How Have Earth’s Sheltered Home Designs Pushed the Boundaries?
Earth Sheltered Homes is an architectural concept that works with nature to push the boundaries of housing design. This article will delve into this concept, providing an overview of the design intent, the pros and cons of earth-sheltered houses, and some examples of such buildings from around the world.
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What are Earth’s sheltered houses?
Earth sheltered houses are, as the name suggests, houses that are sheltered from the elements by the ground. These buildings blend into their surrounding environment, providing an aesthetic that is both modern and organic.
There are two types of earth-proof house designs: underground earth-proof houses and berm houses. A subterranean earth-sheltered house is covered on the roof and three exterior sides by earth, with the entrance exposed. An earth house is built above or partially above the ground and has only earth surrounding the exterior walls and not the roof, which is usually insulated. Concrete is commonly used for the walls of an earth sheltered house.
Two other types of earth berm houses are elevation and ingress designs. In an elevated berm design, the other sides, and sometimes the roof, are covered with earth. Floor plans are arranged to maximize shared light and warmth in common areas and bedrooms, with the exposed front of the house facing south. Skylights are strategically placed to maximize light and ventilation in the northern part of the house.
A penetration berm house has dirt covering all exterior surfaces except windows and doors. The earth is constructed around and above the building, and more than one side is exposed to provide adequate access to daylight and good levels of cross ventilation.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Earth Sheltered Homes
The main advantage of earth-proof houses is the insulation from the surrounding earth. The ground at a depth of 15 feet maintains a fairly constant temperature which reflects the mean annual surface air temperature. So, if the average annual air temperature is 55 degrees, less heating is needed in winter to bring it to a comfortable temperature. Conversely, in summer, the ground temperature keeps the building cooler than an equivalent above-ground house.
Other benefits include less maintenance, better soundproofing, and lower insurance costs due to protection against hailstorms, wind, and natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes. There is a unique aesthetic advantage to earth-sheltered homes, as they blend seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. Additionally, the yard space can be optimized in an earth-sheltered house design. Earth sheltered homes are energy efficient and environmentally friendly, attracting a more environmentally conscious buyer.
Like all housing designs, however, underground homes, both subterranean and berthed, suffer from drawbacks. The main disadvantage is the cost of construction, which is generally higher than that of a conventional house. Additionally, surrounding soil moisture can cause structural problems, which require more maintenance than a traditional home design. Extra care should be taken during construction to avoid moisture problems. Resale may require more due diligence, and there may be planning and mortgage hurdles for buyers.
How do they push the boundaries of design?
Earth-covered houses are an organic-inspired architectural design. They push the boundaries in terms of environmental friendliness, materials, design and aesthetics. In terms of materials, concrete is the most widely used building material, but earth-covered homes can take advantage of other materials like wood, steel, and recycled and upcycled materials. These buildings push the boundaries in terms of sustainability, allowing for the bold use of design elements that further reduce the building’s carbon footprint than conventional building designs.
Some examples from around the world
Tiny mud houses in the Croatian countryside. Image Credit: splat/Shutterstock.com
Although not nearly as prevalent as conventional building designs, there are many examples of earth-covered houses around the world, some of which have won design awards for their bold and innovative approach to architectural design. .
Alan Shope designed a 1,900 foot house in upstate New York that takes advantage of the natural isolation of the land “cover” that surrounds it. The home’s sustainability and eco-friendliness comes from using recycled materials in its construction. The cobblestones were once the floor of prison cells and the exterior features copper flashings that were once used in a mental institution. The two-foot-thick concrete floor is warmed by south-facing windows, even staying warm on cold days.
In the Outer Hebrides off the coast of scotland, an earth-sheltered house uses polystyrene for its retaining walls and, thanks to its design, is weatherproof.
The winner Sedum House in Norfolk in the UK, designed by Cam Architects, uses green technologies such as photovoltaic solar cells and geothermal heat pumps and insulating ICFs in the walls.
A pioneering house design from the 1970s is Pinnacle House in New Hampshire. This home is built into the hillside and faces south, which passively heats the interior with sunlight and provides unobstructed views from anywhere in the dwelling. It was designed in 1971 by Don Metz, a pioneer in the design and construction of green habitats.
Examples of earth-sheltered homes can be found in France, New Zealand, Australia and Denmark, displaying a wide range of design aesthetics and sustainable technologies.
Although still a niche architectural design, earth sheltered houses push the boundaries of design and sustainability in modern architecture. The future could see more built around the world as demand for more eco-friendly homes increases among buyers aware of the impact of where they choose to live on the environment.
Energy.gov (2021) Efficient Earth Sheltered Homes [online] energy.gov. Available at:
Keiren (2021) Earth Sheltered Homes: an ecological and passive alternative to housing [online] placing.com. Available at: