“Sunny, dry and pleasant, it offers huge fuel savings and a silent, green alternative to the asphalt society. ” – Malcolm Wells
What are earth-sheltered houses?
A building can be described as earth-sheltered when it has a thermally significant amount of soil or substrate in contact with its external envelope. What that dry definition means in practice is that earth-sheltered architecture includes buildings that have earth against their walls, on their roofs, or are entirely underground.
Earth-sheltering has a long history. Earth-sheltered houses at Keldur in Iceland are amongst the country’s oldest buildings, and houses of turf and earth have an ancient history in many regions of the world. A cursory search on the internet reveals the existence of ancient earth-sheltered dwellings in India, China, North Africa and Turkey; of course if we include in our definition caves, then earth-sheltering might be considered one of humanity’s oldest types of dwelling.
Technically speaking, there are three kinds of earth-sheltered building: earth bermed; in-hill or earth-covered; and underground or fully recessed.
The earth berm or bund consists of earth banked against the walls of a building. This might only be one wall, polar facing, or it could be all of the walls. Traditionally, stones would have been used in these berms as well, and/or turf; modern construction calls for insulation and waterproof membranes of course.
In-hill, or earth-covered construction takes the berm technique a step further and covers the roof of the building as well. Buildings like this are set into a slope or hillside and normally orientated towards the equator (or with the slope of the hill to take drainage into account – see Mike Oehler’s Basic Design, below).
Underground earth-sheltered buildings can also be called atrium-style because of the common use of an atrium or courtyard to ensure adequate light and ventilation. Some of the most famous subterranean houses are to be found in Coober Pedy, Australia, where underground living is a response to an extremely hot climate.
As well as these distinctions between different styles of earth-sheltered building, it is worth remembering that there are both relatively low-tech and high-tech approaches to this technique. There is a world of difference between concrete and steel earth-sheltered houses which whilst they can be extraordinarily energy efficient in use, have very high embodied energy and can cost £1000 per square metre, and hand-dug earth-sheltered constructions that use timber posts and shed-style roofs.
What are the benefits of earth-sheltered houses?
Mike Oehler, author of The $50 and Up Underground House Book has an exhaustive list of advantages to be gained from his style of earth-sheltering:
- no foundation
- less building material
- less labour
- aesthetically pleasing
- lower tax
- warm in winter
- cool in summer
- better view
- built-in greenhouse
- ecologically sound
- increased yard space
- fallout shelter
- cuts atmospheric radiation
- closer to source of water
- relatively fireproof
- pipes never freeze
- superior flooring
- can be built by anyone
- less maintenance
Above: a bit of inspiration for underground living (New Mexico).
More conventionally-minded architects and builders might not go as far as to list ‘defensible’ as an advantage of one of their designs, although to those of us with an appreciation of how the 21st Century might go on, it’s not necessarily the last thing on our minds.
On that note, earth-sheltering may just be the ideal architectural solution to an era of unpredictable climate change. High winds and extreme temperatures are both good reasons to consider earth-sheltering, and whilst you probably wouldn’t want to live in an earth-sheltered house on the flat in a time of flood, and a lot of earth-sheltered house designs struggle with drainage problems, Oehler’s basic design deals with the drainage problem by having a roof that goes with rather than against the slope of the land, and he makes it quite clear that building on the flat isn’t something he would necessarily recommend.
Most commonly listed advantages of earth-sheltered houses include thermal mass, so that these structures remain warm when the weather is cold, and cool when the weather is hot; energy efficiency, requiring less heating and little or no air conditioning; also, earth-sheltered buildings are often built for maximum solar gain, heating up naturally in the winter, but built so that the high summer sun doesn’t reach deep into the cool interior, whilst this isn’t necessarily a feature peculiar to earth-sheltered houses, it is one way in which their thermal mass can be used to great advantage. Privacy and soundproofing are also certainly benefits of living sheltered by the earth, as is ‘landscape fit’ – a sensitively built earth-sheltered house can disappear into the natural lie of the land.
What can I do?
Earth-sheltering is certainly a technically challenging undertaking in some ways, but as with all building techniques, a great deal comes down to design choices.
It is quite possible to earth-shelter an existing building. Perhaps the most commonly seen approach these days is to put a green roof on a house, but in a similar fashion, walls can be bermed. We might imagine our own homes, or even whole towns and cities disappearing into a rolling landscape of earth-sheltering coming to look like meadows, providing bee forage, cooling and oxygenating.
In terms of self-building, earth-sheltering would seem to offer an ideal solution for those in search of good energy efficiency and landscape fit. The crucial question is whether ecological self-builders can manage to get their designs past a system of building regulation intended to fit an industry focused on creating lines of toxic boxes instead of homes for the future of people and planet.
Of course all self-build or renovation projects are expensive, but at least some of the approaches to earth-sheltering can be done with modest resources, and the payback in energy savings should make the hard work involved well worthwhile.
Almost any kind of ground work or construction in the UK requires planning permission, but one interesting idea might be to dig a pond for the sake of wildlife, water storage and perhaps for aquaculture, and then to use the pile of earth generated to do a bit of earth-sheltering on whatever you’re living in. See what the planners say.
This will also inevitably involve coming up against building regulations, but as Jennifer Gray argues here, the main problem may very well be lack of official guidance. Pioneers will help shape the policy.
Hockerton Housing Project: earth-sheltered homes in Nottinghamshire.
