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Earth-Sheltered Homes: The Lost Art of Building Underground

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Dec 9, 2020

Dozens of different cultures worldwide, from the freezing Arctic North to Australia's arid and hot deserts, have a history of building homes either partly or entirely buried underground. This example of vernacular architecture has found that the land underneath our feet can offer a comfortable, energy-efficient dwelling place in many cases. Below, we take an in-depth look at the history of building homes underground and explain some of the advantages of this unique form of architecture.

Model House of the Çatalhöyük People in Turkey
Model House of the Çatalhöyük People in Turkey

A Short History of Underground Homes

Before the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, the homes we lived in were essentially a part of our inhabited landscape. Our nomadic, hunter and gatherer ancestors mostly made their homes in caves that they found as they followed animals across the lands. Because they moved so frequently, the idea of a permanent dwelling place (a house, if you will) was virtually non-existent. Animal skins and hides were easy to carry shelters, and sleeping under the stars was probably commonplace.

This nomadic lifestyle began to change about 10,000 years ago. At that time, our ancestors slowly began to adopt agricultural practices, which led to villages and permanent dwelling places. Recently archaeologists have discovered simple mud-brick dwellings at Çatalhöyük. These are the remains of what is believed to be one of the first permanent human settlements in modern-day Turkey. This small village dates back at least 9,500 years and might have held a population of as many as 8,000 people.  

The art of home building began rather modestly. The mud-brick homes of Çatalhöyük were oriented so that the front "door" was a hole in the roof where people entered. Despite their simple design, however, the shift to village life that necessitated permanent buildings was one of the most profound human civilization changes. For the first time in our species' history, the land's natural resources were utilized to feed and clothe us and give us permanent shelter.

Fast forward 10,000 years or so, and the building industry, which evolved from those simple mud huts of Çatalhöyük, is today one of the largest users of our world's natural resources. Recent research finds that the total volume of natural resources used in buildings and transport infrastructure increased about 23-fold between 1900 and 2010. About 800 billion tons of natural resource "stock" are tied up in these constructions globally, most of it in industrialized nations. In addition, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) believes that the world's raw materials consumption will nearly double by 2060. Much of that natural resource use fuels the increased demand for buildings as the population grows and living standards continue to rise.

How Does Housing Need to Change?

As our collective demand for homes, businesses, industries, and other buildings continues to surge in the coming decades, the need for natural resources is inevitably going to grow. Increasing the operational efficiency of homes to achieve net-zero energy status is undoubtedly essential in the sustainability picture. However, the homes we live in and the buildings we inhabit will continue to require the mining, extraction, processing, and transportation of an enormous amount of natural resources.

Might we realistically be able to provide a growing, more affluent population with dignified, energy-efficient homes while simultaneously reducing the ever-increasing demand for resource extraction? Incorporating recycled and salvaged materials into the homes we build is one way to minimize the need for new resource extraction. Making an effort to source local building materials harvested sustainably is also an essential part of the equation, primarily to reduce the energetic costs of transportation. Returning to earthen building techniques (such as those used at Çatalhöyük) can also reduce the demand for natural resources such as lumber. Most building sites worldwide have an inexhaustible subsoil source that can be used to build healthy, durable homes.

But what about returning to the types of dwellings that our hunter and gatherer ancestors relied upon? Most of us are probably not going to be living in buffalo-hide tents. Also, relying solely on caves for dwelling places would likely lead to a pretty severe housing shortage. However, building homes underground might be an option to reduce resource use for families while creating comfortable, efficient, and undeniably unique dwellings.

Where Are Homes Built Underground? 

Coober Pedy Underground Dugouts
Coober Pedy Underground Dugouts. Photo Credit: CooberPedy.com


In Coober Pedy, Australia, a small "Outback" town north of Adelaide, over 80 percent of the town's population lives in "dugouts." These dugouts are underground homes carved from the surrounding rock. The town, widely known for its opal mines, is also unbearably hot, with temperatures routinely as high at 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). Decades ago, local miners struggling with the heat experimented with building underground shelters. The natural coolness from the surrounding earth led to dozens of underground shelters, which continue to be inhabited today.

Coober Pedy Bedroom
Coober Pedy Bedroom. Photo Credit: CooberPedy.com

Most of the underground dwellings in Coober Pedy are excavated into the hillsides. The stable surrounding soil offers natural walls and huge ceiling expanses. The insulating, thermal properties of the surrounding soil allow the home interiors to stay at a comfortable 23-25 degrees Celsius (73-77 degrees Fahrenheit) year-round, even when temperatures outside are almost double. In many cases, families will hand-excavate tunnels to create corridors connecting different dwellings. These dugout homes are a far cry from our prehistoric ancestors' simple cave dwellings, with many of the underground "mansions" spanning 450 square meters (over 4800 square feet)! Check out the available bed and breakfasts and "homestays" at Coober Pedy to get an idea of how luxurious an underground home can be!

