“Another type of building is emerging: one that actually heals the scars of its own construction. It conserves rainwater and fuel and it provides a habitat for creatures other than the human one. Maybe it will catch on, maybe it won’t. We’ll see.” – Malcolm Wells, 2002.
An earth sheltered home uses the ground as an insulating blanket that effectively protects it from temperature extremes, wind, rain, and extreme weather events. An earth-sheltered home is energy-efficient, quiet, freeze-proof, and low maintenance.
Aesthetically, an earth-sheltered home blends in with the natural environment, leaving more yard space and more space for wildlife.
Fifteen feet below ground, the soil maintains a fairly constant temperature equal to the annual average temperature of the area’s surface air.
For example, if the average temperature in your area is 55, that means the soil temperature at 15 feet is 55 degrees and in the winter you will only have to bring the temperature inside your earth sheltered home up to thirteen degrees, to bring it up to a comfortable 68 degrees. That’s instead of bringing up the inside temperature 68 degrees if your home is above ground and the outside wind chill is 0.
In the summer, that 55-degree soil will also keep your home much cooler than an above ground home. Many earth homes incorporate passive solar designs, lessening even further the need for fuel for heating or cooling.
Here is a tour of an 1,900 square foot earth-sheltered home built by architect Alan Shope. Shope explains how earth-sheltering mitigates against cold. The 54 F degree temperature of the earth acts as a “blanket” around the house, he says. Includes video of the building process.
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Everything about the building is recycled—including the paving stone, which was the floor of old jail cells. The exterior was copper flashing of a mental institution. The window faces south, so that it warms the two-foot-thick concrete floor. Even on a cold day, the floor stays warm from being heated by the sun.
Types of Earth Sheltered Homes
- Earth Sheltered: Dirt covers three exterior sides and the roof (the walls are most often concrete).
- Earth Bermed: Dirt is pushed up against the exterior walls only, and not onto the roof, yet the roof is usually super-insulated.
28 Stunning Earth Sheltered Home Designs
These home designs are not only environmentally friendly, but truly spectacular.
1) Cooper Pedy, Australia
In Coober Pedy, Australia, daytime highs often climb into the 100s and many have taken up residence in abandoned opal mines to beat the heat. Some of the homes can be rented for overnight stays.
2) Outer Hebrides Islands, UK
This earth-sheltered house, which’s almost more of an underground house, is located in the wilds of the Outer Hebrides. It provides a perfect living environment for harsh weather. This home’s support walls are constructed of PolarWall (polystyrene).
3) The Sedum House, North Norfolk, UK
An award winning earth shelter dwelling by Cam Architects. The Sedum House, in Gimingham, North Norfolk, UK, incorporates green technology in the form of ground source heat pumps, photovoltaic panels and a whole house ventilation system. The use of highly insulating ICF in the walls makes for a very low energy use dwelling. Note the sunken room on right.
Side wall of the Sedum House.
4) Earthship Farmstead, Virginia Mountains
Kaplan Thompson Architects did an amazing job with the structure of this building. They used their experience with building “net-zero” homes to create this eco-friendly home.
5) Pinnacle House, New Hampshire
Earth-sheltered Pinnacle House is an award-winning, sustainably-designed home in Lyme, New Hampshire. The home was designed and built by architect Don Metz in 1971, a pioneer in green home design and construction. The north-side of the house is built into the hillside, creating a green roof through the use of earth-sheltered building techniques. The house faces due south, offering passive solar gain and spectacular views from every room.
Pinnacle House interior. How dreamy are those large windows?
6) Underhill, Yorkshire, UK
Underhill, near Holmfirth, Yorkshire, UK. “The first ‘modern’ earth-sheltered house in Britain and the home of its architect Arthur Quarmby, a pioneer of earth-sheltered buildings. The house features earth embankments, turf roof, lots of insulation and a visual impact that not even the pickiest of neighbors could fault.” Best yet, this earth sheltered home features something you don’t often see: skylights.
Earthbag Underground House: Time-Lapse Video
Six months of building this earthbag underground home at a commune in Ecuador, shown in two minutes. First up in the excavation, all done by hand. Next, the earth bags are laid in place. Wooden beams are laid across to form the roof, then metal sheeting laid across the beams.
More sandbags are put in place to form a loft area. Then earth is laid over the lower-roof area, and stucco put around the exposed bags. Very cool (figuratively and literally).
