Picture living underground. It may seem like a radical idea, but there are more people living in underground homes than you might think. And with climate change upon us, it seems quite likely that earth-sheltered homes will soon start taking off in earnest.
This guide will serve as your 101 guide to earth-sheltered housing. We will introduce you to the many benefits of underground homes, any drawbacks you should be aware of, and tell you a bit about how underground homes are constructed.
Who knows? Maybe reading this guide will be the first step in a journey toward living in your own earth-sheltered abode.
An earth-sheltered home is simply a home that is constructed partly or fully underground. Sometimes, an earth house may also be referred to as a “berm house.”
How much of the house needs to be underground in order for it to count as earth-sheltered? In general, if half or more of the surface area is adjoining the earth, it fits within the definition. This is similar but not the same as the popular earthship architecture which are mostly above-ground structures.
8 Key Benefits of Underground Homes
Underground homes offer a wide range of impressive advantages. While these benefits would be useful in any era, they make these earth-sheltered dwellings especially suited to the effects of climate change.
1. Thermal stability
If you want a home that can passively maintain a comfortable interior temperature, an underground house is one of your best options.
Oregon State University explains, “The chief advantage to an earth-sheltered house is its thermal stability. Soil protects the house from prevailing winds and thus the air filtration which can cause heat loss in the winter and heat gain in the summer.”
Have you ever gone on a tour inside a cave? If so, you know from experience that underground spaces tend to maintain a cool, pleasant temperature even when it is blazing hot outside.
Of course, the effect will not be as dramatic in an underground house, but the same basic principles are at play.
2. Save on energy costs
Another of the advantages of earth homes is that you will be spending less to heat and cool your home throughout the year. That is money back in your pocket season after season.
3. Live a green lifestyle
When you do not have to run heat and air conditioning as much, you not only are saving money, but also conserving power. That means that you can potentially reduce your carbon footprint.
So, not only will you stay more comfortable during the climate crisis, but you will also be contributing less to global warming. You will be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
4. Safer and more durable than above-ground homes
When your home is located partly or completely underground, it is very well shielded against high winds and precipitation. That means that it can protect you and your loved ones and possessions from hurricanes, tornadoes and other harsh weather. Destructive weather events like these are becoming more frequent.
Earth-sheltered homes also may be a good choice if you live in an earthquake zone. Curbed quotes Jean-Philippe Avouac, geology professor at Caltech, as saying, “Structures which are underground are less vulnerable to shaking than structures at the surface. That’s just the effect of inertia.”
Additionally, if you have any worries about civil unrest or warfare, underground housing is about the safest possible option. It is pretty close to living in a bunker, especially if you construct it accordingly.
5. Stands the test of time
If you want a home that is going to still be structurally sound and in beautiful condition many years down the road, an earth home makes a lot of sense.
Remember, your home will not be as exposed to the elements as above-ground houses. That is a lot of daily wear and tear that your house is not even going to have to endure.
You will not need to do nearly as much work to maintain your house, yet it will remain in better shape than its traditional counterparts.
A well-designed underground home is one that you will be able to pass down to your children.
6. Blends in with the landscape
We live in an age when people are starting to question the way we have been building for decades. Do we really want to live in a world that is all paved over, or do we want to live in a world that is green and alive?
When your home is fully or partially underground, you can construct it in such a way that it disappears into the landscape. From certain angles, it might just look like a set of small hills, or even be completely undetectable. You can grow grass and other plants over top of the buried portions, making it a landscaper’s dream come true.
When you are out in your yard and garden, you will be able to enjoy the scenery to its fullest, without the obstruction of a big, blocky structure taking up space.
7. Excellent noise cancellation
One more advantage of living underground is that you have all that earth between you and the outside world.
That means that your home is insulated against unwanted noise. So, if you have loud neighbors or a noisy highway nearby, you will not need to listen to them. Additionally, they are less likely to hear you as well when you are inside your home. So, feel free to crank up the volume on your music without worrying about complaints.
