Earth-Sheltered Homes: The Lost Art of Building Underground (2024)

By Tobias Roberts

Rise Writer

Dec 9, 2020

Dozens of different cultures worldwide, from the freezing Arctic North to Australia's arid and hot deserts, have a history of building homes either partly or entirely buried underground. This example ofvernacular architecturehas found that the land underneath our feet can offer a comfortable, energy-efficient dwelling place in many cases. Below, we take an in-depth look at the history of building homes underground and explain some of the advantages of this unique form of architecture.

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A Short History of Underground Homes

Before the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, the homes we lived in were essentially a part of our inhabited landscape. Our nomadic, hunter and gatherer ancestors mostly made their homes in caves that they found as they followed animals across the lands. Because they moved so frequently, the idea of a permanent dwelling place (a house, if you will) was virtually non-existent. Animal skins and hides were easy to carry shelters, and sleeping under the stars was probably commonplace.

This nomadic lifestyle began to change about 10,000 years ago. At that time, our ancestors slowly began to adopt agricultural practices, which led to villages and permanent dwelling places. Recently archaeologists have discovered simple mud-brick dwellings at Çatalhöyük. These are the remains of what is believed to be one of the first permanent human settlements in modern-day Turkey. This small village dates back at least 9,500 years and might have held a population of as many as 8,000 people.

The art of home building began rather modestly. The mud-brick homes of Çatalhöyük were oriented so that the front "door" was a hole in the roof where people entered. Despite their simple design, however, the shift to village life that necessitated permanent buildings was one of the most profound human civilization changes. For the first time in our species' history, the land's natural resources were utilized to feed and clothe us and give us permanent shelter.

Fast forward 10,000 years or so, and the building industry, which evolved from those simple mud huts of Çatalhöyük, is today one of the largest users of our world's natural resources. Recent research finds that the total volume of natural resources used in buildings and transport infrastructure increased about23-foldbetween 1900 and 2010. About 800 billion tons of natural resource "stock" are tied up in these constructions globally, most of it in industrialized nations. In addition, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) believes that the world's raw materials consumption will nearly double by 2060. Much of that natural resource use fuels the increased demand for buildings as the population grows and living standards continue to rise.

How Does Housing Need to Change?

As our collective demand for homes, businesses, industries, and other buildings continues to surge in the coming decades, the need for natural resources is inevitably going to grow. Increasing the operational efficiency of homes to achieve net-zero energy status is undoubtedly essential in the sustainability picture. However, the homes we live in and the buildings we inhabit will continue to require the mining, extraction, processing, and transportation of an enormous amount of natural resources.

Might we realistically be able to provide a growing, more affluent population with dignified, energy-efficient homes while simultaneously reducing the ever-increasing demand for resource extraction? Incorporatingrecycled and salvaged materialsinto the homes we build is one way to minimize the need for new resource extraction. Making an effort tosource local building materialsharvested sustainably is also an essential part of the equation, primarily to reduce the energetic costs of transportation. Returning toearthen building techniques(such as those used at Çatalhöyük) can also reduce the demand for natural resources such as lumber. Most building sites worldwide have an inexhaustible subsoil source that can be used to build healthy, durable homes.

But what about returning to the types of dwellings that our hunter and gatherer ancestors relied upon? Most of us are probably not going to be living in buffalo-hide tents. Also, relying solely on caves for dwelling places would likely lead to a pretty severe housing shortage. However, building homes underground might be an option to reduce resource use for families while creating comfortable, efficient, and undeniably unique dwellings.

Where Are Homes Built Underground?

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In Coober Pedy, Australia, a small "Outback" town north of Adelaide, over 80 percent of the town's population lives in "dugouts." These dugouts are underground homes carved from the surrounding rock. The town, widely known for its opal mines, is also unbearably hot, with temperatures routinely as high at 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). Decades ago, local miners struggling with the heat experimented with building underground shelters. The natural coolness from the surrounding earth led to dozens of underground shelters, which continue to be inhabited today.

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Most of the underground dwellings inCoober Pedyare excavated into the hillsides. The stable surrounding soil offers natural walls and huge ceiling expanses. The insulating, thermal properties of the surrounding soil allow the home interiors to stay at a comfortable 23-25 degrees Celsius (73-77 degrees Fahrenheit) year-round, even when temperatures outside are almost double. In many cases, families will hand-excavate tunnels to create corridors connecting different dwellings. These dugout homes are a far cry from our prehistoric ancestors' simple cave dwellings, with many of the underground "mansions" spanning 450 square meters (over 4800 square feet)! Check out the available bed and breakfasts and "homestays" at Coober Pedy to get an idea of how luxurious an underground home can be!

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Earth-sheltered homes were also widely used in areas of the world where timber was hard to come by. In Iceland, a combination of a lack of standing forest and extreme winter temperatures led many people to build "turf homes." These homes, also known as torfbaeir, were made from flat stones, wood, turf, and soil. Icelandic people built these homes with simple wooden or stone frames to hold the turf or sod laid in a herringbone style in two layers to increase insulation. The result was a beautiful, "hobbit-style" home that blended into the environment while offering excellent thermal protection from the long, cold Icelandic winters.