7) Farm in New Zealand
Earth Sheltered Rainbow Valley Farm, New Zealand. The solar design maintains the temperature in the building, creating an escape from the heat while also increasing overall energy savings. The exterior looks similar to that of a conventional home, but the roof is far from ordinary.
8) Earth Sheltered Office, New Jersey
Architect Malcolm Wells built this earth-sheltered office in Cherry Hill, New Jersey—quiet and light-filled even though it’s beneath a meadow and adjacent to a six-lane highway.
9) St-Malo, France
Earth-sheltered homes in Parame, St-Malo, France.
10) Australian Earth Shelter
This home has used a hill for the majority of the structure, with a small yard in the front.
11) Robot Ranch
Robot Ranch, seven interconnected earth sheltered domes. This home built into the side of a hill has 4,144 square feet of living area, yet it disappears into the landscape.
12) Eco-Village, Denmark
Earth-sheltered homes in the eco-village at Dyssekilde, Denmark. Dysager was one of the first areas to be built, and includes the use of recycled materials throughout the eco-village.
Tour A “Raw” Earth-Sheltered Home
This video shows the exterior of an earth-sheltered home after the concrete bones have been poured. The narrator is the future occupant of the house. Eventually, five feet of dirt will be piled atop it! The video shows a pipe through which wiring will be put. Shows a retaining wall that will hold the dirt in place and act as a buttress to support the house. Inside the house you can see how much light comes through just from reflecting off the ground.
13) Dragonfly Hill
Dragonfly Hill, an earth-sheltered home near Newport, Oregon, is readied for its earth covering. Read the awesome blog devoted to the construction of this home.
14) Triangular House
Allan Shope designed an ecologically-focused house for himself and his family in Amenia, New York. The triangular house is built into the earth, and covered with native flora transplanted from other parts of the property.
15) Earth Sheltered Dome
Earth sheltered dome home in Vermont.
16) Building With A Grass Roof
These owners have used grass to incorporate their homes into the surrounding field.
17) Walled Garden
The Walled Garden, Barnsdale, UK, with greenhouse by Search Architects. The home is a single room deep, facing the sun, super-insulated, cut into the landscape contours, covered in earth, and overlooking the open countryside.
18) Dani Ridge House, Big Sur, California
The gorgeous Dani Ridge House in Big Sur, California by Carver + Schicketanz is tucked into a hillside.
Documentary: Fritz Eisenhofer, Earth-Sheltered Home Pioneer
A Dome in Peka Peka tells the story of Fritz Eisenhofer. He shares his experiences and his knowledge from building earth-sheltered homes. He points out that underground homes need to feel spacious. They can’t be laid out conventionally, or they feel claustrophobic. His solution—to build a dome. This type of structure minimizes the internal structure.
The dome is such a strong form, it’s only 35 mm thick. Stills of the construction process are shown. Eisenhofer narrates the plan of the home, showing where all of the rooms were and their function. The house was built with a swimming pool / garden area. Eisenhofer lived in the home for 20 years…he points out that construction took longer than expected: “Anything new, you can’t rush it.”
19) Two-Story Underground Home, Cumbria
British architect John Bodger built this underground home in Cumbria. The two-story house is burrowed backwards into rock at the site of on an old quarry. See plans and lots more about the project.
20) Earth Shelter, Project Michigan
This building was constructed to keep the windows facing south, protecting them from potential storm damage.
21) Mountain House
Dutch Mountain House, Huizen, Netherlands by denieuwegeneratie.
Earth-sheltered home in Saint Jeannet, France, Photo by Jean-Pierre Cavelan. Originally found at picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/RCYs7AW2H1DUZ2yALEwGpA
23) Earth House Estate
The earth-sheltered homes at Earth House Estate in Deitikon, Switzerland are centered around a small artificial lake with the entrances well hidden and integrated into the sides of the settlement. The residential settlement consists of nine houses, one a 7-bedroom home!
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The daytime areas are situated towards the south, the nighttime areas towards the north. In the middle, you find the bathrooms and the connecting stairs to the basement. All the bathrooms get natural light through rooftop windows.
