Fascinating Underground Home Designs

For some, underground home designs allow them live in harmony with their surroundings and to more easily acknowledge the beauty in nature.

  • “The idea of putting a square home under the earth made no sense,” William Lishman recalls on williamlishman.com. “Caves are not boxes, and the box is not a shape that lends itself to the immense load of earth above.” As shown in this construction photograph, the only flat surfaces in his house are in two entrance foyers. Originally built as solariums, this underground home design eventually converted them to more energy-efficient wood-frame rooms.
    Photo courtesy William Lishman
  • Door panels and floors are among the few flat surfaces in William Lishman’s underground home design. The door frame conforms to the curvy contours of the walls, but hexagonal bathroom tiles introduce linear accents.
    Photo courtesy William Lishman
  • Down a short flight of stairs, the entrances to the two dune houses face each other across an outdoor foyer. The mirror-image apartments are covered with at least 22 inches of sandy soil.
    Photo courtesy William Morgan Architects/CPS Larry Amato
  • Artistic lighting and a 17 1/2 foot-high ceiling supplement the contrasts of color, texture, shape, and floor levels to create an interior that is both spacious and cozy.
    Photo courtesy William Morgan Architects/Alex Georges
  • Generous patios, which are half-covered under the grassy roof of the Hilltop House’s main floor, take advantage of Gainesville’s warm, rainy climate. The front doors are recessed under the observatory room’s roof overhang, and an unroofed corridor between the house and its two-car garage creates a conventional entrance to an unconventional dwelling.
    Photo courtesy William Morgan Architects
  • Rectangular patios grace three sides of the Hilltop House. On the fourth side, two elongated portals serve as the entrance and exit for the garage. A narrow, vertical slice in the upper level of the hill separates the garage from the house.
    Photo courtesy William Morgan Architects/CPS Larry Amato
  • With "Underground Homes," Loretta Hall sheds light on the fascinating world of underground home designs, subterranean dwellings and the benefits of living closer to nature.
    Cover courtesy Quill Driver Books

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. This excerpt from the chapter “Snug at Home” highlights several underground home designs, and expounds on the philosophy that may lead some to live beneath the earth.

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

Shape Up Down There

“No house should ever be on a hill or on anything,” Frank Lloyd Wright wrote in An Autobiography. “It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.” Energy crises and international conflicts come and go, but aesthetic appreciation is enduring. A desire to live in harmony with the beauty of nature has been an important motivation throughout the modern history of earth-integrated housing.

Throw Me a Curve

William Lishman got the idea for his underground house design from nature, but it was not mountains, seashores, or deserts that inspired him. It was an igloo. A naturalist who helped found Operation Migration, which uses ultralight aircraft to guide migrating birds, Lishman enjoys living in a rural area northeast of Toronto, Ontario. During the early 1970s, Lishman built a small igloo and discovered two surprising characteristics of the structure: It could be kept comfortably warm using only the heat generated by the bodies of its occupants, and it could be illuminated with a match flame that was amplified by the curved, white walls.

At that time, Lishman was living in a drafty, hard-to-heat conventional house that sat exposed to the weather on top of a hill. Intrigued with the idea of building a snug home, he read everything he could find about energy-efficient and earth-sheltered housing. Guided by the mind of an inventor and the eye of a sculptor, he devised a plan consisting of an underground cluster of connected domes.

Creative thinking often outpaces practical considerations. Fifteen years passed before Lishman’s vision was clarified into a set of construction plans and he had amassed the financial resources to begin building. Then he sliced away the top of a hill and poured a concrete foundation, embedding rubber tubes into the slab to carry water for in-floor heating, and including ample conduits for possible wiring needs in the future. He built steel frames for seven onion-shaped domes, welding a network of rebar between arched vertical trusses. After moving the frames into position on the foundation and linking them together, he covered them with a mesh known as expanded metal lathe. The final construction step was applying gunite. For the last interior layer of gunite, Lishman mixed powdered marble with the concrete to create an attractive wall finish. Modeled after a ferro-concrete technique used for building boats, Lishman’s construction system resulted in a watertight structure.

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