Malcolm Wells: The Father of Earth-Sheltered Architecture

Building underground wasn't a new idea when Malcolm Wells happened upon it, but he codified the principles of earth-sheltered architecture that others now follow.

  • Malcolm Wells - head shot
    Malcolm “Mac” Wells, the father of earth-sheltered architecture.
    Photo by Shareen Davis/Cape Cod Voice
  • Malcolm Wells - Sidwell house exterior
    Malcolm Wells built the Sidwell House near Beallsville, Ohio. Using passive solar heating, composting toilets and a graywater filtration system, it meets many of his 15 basic criteria for buildings.
    John Morgan
  • Malcolm Wells - 1965 underground house sketch
    Wells sketched this house in 1965, after having “a brilliant and original idea: Buildings should be underground!”
    Malcolm Wells

  • Malcolm Wells - head shot
  • Malcolm Wells - Sidwell house exterior
  • Malcolm Wells - 1965 underground house sketch

Malcolm Wells (“Mac” to his friends and others) has been called the father of modern earth-sheltered architecture, the guru of underground building and the gentle architect. Born in 1926 in Camden, N.J., he became an architect in 1953 and, by his own account, spent the next 11 years winning awards and earning lots of money by “spreading corporate asphalt.”

Around 1964, though, three events completely changed his approach to architecture. An underground house exhibit he saw at the New York World’s Fair “put a spark in my head.” On a visit to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s compound in Scottsdale, Ariz., he stepped into a small underground theater and found it delightfully cool and comfortable. Finally, he says, three men died who had been deeply important to him: John F. Kennedy, Pope John XXIII and Malcolm’s own father, John D. Wells. “That made a little more of an adult out of me,” he says. “It kicked me into getting serious about life.”

Serious thinking led him to conclude that the Earth’s surface was meant for living things rather than dead buildings and asphalt, and that buildings therefore should be underground. It meant building downward rather than upward. He became fascinated with the possibilities of underground and earth-sheltered construction, and soon was convinced that this was not just another way to build — it was the best, perhaps the only, way to build.

He tried to spread the word. In 1965, he published an article in Progressive Architecture that he now calls a “polemic against everything that had ever been built on the surface of the earth.”

In a 1971 article in Architectural Digest, he wrote, “The act of building, whether it involves giant hydroelectric dams or a single small home, is an act of land-destruction. Buildings destroy land for as long as they stand.”

That article sets out 15 properties of wild land that Wells thought buildings ideally should emulate: create pure air; create pure water; store rainwater; produce its own food; create rich soil; use solar energy; store solar energy; create silence; consume its own wastes; maintain itself; match nature’s pace; provide wildlife habitat; provide human habitat; moderate climate and weather; and be beautiful.

12/21/2007 2:03:32 PM

Dennis, An underground home would be an excellent option in the desert - especially if it were earth- bermed on three sides. This uses the natural insulating ability of the earth. Items used in the foundation include used automobile tires filled with soil, polypropylene earth bags, and standard concrete. The southern exposure can be of a "typical" construction method, but needs to utilize the proper proportion of glazing for the home's square footage. A good website to look at is The site is very informative on alternative construction techniques, benefits, and actual plans. The site offers consultation services and information on zoning. Enjoy!

12/12/2007 12:55:50 AM

what is the best off grid or on with alternitive homes? straw,underground,adobe? in desert nv. az. ut.?

12/12/2007 12:49:36 AM

i would appreciate any help and insight in off grid underground houses?building materals,permits,ect.i have many ideas,just need to fine tune the applaction's? if its pracital to go underground?thank you Dennis



Learn from Home!

Survival Skills, Garden Planning, Seed Saving, Food Preservation, Natural Health – Dozens of courses, 100+ workshops, and interactive Q&As.


Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 64% Off the Cover Price

50 Years of Money-Saving Tips!

Mother Earth NewsAt MOTHER EARTH NEWS for 50 years and counting, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. You'll find tips for slashing heating bills, growing fresh, natural produce at home, and more. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.95 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.

Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
International Subscribers - Click Here
Canadian subscriptions: 1 year (includes postage & GST).

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter flipboard

Free Product Information Classifieds Newsletters