24) Honingham Social Housing, UK
Honingham Earth Sheltered Social Housing. The UK’s first earth-sheltered social housing scheme. “We do not have any heating on at all in the winter and the building still stays at 72 degrees. The light comes in through the full-length windows in winter but in the summer the sun’s heat does not penetrate so you stay cool,” say the owners. And that earth roof is pretty stunning at this angle.
25) Earth Sheltered Home With Natural Swimming Pond
Earth sheltered home, as above. This design really allows for the surrounding landscape to do the talking. See the kit and floor plan at: earthshelter.com
26) Mill Valley Cabins
Feldman Architecture used the surrounding redwoods to design a space for the residents that encourages creativity. Talk about some serious privacy in nature!
27) Earth-Sheltered Adobe Home
The facade by Formworks may accommodate any architectural styling of the home owners choosing. Here the structure is a bolted together skeletal steel system which is then sprayed with pressurized concrete, same process as a gunite swimming pool.
28) Earth-Sheltered Home + Umbrella
Use an umbrella to insulate the surrounding soil and increase inner temperatures even more. An umbrella house or PAHS (Passive Annual Heat Storage) home works on the principle that Earth is an ideal thermal mass for storing heat over long time periods. Summer’s heat is absorbed out of the home into the surrounding dry earth, keeping it cool and comfortable. This heat reserve is then conducted back up into the home when winter or extreme temperatures prevail, heat is available even through an entire winter.
To contain the heat, the heat should flow between the earth and the home, rather than the earth and the out-of-doors. You must keep the earth dry around the periphery of the home. The umbrella’s sandwich of polystyrene insulation and polyethylene sheeting (about R-20) insulates a huge mass of surrounding dirt instead of just the house. The lower, inside portion of the home needs but minimal insulation. See John Hait’s book: Passive Annual Heat Storage, Improving the Design of Earth Shelters.
Earth-Sheltered Home Resources
- The Terra-Dome building system is a forming system that helps create a concrete steel reinforced structure in modular form of 24′ x 24′ or 28′ x 28′ (inside measurement). These modules are poured on location and can be arranged in a multitude of configurations. The Terra-Dome module is used for earth-sheltered structures in most cases.
- Sturdy concrete earth sheltered homes are a specialty of Conrad’s Castles Construction in Bastrop, Texas.
- The modular framework of Polarwall makes it easy for earth sheltered home builders to incorporate concrete and steel reinforcement.
- Made from concrete, reinforced steel, and insulating foam, Monolithic Dome Homes are an inexpensive option for above-ground buildings in tornado zones—and are also used for underground homes.
- The idea came from building an igloo—see how Bill Lishman’s idea for an underground home of interconnected igloos was built.
This is an ad for Green Magic Homes, a pre-fab construction concept. The modules are made from resins and composites. They are then assembled—they claim you need no construction experience for assembly. The Hotel Bellandia (see video below), in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador, was built by Green Magic Homes.
Earth Sheltered Home Plans And Design Notes
- Plans and designs by Malcolm Wells
- Plans for an Earthbag-Earth Shelter, by designer Owen Geiger.
- Plans for a home built with tires full of packed dirt, called a roundhouse.
- Earth sheltered home plan for sale at COOLhouseplans.com.
- Plans for sale for earth-sheltered living roof homes, earth-bermed homes, and an earthship plan at Dream Green Homes.
The Best Books About Earth Sheltered Homes
- The Fifty Dollar and Up Underground House Book by Mike Oehler
- The Earth Sheltered Solar Greenhouse Book by Mike Oehler
- Earth-Sheltered Houses: How to Build an Affordable Underground Home by Rob Roy
- Building Underground: The Design and Construction Handbook for Earth-Sheltered Houses by Herbert Wade
- The Handbook of Earth Shelter Design by Mike Edelhart
- The Earth-Sheltered House: An Architect’s Sketchbook by Malcolm Wells
- Earth Sheltered Housing Design: Guidelines, Examples, and References by The Underground Space Center University
Articles About Earth Sheltered Homes
- “Efficient Earth shelter homes.” U.S. Department of Energy. 2012. eere.energy.gov
- “Digging for the green: Underground architecture and sustainable design.” Hall, Loretta. subsurfacebuildings.com
- ACU professor Ronnie McQueen teaches benefits of earth house: texnews.com
- “Underground urban farm.” Trends in Japan. March 17, 2005. web-japan.org
- Cooled soil as a cooling source for buildings: www.sciencedirect.com