When one approaches the underground home of Gary and MaryAnn Kohl, just outside Lexington, Va. in Rockbridge County, the building doesn’t look unusual. In fact, in appearance, it’s not unlike a regular Adobe house you might see on either side of the Mexican/American border or in the desert. There, houses were constructed of clay and mortar and Adobe bricks for insulation from the oppressive heat. The Kohl’s house accomplishes that and more. The house looks as though someone dug a huge hole in the mountain and slid the house into it. I had no idea I was walking into a cave. The front of the house is open and covered with windows, but the rest of it is buried in dirt. When I told the Kohls I wanted to visit their new home, I had no idea they were building an “Earth Shelter Home”. I noticed that the ceilings were unusually high, 13 feet, and contained two very large circular skylights. They and the front, South-facing, windows provide plenty of light in the combined kitchen/dining room area. Most of the rooms are equipped with solar tubes so there is little need for electric lighting.
On one Sunday when I visited and shared a meal with the Kohls and their son, Spencer’s family, the temperature was close to 90 degrees outdoors, and comfortably cool indoors. There is no central heat or air conditioning, just a few ceiling fans. The couple managed to survive one unusually cold winter in rural Virginia with a few space heaters and seem confident that they made the correct decision when they decided to build an underground house. People who visit the home have lots of questions for the Kohls, and it’s a common thing for local residents to ask newcomers why they happened to move to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. A few years ago the Kohls visited their son, Spencer and his wife, Elizabeth, who were attending Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista and decided this was where they wanted to retire. They moved here from Rhode Island in 2012 and immediately began building their house across the road from a small farm run by their son and daughter-in-law. The younger couple cared for a large goatherd and sold their unique Chevre’ Cheese at the local farmer’s markets. The goats were nibbling grass on the roof of the Kohl’s underground house when I, a freelance writer, visited, although Gary Kohl is quick to point out they are not supposed to be doing that. The problem was eventually solved. (I lost one of my hearing aids and assumed the goats ate it since the Kohls didn’t find it.)