What is an Earth-Sheltered House?

Alan Rankin

An earth-sheltered house is a dwelling built into a hillside or otherwise constructed to be partly or fully subterranean. The primary benefit of these structures is natural insulation; houses sheltered in this way are protected from fluctuating external air temperatures. There are some drawbacks to an earth-sheltered house, particularly involving moisture; they must be carefully designed and constructed. While people have lived in earth-sheltered houses throughout history, they were the subject of renewed interest starting in the late 20th century.

An earth-sheltered house may be built into a hillside as a means to provide protection from the elements.
An earth-sheltered house may be built into a hillside as a means to provide protection from the elements.

Earth-sheltered houses date back thousands of years. Surviving structures from past eras can be found in Scotland, France and Iceland, among other places. These structures used mounds of earth, called berms, to protect the house from exposure to the elements. Other structures took advantage of caves or other natural formations, such as the Gila Cliff Dwellings of New Mexico. An ancient underground structure in Tunisia gained worldwide fame in 1977 by providing the set for Luke Skywalker’s desert home in the first “Star Wars” movie.

Solar panels can increase independence from public utilities by using the sun as an energy source.
Solar panels can increase independence from public utilities by using the sun as an energy source.

During the 1970s, alternative communities rediscovered the advantages of the earth-sheltered house. Counterculture publications such as “The Whole Earth Catalog” offered plans and materials, and many were constructed across America and the world. They sometimes became part of communes or intentional communities, such as Whitehawk near Denton, Texas, and the Earthship communities of New Mexico. The buildings often include solar panels and other measures to increase independence from public utilities.

The relatively low energy requirements of earth-sheltered houses make them ideal for these kinds of alternative communities. Natural insulation contributes to this low energy usage. Other benefits include increased soundproofing and privacy from neighboring houses. Some owners also find them aesthetically pleasing, because they blend in with the surrounding terrain and ecosystem rather than disrupting it.

Disadvantages include moisture seepage and condensation from the earth surrounding the house. Air circulation can also be a problem. These houses must be constructed with careful attention to the local climate, soil and drainage. Most require additional insulation between the earth and the house to regulate temperatures during summer and winter months. Otherwise, the house is at the mercy of the weather. These issues must be resolved before construction starts.

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Discussion Comments


Has anyone ever been in an earth-sheltered house before? How did it compare to a regular house?

I would love to visit an earth-sheltered house but I am a bit afraid that it would feel claustrophobic because the majority of the home would be underground. I don't even like going into people's basements that much.

I can really see the benefits of saving energy with an earth-sheltered home, but not at the expense of everything feeling damp all the time, I am not really sure if exposing my electronics to condensation would be worth it. I think our ancestors stopped living in caves for a reason. I am not sure I would ever want to go back to something that looks so uncomfortable.


With rising energy costs and the amount of people who complain about how traditional suburban homes all look the same, you would think that more people would be into investing in unique earth-sheltered homes. It seems to me that living in a Hobbit-like home wouldn't be so bad.

I think that having an earth-sheltered home for those in areas with frequent tornadoes would be an excellent idea. Can you imagine the number of lives that would be saved, and the amount of property damage we could avoid in such places?

For myself I would love an earth-sheltered home if it cut down on my housing costs while keeping me safe.


The modern day age of earth sheltered houses began expanding around the 1970s. I think after the hippies settled down, they were looking for some alternative housing that would save energy and not use up too many of our natural resources.

These under earth or partially under earth houses minimize the noise that we hear in our conventional neighborhoods.

I imagine that the design of these houses is expensive. Designers have to consider moisture, air circulation, insulation, and possibly all kinds of bugs finding their way into the house from the earth around it.

Probably the most impressive example of an earth sheltered house is the one owned by Bill Gates. I lived in Seattle and have seen his huge family earth sheltered house on the shores of Lake Washington! What a sight!


It is interesting how certain practices, like house styles, are reinvented many years later. When I visited Sweden, I saw several earth sheltered houses built under berms. They go back many centuries.

The people who built these homes probably attempted some trial and error before they figured something out that would keep them warm or cool as needed.

I remember visiting the Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico. They didn't have to do much construction, the caves were already there! We had to climb up a hill just to get to the caves. These cave homes provided warmth and coolness, privacy for "families" and since they were up high, they insured a measure of safety and security - not a bad housing location!

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