Iceland Travel Turf House
Icelandic Turf House. Photo Credit: Iceland Travel


Earth-sheltered homes were also widely used in areas of the world where timber was hard to come by. In Iceland, a combination of a lack of standing forest and extreme winter temperatures led many people to build "turf homes." These homes, also known as torfbaeir, were made from flat stones, wood, turf, and soil. Icelandic people built these homes with simple wooden or stone frames to hold the turf or sod laid in a herringbone style in two layers to increase insulation. The result was a beautiful, "hobbit-style" home that blended into the environment while offering excellent thermal protection from the long, cold Icelandic winters.

The two examples above show that underground or "subterranean" homes can be suitable for a wide range of climates. Certainly, underground homes are not appropriate for areas prone to flooding, coastal areas, or places with shallow water tables. However, soil's thermal and insulative properties mean that underground homes can offer energy efficiency advantages in virtually any climate.

Solar Powered Earth Sheltered Home Paul Willis via Home Revision Energy
Solar Powered Earth Sheltered Home. Photo Credit: Paul Willis via Home Revision Energy

What Are The Benefits of Underground Homes?

Building homes underground might seem like an oddity. However, this building technique offers several practical advantages, including energy efficiency, cost savings, and reduction in natural resources.

What Are the Energy Efficiency Advantages of Underground Homes?

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that earth-sheltered homes were less susceptible to extreme outdoor air temperature impacts. This means that you won't be affected by inclement weather like in a conventional house. There is more stability in indoor temperatures than in traditional homes. With less temperature variability, interior rooms seem more comfortable. The earth's average underground temperature ranges between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit, with some variability based on your location. This pleasantly cool temperature, combined with the subsoil's natural insulation, means that underground homes require very little artificial heating and cooling.

An earth-sheltered home could also be designed with passive solar heating to virtually eliminate the need for any additional heating or cooling loads. Passive solar homes have a south-facing orientation. An earth-sheltered dwelling buried into rock or turf could potentially "open up" to the southern hemisphere, with large windows allowing the natural heat from the sun to warm the home. The interior soil or rock walls would also act as a thermal mass to store and slowly release that heat into the well-insulated earthen home.

Earth Sheltered Dwelling in Lebanon. Photo Credit: Biotonomy

What Are the Economic Advantages of Underground Homes?

One of the main drawbacks to building an earth-sheltered home is that they generally have a higher upfront price tag. The cost of excavation and water-proof membranes add an average of 20-30 percent to the building costs. However, John Ayoub from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, believes that the energy savings alone could quickly offset the higher building cost. In a paper titled "Living Under a Rock: The Viability of Sustainable Underground Living," Ayoub states that underground homes might experience an annual energy savings of a little over $3,000. Given current energy prices, he estimates that energy savings would offset the additional building costs for earth-sheltered homes in approximately eleven years.

Baldwin Obryan Earth Sheltered Home Design
Earth Sheltered Home Design. Photo Credit: Baldwin Obryan Architects

What Reductions in Natural Resource Requirements Do Underground Homes Bring?

Underground homes also drastically reduce the number of natural resources that go into the homes we build. For a 2,600 square foot traditional home, an average of 16,380 board feet of lumber goes toward framing alone. The average 2,600 square foot home will require at least 44 mature trees for lumber for interior finishes alone. Earth-sheltered houses drastically reduce the demand for lumber because the home is not framed above ground. The materials for the walls and foundation are the subsoil itself.

Even the US Department of Energy finds that underground homes offer sustainability and energy efficiency advantages. The DOE states that "a bermed house may be built above grade or partially below grade, with earth covering one or more walls. The house is usually built at ground level, and the earth is built up or bermed around and on top of it. This design allows cross-ventilation and access to natural light from more than one side of the house."

Plan B Underground Home Makhno Design
Plan B Underground Home. Photo Credit: Makhno Design

Returning to prehistoric types of shelter is certainly not feasible in today's world. However, that doesn't mean that we can't attempt to re-create some of the advantages that came with our cave-dwelling ancestors. In the right climate and terrain, earth-sheltered homes could offer energy efficiency, sustainability, and long-term economic benefits for homeowners.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-06-17T03:38:57+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.