What is Earth-Sheltered Housing?

Earth-sheltered housing (sometimes called “underground” housing) came to public attention in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Instead of marring a grassy knoll or field with the construction of a conventional house, it is possible to design and build a home in complete accord with nature. Whether you choose to create an “earth-sheltered” house that blends into the world around it or one that is truly “underground,” these homes can offer comfort and energy efficiency at moderate cost.

There are two different approaches to earth-sheltered housing: the bermed house and the chambered (or truly underground) house. The bermed house involves building the structure at or close to original grade and “berming” (mounding earth against) the side walls. Very often, an earth roof – also called a green or living roof – is chosen to complete the natural harmony of the building. In the chambered house, the entire structure is below original grade, but this is quite rare. At Earthwood, we accent the bermed style.

Log End Cave Earthwood Cordwood home

Our Log End Cave (left) was close to being a true underground home, while the round walls of the Earthwood home (right) are about 40% earth-sheltered. Both designs feature living roofs.

Many different techniques have evolved over the past 40 years which make earth-sheltered houses as light and bright and airy as homes built above ground. Designers seem to go out of their way in this respect, aware not only of the code-enforcement officer’s strict adherence to building regulations, but also of the common citizen’s belief that underground housing equals dark, damp, dingy basements. Mike Oehler, author of The $50 and Up Underground House Book, says, “An underground house has no more in common with a basement than a penthouse apartment has in common with a hot, dark, dusty attic.”

Rob Roy’s book, Earth-Sheltered Houses: How to Build an Affordable Underground Home (New Society Publishers), is used as the textbook for our Earthwood Techniques workshops and includes a section on the living roof. See also, Stoneview: How to Build an Eco-Friendly Little Guesthouse (New Society, 2007) which covers new work we have done on light-weight living roofs. See our BOOKS & MEDIA page.

Stoneview View of Stoneview & Earthwod

The walls are not earth-sheltered at our Stoneview guest house, but the building sports a light-weight living roof, thanks to using sedum which grows happily in shallow soils.