8. Versatile aesthetics
You will be surprised at the sheer variety of styles that show up in underground houses. Some homes are designed to look like hobbit holes, while others feature sleek modern lines. Still others may have an organic look with curved walls, kind of like caves. So, whatever your aesthetic preferences, you can build an underground home that is perfect for you.
Underground houses have a lot of advantages, as you can see. But there are a few possible drawbacks that you should be aware of.
- Cost: Earth-sheltered houses cost more than conventional homes to build (more on that later). So, the initial outlay for construction may stretch your budget a bit.
- Leaks: Gravity is not on your side when it comes to preventing leaks in an underground home. This is not to say that underground houses are inherently leaky, but you do need to take extra care with the design and construction of your home to prevent problems. Some options you can consider for waterproofing include plastic and vulcanized sheets, rubberized asphalt, bentonite, and liquid polyurethanes.
- Pests: Lots of critters live underground, so you will need to make sure there are no points of entry when you design your home. Some owners of underground homes complain a lot about pests while others do not, so your mileage may vary.
- Humidity: Alas, humidity can be a problem in earth-sheltered homes. That said, you may be able to mitigate this issue with the right home design.
You might wonder whether underground homes have issues with airflow or light. That depends on how they are designed, but for the most part, the answer is “no.” It is not difficult to ventilate an underground home if you know what you are doing. Many underground houses also feature very large windows for natural light and views. Even those constructed entirely underground can incorporate generous windows and skylights.
Constructing an Underground Home
A variety of materials can be used in the construction of underground homes, but the Department of Energy says that concrete is the most common. DOE writes that concrete for earth-sheltered homes is “strong, durable, and fire resistant. Concrete masonry units (also called concrete blocks) reinforced with steel bars placed in the core of the masonry can also be used, and generally cost less than cast-in-place concrete.”
What about wood? This material should be used more sparingly, but it can serve both structural and decorative roles.
Additionally, sand, dirt, grass, wicking fabrics and rubber membranes can all be used as layering materials in the construction of an earth house.
Before you attempt to build your own underground house, make sure that you check your local zoning laws.
Work with a builder who has extensive experience with underground homes to make sure your building is designed to code and is protected against leaks and humidity.
What Does an Underground House Cost to Build?
We have seen cost estimates of $130 to $150 per square foot for underground houses. Oregon State University says, “Construction costs for an earth -sheltered house are usually higher than for a conventional house. With land and site improvements, an earth-sheltered house will probably cost 10 to 35 percent more than a comparable sized above-ground house.”
Don’t forget, however, that in the long run, an earth-sheltered home can save you money through reduced electrical and maintenance costs.
Examples of Underground Homes
Here are a couple of examples of beautiful underground homes to inspire you.
1. Villa Vals
This stunning underground home is the work of SeARCH Works, and is located in the Swiss alps. It is built directly into the side of a mountain, with the entire structure underground. A large circular opening creates a hollow that can serve as a patio with convenient built-ins storage areas. The home’s doors and windows all look out through this opening at the dramatic landscape.
The architect writes, “The villa is thermally insulated and features ground source heat pump, radiant floors, heat exchanger and uses only hydroelectric power generated by the nearby reservoir.”
We are super jealous of whomever gets to live here!
2. Concrete House II
Here is a cool example of a house that is partially underground, designed by A-cero and constructed on the Madrid outskirts.
The building’s distinctive façade is defined a by a series of concrete panels, between which are ramps covered with grass. The interior of the structure is every bit as modern as the exterior, dominated by clean lines, dark greys, and tons of natural light through the large glass windows.
Underground Homes Could be the Housing of the Future
Earth-sheltered homes may not be conventional, but they are starting to pick up some traction as more and more people realize their many charms and advantages.
Even though it will cost you more to build an underground concrete home than a traditional above-ground home, it will pay off in the long run in energy savings, a comfortable year-round environment, and other practical and aesthetic benefits.