Lots of different and inspiring examples of earth-sheltering do already exist: Phil and Helen Reddy’s house gives an idea of a high-specification build with costs at the time of around £1200 a square metre. The Hockerton Housing Project is a well-known example of earth-sheltered housing in a community setting, and its website offers all sorts of advice and inspiration both for new builders and retro-fitters. The HHP was built for £485 a square metre, completed in 1998.
Considered the father of the modern earth-sheltered movement, Malcom Wells (1926-2009) has left us an enormous body of work on which to base our earth-sheltered plans and projects. Pioneers like Wells imagined a whole new kind of architecture, a world in which the majority of buildings would one day be effectively underground. Of all the approaches though, the one that is perhaps the most accessible is that of Mike Oehler. He’s inspired many an ecological self-building pioneer, and instead of concrete and steel he advocates the use of PSP – posts, shoring and polyethylene sheeting; Oehler’s vision encompasses an affordable technique within everyone’s reach.
The very best of low-impact building makes good use of the resources available on-site; it minimises the energy consumption both in construction and in use of the building; it creates structures that are healthy and pleasant for people to live in; it does no harm to the wider landscape and preferably improves it, even offering new and enriched habitats for plants and animals. It also has to be remembered that climate change will challenge all of our buildings, and that the designs of what we build now must take into account a much altered world. Earth-sheltered architecture can address all of these questions, and in addition can be readily included in the list of empowering and accessible self-build techniques which can be learned and applied by most people whatever their previous experience in construction.
Having just read Mike Oehler’s book, I now want to go and start digging a hole; the thing to remember though is that good design goes before a good project.
Thanks to Mischa Hewitt of the Low Carbon Trust for information.
Whilst you’re here, why not take a look at the other 30+ shelter topics available? And don’t forget to visit our main topics page to explore over 200 aspects of low-impact living and our homepage to learn more about why we do what we do.
The specialist(s) below will respond to queries on this topic. Please comment in the box at the bottom of the page.
Simon Tilley, a chartered mechanical engineer, joined Hockerton Housing Project in 1995 after a background in manufacturing and sustainable development work. This included spending two years in Namibia working for Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO). His engineering skills have been put to good use in the project, designing and adapting the energy and water systems, as well as being a key player in the development of low-impact, affordable, earth-sheltered houses.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Alexis October 20th, 2016
My name is Alexis and my wife and I are launching a crowdfunding campaign in order to help us to build our own eco house in South France.
The structure would be made using the Hyperadobe technique. The building (50 m2) is gonna be as green as possible in terms of constrcuction.
Soil for the walls, pallet wood flooring and green roof on top of that !
We want to create a little self sufficient paradise by adding a biogas mini plant, solar panels or Wind turbine for energy management but also use as less as possible water by using dry toilet and Rainwater harvesting devices.
You can see more détails on our crowdfunding page :
2Lottie Lucid June 21st, 2018
Hi, I’d really like to gain experience of building sheltered earth homes. Does anyone have any projects that they need help with? Or courses / training? Preferably in the UK although I’d consider travelling elsewhere. Thanks in advance!
3Sophie Paterson June 24th, 2018
Hi Lottie, if you’re UK based then the EBUKI website (www.ebuki.co) could be a useful starting point for you. They have their annual Clayfest event coming up soon, with lots of different methods represented, workshops and more.
4Graham Bond January 21st, 2019
British Earth Sheltering Association
Sadly BESA is no more but I have a collection of BESA newsletters from April 1990 to September 2001. Many are rather more than a newsletter and contain interesting articles and hinformation. If anyone is interested in these I would be pleased to provide further details.
Graham Bond ( ex BESA member)
5David Cooke February 27th, 2020
Hi Sophie, I’d like to understand more about the viability of using earth block/rammed earth construction on a particular project I’m working on at the moment.
Not sure what your involvement is with EBUKI but I’m looking for a point of contact.
Thanks very much,
The Bespoke Oak Building Company Ltd
6Dave Darby February 27th, 2020
David Cooke – if you pop your comment on the rammed earth building page, I’ll get our specialist to answer if for you – it’s Rowland Keable of EBUKI, who answers queries on rammed earth building for us.
PS would you like a profile in our directory?
7David Cooke February 28th, 2020
Dave Darby – thank you for the reply – sorry would you mind pointing me in the direction of the rammed earth building page please?
We’ve an earth sheltered project currently going through technical design and I’d like to explore alternative build methods.
Yes please send me details about the listing.
8David Cooke February 28th, 2020
Found it thanks!
9David Cooke May 20th, 2020
Hi – I wonder if Simon can contact me please? We have an earth sheltered project with approval to design/engineer and would like to discuss if possible.
Thanks very much,
The Bespoke Oak Building Co Ltd
10Dave Darby May 20th, 2020
Simon – that’s https://thebespokeoakbuildingcompany.com/
11Chris February 24th, 2021
I am planning to build a low impact hobbit home in washington state. do you have any suggestions or references for architects that can help me design something natural? Also I have no clue what to expect budgeting wise? What does a typical 3 bedroom 2 1/2 bath single family hobbit home cost to build? I have my own on site timber to use, but I am new to this field and could just use a few pointers. Thanks!
12Dave Darby February 26th, 2021
Chris – that’s a bit vague. The article has suggestions and references, including budgeting. Let us know if you have specific questions.