Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Going Underground
Going Underground. Photo: Nick Cobbing.

Below The Sod

Andy Johnson delves into the possibilities of living down-under Britain.

Squall 9, Jan/Feb 1995, pg. 41.

Deep in the suburban heartlands of Bushy Heath, Hertfordshire, between the rows of uniform houses, and next door to the pub, there is an eight metre wide hole. The hole, located in his back garden, belongs to the Rabbi Jonathan Black. By the summer, hopefully, it will be his home.

Rabbi Black refers to his new house as a “basement bungalow”. This is to overcome the prejudices of most people, particularly builders, to the term ‘underground house’ or ‘earth sheltered dwelling’.

Mention underground living to most people and they’ll conjure up images of dank cellars or a grimy London Underground Station.

“It is, after all, only a basement,” says Jonathan. “And ‘basement’ and ‘bungalow’ are terms most people are familiar with.”

As far as Jonathan knows, his future home is the only underground urban street development in the country. “The house will be completely submerged,” he continues. “The roof will be only a couple of feet higher than the surrounding ground level and will be covered with a 150mm of soil.”

The other 15 underground houses in Britain are mainly built into the side of hills. There are also thousands of above ground houses with turf roofs that qualify as ‘earth shelters’.

The house, which will have three bedrooms, three reception rooms, three bathrooms and a utility room, will be lit by natural sunlight.

“The house will have two sunken patios level with its floor,” says Jonathan. “They will be surrounded by normal patio doors which open onto the outside. You will also be able to see out from them, to the surrounding trees and houses. All the rooms, except the bathrooms, will have natural light. And on a nice summer’s evening two thirds of the house can be thrown open.”

When the house is finished Jonathan will be able to sell his existing home, complete with half of the garden that is left. He puts the cost of building his underground home at no more than a house the same size above ground.

“Although if I was to do it again, I could do it for less,” he says, “because we haven’t had the advantage of years of experience in building. You only learn the most economical ways of doing something as you go along.”

Peter Carpenter lives at the British Earth Shelter Association’s headquarters in Monmouth, Wales. It is called the “berm house”, although strictly speaking it isn’t.

“A berm is normally applied to a house built above ground with earth banked around the sides,” he says. “The one here is carved into a bank. So the elevation is at ground level and the roof slopes into the bank.” The primary advantage of earth sheltered dwellings is energy conservation, although they are also pretty nifty at conserving land.

Peter’s interest began after seeing an underground dwelling in America back in 1979. “It was a very cold night, but warm and cosy inside,” he says, “and no sound of the wind.”

Peter came home and tore 7000 tonnes of earth out of a Welsh hillside. He built his house inside and put 1000 tonnes of earth back, providing 20 feet of soil insulation along three sides and the roof. Along the front he built a glass corridor which he surrounded with salvaged masonry.

“The house here is the most energy efficient in Europe,” he says. “It collects sunlight from the glass corridor, which is an old method of solar heating and lights all the main rooms. In summer a conservatory gets too hot, but under the soil it stays cool. In the winter the soil loses the heat slowly so it remains warm.”

Underground houses retain a constant temperature throughout the year because the ground is not affected by air temperature and gains and loses heat slowly.

An outside air temperature of 70 degrees will not change the lower soil temperature, and nor will an air temperature of zero degrees. As well as costing nothing to heat, Peter reckons the house has a maintenance free life span of about 500 years.

Back in Bushy Heath, Rabbi Jonathan is convinced about the environmental benefits.

“Judaism has always had a strong emphasis on ecology and living in harmony with the environment,” he says. “So we’ve always been environmentally aware. You won’t have to heat this house in the winter.”

Peter and Jonathan’s house illustrate the two main kinds of underground housing. Jonathan’s is a court yard, or atrium design, and Peter’s a berm. Surprisingly, Jonathan didn’t have much trouble with the planning authorities, who actually and unusually said they were very excited about it. Peter on the other hand found planning to be one of the main difficulties.

“They merge with the natural landscape and have a great energy concept but this has no effect on the planners,” he says. “It’s very difficult to get planning permission. We’re trying at the moment to get permission to build low cost, low density local housing. But it has met with considerable opposition.

“We are trying hard to get into the planning system. We have links with the parliamentary Labour Housing Association and alternative issue groups. But the planning rules say you that you can’t develop in the country.”

This may seem fair enough. But it’s important to bear in mind that the current housing target is to build another 2 million homes in the next 25 years.

“The current housing target hasn’t changed,” Peter says. “But it’s not sustainable. Land is a finite resource. With Earth Shelters you don’t lose land.”

This is because the ethos of earth shelters is that they should merge into, and become part of, the surrounding landscape rather than intruding on it.

Peter also points out that there is nothing unusual about using the earth as a shelter.

“It’s old fashioned,” he says. “It’s been done for thousands of years.”

And he doesn’t just mean caves. The ancient Chinese used to live in court-yard houses to protect them from the harsh winter cold and harsh winter sun.

In 800AD the people of Cappodocia, in Turkey, carved chambers into the sides of soft rock. There is also the ancient rose red city of Petra, in Jordan, so called because the setting sun casts a pink glow over the rock face it is carved into, complete with classical facades.

“Awareness is growing,” says Peter, “but in this country we are really still at the beginning.”

There are numerous books on earth sheltered dwellings and how to build them - many at low cost. For more information contact the British Earth Sheltered Association, c/o Peter Carpenter, Caer Llan, Berm House, Lydent, Monmouth, Gwent. NP5 4JJ. Tel: 0600 860359.

Peter's book - ‘Sod It’ - is available by mail order. It lists earth shelters that can be visited, including public buildings such as the Sir Joseph Banks building in Kew Gardens.