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What are Earth-Sheltered Homes?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Earth-sheltered homes are homes which are integrated into the surrounding earth so that they nestle into the landscape, rather than projecting from it. The design is sometimes chosen for aesthetic reasons, but it is also highly efficient. Numerous construction firms offer earth-sheltered construction as part of their services. It can be unusual to find an earth-sheltered home for sale, since the non-traditional homes are often greatly loved by their owners.

The concept of earth-sheltered homes is centuries old, with numerous extant examples of earth-sheltered construction visible in Europe especially. Early earth-sheltered homes were often cut into mountainsides, taking advantage of the earth as a natural insulator. The turfed roofs of these homes could be used as a garden and to conceal the home, an issue for some humans who wanted to avoid enemies. In the 1970s, the idea began to experience a major revival, primarily in response to the energy crisis which gripped a large part of the industrialized world during this decade.

There are several ways to build earth-sheltered homes. A large number are built at ground level and then bermed over. During the berming process, a majority of the home is covered in a mound of earth, which is typically shaped to form a soft hill. The berm may be covered in grass, trees, flowers, or a vegetable garden, depending on personal taste. Typically, one side of the house is left uncovered to allow light in, and this side generally faces south. Skylights may also be installed to increase the light in the home.

An in-hill earth-sheltered home is cut into a hill or mountain. Again, the house is usually oriented to face south. In-hill homes tend to blend in very well with the natural environment, since they do not disrupt the existing landscape. Finally, some earth-sheltered homes are entirely submerged, with a central atrium area to let in light and air. These homes are often called “atrium-style” earth-sheltered homes, in a reference to the central section.

Earth acts as a great natural insulator, keeping earth-sheltered homes cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The homes are often constructed using green building materials and techniques, and they may be paired with alternative energy sources such as solar panels and windmills. Typically, the construction costs for an earth-sheltered home are higher than that for traditional homes, but the home repays the investment with sturdiness and energy efficiency over the years.

Since earth-sheltered homes are covered in earth, one might think that they would be dark and oppressive. When well constructed, this is not the case. Many such homes are actually very light and airy, with tall, curved ceilings that create a feeling of space while reflecting light very well. Well built earth-sheltered homes should also not be prone to flooding, mold, mildew, and similar problems, especially if they are well maintained.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HomeQuestionsAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Ana1234 — On Jan 05, 2015

@clintflint - Not necessarily. Rammed earth houses have become very popular among some circles recently and I believe they are very long lasting. They can also essentially be made by laymen, from existing materials on the site (depending on where you want to build of course).

If you combined this building technique with making an earth-sheltered home then it would be extremely well insulated, as rammed earth already tends to be pretty well insulated.

By clintflint — On Jan 04, 2015

@browncoat - I suppose for an earth-sheltered home you could do something with mirrors and reflected light in order to reduce energy costs. I always liked the idea of one of these houses because I like having the roof as an extra space for gardening or grazing.

But if you were making a modern home like this I suppose you'd have to be very careful about the materials or you would end up having to replace them relatively quickly.

By browncoat — On Jan 03, 2015

I read somewhere once that if you dig down deep enough (I believe it was something like three feet) then the temperature becomes neutral no matter what the conditions are at the surface. So even in a blazing hot landscape or a very cold one, you can maintain a constant temperature by sinking foundations that deep.

I believe the context I was reading about was plans for a sunken garden, but in order for this to work you would need the three feet to actually exist rather than just being dug out and discarded, so I'm not sure it would be all that practical to maintain a constant temperature for a garden if you had to bring in a light source anyway.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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