that they were having to send up an inspector every single time. The county was just spending huge amounts of money.“
According to Peceimer-Glasse, they also ran into trouble late in the process due to their location.
“We’re on a steep site, it’s a 23 percent gradient hillside and because of that the country made us put fire sprinklers in the house. But they made us do that a couple of days after we had got done Sheetrocking the house,” he said.
“So we ended up having to rip up a lot of the Sheetrock out of the house and drill holes in all the beams. That was a $13,000 dollar add-on. It took an extra two-and-a-half weeks. The problem was, we were right at the end of our construction loan, and we had to have it finished. So we just barely made it.”
Still, Peceimer-Glasse has no regrets on undertaking the build due to one important reason.
”We built this house incredibly cheap,” he explained. “Take for example, all the plumbing in this house is what they call PEX, cross-linked polyethylene tubing. I bought it on EBay, and I think the total cost for all the plumbing stuff was like $200 and then I just plumbed the house in a day. Then I did all the electrical in the house. The only thing that me and my wife did not do was the Sheetrock and the plaster work on the house.”
They also save quite a bit of money on heating and cooling bills.
“(With) most buildings, code requires you to do an R19 (which indicates resistance to heat flow) … The back of the house is insulated to an R375, so it’s 200 times better than what code does. But, it’s also because of all the dirt on it, as well as, you know there’s a lot of insulation. That’s the main reason why we built it, just the energy efficiency,” he said.
Spencer Kellar is an intern with The Union.