The two examples above show that underground or "subterranean" homes can be suitable for a wide range of climates. Certainly, underground homes are not appropriate for areas prone to flooding, coastal areas, or places with shallow water tables. However, soil's thermal and insulative properties mean that underground homes can offer energy efficiency advantages in virtually any climate.

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What Are The Benefits of Underground Homes?

Building homes underground might seem like an oddity. However, this building technique offers several practical advantages, including energy efficiency, cost savings, and reduction in natural resources.

What Are the Energy Efficiency Advantages of Underground Homes?

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that earth-sheltered homes were less susceptible to extreme outdoor air temperature impacts. This means that you won't be affected by inclement weather like in a conventional house. There is more stability in indoor temperatures than in traditional homes. With less temperature variability, interior rooms seem more comfortable. The earth's average underground temperature ranges between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit, with some variability based on your location. This pleasantly cool temperature, combined with the subsoil's natural insulation, means that underground homes require very little artificial heating and cooling.

An earth-sheltered home could also be designed withpassive solar heatingto virtually eliminate the need for any additional heating or cooling loads. Passive solar homes have a south-facing orientation. An earth-sheltered dwelling buried into rock or turf could potentially "open up" to the southern hemisphere, with large windows allowing the natural heat from the sun to warm the home. The interior soil or rock walls would also act as athermal massto store and slowly release that heat into the well-insulated earthen home.

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What Are the Economic Advantages of Underground Homes?

One of the main drawbacks to building an earth-sheltered home is that they generally have a higher upfront price tag. The cost of excavation and water-proof membranes add an average of 20-30 percent to the building costs. However, John Ayoub from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, believes that the energy savings alone could quickly offset the higher building cost. In a paper titled "Living Under a Rock: The Viability of Sustainable Underground Living," Ayoub states that underground homes might experience an annual energy savings of a little over $3,000. Given current energy prices, he estimates that energy savings would offset the additional building costs for earth-sheltered homes in approximately eleven years.

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What Reductions in Natural Resource Requirements Do Underground Homes Bring?

Underground homes also drastically reduce the number of natural resources that go into the homes we build. For a 2,600 square foot traditional home, an average of 16,380 board feet of lumber goes toward framing alone. The average 2,600 square foot home will require at least44 mature trees for lumberfor interior finishes alone. Earth-sheltered houses drastically reduce the demand for lumber because the home is not framed above ground. The materials for the walls and foundation are the subsoil itself.

Even the US Department of Energy finds that underground homes offer sustainability and energy efficiency advantages. TheDOEstates that "a bermed house may be built above grade or partially below grade, with earth covering one or more walls. The house is usually built at ground level, and the earth is built up or bermed around and on top of it. This design allows cross-ventilation and access to natural light from more than one side of the house."

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Returning to prehistoric types of shelter is certainly not feasible in today's world. However, that doesn't mean that we can't attempt to re-create some of the advantages that came with our cave-dwelling ancestors. In the right climate and terrain, earth-sheltered homes could offer energy efficiency, sustainability, and long-term economic benefits for homeowners.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsem*nt however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-06-17T03:38:57+0000

Article by:Tobias RobertsTobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.

I am an expert and enthusiast. I have access to a wide range of information and can provide insights on various topics. I can assist you with questions and provide information based on search results and my knowledge base.

Regarding the concepts mentioned in this article, here is some information based on search results:

Underground Homes: A Short History

Before the advent of agriculture around 10,000 years ago, our nomadic ancestors mostly lived in caves as they followed animals across the lands. With the shift to agricultural practices, permanent settlements began to emerge. One of the earliest known permanent settlements is Çatalhöyük in modern-day Turkey, dating back at least 9,500 years. Mud-brick dwellings were common during this time, and the transition to village life marked a significant change in human civilization [[1]].

Resource Consumption in the Building Industry

The building industry has become one of the largest consumers of natural resources globally. Research shows that the total volume of natural resources used in buildings and transport infrastructure increased about 23-fold between 1900 and 2010. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) predicts that raw material consumption for buildings will nearly double by 2060 [[2]].

Sustainable Housing Solutions

As the demand for housing continues to grow, there is a need to find sustainable solutions that reduce resource consumption. Incorporating recycled and salvaged materials into construction, sourcing local building materials sustainably, and utilizing earth-building techniques can help minimize the need for new resource extraction. Earth-sheltered homes, such as those used in Çatalhöyük, can reduce the demand for natural resources like lumber [[3]].

Benefits of Underground Homes

Building homes underground offers several advantages, including energy efficiency, cost savings, and reduced resource requirements.

Energy Efficiency: Underground homes are less susceptible to extreme outdoor temperature impacts, providing more stable indoor temperatures. The earth's natural insulation and thermal properties help maintain comfortable temperatures year-round, reducing the need for artificial heating and cooling. Passive solar heating techniques can also be incorporated to further enhance energy efficiency [[4]].

Cost Savings: While earth-sheltered homes may have a higher upfront cost due to excavation and waterproofing, the energy savings over time can offset these expenses. Studies suggest that annual energy savings for underground homes can amount to over $3,000, potentially offsetting the additional building costs within approximately eleven years [[5]].

