Earth-sheltered Homes

Earth covered farm homes in Keldur, Iceland. These were built in 1193, and are supposedly the oldest buildings in Iceland. (click to enlarge)
Earth covered farm homes in Keldur, Iceland. These were built in 1193, and are supposedly the oldest buildings in Iceland. (click to enlarge)

Earth-sheltered home
Earth-sheltered home

Earth-sheltered home
Earth-sheltered home

“Earth sheltering is the architectural practice of using earth against building walls for external thermal mass, to reduce heat loss, and to easily maintain a steady indoor air temperature. Earth sheltering is popular in modern times among advocates of passive solar and sustainable architecture, but has been around for nearly as long as humans have been constructing their own shelter.

The expression earth-sheltering is a generic term, with the general meaning: building design in which soil plays an integral part.

Definition of earth-sheltering: A building can be described as earth-sheltered if its external envelope is in contact with a thermally significant volume of soil or substrate (where “thermally significant” means making a functional contribution to the thermal effectiveness of the building in question.)

There may be said to be three forms of earth-sheltered building:
– earth-covered
– earth-bunded [I call this earth bermed.]
– subterranean

The benefits of earth sheltering are numerous. They include: taking advantage of the earth as a thermal mass, offering extra protection from the natural elements, energy savings, providing substantial privacy, efficient use of land in urban settings, shelters have low maintenance requirements, and earth sheltering commonly takes advantage of passive solar building design.

The Earth’s mass absorbs and retains heat. Over time, this heat is released to surrounding areas, such as an earth shelter. Because of the high density of the earth, change in the earth’s temperature occurs slowly. This is known as ‘thermal lag.’ Because of this principle, the earth provides a fairly constant temperature for the underground shelters, even when the outdoor temperature undergoes great fluctuation. In most of the United States, the average temperature of the earth once below the frost line is between 55 and 57 degrees Fahrenheit (13 to 14 degrees Celsius). Frost line depths vary from region to region. In the USA frost lines can range from roughly 20 inches to more than 40 inches. Thus, at the base of a deep earth berm, the house is heated against an exterior temperature gradient of perhaps ten to fifteen degrees, instead of against a steeper temperature grade where air is on the outside of the wall instead of earth. During the summer, the temperature gradient helps to cool the house.

The reduction of air infiltration within an earth shelter can be highly profitable. Because three walls of the structure are mainly surrounded by earth, very little surface area is exposed to the outside air. This alleviates the problem of warm air escaping the house through gaps around windows and door. Furthermore, the earth walls protect against cold winter winds which might otherwise penetrate these gaps.”

Source: Wiki
Image source: Wiki
Image source: Earth-sheltered Homes (good summary of earth-sheltered homes)
Image source: Earth-sheltered Homes

From Earth-sheltered Homes by Rob Roy:
“Back in the ’70s, earth-sheltered housing enjoyed great popularity, thanks in part to the energy crisis resulting from the 1973 oil embargo. Adventurous builders and researchers explored various forms of earth-sheltered building, from underground excavated spaces to surface-level buildings with earth piled in berms against their walls. People searching for alternatives to conventional building showed that sheltering a building with earth could reduce energy costs for both heating and cooling by half or more — at little or no increased expense… An earth-bermed house can reap about 95 percent of the energy advantages of a fully underground home, and adding an earth roof, or living roof, further promotes planetary health by “greening” the house’s footprint.”
Read the full article at Mother Earth News

2 thoughts on “Earth-sheltered Homes”

  1. Thank you for explaining how earth sheltered homes take advantage of the earth to provide things like energy savings. My daughter is thinking about building her home but keeping it more eco friendly. I wonder if she’s considered something like this since it seems like it can offer a variety of benefits.

  2. I really liked that post.I wish i remember the name of it.I watched a low budget viking movie on netflix,it had some champion body builder for the star(not arnold)i think Ralph Moeller?anyhow they had earth bermed buildings in the movie.well kind of.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.