Hobbit Houses We Have Known: A Tour of Underground and Earth Sheltered Houses

Landscape of "The Shire" from "Lord of the Rings" with carriage on the road among hills and homes

The Lord of the Rings

As we prepare to roll into Hobbiton once again with Bilbo and Gandalf, why not review the underground houses that we have shown over the years on TreeHugger. The concept of the earth sheltered house existed long before Tolkien; earth is an excellent insulator and people have been doing this for thousands of years.

L’Anse aux Meadows

credit: wikipedia

1100 years ago, the Vikings built earth sheltered houses in what is now Newfoundland at L’Anse aux Meadows; they dug down a bit into the ground and then built a wood frame over for a roof, which they covered in sod.

Simon Dale's Woodland Home

credit: Simon Dale

Most Hobbit Houses are what Bernard Rudolfsky called "architecture without architects", built by handy people with a dream, like Simon Dale in Wales. He built his low impact woodland home for about $ 5,000 with the help of his father in law and a few friends. He describes it:

This building is one part of a low-impact or permaculture approach to life. This sort of life is about living in harmony with both the natural world and ourselves, doing things simply and using appropriate levels of technology. These sort of low cost, natural buildings have a place not only in their own sustainability, but also in their potential to provide affordable housing which allows people access to land and the opportunity to lead more simple, sustainable lives.

Brithdir Mawr

credit: Brithdir Mawr

That Roundhouse was part of Brithdir Mawr, an intentional community in Wales. It is described as " an ecohome of wood frame, cobwood and recycled window walls, straw-insulated turf roof; with solar power and wind turbine for electricity, compost toilet and reed beds for grey water." The owners were almost evicted a few years ago, but we wrote in 2008 that they were saved from demolition. Founder Emma Orbach wrote:

It's a milestone in a free society that a minority of people who wish to live simply on the Earth are now being given this opportunity. The villagers are pioneering a new lifestyle.

The Shire of Montana

credit: The Hobbit House of Montana

Much more explicit knock-offs of the Lord of the Rings are projects like the Hobbit House of Montana.

The Hobbit House of Montana is truly a sound architectural masterpiece that boasts an eco-friendly mentality for heat conservation. The dome ceiling provides a peaceful acoustic experience that softens any stressful mood. As a partially underground suite that is embraced within the earth and designed with aesthetic appeal, it offers many modern day conveniences, yet incorporates the mystique and caricature [sic] of a cozy Hobbit House from the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Chris Whited's 'Hobbit House' on Bainbridge Island, Washington

credit: Chris Wited

Even less convincing is Chris Wited's so-called Hobbit House on Bainbridge Island, Washington, according to Aol News archives.

While neighbors and friends call it a "Hobbit house" because of its rambling roof, sloping walls and rounded doorways, the home is actually about 1,200 square feet -- suitable for a full-size human.

Except it isn't even earth sheltered, and bears pretty much no relation to anything in the Shire or all of Middle Earth for that matter.Malcolm Wells

credit: Malcolm Wells

In fact, the earth sheltered house is not just an affectation of Tolkien, but a serious approach to green design. Perhaps the greatest proponent of it was the late Malcolm Wells, who wrote:

But now another type of building is emerging: one that actually heals the scars of its own construction. It conserves rainwater—and fuel—and it provides a habitat for creatures other than the human one. Maybe it will catch on, maybe it won't. We'll see.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Jacobs House II

credit: Green Architecture Notes

Frank Lloyd Wright certainly understood the issues of earth sheltered homes. Donald Aitkin writes about the Solar Hemicycle House, also known as the Jacobs II House:

The Solar Hemicycle is semicircular in plan, featuring a single concave arc of fourteen-foot high glass spanning the two stories both vertically and horizontally, and opening southward to a circular sunken garden and the Wisconsin prairie beyond. The north, east, and west sides are bermed up to the height of the clerestory windows on the second floor, protecting the house from cold winter north winds, while the sunken garden in front combines with the rear smooth berming to create am air pressure differential that deflects snow and wind up and away from the large south-facing windows.


credit: Earthship Biotecture

Then there are Earthships, conceived by Michael Reynolds and described as -"self contained dwellings that will sail on the seas of tomorrow". I described them earlier: "Built from indigenous materials and problematic items like old tires and bottles, they are so energy efficient that they have no utility bills." Taos, New Mexico is a long way from Hobbiton, but they share many of the same design principles.

Earth House Estate Lättenstrasse

credit: vetsch architektur

A more modern interpretation of the Hobbit House is Vetsch Architektur's Earth House Estate Lättenstrasse in Dietikon, Switzerland. Peter Vetsch explains his philosophy:

Compared to traditional residential houses built on the ground, the aim of building an earth house is another: Not to live under or in the ground, but with it.

More at Vetsch Architektur Dutch Mountain House

credit: Denieuwegeneratie

Young architectural firm Denieuwegeneratie figured this out in their wonderful Dutch Mountain House:

The underground house is embedded in the moorland. The large glass facade allows the sun to warm the concrete shell. The thermal mass keeps this warmth and cools the house in the summer. The wooden cantilever regulates sun and is the only visible architecture in the landscape.

Villa Vals

credit: Search

We end with Villa Vals, a holiday rental in Lals, Switzerland. They list a number of good reasons for building underground, into the hill like this:

Not only does the project defer to the natural landscape, but also to the vernacular architecture while protecting the views of the nearby spa....The villa is thermally insulated and features ground source heat pump, radiant floors, heat exchanger and uses only hydroelectric power generated by the nearby reservoir.

It's not exactly hobbit scaled, but demonstrates that even a monster home can be subtle and integrated into the landscape. There's much to learn about architecture from Bilbo Baggins.