Reduced Resource Requirements: Underground homes significantly reduce the amount of natural resources needed for construction. Traditional homes require substantial amounts of lumber for framing and interior finishes. In contrast, earth-sheltered homes utilize the subsoil itself for walls and foundations, reducing the demand for lumber [[6]].

In conclusion, underground homes have a long history and offer various advantages such as energy efficiency, cost savings, and reduced resource consumption. Incorporating sustainable building practices and utilizing earth-building techniques can contribute to more environmentally friendly housing solutions.

Please note that the information provided is based on search results and general knowledge. It's always a good idea to consult experts or conduct further research for specific projects or requirements.

Earth-Sheltered Homes: The Lost Art of Building Underground (2024)


What are the underground homes called? ›

An earth shelter, also called an earth house, earth bermed house, or underground house, is a structure (usually a house) with earth (soil) against the walls, on the roof, or that is entirely buried underground.

How is an earth-sheltered house unlike most houses? ›

Earth sheltered homes are built with soil or vegetation surrounding the walls or buried completely underground. Earth sheltered homes are ideal for homeowners who are looking for sustainable living quarters that withstand weather conditions better than typical homes.

How long do earth houses last? ›

A Rammed earth house can easily sustain its integrity for 1000+ years. Primary factors affecting the cost of any project are design and site characteristics.

Why not build houses underground? ›

The principal downsides to earth-sheltered houses are the initial cost of construction, which can be up to 20% more than a conventional house, and the increased level of care required to avoid moisture problems, both during construction and over the life of the house.

What are the disadvantages of a underground house? ›

Disadvantages of owning an underground home include:
  • Cost: Building an underground home can be quite expensive, and the cost of maintenance and repairs can be higher than for a traditional home.
  • Limited light: Many underground homes have limited natural light, which can make the interior feel dark and dingy.

Can you build a house completely underground? ›

It is allowed to build dwellings which are partially underground. Beyond that, things get complicated. * Egress requirements: at least in CA, any underground room must have an escape route that physically can't be locked (you can't have a 100% underground bunker with a lock on the front door).

What is the temperature of an earth sheltered house? ›

A house that is surrounded (completely or partially) by earth that stays at a steady 55-60° temperature year round requires less heating in the winter and less cooling in the summer.

Are earth-sheltered homes tornado proof? ›

Finally, earth-sheltered houses can cost less to insure because their design offers extra protection against high winds, hailstorms, and natural disasters such as tornados and hurricanes.

Why are old houses raised off the ground? ›

The raised design had multiple advantages, they mitigate damage during flooding and (in very tall examples) can act as defensive structures during conflicts. The house posts are also distinctively capped with larger-diameter discs at the top, to prevent vermin and pests from entering the structures by climbing them.

Are Earth Homes fireproof? ›

This is because earth-based constructions are non-flammable (while topsoil can burn and smoulder, clayey, sandy and gravelly soil does not). A typical Earthship design has double-glazed windows to the north to let in winter sun, while mounds of earth, pushed up to roof level, protect the south, east and west walls.

How long does it take to build an earth home? ›

It also may take you up to 2 years to build your own earthship. In comparison, you can design and have built a home of "sustainable" construction in a few months, with NO effort, for the same amount of money. However, the sustainable they sell you, will be (only) slightly less sustainable than an earthship.

Why don't we live underground? ›

The underworld is synonymous with death in many cultures. Being underground in confined spaces can trigger claustrophobia, and fears of poor ventilation and cave ins.

Why Americans don t build brick houses? ›

High labor costs, time-consuming installation, and repair difficulty are just a few reasons why builders and homeowners are opting for other materials. In this post, we'll explore these complexities and shed some light on why the once ubiquitous brick house is becoming less common in the modern landscape.

How do you waterproof an underground house? ›

A: (Kelly) The typical way to shield an underground house from moisture intrusion is with a moisture barrier, such as polyethylene sheeting, EPDM, pond liner, or a bitumen compound. In any case the wall should be constructed with materials that can withstand moisture if it does happen to get through.

Why do Americans don't build concrete houses? ›

It is more difficult to match the construction rate to the sales rate with industrialized methods. There is a shortage of smaller concrete subcontractors who can build complete houses. Almost all home builders can estimate the cost of traditional construction, be it wood or concrete block.

What is living underground called? ›

Fossorial or semi-fossorial animals are organisms that have adapted successfully to the lifestyle of living underground by digging burrows and tunnels. Some animals such as rodents will live in burrows for most of the day but will resurface for various times throughout the day.

What is underground architecture called? ›

Since the beginning of humankind, what is called subterranean architecture, exists. It is, in fact, finding shelter in the underground. This concept was once used in order to create caves, refuges, tunnels; as an answer for the most primitive needs. Today, subterranean architecture is mystique.

What are underground structures called? ›

Subterranea are underground structures, both natural (such as caves) and human-made (such as mines).

What is a house half underground called? ›

In architecture, a semi-basem*nt, lower ground, lower level, etc. is a floor of a building that is half below ground, rather than entirely such as a true basem*nt or cellar. Belton House.


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