Arts & Ideas: Boom time for personal caves
Homeowners looking to spend their equity have found a new way to bury money in their homes: by building a personal cave. Bored with high-end kitchens, spa-quality bathrooms, and plain-vanilla room additions, home improvers have moved into ever more exotic realms like yurts, geodesic domes, and now, caves.
Underground lairs appeal to modern homeowners for the same basic reason Neanderthals sought them out: The earth provides great shelter from the elements. Through the hottest summers and coldest winters, cave temperatures vary by only one to two degrees (high 50s to mid-60s). And besides all that, fans say, caves just feel good.
"There is a very primal thing about having your own cave," says Dave Provost, owner of Bacchus Caves, a cave-building company in California. "You lose track of time in there. You have no idea what time it is because you don't know whether the sun is up or down. Cellphones don't work. It's a great escape."
So far, Californians have been the first adapters in modern cave dwelling, possibly because they are familiar with the huge artificial caves that Northern California wineries use to age and store their products. Provost already had a bustling commercial-cave-building enterprise when he received his first call for a private home cave in 1999. Since then, his business has shifted from 10 percent private caves to 80 percent private caves.
And in the past six months, he has gotten dramatically more calls from caveman wannabes far outside wine country. A man who owns a mountain in South Carolina wants to build his entire house inside the mountain. One New Jersey cave enthusiast hankered for an aboveground two-lane bowling alley. When he couldn't get his wife on board, he decided to go underground instead.
With fewer permits and no aboveground structure to annoy potential neighbors, caves can be a way to more painlessly add square footage. Others specifically seek out the dungeonlike properties of an exotic underground habitat. "We have a man in Idaho who wants an adult playroom," says a spokesperson for Bacchus. "But not in a weird way." He wants a pool table.
Home caves typically have ceilings that are 10 to 14 feet high. For structural integrity, most caves are finished with curved walls and a domed ceiling. And at $150 to $350 per square foot including all excavation and finishing, caves can actually be much cheaper than the $500-per-square-foot cost of aboveground construction. Plus, says Provost, "it's not like going into your grandmother's basement where there's a bunch of old, dusty boxes and one 100-watt light bulb." Add soft recessed lighting and just the right furnishings and you've got your own private hideaway, worthy of the most regal hobbit hole.