Digging for the Truth of Earth-Sheltered Homes

Earth-sheltered homes are becoming more common as the costs of dependable, sustainable energy rises.
By Loretta Hall
March 24, 2014
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With energy costs rising, for many people earth-sheltered dwellings are becoming a viable option when it comes to living spaces.
Photo by Fotolia/Alison Bowden
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Underground buildings are more common than you think. In fact, tens of thousands of North Americans shop, play, and sleep in more than 300 public and commercial structures and 5,000 private underground homes everyday. Underground Buildings (Quill Driver Books, 2004) sheds the light on these subterranean dwellings, from homes made from abandoned missile silos to vast below-ground government complexes. Loretta Hall offers stories of both success and failure, and presents a vast spectrum of underground buildings. Excerpted from “Snug at Home,” this selection offers information on the growing prevalence of earth-sheltered homes.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Underground Buildings

About Earth-Sheltered Homes

Along with food and clothing, shelter has always been one of mankind’s basic needs. Earth-sheltered homes are virtually as old as the hills, even in flat terrain. Natural caves provided the earliest in-ground shelters for humans at least 50,000 years ago. Pit houses, recessed partly into the ground, were built as much as 23,000 years ago in eastern Europe. Bronze Age dwellings were dug into stream banks at Beersheba in Israel 6,000 years ago. At least 2,400 years ago in Cappadocia, now part of Turkey, entire cities up to twenty stories deep were carved into the ground to protect as many as 20,000 people from enemy sieges.

Subterranean dwellings are not merely a curiosity of ancient times, however. According to recent estimates, between 30 and 40 million people live in hand-hewn underground homes in China. In Spain and France, perhaps another 100,000 people live in homes carved into rocky hillsides. Far from being primitive caves, these houses are equipped with modern conveniences secured behind facades fitted with conventional doors and windows. In several Australian mining towns, most of the residents live in houses dug into sandstone hills, sometimes the construction is financed by selling gemstones discovered during the house’s excavation.

In the United States, an enormous variety of earth-sheltered homes have been built since the early 1960s. Located from Alaska to Florida, they range from small, subsistence-level cottages to elegant mansions. Some appear quite conventional, while others are whimsical, futuristic, or simply unusual. The styles reflect not only personal tastes of the homes’ owners and designers but also the reasons they were built underground. Early examples were characterized by strategies for surviving nuclear war. As that threat became less likely, the focus shifted to designing ecologically responsible homes. The 1973 Arab oil embargo triggered a substantial wave of building earth-sheltered houses to reduce energy use. This economic motivation was so strong that, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Underground Space Center, the number of earth-sheltered houses in the United States mushroomed from about 50 in 1976 to an estimated 1,500–3,000 by 1980. The same researchers reported receiving a few requests per week for information on earth-sheltered houses in early 1977 but getting between ten and twenty requests per day the following year. In the spring of 1978, they published a report on effective design concepts for earth-sheltered houses; the report proved so popular that commercial publisher Van Nostrand Reinhold printed 100,000 copies the following year under the title Earth Sheltered Housing Design.

Statistics on American underground houses are elusive, but experts suggest that by the late 1990s the number was between 5,000 and 7,000. In 1999, underground architecture guru Malcolm Wells estimated that at any given time, approximately 100 earth-covered houses are being built in the United States. There are some indications that interest may be rising again, spurred at least in part by increasing concerns about sustainable energy supplies. Frank Moreland, an architect who has promoted subsurface buildings since the 1960s, reports building eight underground houses in the decades prior to 1990 and six between 1990 and 1998.

The earth-sheltered homes described in this chapter include some structures that have received little or no publicity and others that have been praised by the architectural community. Examples from each decade since the 1960s reflect a variety of lifestyles and tastes.

Wondering what forms earth-sheltered homes can take? Check out several Fascinating Underground Home Designs.


Reprinted with permission from Underground Buildings: More than Meets the Eye by Loretta Hall and published by Quill Driver Books, 2004. Buy this book from our store: Underground Buildings.


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